Fake News Makes It Clear That We Need to Clarify Our Definitions: Being Unbiased Does Not Mean Being Neutral

The tremendous spike in fake news during the election has developed into one of the most contentious and discussed issues during the past few weeks. At the center of the debate was Facebook, which made the decision to largely allow fake news to spread across its platform. This was not because they lacked the capability to curb it. Instead, they allegedly elected not to take action because they were scared of conservative backlash.

According to Gizmodo, one source said that Facebook had planned a News Feed update that would identify fake or hoax new stories, but did not release it due to fear that it would disproportionately impact right-wing websites and thus upset conservatives. The New York Times also reported that according to a number of Facebook employees, after receiving accusations earlier in the year that the team behind Facebook’s Trending Topics section was routinely suppressing links from conservative news sources, Facebook’s leadership was “paralyzed” and unwilling to “make any serious changes to its products that might compromise the perception of its objectivity.”

If true, this was an extremely questionable decision that could set a dangerous precedent. Regardless, the American media and public need to be prepared to fend off a phenomenon that could threaten the very fabric of our society.

Evidence shows that conservative sources publish more fake news

Facebook’s concern that their planned update would disproportionately affect conservative sources was not unfounded.

Studies have confirmed that right-wing, conservative sources are generally more inaccurate and non-factual than left-wing, liberal sources. A recent study by BuzzFeed, which analyzed the posts of nine Facebook pages (3 right-wing, 3 left-wing, and 3 mainstream media), found that 38% of the posts published by the three right-wing pages included “false or misleading information”, compared to 19% of the posts published by the three left-wing pages. The contrast is even more sharply illustrated when looking at the 20 most popular fake news stories: 17 of them favored Donald Trump or were critical of Hillary Clinton.

And keep in mind, the three left-wing pages that were analyzed were categorized by BuzzFeed as, like the right-wing pages, “hyper-partisan”. But these aren’t even the sources that conservatives primarily attack for displaying “liberal bias” or being part of the “liberal media”. Rather, it’s the mainstream news outlets, such as CNN, the New York Times, etc., that are the primary targets of these accusations.

The 3 mainstream media Facebook pages that BuzzFeed followed (CNN Politics, ABC News Politics, Politico) all have received plentiful accusations of liberal bias from conservatives. All of them achieved nearly perfect accuracy in Buzzfeed’s study. Only 0.7% of their posts, or eight out of a total of 1,145, were rated as including any false or unverified information.

Prior studies have found a similar pattern regarding the contrast between right-wing and left-wing news sources. A study conducted by PunditFact’s Truth-O-Meter (sister site of PolitiFact) in 2014 measured the accuracy of claims made by pundits, hosts, or paid contributors on five major TV networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, MSNBC and CNN). The conservative-friendly Fox News, the only major network to avoid accusations of liberal bias (mostly), clocks in with the worst score: 59% of its claims were found to be mostly false or worse. The other networks all performed better, including Fox News’ two main competitors: 41% of MS/NBC’s were found to be mostly false or worse, and 26% of CNN’s were.

via PunditFact

Fake news impact on election

Just how much of an impact fake news had on the election, or whether it played a role in shaping the result, is unclear. There is good reason however, to believe that it could have made a sizable difference.

A BuzzFeed analysis found that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined”. The analysis found that though engagement on the top 20 fake news stories lagged behind the top 20 stories from outlets such as The New York Times and NBC News for most of the year, during the final three months of the election they rose sharply and overtook them. These stories were shared, reacted to, or commented on close to 9 million times, and were viewed by people probably many times more. Given that 17 of these 20 fake stories were pro-Trump or anti-Hillary, it’s not crazy to wonder if this phenomenon put Trump over the top.

In fact, many of the people who were responsible for these stories, the fake news writers themselves, believe that this is likely. The Washington Post recently interviewed Paul Horner, an influential fake news writer who has witnessed the viral frenzy of fake news up close. He believed that fake stories like his played a decisive role in helping Trump get elected: “My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything.”

Fake news threaten core tenants of American society

Vox, in its analysis of BuzzFeed’s study, noted that in contrast to the 17 out of 20 top fake news stories that favored Trump, a lot of the mainstream stories were pro-Clinton. However, they note that these stories were opinions about events that actually transpired in reality — disagreeable or potentially biased as they may be, they did not fabricate fake events.

This is especially dangerous. It is one thing to disagree with a peer’s opinion, where you both share the same facts about reality and events but come to different interpretations or conclusions based on them. It is another to believe in two vastly different sets of reality. If a common set of facts cannot be agreed upon, then we likely cannot even enter the next stage and engage in any substantive discussion — discussion that could be vital towards important policy action.

