Social Media Echo Chambers: Fake news and confirmation bias in the online era

MICHAEL LEAHY / AGGIE

How misinformation, personal bias threaten critical thought

Fake news: it’s a phrase we hear more and more in today’s political climate in reference to sensationalist and oftentimes entirely fabricated journalism. Its effects are widespread and damaging; according to one analysis of Facebook trends during the 2016 election, the top 20 fake news stories had more shares, comments and reactions than the top 20 legitimate news stories.

The impact of such stories on democracy has become a popular and highly contentious political issue, culminating in fiery congressional testimonies this September that put the executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter under the grilling scrutiny of American politicians. Yet despite all of this attention, fake news is not the only misinformation-related issue that threatens our democracy in the age of the internet.

Confirmation bias, “the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs,” according to the “Encyclopedia Britannica” online — is being amplified by the proliferation of partisan news reporting online. 47 percent of self-identified “consistent conservatives” stated that they more often see political posts aligning with their own beliefs, according to one study of Facebook users by the Pew Research Center. This is in contrast to just 17 percent of politically moderate users who say the same thing.

While “consistent liberals” were less likely than their conservative counterparts to see political opinions in line with their own (33 percent), evidence suggests that they are avoiding contrasting views as well. The study found that 44 percent of consistent liberals stated that they have blocked or unfriended someone on social media because they disagreed with something they said politically. Regardless of ideological identification, Americans seem more and more likely to filter out potentially dissenting viewpoints.

This trend has created a social media echo chamber in which we deliberately avoid conflicting viewpoints in order to satisfy our own biases. Social media websites are aware of the issue and are exploiting this bias by filtering ads and content based upon users’ perceived political alignment in hopes of maximizing ad engagement.

The issue is so large that even our notoriously social media-active president consistently falls victim to fake news. In Nov. 2017, President Donald Trump generated controversy when he retweeted three inflammatory videos posted by Jayda Fransen of the anti-Muslim, British ultranationalist group Britain First. The videos, whose content legitimacy was heavily questioned in the followings days, were apparently originally retweeted onto the president’s Twitter timeline by conservative commentator Ann Coulter, one of only 45 people President Trump follows on Twitter.

Facing widespread condemnation for reposting the videos, President Trump eventually capitulated and apologized on British television, admitting he was unfamiliar with the controversial nature of Britain First. Rather, he had simply retweeted the content that had appeared on his timeline without prior context. The interview culminated with him apologizing for reposting Islamophobic content — but depending on who you follow on social media, you might not have heard of this.

The President emboldening fringe beliefs on social media stokes the flames of division, and works to create a climate that can has already lead to much violent political extremism. Odds are our own decisions about who we follow and what we post will not have consequences of this magnitude. Nevertheless, ignoring relevant news stories or only perusing content that reinforces your opinion weakens your comprehension of reality and serves to increase political polarization. Avoiding dissenting opinions diminishes our critical thinking skills, which are a vital aspect to being a well-informed voter. As citizens of a democracy, it is our responsibility to pursue the truth and use this knowledge to make the decisions that are best for our country. In an era of post-truth politics, transparency is as important as ever.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

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