(I originally posted this on May 24, 2014, about 2 1/2 years before “fake news” became a popular meme. Since then, social media has become a friction-less platform for the spread of propaganda, fake news, and worse. I run an entire blog on the topic of social media propaganda at Occupy Propaganda – the title being a spoof on a whole bunch of “Occupy” titled propaganda and fake news web sites on Facebook.)
Confirmation bias occurs when we tend to give weight to information that supports our beliefs and to ignore or discard information that opposes our beliefs.
There are several studies finding social media reinforces confirmation bias. All the studies I found address this in the context of politics and liberal or conservative bias. However, the issue is much more widespread than political topics.
For example, many people share stories about contemporary topics – without bothering to check if the story is accurate or is provided with full or appropriate context. In some cases, bogus news reports become viral as they are quickly shared. “Untruths” are spread wide but corrections rarely follow.
“When it comes to new information, people are heavily influenced by the first information that they’re exposed to. Combating an existing bias is much harder than influencing people on a subject that they have never been exposed to. Sometimes it is more important to be first”
Thus posting something that is unchecked, and possibly wrong, has great influence on others.
First, we tend to share things with friends, who are friends, in part, because they already share similar views.
Second, when a “friend” posts something that is wrong, who wants to tell a “friend” they are wrong and risk losing a “friend”? We may think social media encourages self correction of those items that are wrong, but there is a bias against causing hurt to friends. Many such posts are based on an “appeal to authority” by quoting an “expert” (who often suffers from confirmation bias). Arguments based on “appeal to authority” are the weakest of arguments but provide a quick way to shut down skeptical responses: “How dare you question X!
I have noted that many items shared on social media typically rest on the “appeal to authority” because the method is very effective:
“…it was found that high-status individuals create a stronger likelihood of a subject agreeing with an obviously false conclusion, despite the subject normally being able to clearly see that the answer was incorrect.”
The result is that social media is a highly effective platform for spreading false information, intentionally or unntentionally. Here is a classic example: a widely shared list of celebrities with high IQs, allegedly provided by Mensa, giving it the appeal to authority – except it was a hoax.
In the case of intentionally spreading false or incomplete information, social media becomes an idealized platform for propaganda. Falsity is not confined to celebrity rumors but includes alleged scientific facts and statements about government policy.
The Pew Research Center did a survey regarding social media and confirmation bias within the realm of political thinking where confirmation bias, they found, is very much alive and well. They found that the more extreme the views (very conservative or very liberal), the more “they agree with their friends’ comments most of the time or always” suggesting (but not stated in the report) that the more strongly held the views, the more likely you have built a “friends” group of matching beliefs who exchange information further reinforcing their confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias within social media is a powerful force for sales and marketing activities and there are at least two ways it can be used.
One, and the positive one, is to “develop a reputation for accuracy” and to “cite your sources”. The goal is to be a trusted source of accurate information.
The other approach is to use confirmation bias for manipulating your audience into taking actions. That’s the sleazy option which is commonly used in political activities and emotional marketing appeals. It is used, though, because it works. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, discusses how decision making is often based on emotional responses, not on hard data. People have evolved to use emotional responses as a rapid heuristic to quickly arrive at decisions, versus the tedious and time consuming use of hard data. A side effect is that we can be easily fooled into making decisions based on emotions and confirmation bias – even if the information is wrong.
If you want to manipulate others, create or pass along stories attributable to “experts”. Few will question the “wisdom” imparted, whether right or wrong!
The upshot of this is that social media has degenerated into a platform for propaganda. Propaganda is a method of influencing entire populations towards a specific outcome. As written at Wikipedia,
Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. Propaganda can be used as a form of ideological or commercial warfare
The root of propaganda is the same as the root of propagate – or the spreading of something. As described above, social media is the ideal platform for the use of propaganda to achieve desired outcomes. Here, the vector is our “friends”, who we may not wish to challenge. In fact, a perilous group think sets in: we pass things along without checking them ourselves. Besides, as noted above, who wants to cause a rift and point out their friends are wrong for passing the item along?
A consequence seems to be less thinking and an increase in gullibility. We pass along anything. We do not question. Skeptical questioning is discouraged. We became dumber as we accumulate “knowledge” of things that are not true or are misinterpreted and misquoted out of context.
Our best response might be to recognize and ignore posts based on appeals to authority, and to consider how we use social media ourselves and to be willing to dig deeper into the details. Details matter. A lot. But who has time to fact check every item posted on Facebook? No one, so the process continues and we become dumber, day by day. And as we become dumber, we become easier to manipulate … and the cycle goes on and on.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
― Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself
Source for the quote is here.