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Digital InclusionDigital Literacy

Digital Detox 2.3: Biased, who me?

photo looking down into a bright yellow spiral staircase
[This post was originally sent as an email newsletter to our Digital Detox participants.]

Written by Shel Sax, DLINQ

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003), a distinguished politician and US Senator for New York from 1977 to 2001 (and Middlebury Commencement speaker in 1998) famously said that:

“You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

With the pervasive and growing prominence of social media in our social discourse, it appears that while we may not have our own facts, we tend to create a web of resources that are selective in the facts presented, or that reinforce if not echo our own interpretation of facts. For example, researcher Ana Lucía Schmidt and her colleagues found that “Content consumption on Facebook is strongly affected by the tendency of users to limit their exposure to a few sites.” The result is that we become less open to different interpretations of facts and less capable of analyzing the merits of others’ opinions. We use the validations of others with the same viewpoint to confirm our views and values. 

Not only do we tend towards sources that reinforce our positions, the very nature of social media exacerbates differences, encourages intolerance and moves our self-created comfort zones further from the political center. As Zeynep Tufecki notes in her book, Twitter and Tear Gas, “Facebook’s own studies show that the algorithm contributes to this bias by making the feed somewhat more tilted toward one’s existing views, reinforcing the echo chamber.”


Take a look at this chart from mediabias.com which shows where various media sources fall along the political spectrum. (Click on this link for a larger, more legible version of the chart.) Note the range of the horizontal scale, from extreme left to extreme right; the middle of the axis breaks down into neutral, skews left, and skews right. The vertical axis sorts on a fact/fiction basis with original fact reporting at the top and fabricated/false information on the bottom. The chart also contains a number of color-coded rectangles. The green rectangle features original fact reporting. The yellow rectangle encompasses sites that are considered fair interpreters of the news. The orange and red rectangles contain sites with extreme/unfair interpretations of the news or sites that just make stuff up.

Identify a few of the sources that you typically rely on. Do you read across the spectrum? Partially across the spectrum? Do you stay in the middle? Are you slanted in one direction or another? How broad would you classify your typical reading habits? Are you reading facts? Fair interpretations of the news? Are you closer to one extreme edge or the other?

Try stretching your boundaries: pick a topic that is important to you, one with which you are familiar. Now pick one of your usual sources to examine interpretations/opinions in that location. Then, pick a source that is on the other side of the spectrum approximately equidistant from your usual source. Put both of your source articles through a fact-checking process.

Take Action

Center for Digital Literacy’s Media Deconstruction/Construction Framework

While somewhat superficial, the framework provides some useful questions to ask when taking a first pass at assessing the value and quality of a source.

Key Words  Deconstruction
AuthorshipWho created this article/message/etc
FormatWhat creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
AudienceHow might different people understand this article/message/etc differently?
ContentWhat values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message?
Purpose
Why is this article being published, why is this message being sent?

4 Moves and a Habit

Use Mike Caulfield’s four moves process to dig deeper into the fact-checking process. This includes:

1. Make use of existing fact checking sites:

  • Snopes – fact-check hoaxes (independent entity, founded by David Mikkelsen)
  • Politifact – fact-check U.S. politics (project of the Tampa Bay Times, a company owned by The Poynter Institute)
  • FactCheck.org – fact-check politics (project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania)
  • Quote Investigator – fact-check the origin of quotes (investigative work of Garson O’Toole)

2. Going upstream to original sources. If an article links back to the original document, follow the links back and make sure that the original is quoted accurately and properly.

3. Reading laterally, find out what other sites say about the site you’re investigating.  Two useful sites for news are:

4. If stuck, circle back to 1.

(See Digital Detox 1.7: Fact Checking Quickly for a detailed explanation of the process.)

Foster Understanding Across Viewpoints

Visit the OpenMind Platform, a free interactive platform designed to depolarize communities and foster mutual understanding across differences. It consists of 5 modules: why talk to people you disagree with, cultivating intellectual humility, exploring the irrational mind, breaking free from your moral matrix, and preparing for constructive disagreement. Work through the 5 modules and see if it changes your viewpoint of others with whom you may disagree.

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