For the past week, media and journalism has taken a lot of heat for perpetuating the “echo chambers” of social media. And rightfully so. In the wake of this election, we now have a better understanding of just how rampant this issue was on all sides. Whether you’re Left, Right, or somewhere in between, the consumption of sensationally titled articles with angles that ranged from slightly skewed to aggressively biased, kick-started a machine that had a large hand in polarizing the political views in this nation.
Among these widely shared so-called “news” agencies were InfoWars, Occupy Democrats, and Breitbart to name a few (see a full list of publications of which to be wary of here). These sites regularly publish “news” that is false, clickbait-y, and sometimes satirical in order to drive traffic and serve advertisements. And the more we clicked on these articles, the higher the demand there was to create more content that didn’t challenge our beliefs. Instead, these stories fed our egos, eventually making us blind to other perspectives. Over the duration of this election season, we got comfortable in our own confirmation bias. If anyone opposed our views, we saw them as dumb and absurd, and didn’t even take the time to see things from their differing perspectives, because in our worlds, we had a newsfeed full of articles that proved we were right.
I have always said that “we’re going to use social media anyway, so we might as well go about it responsibly.” It’s time to pop our filter bubbles and approach all things we encounter on social with skepticism and scrutiny. Because you have been lied to. Memes aren’t news and the viral articles on Facebook are not considered research journalism. I implore you, do a little research before you believe and/or share fake news on social media. Because some publications were (and still are) more clever than others in how they’ve manipulated their readers.
Let’s use Breitbart, the website run by future Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, as an example. Often times, the “studies” they reference and the “facts” and “data” they use to support their cases are not sufficient enough to draw such definitive conclusions. One article in particular “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews” used a blog post from Interviewing.io, a platform that helps people practice interviewing within the tech industry. Using voice modulators to mask the gender of people who called into the service, interviewees were then rated on performance. Interviewing.io observed that, though the genders of these interviewees were masked, women still underperformed. BUT — if you look at the sample size of said “study”, only 234 people participated, with 1/3rd being female and 2/3rd being male, which means around 78 women were compared to around 156 men. A rational person would agree that this “study” should be thrown out the window. Instead, author Milo Yiannopoulos left out the crucial detail regarding sample size and the gender ratio, and used this insufficient data to make a blanket statement that women “just suck at interviews.” He also said the “study” was run by feminists, which was referenced nowhere in the original Interviewing.io blog post. Sadly, thousands upon thousands of readers took this, and many other absurd claims by this self-proclaimed “platform for the Alt-Right“, for face value. (See, even I’m being biased in my review of Breitbart — is it justified? You tell me.) However, readers from all over the political spectrum often do not go beyond what they are reading to investigate the data to draw their own conclusions.
In the case of Breitbart, it only took me an extra five minutes to find out this research was bunk. The Internet is vast and, although there’s a lot of garbage floating around out there, it’s still full of excellent information. It is your responsibility as a reader to discern carefully for yourself what is truth and what is a lie. If you want to be a better social media citizen, here’s what I recommend:
- Question everything. Be critical with every piece of content you come across. Because everyone is flawed, people aren’t perfect, and so called “specialists” can be wrong. Even me. Question me.
- Check the sources. Don’t let a journalist/writer/blogger digest raw data and interpret it for you. Always track so-called “facts” back to the organization that conducted the research. Then ask yourself: Is this a reputable research institution? Is if funded by a big business that’s going to benefit from these findings? What’s the sample size and who participated?
- Discuss with one another! As Bill Nye the Science Guy says “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t”. Part of the issue that has occurred with this election is that we were not listening to one another. Challenge yourself to discuss with someone who has opposing beliefs, because it will expand your mind. (And then check my Bill Nye quote because I could be wrong — but it was a nice point to make nonetheless).
There’s going to be a lot of tension over the next few years. Many American rights, freedoms, and the overall progress that we’ve made will be at stake. It’s up to us to defend our values, and there is no armor more impervious to protect ourselves with than the power of knowledge.