Are you suffering from confirmation bias? That’s the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. It’s part of how we humans soothe ourselves as we ponder the noise of conflicting information. We yearn for what we want. Our minds are delighted by the things that support it and repulsed by the things that refute our desires.
If we are disciplined and objective, we would methodically sift through the information, culling the facts from fictions, and balancing the pieces into a real answer accepting the logic of it even if it might not be to our liking. But we are not Vulcans. We are human. We are the sum of our emotions. Our emotions can be toyed with. In the internet age, we are manipulated constantly; not by ideas, but by something even more powerful, revenue.
News media outlets, regardless of where they fall in the political spectrum, are businesses. It does not matter if they are tediously wordy or outrageously provocative. They tell stories fashioned to appeal to targeted audiences. Their job is to capture us; mind share in the societal pie slicing dreams of the press; just the eyeballs are enough in the case of the rest of the Internet. Their mission is to gain ownership of our confirmation biases. Their goal is to reinforce our emotions to pull us in so that we see them as our portal to the world; within which, they can place the most important content of all, advertising.
The media does their marketing and packaging very well. So well that people come to believe that other media outlets are garbage compared to the one that caresses their emotional needs the most. The reality is that there’s no foundation to that faith. It’s a myth. It’s your own confirmation bias working against you being able to be objective.
In matters of human tolerance and national interest, such blind faith in the packaging of a business working to beguile your attention and convince you to spit on the attempts of others has some very bad consequences. It leads to overzealous partisanship. It leads to a breakdown of social cohesion. It leads to lifelong relationships floundering.
And for what? Is that worth deconstructing American society for? I would say no. But how does one go about becoming invulnerable to media bias? More important, how does one shed the mental burden of one’s personal confirmation bias to see clearly and objectively again?
Here are three things to try,
1. Be honest about your biases; then, don’t feed them.
We all have biases. What I love about Americans is that each of us is a collection of eclectic and often inexplicably conflicting individual biases. Some of them come from the cultures we grew up in. Some come from the circumstances we live in. Other from the things we have learned through education or life experience. Each of our biases is judgmental and self-soothing; but they also connect us to other members of the society we live our lives with.
These connections crave affirmation. Normally we can moderate these cravings. But the ability to do so is severely weakened by constant bombardment by external noise and artificially induced stressed. The term for this is brainwashing and it doesn’t actually matter whether it’s self-sought or forced on you. The net effect is the same.
You’ll notice that I don’t seem to really care what your bias is about. That’s because there will always be some media outlet, some “cause” that wants to feed your bias and turn it into an addiction. It’s important to be aware that you are the buyer and not the seller in this mental transaction. The message that you need them to be complete in your craving is simply not true. The media is not your arbiter of self-worth affirmation. Ever!
What you really need is to be aware that your internal control of your biases affects your tolerance to others; that being taken too far down the path of addiction makes you unproductively intolerant. Make enough people addicts and society breaks thread by tender thread of humanity. That’s not actually a good idea. People know this intuitively. One of the reasons people are so stressed out is because we know this is a bad idea. But we don’t have a concept to frame our minds about how to deal with it.
The message here is that it’s important for all of us to know our limits and know that there is a point where, for our own good, we need to learn to know what comes from the satellites, the fiber optic cables and the WiFi routers that connect our biases to the media is just noise. They want the page views, the Nielsen ratings, the Pew poll results. It doesn’t matter to a media business whether it’s you or some other bias connection that gets it for them. But we are the ones that have actual control. They can ask us to bite their shiny fishing lures. We can say no thanks.
2. Triangulate your news media consumption.
The drug to charm bias in the media is spin. Spin is the twist on the news that adds the conformation bias element to a story. All media outlets report the same facts; but the spin they induce around those facts can range from slight to extreme distortions; including, but not limited to, altering the facts to fit the spin. I’ve always interpreted the term “alt-fact” to mean altered as opposed to alternate fact. You can’t really change a fact. You can only spin it. With a plethora of real and fake media combined with analytic, opinion-editorial, propaganda and message for hire sources on the Internet, the variations on spin are mind boggling; as are the pervasive methods by which these organizations attempt to dangle their lures in front of your face.
