On Social Media and Media Bias Filters

On Social Media and Media Bias Filters

Way back in the long ago, what feels like forever now, I wrote a post about whose responsibility it is to protect our privacy on social media. While Facebook does have the ability to prevent us from posting our credit card information, that doesn’t excuse us from acting intelligently and responsibly.

Fast forward to the weeks following the US election and we’re on a whole new round of the blame game. It seems that Google and Facebook are single-handedly responsible for the failures of the media circus during the election. Why? Because both function via the use of complex algorithms which can be influenced based on user input. Meaning Facebook will show you stories which match your bias and Google’s search rankings can be manipulated by clever web design.

Oh boy.

To explain how I feel about this issue, we need to go back to a time before this blog existed. All the way back to high school. While my biggest concerns at the time were how my friends and I would spend the weekend, my history and social studies teachers spent four years trying to cram a specific concept into our brains; they called it media bias.

This was the dark ages of the Internet, before Facebook came along (boy am I dating myself). Back then, we didn’t have to be told to put our cell phones away in class because most of us didn’t own one (and we walked up hills both ways through the snow to get there). This was before most newspapers went digital and people feared the slow creep of technology into our lives. Digital books were unheard of and most research papers still required at least one trip to the school library to complete (we had Wikipedia, but we weren’t allowed to use it).

Even before all the information of the world could easily fit in our pockets, our teachers wanted us to understand that every news article and every book written on a specific topic was tilted in the direction of the author’s bias. People put articles and information into the world because they want to make you feel a certain way about events or data; persuasion is one of the primary purposes of writing. Generally, people want you to feel the same way they do about a situation, so they will emphasize the information that will evoke the desired response while ignoring or downplaying the information that might help you form a differing opinion. This is one of the main reasons we were required to use multiple sources for all our major research papers.

For four years our teachers taught us that you can’t completely trust a single source. My husband, a high school English teacher, still teaches this same lesson. You need to compare and contrast a number of resources in order to filter out the bias and find the most likely truth.

The Daily Show has dedicated years worth of content to drawing attention to the media bias of pretty much every major news channel. Even if you turn to the Internet, bias is everywhere. And an unfortunate side effect of poorly designed algorithms that try to guess what you want to see is that they’re going to feed those biases with resources and information that match your previous input and interests.

But who said we should be trusting sites like Facebook and Twitter to feed us reliable sources of information? I take Facebook’s recommendations so unseriously that I use a firefox add on to block them. (That’s right Facebook, your algorithm is so horrible at guessing what I want to see that I have done everything in my power to counteract it.) Facebook is designed like a digital scrapbook. Twitter is supposed to be a passing commentary on the moments in your life as they happen. Both are great for sharing information and starting discussions, but neither should be your first choice for important happenings in the world.

And Google can’t prevent you from reading unbiased news if you check various publications manually. Once you have a list of trusted news sources, all you have to do is bookmark their feeds or type their short URL into the title bar and viola! News access. (Here’s a handy chart that surfaced after the election; I don’t entirely agree with all its rankings but Reuters and Associated Press are the two my husband always points his students toward.)

The Internet is a wonderful place, and there are a lot of advantages to having all the world’s events at our fingertips within moments of them taking place. But that doesn’t mean we should trust the waves of the Internet to carry us to the best shores. No one ever said turn off your brain and let the Internet take over. We should all be doing the opposite, refusing to let the hive mind dictate how we think and feel. No one can cry victim blaming in this scenario because the only people tricked by fake news are people who have willfully refused to exercise the skills we learned in school. You social media dashboards construct convenient narratives on a daily basis; that doesn’t make any of it truth.

This is precisely why libraries will always remain relevant; when faced with the sheer amount of information on the Internet to be consumed, the average person is unable to filter it down to the most valuable and pertinent information. We could argue that Google should modify its algorithm to assist with that, but that doesn’t mean we should allow our news intake to be dictated by a search engine. Be in charge of your digital consumption rather than letting it rule you.

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