Data, Clicks and Bias!

Data, Clicks and Bias!

It’s fake news! A saying made famous by a certain Mr Trump, which he used frequently when people said something he didn’t like. But what exactly does the term “fake news” mean especially when using the internet, and how do you determine what is fake and was is true? After all its so easy to produce fake stuff on a computer.

Interestingly though, after all the publicity the term has had, “fake news” doesn’t have a fixed definition at the moment and is used quite broadly to include any type of false information, including whether it was unintentionally and unconsciously produced.

With regards to fake news on the internet, the term is used to describe false or misleading information being presented as news and is quite often intended to damage a reputation of a person or business. It can also be used as a way to make money through advertising revenue from the often increased online traffic. A sensational headline to get you to click the link can also be known as clickbait.

Read more on this discussion here at wkikipedia

You can tell its Fake!

You would think so and as adults, we should be able to determine if it is fake news and disregard it? But as with most things, its not quite that simple. You see we have something called a “cognitive bias” getting in the way.

A cognitive bias is what they call a systematic error in our thinking, and it occurs when you are processing and interpreting information in the world around you. This bias affects the decisions and judgments you make. In short Cognitive biases are often a result of your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing.

Lets take a little closer look at this cognitive bias. There are two well-known psychological concepts;

The first is motivated reasoning which can be triggered by a confrontation with a certain threat to the self. We use emotionally biased reasoning to produce justifications or make decisions that are most desired rather than those that accurately reflect the evidence. So if a person has done something you feel is wrong or a threat to your wellbeing you may be motivated to believe untrue stories about them.

The second concept is “naïve realism,” our tendency to believe that our perception of reality is the only accurate view, and that people who disagree with us are necessarily uninformed, irrational, or biased. Naïve realism helps explain the why some people on the internet resort to name calling or inappropriate comments to discredit the person who disagrees with them. It is also why some are quick to label any report that challenges their world view as fake.

We’re all quick to believe what we’re motivated to believe, and we call too many things ‘fake news’ simply because it doesn’t support our own view of reality. Just like the famous Mr Trump!

Headline Emotion

As our attention is continuously in demand we are at risk of suffering from information overload. We rarely fully read texts and skim read articles to save time. Internet businesses must be smart to catch us for long and they are, as they have so much information on our habits.

Headlines use emotional words to grabs our attention often about a subject we have expressed interest in. For example, “10 insane hacks for saving money” translates to 10 great ways to save money. Or maybe “Hollywood A lister pummelled online for comments”, which translates to well known Hollywood actor’s comments have been criticised online. Hmm, translations don’t quite have the same effect do they. Impact words are very effective in generating an emotion in us. Your attention is hooked without you realising.

The details of the story may not be correct, and the article may contain lots of unhelpful bias. Who cares you click it!

This is not something new but the internet has made it easier to reach the masses, more so than any other form of communication. It is something we should spot, but we have become so overwhelmed with information the brain will work to simplify the information to protect us.

That means decisions can be made quickly and we go with our emotionally biased reasoning stored in the brain. Headlines are designed to generate an emotional response, we click, we’re hooked. The worrying thing is that this is partly how misinformation on the internet spreads so quickly. Something governments are pressuring the likes of Google and Facebook to prevent. I fear that could be a long wait.

The Internet Twist!

Much of our susceptibility to misinformation or fake news is down to how our brains are wired. We all like to think we have lofty political ideals that are based on strong truths, but if we examine them carefully, we might find they are not as strong as we think. They are our truths based on our bias but not necessarily true.

We seek information to support that bias right or wrong. Non-believers are labeled out of touch, stupid or incompetent as they challenge your views. The arguments over COVID and vaccines is a prime example of this.

Our newsfeeds are always full of specific types of adverts or websites that relate to our search data. The adverts and websites are carefully selected as Google analyses web content and considers factors such as text, language, link structure and page structure. It uses this data to determine the central themes of each web page and advert based on your topic selections. This is targeted advertising.

Google alone holds masses of data on all individual users. Every click you make, even wrong ones, gets recorded, stored and carefully analysed for future pushes to your phone. Still unsure the take a look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s activities in elections around the world. They were able to send targeted political adverts to manipulate voters and they did it very well.

