Misinformation, Fake News, and Confirmation Bias
For the vast majority of people, social media is an integral part of modern life. Multiple sources report that Facebook has nearly 3 billion monthly active users, and TikTok has 1 billion active users. Snapchat and Twitter are social media giants, with around 400 million users each.
All this to say, social media is enormous. It’s a huge industry and has a great deal of influence on just about every aspect of our lives. If you can think of fashion trends, the news, politics, food content, and books, there is a niche for it somewhere in the social media space.
My favorite fandom has got to be the book community. Whether booktok, booktube, or booktwitter, they somehow manage to be so opinionated and messy. I always find myself walking away entertained and with a good book recommendation.
I use social media for more than to feed my reading addiction; youtube and Twitter are by far my number one source of news. If it’s not in my social media feed, then I probably don’t need to know about it that bad.
Pew Research Center reports that “eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86%) say they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet “often” or “sometimes,” including 60% who say they do so often.”
Furthermore, the same article reports that “roughly half (52%) of Americans say they prefer a digital platform – whether it is a news website (26%), search (12%), social media (11%) or podcasts (3%).”
Even if you don’t get your news just from social media, if you’re a social media platform user, you have likely encountered an opinion on what’s happening in our current political climate. Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Should Trump run for 2024? Is there a war on Seniors? Because that’s trending on Twitter, there must be.
Social media is constantly updating with the latest celebrity drama, supreme court rulings, and food trends. So to say it affects what we think and believe isn’t a huge stretch.
The Scientific American has a fantastic article I will link here to check out. I highly recommend it, and it looks at how social media can affect our personal biases from multiple perspectives.
However, I want to focus our attention on a more specific phenomenon that spurred me to write this article. The ways in which social media algorithms encourage confirmation bias as well as sensationalize fake news stories.
I have been addicted to youtube shorts. I refuse to get a Tik Tok because I know I have no self-control, and having seen how that platform devours time, I can’t bring myself to download it. So I choose the no less stupid option of watching shorts on Youtube and reels on Instagram.
In my youtube shorts, I keep coming across content by the DailyWire, a well-known right-wing news company. More specifically, I have watched some of “The Comment Section with Brett Cooper.” Honestly, I don’t even know why I watch it. It’s become somewhat of a guilty pleasure.
I don’t agree with all of her political opinions nor do I appreciate how she chooses to talk about some of the people in her videos, especially trans people. But now that I have watched a few of her shorts, I am getting more conservative right-wing politics in my youtube recommendations.
Interestingly, the exact opposite happened to me on Twitter. I liked one or two more progressive tweets, and suddenly my feed was filled with democratic party propaganda.
Once the algorithm realizes that politics is a topic that makes you interact with the app more, they will continue to push that same content to you so that you continue to engage with the app and, as a result, make them more money.
It is easy for your feed to become an echo chamber of only people who agree with you. These algorithms end up becoming huge sources of confirmation bias. Oxford Languages defines this psychology term as “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.”
You could start as an independent, then, over time, become more and more radicalized as more and more political content is pushed your way, regardless of how correct that information is.
It is so easy to become more radicalized in your beliefs, right or left, when people online are constantly telling you that not only is your opinion the only correct opinion to have, but everyone else must be a horrible amoral person to think anything except what you think and believe.
Mistrust and Misinformation
In the Texas National Review’s article entitled “The Political Effects of Social Media Platforms on Different Regime Types,” they report that “It can have a weakening effect on strong democratic regimes, an intensifying effect on strong authoritarian regimes, a radicalizing effect on weak democratic regimes, and a destabilizing effect on weak authoritarian regimes.”
This is bad news for the United States. If our democracy were strong, which I don’t believe our democracy is doing so hot at the moment, it would weaken it. All of the misinformation being spread about election fraud and fake news seriously damages our faith in our democracy.
Pew Research Center reports, “Americans’ ratings of the Supreme Court are now as negative as – and more politically polarized than – at any point in more than three decades of polling on the nation’s highest court.”
