OP-ED | And the Winner Is . . . Confirmation Bias
The 2016 election is history — mercifully — and Donald Trump will be our next president. While the GOP candidate might have garnered enough votes to take the win, I believe there’s an even bigger winner this year.
I declare Confirmation Bias the outright winner of the 2016 election.
Never in my lifetime have I witnessed more refusal on the part of the voters to check the facts, to scrutinize candidates’ statements, to accept reality as, well, reality.
“As much as we like to think that we use reason to evaluate evidence and come to conclusions, ‘It really goes back assward, a lot of times,’ said Peter Ditto, a psychologist at University of California, Irvine. ‘People already have a firm opinion, and that shapes the way they process information.’ We hold beliefs about how the world works and tend to force new information to fit within these pre-existing narratives.”
As Stan Bolander, a character on the 1990s TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street” put it, “Nothing is real. There’s no reality. Take the color green — you see green, I see green. We call it green because this society has decided that this thing, this color, will be green. We think we have this shared experience of green, but who knows? Maybe my green is ‘greener’ than your green. Take color-blind people, for instance. They have to live with a stigma because what they see is not what we see as green. But maybe, just maybe, their perception is correct. They’re seeing pure green. They see true green.”
This episode, called “Colors,” focuses on the shooting death of a foreign exchange student. Three separate eyewitness accounts of the same incident differ somewhat — are “colored,” if you will — by the divergent perceptions of each eyewitness. In short, each individual brings an inherent bias to the same event and recounts a story that follows that bias.
This is confirmation bias at work.
My students viewed that episode in my Media Literacy class to prepare them for the “Media and Politics” unit. Never has this episode — now 20 years old — been more relevant, as supporters of each candidate hold fast to predetermined and decidedly different versions of “the color green.”
Despite the recurring news of Hillary Clinton’s unauthorized use of a private server to house official State Department emails — including the report in June from the Office of Inspector General “showing much of what the former secretary of State has said about her unprecedented email arrangement has been false” – most of her supporters were unmoved.
Typical of the pro-Clinton responses was this one from Iowan Ruth Thompson: “Although the emails are a problem, they are not as huge a reason for me and I’m sure other Americans as well. People who want to dislike Hillary, for whatever reason, are going to find a way.”
Well, yes, but anyone who honestly reviews Clinton’s email indiscretions would have to admit the serious doubt they cast on her credibility.
Predictably, Trump supporters took this same news story and ratcheted up the criticism of Clinton. Perhaps not as predictable was their unwavering willingness to believe everything their candidate said — even when what he said indisputably contradicted the facts.
“Trump made more than 34 comments that were either lies or misstatements of fact during the (first) debate,” reported Fortune. “Clinton, by comparison, was tagged with four.”
But Trump supporters were undeterred.
“The biggest problem with fact-checking the Republican candidate is that he seems to have a reality-distortion field that applies to his fan base in which even if he tells what appears to be a lie, he is seen as telling some larger truth.” Thus, in almost every case, “Trump supporters seem to be able to find a way to excuse their candidate’s incorrect statements, forgive his inadequacies, and put a positive spin on his failures.”
How is this possible? How have reality and unreality become so indiscernible?
Two words: social media.
“One of the biggest shifts in the media landscape over the past decade and a half has been the rise of networked platforms, starting with blogs and then YouTube, and eventually evolving to include Facebook and Twitter as well as Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and half a dozen others,” according to another Fortune article. “These platforms have made it easier than ever for anyone with a message to reach vast numbers of people directly, rather than going through a traditional intermediary like a TV network or newspaper.”
What’s more, social media’s influence has grown dramatically, as 46 percent of all Americans now use it to access news. Problem is, that news is tailored to meet the interests and needs of each individual. In other words, social media has become the biggest enabler of confirmation bias.
“At the outset, the Internet was expected to be an open, democratic source of information,”explains an NPR report. “But algorithms, like the kind used by Facebook, instead often steer us toward articles that reflect our own ideological preferences, and search results usually echo what we already know and like.”
So now rather than actively looking for news that pleases, people have it delivered directly to them. Some of it isn’t even real news, but that doesn’t stop people from reading it and believing it.
“The internet-borne forces that are eating away at print advertising are enabling a host of faux-journalistic players to pollute the democracy with dangerously fake news items,” reported The New York Times.
Case in point: Donald Trump’s patently false account of President Obama’s interaction with a heckler at a recent Clinton rally. Trump didn’t just embellish the facts; he made them up. Numerous media outlets have debunked Trump’s story using video evidence.
Even so, Trump supporters brushed off this calculated fiction as insignificant.
So what do the next four years with Trump as president portend? Or more to the point, what facts will be remembered once it’s over? It all depends on who you’ll talk to.
Confirmation bias is indeed the winner of this year’s election. The losers are this country’s citizens, unwilling to face reality, which, I fear, is about to smack them in the face.
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