We’ve heard a great deal about fake news in the last 18 months. One would think that “news” that was obviously fake would not survive long in the information age, but instead it seems to thrive. The hoax-checking site Snopes – which has itself been attacked (or satired, I supposed) by fake news sites – last year identified a sizable list of fake news sites to avoid, but the list is far from comprehensive. While some sites are very overtly satirical, such as The Onion or The Duffle Blog, other sites claiming to be “satire” are much more subtle. Occasionally these sites are even able to fool real news outlets into carrying fake stories, sometimes by using deceptive URLs (like ABCNews.com.co, which is in no way affiliated with ABC news), giving these hoaxes increase exposure and credibility and making them more difficult to properly debunk.
But the number one reason these sometimes ridiculous stories persist is a type of cognitive bias called “Confirmation Bias.”
Confirmation bias is the practice of finding only information that supports one’s preconceptions about a topic. If you think Snopes or Fact Check or Politifact are themselves biased, you can certainly find information on the internet to prove yourself right. Whether you think Donald Trump is the worst or the best president ever, there is information to support your position. People don’t prefer to feel wrong, so they generally do not go out of their way to find information that challenges their views. And, irrespective of what view you hold on a topic, there is an enormous amount of information available on the internet to support your claim and refute your opposition. (Easy access to vast amounts of information is both a pro and a con to the internet.)
So how can we avoid the confirmation bias trap?
Most opinions are predicated upon a set of facts – or what we think are facts – that we can objectively measure. In order to avoid falling prey to deliberate efforts to mislead us, or just intellectual laziness, we have to sometimes be willing to challenge our assumptions about a topic. If you feel strongly about a topic, it could be with very good reason, but that does not mean that every piece of information you hear or see that reinforces your opinion is correct. When obtaining new information, always evaluate the source. Does the source provide information that uniformly supports a partisan position of some sort? When providing information, does the source provide verifiable citations or references for its factual claims? Can events or facts be verified through other sources of information? Is the source subject to any kind of scrutiny (such as peer reviewed scientific journals)? Does the information source outright state that it is satire? (This one is frequently missed…) Is the information plausible?
All humans are subject to bias of some kind. It is sometimes difficult to identify the line between a reasonable assessment and a bias or prejudice. We need to be willing to consider the fact that we are mistaken about a topic in order to ensure objectivity. It is OK to find out that we have been mistaken and adjust our perspectives based on new information. On the other hand, it can be quite harmful to persist in a mistaken notion. As uncomfortable as it may be, challenging our strongly held opinions to make sure they hold up to scrutiny is a valuable exercise. If you can challenge your own preconceptions, you will be better equipped to challenge other views successfully, if they are predicated on bad information.