When I taught educational psychology to prospective teachers, I told them about something called “confirmation bias,” a problem they might run into if they taught high school students. Young adults can dislike having to learn new or different information. They’d rather default to existing belief systems and confirm long-held biases as opposed to changing the way they think. Adults can also be subject to confirmation bias. Many years ago in my role as a high school debate coach I had a parent approach me with a deep need to confirm his particular biases. He said he didn’t want his son debating the opposite side of the beliefs he’d been taught at home.
“Why?” I asked him, thinking it strange that this man allowed his son to take a debate class if he wasn’t interested in having him learn all sides of any given argument.
“Because I don’t want his head filled with crazy ideas. I just want my son to learn better ways to defend our side of the story.”
I was not surprised when his son made certain inflammatory statements about minorities in my class, mimicking something reportedly said by a notorious commentator on Fox News. I’d watched some Fox News, channel surfing, but was always sensitive to their one-sided handling of various political issues. There are progressive news programs on television that have this same problem. Info-tainment is news designed to make people feel good by telling them what they want to hear. Viewers inevitably find themselves smugly justified in their thinking.
Confirming our biases by only consuming media supportive of our values and beliefs can be problematic though. Our vision of reality becomes disabled and distorted. I remember reading back in 2012 how shocked Fox news viewers were to realize Mitt Romney had lost the election to Barack Obama. It wasn’t supposed to happen. News pundits on Fox had assured their Republican audience that Romney would win. Democrats were just as stunned in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected. I listened to the progressive film maker and political activist Michael Moore explain how people can develop misconceptions about political realities when they surround themselves with an echo chamber: they only hear voices like their own, repeatedly bouncing back to them. Moore went on to warn that Trump was likely to win, that there was a deep stretch in the Midwest peopled with displaced manufacturing workers and their families who were gunning to vote for Trump.
Political propaganda used to be considered undesirable and something only dictators employed to manipulate thinking and enact their agenda.
Russians living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War did not have the luxury or freedom to change the channel and move away from bias. They were stuck with “fake news.” It’s shocking today to realize that despite our free press and the abundance of news sources available to cross-check for accuracy, we still have a sizable segment of our population willfully addicted to what is essentially broadcast propaganda. Instead of an appetite for propaganda, we need to develop an appetite for truth. Even if that truth is sometimes hard to hear: that for example, special prosecutor Robert Mueller found no evidence President Trump colluded with Russia to get elected. But the full truth can be complicated, going many different directions: that for example, there is evidence the president attempted to obstruct justice. We want the truth to be simple and reflect what we think. But it rarely does.
Image Credit: Fox News