Blog Short #38: How social media and newscasting distort what’s real.

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Disinformation has become a staple in our culture and it isn’t likely to let up any time soon, if ever. One problem, among many, is that the bombardment of negativity and fictitious information that’s out there is meant to ignite and stir up our greatest fears, anger, and helplessness. It gnaws away at our mental health and creates anxiety and apprehension about the world we live in, our futures, and sometimes, even our daily existence.

So what’s the solution? Should we go live in the forest and check out? I’m being a bit facetious, but sometimes that seems like a welcome idea. Just some silence for a change.

Obviously we can’t do that, but there are things we can do to create perspective and sharpen our perceptive capacities to more thoroughly examine what we see and hear rather than taking it at face value. To do that, it’s helpful to understand two cognitive biases we all have and use, and then look at how these are exploited by newscasters and social media.

The two biases in question are:

  1. Confirmation Bias
  2. Tribe Bias

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out information that confirms what we already believe, think, or value. We do this in three ways:

  1. Biased search for information. We look for information to back up only what we already believe.
  2. Biased interpretation of information. There are several ways we do this: (a) We hang on to our beliefs even in the face of new or conflicting information. (b) We create false associations between two events or situations to validate what we believe. (c) When two of us have the same information yet disagree on what it means, we become more polarized and intense in our interpretations – me versus you.
  3. Biased recall of information. We selectively remember information that reinforces our position, beliefs, or values.

Tribe Bias

Tribe bias, also called in-group bias, is our tendency to evaluate information in light of what our cultural group thinks and believes.

In short, we like to belong, and we create social identities that are defined in large part by what our group values.

We form groups on social media of “like-minded” people. We belong to work and professional groups. We may belong to a religious or spiritual group. And of course, families are the primary groups to which we belong and where a lot of our beliefs and values come from.

The influence of our tribe biases on our interpretation of information happens in two ways:

  1. Selective exposure. We gravitate toward information sources that reflect our in-group biases. So if you’re politically liberal, you would watch MSNBC as your primary source of news, and if you’re heavily conservative you might lean toward FOX news. If you’re more middle of the road you might choose CNN.
  2. Motivated skepticism and motivated credulity. These biases take hold after we’re exposed to information. The first, motivated skepticism, is the tendency to be highly critical of information that doesn’t conform to our group’s beliefs. Motivated credulity is the tendency to be overly accepting and uncritical of similar information that supports the group’s beliefs.

Now let’s look at how newscasters and social media exploit these biases.

Newscasting

Newscasters influence us in two major ways:

  1. Selectivity of news. They pick and choose which stories to run, and thereby narrow the information field. The omission of additional information or contrary information shrinks our vision of the world to just the stories presented, and these are repetitively run on a daily basis.
  2. Playing to emotions, especially fear and anger. News is a business, and as such, money is a bottom line influence. News that sells is news that leans toward the negative, the sensational, and that which generates emotional reactivity.

Two newscasters can run the same story, but based on the headline chosen, the slant is different and can significantly skew the reader’s view and conclusions about what he’s hearing or reading.

How often have you read a story that didn’t live up to its headline. The headline was distorted, exaggerated, and stirred up your emotions. The story didn’t match up. The problem is that many people just read headlines, and construct a picture of what’s true based on them.

Fear is the largest hook used in newscasting. It appeals to the older part of our brain – the amygdala – and bypasses our rational thought processes. We’re primed for information that induces fight-or-flight responses, and they know it.

Social Media

Now let’s look at how social media exploits our biases. Here’s four practices that stand out.

  1. Promote our desire to belong. This is done by creating friend groups, feeding us information our friends have liked or reacted to, and narrowing the information provided to what’s most popular. We confirm our group status by tossing popular memes, images, or posts back and forth. In particular, political leanings are easily targeted by social media and we’re repeatedly led to stories that present the most narrow and popular view of material endorsed by our in-group, while excluding us from opposing or different views.
  2. Focus on the negative. We spread news much like the circle game where one person tells a story to the person next to him, and that person relays it to the person next to him, and around the circle we go until we get to the last person. By then the story is exaggerated, often fraught with errors and embellishments, and dramatized, with the most negative aspects prominent. This tendency toward distortion and negativity is typical of stories that go viral across social media. Negativity is sticky!
  3. Bots infiltrate our in-group and distort information. Bots pose as real people, and interact with us first by offering information that mirrors our likes and dislikes. Slowly and subtly, they accelerate our emotional reactivity by offering disinformation that inflames our fears and anger. We buy into it.
  4. Focus on fear. The more sinister side of social media is that it calculates our emotional vulnerabilities based on our responses to posts. We get fed information that exploits these vulnerabilities and inflames us emotionally. It feeds our fears. If you like a post about the need for climate change, you will likely see many more posts that offer dire predictions about the future. The more posts you respond to, the darker they get, and the more narrow the field.

What to do?

To use an age-old adage, buyer beware.

  • Read more than one news source.
  • Read whole articles, not just headlines.
  • Use fact-checking websites that expose misinformation.
  • Don’t take anything at face value.
  • Check out good news websites. There are a lot of new scientific developments going on that provide solutions to some of our worst problems. They just don’t make the news.
  • Read books that are well-researched.
  • Finally, take regular breaks from social media and newscasts.

That’s all for today. As always, I hope you have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

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