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Between Bubbles and Dissonance, Your News Diet Is Brutal

Our brains are wired to beat back dangers — and today, information is the biggest one of all

House Democrats hold a press conference on the president’s performance in Helsinki near a television tuned to CNN. Filter bubbles are a danger of consuming news today, Shearer writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)
House Democrats hold a press conference on the president’s performance in Helsinki near a television tuned to CNN. Filter bubbles are a danger of consuming news today, Shearer writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — After President Donald Trump said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, the news media had a united front on reporting the outcome and its meaning — a rare moment in recent times.

From Fox News through CNN, from The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal, the facts reported were that Trump had made a serious foreign policy blunder by deferring to the Russian autocrat over his own government’s analysis.

But that quickly changed as Fox’s Sean Hannity, Breitbart, Alex Jones and other pro-Trump media and advocates said their facts were that Trump had shown strength and shrewd diplomacy in the meeting with Putin.

It appears most Americans went straight inside their filter bubbles to listen to the facts they preferred even as Washington — both Democrats and many Republicans — continued to criticize the president at full throttle.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week shows that 50 percent of Americans generally disapproved of Trump’s conduct at the Helsinki summit, while 33 percent approved. But 83 percent of Democrats disapproved of Trump’s handling of Putin, while 66 percent of Republicans said the opposite.

In other words, even as Republican leaders and initially Fox News condemned Trump’s disavowal of his own intelligence community’s findings, rank-and-file Republicans remained unchanged. That’s how strong the pull is of filter bubbles, cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect — contributors to the degradation of the idea that facts have meaning at all. These and other problems that make it harder and harder to discern fact from fiction or opinion are only getting worse. It’s time for us all to confront them.

In “Truth Counts: A Practical Guide for News Consumers” (which was published by CQ Press), co-editor Matt Mansfield and I addressed the rise of the term “fake news” as a synonym not only for actual fake news, but for news that is true but uncomfortable; we wanted to figure out how we got here and what can be done to change it. With the help of experts, we wanted to learn how as a society we could restore methods of settling on facts while living with uncertainty and compromise.

We as Americans have to acknowledge and take steps to combat in our daily news consumption the rise of truly fake news; the use of the “fake news” label to identify factual information the labeler doesn’t like; the alarming success of state-sponsored news like Russia’s efforts to use algorithms and bots to influence our last election; increased misinformation and hoaxes; and, as the book says, “a denigration of evidence, expertise, science and empiricism.”

The Democrats and Republicans who had decided what Trump’s Helsinki appearance meant were surely influenced by Facebook and other digital platforms’ algorithms that filter their information flow to keep them securely within their belief bubbles. That’s fine for giving us news we really like, but not so great at giving us news that’s accurate and, more important, offers other viewpoints.

But it’s not just outside influences like algorithms and bad actors determined to create your universe of “facts,” it’s also our own brains at work. Our brain doesn’t like being presented with conflicting facts, so it starts “spinning” the facts we don’t like. In politics, this can result in the “backfire effect,” in which we in effect double down on a fact shown to be wrong — like Hillary Clinton running a pedophile ring out of a D.C. pizza parlor — rather than change our viewpoints.

Neuroscientists point out that the brain works overtime to protect us from danger — and today’s danger, instead of dinosaurs, is challenging information. It causes the part of our brain that detects stimuli that pose a threat to increase its activity.

But we can break out of our filter bubbles, change the psychological and biological tendencies to protect against conflicting information and ferret out the deliberately phony news, misleading information and hoaxes.

To do so, we have to acknowledge the role of feelings in processing new, possibly uncomfortable, information — by diversifying our sources of information and opening ourselves to worldviews that challenge our perceived truths. We can use or other fact-checkers to check out media outlets and information sources we don’t know before believing them; note that a story is based on a single, anonymous source and raise our skepticism antenna; and pause before sharing or retweeting something that causes an emotional reaction. Check your biases and think about the veracity of the information. Ask how you know something — is it verified by a diversity of sources?

And watch it when people start throwing around the label “fake news.” Judge for yourself.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Moynihan was wrong in that today we can select our own facts. But he was right that we need facts. And we need truth.

Ellen Shearer is the William F. Thomas Professor of Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications. She also is executive editor of Medill News Service in Washington and co-director of the Medill National Security Journalism initiative. She is the co-editor of “Truth Counts: A Practical Guide for News Consumers.”

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