We Should Seek to Be Unbiased. That Doesn’t Mean Being Neutral

The recent fake news and false balance problems may have both been products of society’s overemphasis on neutrality

The tremendous spike in fake news during the election was one of the most contentious and discussed issues of 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. Allegedly, this was not because they lacked the capability to curb it — rather, they were scared of conservative backlash.

According to Gizmodo, one source who was close to the company’s decision-making 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.”

Meanwhile, news outlets have faced plentiful accusations of “false balance” or “false equivalence” in the way they covered the two major candidates during the presidential election. False balance historically refers to the practice where two sides of an issue are presented as having similar or equal credence, even though it’s clear that they’re unequal in terms of factuality or degree of support by the evidence. Thus, viewpoints that are backed up by little to no facts or evidence may be given the same weight in presentation, e.g. the amount of time they are allotted on air, as those grounded in sound logic and factual evidence.

False balance can also take other forms, such as when two events are presented as being evidence of a larger trend, even though it’s clear that one is a much stronger or severe example of that trend than the other.

During the election, these accusations were mainly levied towards the manner in which Trump and Clinton were covered. 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 to positive 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 during the time period that the study drew its figures from, such as the tape where he boasted about sexually assault, led to them increasing 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. For example, USA Today ran an op-ed with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” This made it appear as if threats that Trump and Clinton posed to free press were similar in severity, despite the fact that Trump clearly posted a much greater threat.

This false equivalence was also prominently 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.

Fear of appearing biased against one side, usually conservatives in practice, is commonly thought to be a significant reason for why news outlets engage in false balance or equivalency.

These events are hardly unprecedented.

The alleged reason why Facebook allegedly allowed fake news to spread on its platform, and why news outlets falsely equivocated Trump and Clinton in their coverage — fear of appearing biased against conservatives — is hardly unprecedented.

Conservatives have long hurled accusations of “liberal” bias against news 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 wiki 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 neutral or “balanced”, 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. A commonly noted example was the past debate between man-made climate change (supported by liberals) and natural climate change (supported by conservatives). In news coverage, 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.

We should seek to be unbiased. But, being unbiased ≠ being neutral

The trend of media (or other) organizations pursuing neutrality to avoid accusations of bias is a dangerous one, potentially leading to a greatly misinformed public, and in the case of fake news, inching us closer to a post-truth society than ever.

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 and accurate presentation must take are on the broader, conceptual level. These are not only steps that the media ought to take, but also the general public.

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 has proven links to man-made behavior, 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 thought 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 in 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 someone 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 that 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.

A key foundation

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 news 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 would be a big step in this regard.

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Does it Matter if We’re Living in a Simulation?

Various new findings in science have led to the growing popularity of theories that argue that our world is a computer simulation. Though we are far from reaching a certain answer on this, this is a possibility that has many potentially interesting implications for the way we think about our lives. On the surface, the possibility that we are in a simulation seems to be a quite scary thought, evoking dark sci-fi films like The Matrix. But are all simulations inherently bad? Most of us would probably hope that we aren’t living in a simulation, but how much does it matter if we are indeed living in one?

Many may believe that any kind of simulation would be a bad thing for humanity. Some on the other hand, may think it makes little difference. In my opinion, there is no simple yes or no answer – how much we ought to care that we are in a simulation ultimately depends on its conditions. Taking the conditions of our current world, one striking feature is the pervasive suffering. There are large amounts of senseless, unnecessary suffering in our world. One may argue that a certain amount of suffering, or hardship, is actually good for humans, such as to give us a challenge to overcome and make life more fulfilling. What we currently have though – with nearly half of our world living at or near extreme poverty, countless numbers of people facing disease they have no protection from, many groups of people being persecuted and discriminated against because of factors such as race/gender/sexuality/etc., and the list goes on — seems to be far, far more than that amount. If there is some entity, such as a person or an AI responsible for directly programming that suffering, then there is much reason to care that we are in the simulation. Though it is unclear what we could do in this case, if anything, we would be right in directing our anger towards the responsible entity and trying to find a way to overcome the programmed conditions.

Another reason to care if is if the simulation that we are in is a world where only one or a few individuals have conscious minds – they are the only ones that have subjective, inner experiences. In this hypothetical world, all or most of the people you come into contact with are akin to NPCs in video games – they interact with you but are inactive products of the simulation, and have as much inner experience as a rock does. They may seem to have separate lives and conscious experiences but are just programmed to appear that way. Such a simulation would be quite discomforting to most people. The people in this world that you have formed relationships are not actually conscious, which to me seems to take out the most prerequisite component of a relationship – that it is a mutual one between two conscious beings. This would be deceptive and cruel on part of the simulators.

