Navigating the headlines is more difficult than ever.
Amid all the stories about “fake news” and political interference, it’s hard to know what to trust — and our biases can cloud our judgement.
It turns out we are prone to accepting or rejecting evidence based on our pre-existing beliefs, rather than the strength of the facts.
We often believe things are worse than they really are, and we tend to engage only with the familiar sides of nuanced debates.
The good news is we’re here to help.
If you want to focus more on the facts, and avoid some of the common mistakes we all make, here’s some things you can do.
Be aware of your biases
We all have biases that inform how we react to the news. An important one to be aware of is “motivated reasoning”.
We like to think that we make decisions by weighing up the evidence first, but that’s simply not the case, according to Matthew Hornsey, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland.
It’s the other way around: we often start with a belief and arrange the evidence to fit.
Often, these beliefs come from our gut rather than reason.
And, thanks to the internet, it’s never difficult to find some evidence — however flimsy — to support these emotional and instinctual beliefs.
“Some conservatives hate climate change because they are fans of free enterprise, and they hate the thought of big government,” Professor Hornsey says.
“We know that statistically. We’ve seen the data that shows that’s a big predictor of people rejecting climate change.”
We can be aware of our biases, but there’s not much hope in curing them, says Professor Hornsey. They’re simply part of our identity.
“It’s hard to spot when you’re doing this motivated reasoning. You feel like your worldview is the truth, and so you feel like you’re getting closer to the truth,” he says.
Expect to hear about lots of bad things — and not many good
Journalists focus on the extreme, the novel and the exciting. If a passenger plane crashes, you will hear about it, whether online, on TV, on the radio or in a newspaper.
Because we hear an awful lot of about plane crashes, it can seem like they must happen often.
What you probably didn’t hear was that 2017 was the safest year on record. Not one person died in a commercial passenger jet incident.
According to Hans Rosling, author of the book Factfulness, journalists’ preoccupation with negative news means we often think things in the world are worse than they are.
Here’s a few tips to help control what he calls this “negativity instinct”:
- Expect bad news
- Remember that good news is almost never reported
- Remember that more news does not equal more suffering
- Thing can be both better and bad (just because something appears bad, doesn’t mean it’s getting worse).
Be alert, but not afraid, of the algorithms
More than ever, we are being delivered news via algorithms.
Because search engines, social media platforms and news aggregators have a lot of data about our behaviours, it has led to anxiety that algorithms and personalised content feeds are creating “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers”, sheltering us from information that contradicts our cultural and ideological views.
It’s not that simple though, according to Axel Bruns, from the Digital Media Research Centre at QUT.
“There’s been quite a few studies that have been done now on search results that show that, whether you’re politically right and left, you end up seeing the same results, with very few variations,” he says.
“With social media as well, there’s not such a great deal of evidence to show that people are locking themselves into ideological or other filter bubbles or echo chambers.”
Nevertheless, sometimes the content or ads we get served up are just plain creepy. Since starting to research this story, I’ve started getting ads for a search engine that doesn’t track its users. (The irony hasn’t been lost on me.)
If you want to try and avoid the algorithms, there are some things to do. If you’re using a search engine, you can use incognito mode to de-personalise your results, Professor Bruns says.
On social media, you can try changing your settings, so your feeds are in chronological order rather than served by an algorithm, he adds.
Build a healthy information diet
We all design our information diets. If you’re interested in the news, and want to be better informed, think about bulking up yours.
If you’re particularly interested in a topic, try to track down a story from a news outlet you wouldn’t typically hear from.
“If you want to break out your immediate sphere of interest, and your immediate sphere of political allegiances, then find voices from the other side.
“That doesn’t mean go to the extremes or follow particularly extremist nasty voices … in a more moderate sense, follow people who you perhaps do not agree with or expect not to agree with.”
If you suspect a story is sensationalist, or too good to be true, check to see if — or how — it’s being covered by reputable media organisations.