Further, the continued spread of fake news and misinformation is bad for the public, and our democracy’s well-being. A well-informed citizenry is a key component to a healthy democracy, and widespread fake news and misinformation compromises that. Citizens will face obstacles in getting truthful facts regarding important events, situations, and issues, which could prevent us from setting defined goals and making social progress. Because of the lack of clarity in knowing what the truth is, and the varying realities that people would believe in, the ability for citizens to engage in productive, rational discourse with each other and policymakers may be severely damaged.

Obama himself realized the grave danger of this possibility, as evident in recent remarks at a press conference in Germany: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems….If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect.”

Furthermore, independent researchers now believe that a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign provided support in spreading fake news and misleading stories, with the goal of helping to elect Trump and punishing Clinton. Stories planted or promoted by the campaign were reportedly viewed more than 213 million times on Facebook. Though there is no way to know whether this proved to be the decisive factor in Trump’s victory, it should Facebook and other platforms an even greater sense of urgency to combat the spread of fake news — it goes without saying that preventing foreign, hostile governments from interfering in our democratic process is critical.

Facebook’s reluctance to combat fake news evokes a familiar trend

The reason that Facebook allegedly allowed fake news to spread on its platform — fear of appearing biased against conservatives — is hardly unprecedented.

Conservatives have long hurled accusations of liberal bias against media outlets for their own political self-interest. At times they do so because they genuinely believe that a particular outlet is demonstrating bias towards them, and perhaps in some of these cases they are right. However, there is little question that they often employ these accusations for other, more strategic reasons.

Most importantly, such accusations can allow them to influence media coverage into their favor. According to progressive-leaning website Rational Wiki, conservatives have a long history of accusing the media of liberal bias as a “method to discredit critics without having to disprove the point they make.” This functions as an ad hominem attack; terms such as “liberal bias” or the “liberal media” have derogatory meaning among conservatives. If a person or an organization is associated with such terms, then they are often instantly viewed with distrust and suspicion in their eyes. Because many media organizations feel the need to appear “balanced” or “neutral”, perhaps as to not alienate a significant portion of their audiences, they may shift their coverage to the right in order to avoid these accusations. Former RNC head Rich Bond confirmed this sentiment: “There is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]…. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”

Indeed, this is a strategy that has historically proven to be a success. It is not uncommon for journalists/reporters/outlets to, while in this pursuit, fall into the trap of promoting “false balance”.

Opinions that have little relationship to the truth and are backed up by little to no facts or evidence are given the same weight/treatment as those grounded in sound logic and well-researched/fact-checked evidence. For example, in past debates about climate change, positions that denied its existence were given the same credence and airtime as those that affirmed it, despite the fact that 97 percent of scientists with expertise on climate and atmosphere believe in a link between human behavior and climate change.

False balance can take other forms as well, such as in the portrayal of candidates. The Washington Post recently reported about a recent study that followed a number of major news outlets. The study showed that the outlets reported negative stories about Clinton at an equal ratio as they did Trump, 87 percent negative vs. 13 percent positive. It seems that in order to appear balanced, they used Trump as a frame of reference for the way in which they reported about Clinton. The fact that Trump was embroiled in many scandals, such as the tape where he boasted about sexually assault, during the time period that the study drew its figures from, meant that they had to increase negative coverage of Clinton to match that. Furthermore, the article notes that there were many instances where outlets falsely equivocated a major violation by Trump with a minor one by Clinton.

This false equivalence was also seen on a live primetime forum with Clinton and Trump back in September. NBC’s Matt Laurer was criticized for asking Trump easier questions during his interview compared to the ones he asked Clinton during hers, and for failing to fact-check Trump for false statements that he made during it. In this instance, Laurer caught flak for, among other things, being unfairly tougher on Clinton in an attempt to portray the two candidates as equal.

This practice has several effects.

First, it misinforms the public. By presenting both sides equally regardless of fact, an issue that should be clear-cut according to the facts seems much murkier and contentious. As seen with the climate change debate, the vast majority of scientists believed in its existence compared to the few (many who were funded by the fossil fuel industry) who argued against it. The media, which often sought to give both sides equal voice, made it seem as if there was strong, legitimate disagreement within the scientific community. Thus, the public was stuck debating over the factually obvious existence of human-made climate change, instead of debating the actions we needed to take to curb it.

Second, it devalues factuality and truth. It sends the message that facts are unnecessary; thus, those who advocate for positions with little factual support or evidence feel no disincentive to continue pushing them forth. In these situations, fairness now effectively means “the equal treatment of two sides, regardless of factuality”. Ironically, this actually makes things unfair, as the side that actually took the time to research and fact-check is treated in the same manner as the side that failed to do so.

Facebook takes this problem to the extreme

Facebook fake news’ problem elevates this problem to another level. The company was allegedly scared to remove stories that fabricated events that did not happen. Mainstream news outlets may be guilty of false balance in various ways, but they still report about events that actually happened.

