How do we bridge the growing media and political divides?
Following the first Presidential debate, Chris Christie claimed that fact checkers have an agenda. Yes, governor, they do: to verify the truth of statements made by politicians and others in positions of power. (In a September 27, 2016, post, Ring of Fire’s Sydney Robinson comments on Christie’s need for a personal fact checker.)
In this topsy-turvy “1984” world of ours, it is has become unpopular to believe that there is such a thing as the truth of any matter. Every fact is spun in an attempt to persuade or dissuade. A fact can’t just sit there, unaffiliated. It’s either colored by its context, or it’s shortened, elaborated upon, or otherwise misrepresented.
And that’s just the “facts” that are indeed factual, as in correct and accurate descriptions of a particular situation or condition. Nothing exists in isolation, but the fact is (ahem), some facts meet the criteria. The trick is determining which ones do and which ones don’t. Separating fact from fiction has become more perilous than ever.
Stepping outside the echo chambers
Facebook is the primary news source for a growing number of people. In an October 1, 2016, article, the Guardian’s Scott Bixby cites a Pew Research Center study that found 61 percent of millennials get their political news from Facebook. Yet the items that appear in the news feed on a person’s Facebook page are inherently biased because they are based on what Facebook already knows about the person from their past activity on the site, among other factors.
(By the way, if you’d like to find out what Facebook knows about you, the folks at Pro Publica created an extension for the Google Chrome browser that will spill the beans. Julia Angwin, Terry Parris Jr., and Surya Mattu write about the tool and Facebook’s algorithmic profiling process in a September 28, 2016, article. It is the first of a four-part series entitled Breaking the Black Box.)
The result of the news echo chamber is a textbook case of confirmation bias: people are drawn to “news” that conforms to their own view of the world, and they are repelled by reports that contrast with their beliefs. The Pew study found that baby boomers were more likely than gen-xers or millennials to state that the political posts they saw were “mostly or always” in line with their own views.
Breaking down the Facebook news-filter algorithm
About a month ago, Facebook fired the humans who edited the service’s trending topics and replaced them with algorithms. The result is examined by Abbie Ohlheiser in an October 4, 2016, article on the Washington Post. According to Ohlheiser, the change was made following accusations of bias in Facebook’s news recommendations. In particular, the humans were said to be introducing an “anti-conservative bias” into the news feed.
After recording and analyzing the news feeds of several different Facebook accounts, the conclusion of the researchers is that there wasn’t much difference between the distribution of news stories by Facebook after the algorithm replaced the humans, and the sources of news stories spread by an independent news-aggregating service over the same period. Ohlheiser points out that the key characteristic of algorithms is that they’re constantly being adjusted, for any number of reasons, so stay tuned (literally).
Facebook and other social media as hoax-spreading machines
Facebook and other social media are increasingly the source of fake news stories. The most recent example is the spate of bogus clown sightings. Not long ago, a social media manager in Australia faked being fired and going rogue on his “former” employer’s Twitter feed as part of a marketing hoax. The goal was to get the company trending as it released its new app, and it worked. BBC News’ Andreas Illner reports on the antics in a September 22, 2016, article.
Among the fake rips at the company made by the fake disgruntled former employee was the way he was being pressured to promote the new app. A lot of the people who witnessed the stunt sensed something was up, but many others fell for the trick and helped the fake hash tags spread far and wide.
Snopes provides a Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors written by Kim LaCapria that was most recently updated on September 26, 2016. Most of the hoaxers use legitimate-sounding names but spread stories along the lines of “I Had Bigfoot’s Baby.” Among the worst of the fake news sites (and “sources” to watch for and avoid) are National Report, World News Daily Report, Empire News, News Examiner, and Associated Media Coverage.
Attempting an unbiased look at bias in media
It’s always a good idea to question your assumptions once in a while. Which media outlets provide the most complete and accurate reports on important events? These days, the answer to that question depends on your politics. The most accurate summary of the politics of media I’ve found is a graph of results from Pew Research conducted in late 2014, which is pictured at the top of this page; click the image to view it enlarged.
(Personally, I’m exhibiting a left-leaning bias, according to the chart, because my three primary sources of news are all to the left: the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Economist.)
So two people look at the graph: one ignores the news sources at one end of the liberal-conservative continuum, and the other gives absolutely no credence to the outlets at the other end of the spectrum. It’s like they’re living in parallel universes. It’s like there’s no middle anymore: if each side knows nothing about the news the other side is hearing, how do you even begin a discussion?
One approach is to go the heart of the division. In an October 4, 2016, article on the Foundation for Economic Education, Jerome Foss explains the current Presidential election invective from the perspective of the late Harvard University political theorist John Rawls, who championed “identity politics.” Under this school of thought, a person is seen by the judiciary and government not solely as an individual, but also as a member of a group or numerous groups: race, class, gender, etc.
Most conservatives disagree with Rawls’ call for judges to consider in their decisions the concept of fairness for all, rather than deciding solely on Constitutional bases. A big part of this is Rawls’ insistence that court decisions justify the outcome in language that everyone will find reasonable. As Foss points out, this excludes nearly all positions supported solely by religious arguments. From a Rawlsian perspective, the division is between reason and religion.
How far back does that one go?