Monday, January 2, 2017

Facts, Narratives, Confirmation Bias, Politics, and Belonging

A few weeks ago, a story broke (or unbroke depending on how you look at it) about a young woman who had claimed that she was harassed by a group of white male Trump supporters in a New York Subway.  As is common in our time and place, there was a race to break the story.

But it turns out that she made the whole thing up.  None of it happened.  And so there was a race to unbreak the story.  But the new story had to do with how the story broke in the first place.

I rarely watch Fox News, but I happened to be watching The Five when I learned that the story was a hoax.  Unsurprisingly, the panel on The Five was all over the story.

As material for the segment, the lead commentator focused on a particular set of Buzzfeed headlines related to the story.  Per these Buzzfeed headlines, the attack itself was originally presented as fact and was thus sensationalized.  When it became known that the attack was a hoax, the follow up Buzzfeed headline stated, with much less color, that it was “allegedly” a hoax.

“Why not ‘alleged’ in the initial report?” the roundtable asked.  “Why is the word ‘alleged’ only in the retraction?”

Those aren’t unfair questions.

And Fox had an answer.

It’s because, they argued, the “mainstream media” has a fundamental narrative (or “agenda” if you prefer) that they are prepared to believe aside from any evidence, and thus facts that support this preconceived narrative are not sufficiently fact checked.  Call it confirmation bias.  This monolithic media fundamentally believes that Trump supporters are racist and are thus quick to believe and perpetuate any narrative of bigotry and will seek to portray that narrative as normative.

The fact that this story turned out to be a hoax, per the Fox commentary, provides the occasion to talk about the narrative and bias of the “mainstream media”.

The real critique was about confirmation bias - a willingness to emphasize the facts that one wants to be true.  It’s not so much "fact" or "not fact" as much as it is “which facts?”  The narrative determines this.

The irony was that the Fox News panel proceeded to do the same thing.

They interpreted a particular facts within their pre-existing narrative.  They seemed positively giddy about the story being a hoax because it provided a means to support a narrative - that of the bias of the “mainstream media”.

Now let’s be clear.  The story of the young Muslim woman was a hoax.  While we should be careful in ascribing intent or overanalyzing, the Buzzfeed headlines are real.  It’s not that these particular facts aren’t true.  Rather, it’s the way that a particular situation or set of facts is viewed in isolation and held up as normative in support of a pre-existing narrative.  Just like their "mainstream media" foes.

Each narrative can find a set of facts to support their narrative and win them the day.  And it drives me crazy that the Fox News panel seems to think that the “mainstream media” is a monolithic group without any differences.  Or that “bias” is isolated to their political foes and not themselves.  That they aren't subject to confirmation bias.  Go read Breitbart for heavens sake.

It also provided evidence to suggest that the larger narrative of tangible anti-Muslim sentiment is itself a myth perpetuated by this same media.  Reports of increased hostility towards Muslims as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center were addressed with “And who is auditing those?”  Credible reports of anti-Muslim sentiment are thus either disavowed or transplanted into the desired narrative – that of racism as being manufactured by this same media.  Two birds, one stone.  The proclivity to ignore or minimize a post-election increase in racially motivated incidents by appealing to a fake story as normative is driven by - you got it - a pre-existing narrative.

The point is, it seems that we humans have a tendency to find and focus in on the worst in whatever group we’ve identified as the “other”, and we’re prone to use those things to confirm our narrative.  Put another way, we sometimes focus in on weak arguments and caricatures in order to dismiss or avoid the strongest arguments.  Our narratives give us our belonging.  They help us make sense of our world.  We like certainty about our narratives.

Everybody lives from a narrative that provides some sort of basis for filtering reality.  We all seek to make sense of a complex world, and we have immediate access to more information than any other time in human history.  Sifting through it all is unrealistic.  Yet we are wired to make sense of our reality.  Wired for certainty and control.  Confirmation bias is real.  And it effects everybody.

This is why it’s important to not live our lives in an echo chamber.  It’s why it’s important to notice when and why a particular opposing viewpoint gets our blood boiling, and on the flip side, when and why we’re quick to believe something.  This doesn’t mean that each and every competing viewpoint is equally true or that all narratives are hopelessly muddled in ambiguity.  I don’t believe that at all.  It simply means that we need to be aware of our own confirmation bias and that we should always seek to engage varying viewpoints at their strongest rather than their weakest.

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