Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Over time, political interest has grown but our trust in the system has markedly diminished. We’ve lost trust in traditional news channels and increasingly look to social media for enlightenment. However one consumes news, our minds and our media are permeated with such explicit bias that any pretences to objectivity are laughable.
People are simultaneously tempted into and shut out of politics as they struggle to navigate a jungle of fake news, editorialization and partisan contempt. How can we make decisions democratically when the fusion of opinion and fact pervades the overwhelming 24-hour news cycle?
Social media has increasingly become more popular as a news medium but the sources there are often unaccountable. 40% of users are informed through individual posts, rather than directly from legitimate sources. Competing for clicks, headlines omit information in place of buzzwords. A headline of the sort “Britons furious…”, encourages people to get on board with the majority – despite the fact that the sample group of “Britons” is often taken from comments on the Daily Express’s Facebook page. Gaps in the narrative like this let the brain revert to stereotyping to fill them. This is linguistic intergroup bias – often occurring when writing about the ‘out’ group – and it is rampant in our news. It nurtures xenophobia, bigotry, and disengagement. We need to create better quality journalism, perhaps through an increase in diversity of journalists and academics, to counteract ethnocentrism and classism as well as bias.
One bias triggers another: our ‘hot’ cognition. Feeling stressed or attacked over one’s beliefs switches the decision-making process from the usual area of the brain to another neural network which is categorically more emotional and less logical. Therefore, an ideological or political disagreement feels personal, makes us defensive, and can fuel bitter hatred.
While political satire promotes political dialogue, it’s become hard to distinguish between inflammatory and constructive discussion. Memes and fan groups are substitutes for legitimate news for the masses who find it hard to engage, but the content is even more biased and diluted than the widely available partisan newspapers. Our complex world is restructured along simplistic, easily digestible, and divisive lines by our increasing reliance on “trusted external sources that provide a mental shortcut to formulating our own opinions”. Since we hate being wrong, we follow the consensus, and accept the authority of those who express our pre-existent ideals. To YouGov’s Academic Director Dr Joel Rogers de Waal, this means “social media has created a vastly amplified, polarising, dumbed down version of [the opinion-forming] process.”
During the US elections, both Trump and Clinton supporters dismissed evidence which showed their candidate as being behind but latched on to evidence that their candidate was leading. Just a glimmer of support for one’s hopes can be enough, even when openly proven wrong. This desirability bias could explain some of the psychology of fake news. It is stronger than confirmation bias (the seeking and retaining of what confirms our biases), and together they show that accepting or, usually, rejecting views from outside of our echo chambers is more about psychology than exposure. This is why Facebook’s algorithm can show things you like and things you don’t, and you will still interpret what you see to fit your fancy.
The chasm between politics and people is widening. Facebook profits while shaping your opinion with their flawed algorithm, subsequently confessing that they’re unsure if social media will be good for democracy. We feel disconnected from each other, and I know many who have stopped engaging due to feeling overwhelming exasperation at it all.
This is not healthy. One thing we can do to overcome this corrosive problem is educate ourselves on how to think critically. This will help clear the waters, but there’s only so much you can think your way through. More generally, news should be evidence-driven, and the internet should keep trying for a free-speech-moderation balance. The broadness of the political spectrum isn’t the problem, because it encourages intersectional thought. Like you, your political opponent thinks the government can do better – is that not something to celebrate? Open, evidence-based discussion creates unity. Politics could certainly be more transparent- but deciding to be better informed arms us with the tools to hold governments and politicians properly accountable and to make societal progress.