Given this degree of carpet bombing, most people consume news by finding media outlets in a narrow range of comfortable spin, consume these as truth, and reject everything else; a classic confirmation bias marketing win! We all know people who are confirmation bias addicts. If you are still a tolerant person after the brainwave EMP attack of 2016, you undoubtedly know people who will only look at news outlets championing President Trump’s #MAGA tide. You will also undoubtedly know people who will only look at outlets that are gathering the “resistance”. Don’t you just love the code words of spin? Maybe you are one of those people who has chosen one path or the other. It’s nuts. It’s an artifact of a nation on “Internet crack” that does not know how to control the technological monster it created.
In the Internet age, “bias comfort news consumption” is exactly the wrong way to manage one’s interaction with the media. No. The civic duty of an informed citizen at this point is to learn the mechanics of how to map the spin and cancel it out. How do you do that?
a. Start with your bias comfort zone and examine it. It will likely come up in one of two clusters. A central cluster around very traditional trusted sources like network news and major papers; or, a biased cluster to towards one corner of the political spectrum. Either initial point in fine for this exercise. What is important to realize is that it will explain why it’s so easily irritates you to interact with other people whose comfort zone is not in the little self-segregated corner you are in. You are literally not in the same virtual universes. You are actually isolated, captured by your very own enemy in the mirror. Accepting this “realization” moment alone will begin to open your mind.
b. The next thing you need to do is objectively examine the media outlets landscape, broadcast and online, and find sources that provide what let’s call “transparent spin”. Transparent spin is the result of a media outlet’s marketing business decision to specialize in attracting an off-center audience segment. Transparent spin outlets provide sufficient indications of audience bias preferences to help you see and cancel out the spin effects in your own news analysis but are not so outrageously partisan that you have to spend an overly tedious amount of time ruling out alternative content effects.
There are three corners of a triangle to look for; these being, transparent left spin, transparent right spin, and breaking news center. Breaking news center is an outlet that lets you measure the tenacity of news as it emerges and dominates the news cycle; basically, the babbling gossip at the water cooler of modern life. Ideally you want a 24/7 cable news network in each corner of the triangle because these news outlets are on a constant scramble to fill air time. Something must go up that satellite uplink; including, boring nothingness if the planet is having one of its rare blissful days.
No pulling punches. In the United States broadcasting industry in 2017, the three most commonly used corners the fit this bill are MSNBC, FOX News, and CNN. Each of these outlets also has a dot-com online news bureau with staff reporters that fill in details behind their on-air coverage. If you are suffering from confirmation bias addiction, something in the triangle doesn’t taste right. The more corners that are bitter, the greater your bias problem. Like I said, no pulling punches, it just is.
You should never watch a major news story without checking all three triangulation points. Usually, it should take you 5 to 10 minutes of watching before each outlet becomes repetitive air fill and you can move on. You can check for additional information again checking the online sites of your triangulation points. This will tell you more about the underlying currents of what to believe or question about a story than watching any single source — fair or biased — ever will. It’s what turns you from an audience member into an informed auditor of news.
3. Read the original sources.
This is the part where you were probably expecting me to say, once you’ve done your initial research the next thing you should do is check your bias comfort sources. I’m not. Going for your bias comfort sources is entertainment for your mind. It also potentially takes you into territory where the additional spin that is part of a blatantly biased source needs more fact checking than you likely have in your possession. And for you snooty folk, yes that includes cuddling up to wordy, upscale, snarky, hipster novena factories. There’s spin there too, tediously boorish spin.
The next thing you need to do is learn to read for the links in the online articles of your triangulation points that point to the original sources behind the news. For instance, there will be a link to the actual government document of an Executive Order within one of the stories in your triangle quickly if the news cycle of the day covers that topic. Even better, bypass the packaged news system altogether and use the Internet’s most powerful tool, the search engine, to find whatever is being referenced in the news. A few words, a name, an issue copied and pasted into a search box will quickly get you the actual documentation. You need to read for yourself before proceeding further into the murky world of the internet or even the broader broadcasting world of non-US 24/7 networks. It’s just very hard to fool someone that’s read the original source.
Get good at doing this and you’ll be formidable. More important, you’ll be more objective and able to discuss issues tolerantly with people even when your biases are not aligned because you’ll be engaging each other on facts and not spin.
I hope you consider trying this technique and encourage others to do so.