Americans don’t seem to have a lot of hope or faith in their government, myself included. I have zero faith in our politicians to make decisions that are in the best nation of our country instead of the best for themselves.
Additionally, I have never felt more afraid to disagree with someone politically because, in our day in age, we equate a political view to a moral one.
If I were to tweet right now that I don’t align myself with pro-choice ideas, then I would probably be ratioed within the hour. People hear that statement and think that it means that I hate women or that I don’t think women are competent enough to make choices about their bodies, and that’s not true.
Being a woman and all, I am a pretty big fan of having rights.
I wholeheartedly believe in making birth control more freely accessible, giving parents paid parental leave, and providing youth in schools with comprehensive sex education. I don’t think abortions solve the serious systematic problems this nation faces. I would rather invest time and money into solving the root causes of these issues than addressing the symptoms.
But the divide between people has never felt wider. The gap feels so large we villainize people who think differently than us, believe differently from us, and look different than us that we don’t see the humanity in one another. We can’t come to any true solutions. We don’t give one another the benefit of the doubt.
The social media machine only aggravates this problem because we only get information from social media that aligns with our viewpoints.
The pandemic has exacerbated all the issues this nation has and perfectly demonstrates what I am talking about. A great example of this is the Covid-19 vaccine.
Research studies have found that it’s true that health misinformation spreads on social media. The study, “Prevalence of Health Misinformation on Social Media: Systematic Review,” said in their conclusions, “The prevalence of health misinformation was the highest on Twitter and on issues related to smoking products and drugs. However, misinformation on major public health issues, such as vaccines and diseases, was also high.”
Politics should never be involved with health. There has been such a spread of misinformation surrounding the pandemic, with social media playing a huge part in the spread of these conspiracy theories that many people think that the vaccine can affect fertility, that vaccines cause autism, and that the side effects can be dangerous.
In reality, we shouldn’t be getting this type of health-related information from social media. We should go to trusted sources like The World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins, or the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
But social media has caused such a lack of trust in our governing bodies that now people do not trust these scientific sources for information regarding their health and instead trust some random Joe on Facebook instead of a health professional like their doctor. It’s a vicious cycle.
Big tech companies like Facebook and TikTok need to get their algorithms under control and recognize the ethical obligation they have to ensure their platforms aren’t breeding grounds for conspiracies and hate.
When half of the planet is on your platform, you need to recognize your role in politics, take responsibility, and stop feeding algorithms that encourage people to follow the most popular and sensationalized news story instead of the news story that contains the facts.
These companies are actively profiting from spreading “fake news.” Until legislation is passed that forces them to take accountability for their actions, we aren’t going to see any meaningful changes be made for the benefit of our country. These companies will always choose financial gain over the health of their countries.
Additionally, I don’t think politicians should be allowed to have Twitter accounts. I think this is a very hot take. After all, wouldn’t you want your politicians to be able to communicate with you about what they are campaigning on?
I don’t. Politicians are, more often than not, spewing nonsense anyways. All I think is that they accomplish cherry-pick statistics and news stories to further their political campaigns to take the focus off the fact that they have kept zero of their campaign promises.
If all politicians do is lie, maybe they shouldn’t have Twitter accounts. Usually, when it comes to free speech, I would say I love free speech because it lets me know who I want to communicate with and who I don’t rather quickly.
However, I think the damage is obvious in this case, and the bill of rights is a privilege. Not everyone should be able to buy a gun. If you’re a convicted murderer, I don’t think you should have access to firearms. In that same breath, if you’re going to spread hatred and lies and intentionally do harm, maybe you shouldn’t be able to have a Twitter account.
You don’t have to agree with me on this one, but I’ll say this: we can all agree that social media is getting out of hand, and the damage it does on a micro and macro level is impossible not to notice.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls upon the corporations to start making changes. If we don’t do anything, things will get to a breaking point, and I am scared to see what will happen when it does.