Understanding Bias in a Digital World Driven by Apps and Algorithms – The Arbiter
According to a study published by The Nielsen Company, American adults spend almost 11 hours a day consuming media in various formats, such as listening to music, browsing social media, watching television and reading the news. In today’s digital world, media consumption has never been higher.
As technology advances, global communication and accessibility to information continues to grow. However, the seemingly limitless power of the internet and mass media also presents many obstacles that modern citizens need to tackle, such as finding credible sources with reliable information.
Throughout the recent wave of accusations of ‘fake news’ and public mistrust of ‘mainstream media’, developing media literacy skills is very important, especially in regarding current events like the pandemic, upcoming elections and climate change.
According to Carissa Wolf, a freelance journalist and sociology lecturer from Boise State, the shift to digital journalism in the early 1990s had a huge impact on how people consume media.
“I became a journalist at a time when people still subscribed to newspapers, and it was very predictable in people’s lives,” Wolf said. “They settled down and bought a house and a washing machine, and subscribed to a daily newspaper. We just don’t see that happening today.
Wolf believes that before the digital age, print media created a sense of community and unity. Because the media was much more limited, the majority of people received the same news and information.
Nowadays, reading the daily newspaper is not such a common habit for the general population, especially among the younger generations.
“They don’t necessarily have a subscription. They don’t read the newspaper cover to cover. They might read an article here and there in their social media feeds, and it’s a little bit different,” Wolf said.
Applications and algorithms
In today’s media landscape, usually driven by apps and algorithms, it is much more unlikely that individuals will be exposed to the same media content.
“I think the biggest change now is that we have so many outlets available to us,” said Dr. Julie Lane, associate professor in the Boise State Department of Communications and Media. “Whether it’s traditional media that was previously only print or broadcast, or whether it’s media that has always only been online [like] blogs or social networks, we have such a wide range of information. There is an overwhelming amount of information to sift through.
According to a 2018 study by the Reuters Institute, 53% of respondents preferred to get their news through third-party gateways, such as search engines, social networks and news aggregators.
News aggregators, like Apple News and Google News, compile news from various media to refine the user’s experience and target their specific interests. Essentially, these aggregators track your online behavior and use the data to determine which articles you are most likely to click on.
Aggregators use behind-the-scenes algorithms that weed out the vast amount of information readily available on the internet and create an organized stream of articles. However, this process can often lead to a phenomenon known as “filter bubbles”.
A filter bubble is created when a media consumer is “trapped” in a cycle of information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, also known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the psychological phenomenon that describes how people are more likely to believe facts or information if it matches their individual preconceived ideas or opinions.
As an individual continues to click on items of interest to them, their interface algorithm (Google, social media, other aggregators, etc.) begins to display more media that is categorically similar to the items than he has already read or on which he has already clicked.
“You have to be selective. The amount of information we have makes it much easier to read the evidence that confirms your bias,” Lane said.
The digital age
Due to cultural and societal influences, everyone has unconscious biases that affect how everyone perceives the world. These biases often influence an individual’s experience on social media, as users are able to choose who or what they follow.
“I think certain age groups get the majority of their news from social media,” Lane said. “If a person gets most of their information from social media, how did that person organize that flow? Think about how you can really grow or organize your social media feed. This makes it very easy to do with just the click of a button.
This individual conservation can be conscious or involuntary, but in any case, it perpetuates the filter bubble phenomenon.
According to Lane, confirmation bias was not such a big issue before the digital age.
“Many [people] were still exposed to other media [before digital media]. Now, that’s so hard because it’s very easy to only come across things that confirm your bias. And that’s no matter where you fall on the political spectrum,” Lane said.
However, there are ways for media consumers to counter their own biases and improve their media literacy.
Lane says that distinguishing between news stories and opinion pieces is an extremely important first step.
“There are sections on websites that are labeled [opinion], but it’s very easy to click from article to article and lose track of what’s a news article, what’s an analysis and what’s an opinion piece,” Lane said.
Lane also suggests altering your News Feed by researching topics or outlets outside of your usual interests and varying the sources you subscribe to via social media or otherwise.
Scott McIntosh, the opinion writer for the Idaho Statesman, agrees that actively seeking out different media sources can help circumvent the filter bubble.
“I think it really comes down to consuming different media,” McIntosh said. “I think people choose what they believe and what they don’t believe. I think Fox News viewers should read The New York Times and watch CNN; and I think New York Times readers and CNN viewers should watch Fox News.
McIntosh also suggests critiquing the information you read, regardless of its origin. With the oversaturation of information in the media, it’s important for media consumers to dig a little deeper into the topic they’re watching to ensure it’s believable.
McIntosh believes that some items aren’t always what they seem if viewed only at surface level.
“I think it’s important when you see a story on Twitter or on Facebook, definitely read the story with skepticism and research the sources,” McIntosh said. “Look and see who the sources are. If it is a study that is cited in an article, go to the study and see if the study is described accurately and completely in the news article. And then go find another news source that covers the same story and see how they played it, see how they framed it. It might be framed slightly differently in a different context.
Increasing a person’s media literacy skills can help individuals spot biases and discrepancies more easily.
“Media literacy is really important [because], when people consume media, they can distinguish between what is an opinion piece [or] what is being done and being able to choose their media based on their understanding,” Wolf said.