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  • Pauline Hoffmann

The other side...

Last week I wrote about Fox News cherry picking its data to use for its full page ad in the New York Times. I noted that Fox is hardly the first and only company to do this. I will call others out as I see them or as I think I need to.

This week, let's look at faulty "research" from the other side of the political spectrum. I follow an account on Instagram that I like very much - @so.informed. It is liberal leaning to be sure. It does break down the day's and week's news in tidbits that are easy to understand and presents them in a PowerPoint-like presentation. It is absolutely worth following. I do recommend it.

Last week the owner of the account posted the visual you see to the right in the opening of this newsletter with the following verbiage:

Yesterday, I asked followers from around the world what their thoughts are on the United States. (Resoundingly: we are an international embarrassment.)

If you go to her Instagram site and find this post, you will see that she posted samples from the responses she received. I do not doubt for a minute that the responses are real. I believe her followers commented as she reported. And I do agree with many of the comments (not that that should be a consideration in determining the quality of "research").

I would expect your followers to believe as you do. I would expect my followers to believe as I do. Part of what makes social media so fantastic is that we can find others who believe as we do and "hang" with them. That's also what makes social media dangerous.

I would like to stress that I would have to believe she wouldn't call what she did "research" in a scientific sense.

So if I like this account and agree with much of the content, why am I using this particular post as an example? I can unpack so many things!

Let me get started.

When I give talks about disinformation and misinformation I include a conversation about why people believe what they believe. (If you are interested in having me speak to your group, reach out. I do love to talk.) I will unpack the many reasons in upcoming issues of this newsletter. Let me start by talking about those as they relate to this social media post (and, arguably, last week's issue).

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias occurs when you seek out information that confirms your already held beliefs. I already hold many of the beliefs you will see on so.informed. I may not have sought her out, specifically, but when I saw a post and looked at what she had to say, it confirmed my already held beliefs so I was inclined to follow her. I would argue that confirmation bias might also explain why people follow CNN or Fox News (or other outlets).

Partisan bias

Partisan bias favors one party over another. It is very similar to confirmation bias if you assume that your already held beliefs also conform to party ideology. I have to believe that she doesn't have many conservatives following her account either here in the U.S. or abroad just by looking at the content she posts.

Echo chamber

An echo chamber exists when you pay attention to outlets that espouse your beliefs. You don't necessarily look elsewhere to get information because you are with others who share your world view.

Filter bubble

A filter bubble is likely not your own creation. Social media algorithms make it very easy for you to find those who think and feel as you do. There was likely a reason I found so.informed. I don't know the person behind the account (or I don't think I do). I must have liked others who follow her or I must have liked similar content for her account to show up in my social media feed.

What does this mean in the context of the issue at hand? And the issue at hand last week? I will use myself as an example.

I hold certain beliefs. I tend to look for others who feel as I do. Why? I want to hang with like-minded individuals. That doesn't mean I don't hang out with others. I certainly do, but the bulk of my friends share my views. Why don't I seek out those who don't share my views? Have you ever attended a party and talked to that person who you find doesn't share your views? It was likely not comfortable. Of course we should get out of our comfort zones from time to time but doing so causes stress. Don't we already have enough stress in our lives?

I could say that all of my friends believe just as those who responded to this social media post on so.informed. The way the responses are presented in her post might lead you to believe that everyone in the world shares this viewpoint. We all know that isn't true. Could it be a majority viewpoint? It could, but we won't know that without quality research.

And what would that look like?

You would need to ask the question of those beyond your followers. You would need to do some random sampling of a representative group of people. This was neither. (Again, I want to stress that I have a feeling she wasn't going for a scientific research study.)

What does random sampling mean? You would choose a representative sample from a population of people. To truly do this justice would require much time and money. I will get into random sampling and other research methods in a future issue of this newsletter. You'll want to get ready for that because it will make you a hit at parties!

Seeing this post reminded me of some of the narratives I'd heard after our last presidential election. I remember a journalist interviewing people who voted for Donald Trump. The interviewee said he believed the election was stolen because everyone he knew in his neighborhood voted for Trump. How could the other person have won?

Confirmation bias.

I am sure there are those who could say just the opposite. 'All the people in my neighborhood voted for Joe Biden so that's why he won.' We do tend to get an inflated view of the truth because of our biases.

The moral to this careful what you post because I'm coming for you! Also, be wary when you see ads or social media posts that seem to be missing something or misrepresenting something. It's okay to ask questions and to dig deeper.

Speaking of asking questions, I'm writing my book on the infodemic.....what do you want to make sure I cover?

Also, I am developing a group forum in which we can discuss real examples. Interested? Shoot me a message.

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