The Good Internet

Try it for yourself. Start to search for something you have no interest in or something you have never searched for. Very shortly adverts, websites, special offers will start to appear in your news feed. At times this is good, for example I was searching for information for hikes in Norway. After a few days my news feed had 4 or 5 websites covering different hikes I knew nothing about. Saved me time trolling the internet for different sites.

If done with your interests in mind and it produces a suitable range of diverse information on a subject area of interest it can broaden your views in a healthy way. That’s good!

The bad Internet

Unfortunately targets adverts and news often means you get more of the same with little variety. After a while the same sites and ideas start to pop up on regular basis and you start to feel a bit swamped. I just got too many walks around Norway, it become a little overwhelming and I lost interest. Internet businesses will find out what your beliefs are. Its how they make their money, you are the product. Once the internet gets hold of your data it will send plenty of information to support your views.

The bad news is, right or wrong it pays to keep you hooked on your internet feed.

The Ugly

This is where it gets ugly for those who suffer from addiction disorders are particularly at risk. For example, if I had a gambling addiction, I wanted to break I may search online to look for help. Google will analyse my web search and register my gambling enquiry.

Sounds good, but they don’t register it for help to break my addiction they register it under gambling.

This transfers to my social media news feed which starts to fill up with advertisements, articles and gambling promotions etc. to encourage me to gamble more. This can have a devastating impact on the person trying to break free from the addiction and unfortunately it’s all perfectly legal.

It doesn’t stop there. Consider the child who discovers a porn site by accident, as their curiosity gets the better of them. Google records every site we go to intentional or not. That child will quite likely, at some point, receive reminders, targeted ads or links in the news feed to more porn.

This can cause the child severe anxiety, even traumatise them. The feeling of guilt and shame means most won’t tell the parents leading to even more mental discomfort. That is a very uncomfortable truth of the internet and why you need to monitor your children online.

Breaking Free

There are a few ways we can try to prevent getting caught up in the misinformation cycle. One of them is to try and look for ways to identify our own bias. To do this you need to apply a few rules when reading information off the internet. Please be mindful that the internet is impossible to regulate and people can post almost anything they want to.

Below are 7 checks professionals such as doctors, lawyers, journalist use to make sure the source of the news is accurate, and be mindful that if your cognitive bias is very strong you may end believing what you want to anyway!

Be mindful, be curious and question everything to get to the source.

  1. What’s the source of the news content. Try to understand its mission and purpose e.g is it a joke story laced with satire or written for attention with little truth
  2. Read the whole story not just snippets as you skim read. Most of us are concentration poor and don’t do this but we need to see beyond the headline (most headlines are clickbait anyway) and try to understand the whole story that requires some careful reading.
  3. Check to make sure the author has left their named so you can check to ensure they are genuine. Difficult to believe anonomous stories.
  4. Have they dated the article? You need to make sure the story is still relevant and up to date
  5. Have they included supporting sources so you can check to make sure their story is based on supporting facts
  6. Take a good honest look at your own biases. Are they affecting your views?
  7. Always get more than one opinion.

Apps to Detect Bias

If we can develop algorithms and bots to play with our cognitive bias. Then we can certainly develop them to work out which articles are genuine.

Developers at the Scientific American have been studying social bots in an attempt to identify those that interact with users with the intention of manipulating social bias. The bot is called Botometer, and uses machine learning to detect bot accounts. Its free to use and you can inspect thousands of different features of Twitter accounts, like the times of its posts, how often it tweets, and the accounts it follows and retweets. It is not perfect, but it has revealed that as many as 15 percent of Twitter accounts show signs of being bots.

Hopefully soon we will see more apps to protect users from false claims and misinformation. In the meantime we have to be vigilant and cross check our news feeds for bias. A mindful approach is a great way to slow down our approach to processing information and help us become less stressed. Remember under pressure your biases rise to the top.

With a more mindful approach, such as concentrating on your breathing you can develop more awareness of your actions. It will allow you to develop a little space to think and respond, rather than react. It will allow you to consider the information in a more meaningful way.

Remember, be curious, slow down and question your own judgements from time to time to explore and seek out your prejudice.

Stay bias free!



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