In order to appear neutral, Facebook let fake stories proliferate on their platform, reportedly out of fear that clamping down on them would have disproportionately affected conservatives, and possibly garnered them accusations of liberal bias. As a result, even the most egregious, extreme misinformation — stories claiming blatantly fake events such as Pope Francis endorsing Trump, the murder-suicide of an FBI agent who was investigating Hillary Clinton, or emails proving that Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS — was given free reign.

Fighting for the Truth

Whether a media (or other) organization overcompensates in an attempt avoid bias or accusations of bias, or if they’re doing it for business purposes (appeasing certain segments of their consumers), it is a dangerous trend. Facebook, which was dealing with clear cut, blatantly false information in many cases, emphasized neutrality and refrained from taking action. This lack of action allowed fake news to propagate, misinforming and devaluing facts in the eyes of the public. And the more organizations that follow suit, the closer we get to becoming a post-truth society.

There are many things we need to do to reverse this trend. But I believe that two critical steps that those that care about truth must take are on the broader, conceptual level.

First, both the media and the public must clarify their definitions. Right now, there is much confusion over the meaning of certain terms, which people can and have deliberately exploited (via conflation and false equivalence) to their advantage.

Most glaringly, being unbiased and being neutral have been falsely equivocated. Nowadays, many in the media and the general populace think that to be unbiased, they must be completely neutral in judgment — that is, they must treat all perspectives about a particular issue with equal weight, and present them as such. It doesn’t matter if the perspective is fallacious, e.g. backed by little fact or evidence, or logically unsound — that perspective is given the same weight (treatment as a serious argument, airtime, etc.) as factual and sound perspectives.

As a result, issues such as man-made vs. natural climate change, and the alleged link between vaccines and autism, were presented by the media as hotly debated, despite the fact that the scientific evidence clearly points to one side being true (climate change is natural, and vaccines have no link to autism). This has led to real, serious harms to people.

This practice has extended to the general public. In both debate in-person and on various channels of the Internet, I have witnessed instances where people were accused of bias simply for having an opinion on a matter, before they were even questioned about the reasoning behind their belief.

This is not what being unbiased should mean. Being unbiased should refer to the process taken to reach the truth or the most accurate conclusion regarding a particular issue: you take into account all of the facts, conditions, and evidence with a comprehensive and open mind; you carefully examine and analyze them, and you do not omit any because of your personal feelings or stance on the issue.

Bias on the other hand, should mean when you undercut/stray away from this process, i.e. examining and analyzing the facts in a distorted manner, such as omitting to take into account some of them that don’t align with your preferred conclusion, etc..

Being unbiased however, does not preclude drawing conclusions based on the evidence. If the evidence clearly points to one side of the argument as aligning closest to the truth, it is fine, and perhaps morally obligatory, to present it as such.

Second, building on this, the media and the public should clarify and re-align their objectives. Being unbiased, and not necessarily neutral, should be the goal.

It is widely accepted that the goal of serious journalism is to bring the truth to the public — neutrality can be an obstacle in this pursuit. As CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour remarked on a recent interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: “So I now say truthful, not neutral. There is a difference here. Truthful is bringing the truth. Neutral can be creating a false equivalence between this side and that….And the truth is actually there. You can find the truth. And there are facts, and there are figures. And there are other things. And you can’t conflate the two.”

Now, when pursuing the truth, it is imperative for them to be unbiased in their consideration of the evidence. But if and once they find the truth, or if they find that a certain perspective is closer to the truth than the others, they should present it as such — not downplay it.

The public also needs to be careful — we should seek to be unbiased and not necessarily neutral. We should be careful not to mix up the two concepts, and that includes our everyday language usage. When we acknowledge that we ourselves, or others, are “biased” on a particular issue or even in general, that should refer to the process by which we came to our opinion, not merely the fact that we have an opinion that is considered to be part of particular ideology.

For example, if the fact that Joe is a liberal led him to overlook evidence that disfavored the liberal position on the issue in question, it would be fine to say that he has “liberal bias” on the particular issue. But if he came to his opinion by fairly and comprehensively considering all of the evidence, and that opinion is consistent with liberal thought, he should not be characterized as having “liberal bias” on the issue.

I believe that this is an important distinction — saying that someone is biased can lead others to not take their opinion as seriously. We should thus be careful in how and when we apply the term.

Conclusion

There are many more steps we need to take beyond this. Certain segments of the population really do not seem to not care about the truth. On a practical level, it may be difficult for media outlets to change their practices, due to factors such as corporate influence. And on the fake news front, there are obstacles that could complicate any attempt that Facebook makes to curb it.

But, all of these problems could be tackled more effectively if we get on the same page philosophically. Clarifying the confusion that exists on the definitional and conceptual levels will be a big step in that regard.

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