Theoretically though, if our world were such so that suffering and tragic events were not the result of intentional programming, and that we all are indeed conscious and not NPCs, then it may in fact not matter too much that we’re living in a simulation. What seems to matter to us the most is our conscious experience, and the relationships that we form with other conscious beings that also experience. These will remain even if we’re in a simulation. Fundamental social values that we hold, such as friendship, family, love, and compassion for others, will remain intact. Other, more personal values, such as achievement, growth, and perseverance, will also remain. Even if we are living in such a simulation, our relationships with other people, and our personal experiences, remain real. To most of us, these are the things that we value most in our lives.

In this post, I’ve discussed three possible types of simulations; 1) our current world where suffering has been intentionally programmed, 2) a world where only one or a few people are conscious, and 3) our current world where the suffering that is present is not the result of intentional programming and every person is conscious. There are many other types of theoretical simulations with different conditions, but I believe the conditions I discussed (unnecessary suffering, consciousness of other people) would be among our most prominent worries regarding simulations. Here’s to hoping that if we are indeed living in a simulation, it’s the third type.

Sony’s Smart Contact Lenses Could Alter the Way We Live

Wearable technology, particularly eyewear, continues to make strides. In May, Sony filed a patent for “smart” contact lenses. Among other features, the lenses would function as tiny cameras – capturing photos or recording videos, and storing them for future viewing or playback.

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Image: Sony/United States Patent and Trademark Office 

A key feature of the lenses is that the recorders can differentiate between a wearer’s deliberate and natural blinking. The deliberate blinks activate the recorders.

A set of sophisticated technologies make this possible. According to the patent: “In the case where the user presses an end of his/her eyelid in a state in which the eyelid is closed, such press is sensed by the piezoelectric [pressure] sensor, and thus the switch can be turned on…”

Keyword: Patent

It’s important to note that thus far this is only a patent application that is still awaiting approval – no product or prototype exist. Slash Gear notes that Sony may not even have the technology for it yet, and are rather either entertaining the possibility of developing it or safeguarding the idea from others in the future.

In fact, the technology that the smart contacts would require seem to be at least a while away. Mashable comments that “the sophistication of the these smart contact lenses requires technology that wouldn’t fit comfortably on a lens,” while The Verge notes that “this sort of tech is still in the very early stage: the ‘screens’ that have been put in contact lenses are tiny, and the electronics are limited to simple circuits.”

Potential Positive Effects

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t start theorizing about the effects that these lenses could have on the way we live. These effects will likely be both positive and negative.

On the plus side, the ability to record and playback our experiences means that we no longer have to solely rely on our often faulty memories. As Futurism notes, our memory of an event can be quite different from what actually transpired. By accessing the internal storage of Sony’s prospective lenses, we could easily playback whatever recordings we wanted to see.

It could also lead to greater accountability for institutions such as the police. Knowing that citizens have smart contacts that could be used to discreetly record them at any sign of misconduct could discourage them from abusing their authority.

Sony’s smart contacts could also propel citizen journalism. Not Impossible Now notes that the contacts could be “the first truly immersive way to share a point of view”. The contacts would not only make it easier and more convenient for users to record breaking events (at the blink of an eye), but also provide viewers of the recordings with a more immersive, hyperrealistic, point of view. Thus, people in conflict-ridden areas could record with greater ease, and others could get a clearer idea of the situation on the ground.

Potential Negative Effects

On the other hand, the smart contacts could potentially bring negative ramifications. First, there could be privacy concerns, akin to the ones that plagued Google Glass. In a world where a sizable portion of the population wear smart contacts, people may feel uneasy or uncomfortable knowing that they may be being recorded without their knowledge, and may feel more behaviorally repressed, e.g. not being able to be themselves, as a result.

Further, the ability to playback recordings may not always be a good thing, as it could lead us to over-scrutinize and misinterpret past events and details. An episode of the TV show Black Mirror, which presents a world where users have a recording technology similar to smart contacts, aptly demonstrates this. The main character becomes completely obsessed with re-watching clips of prior events to determine if his wife is cheating. Though he is able to deduct the truth as a result, his subsequent spiral into insanity serves as a forewarning for the darker qualities, like paranoia, that smart contact lenses could bring out in us.

Impact

Many believe that it’s not a matter of if eyewear such as smart contacts are adopted by the general public, but when. It is thus time to start thinking about about how they could affect our daily lives, which includes brainstorming ways to fully harness the positive power they could have, while addressing the privacy concerns and other negative effects that could come with them.

Chinese International Students – A New Hope?

Chinese students represent the largest number of international students in America, and they continue to enroll in higher numbers. In addition, more and more of these students are making the decision to return home for employment. As the number of Chinese international students returning home increases, there is a sense of optimism that the unfettered Internet access that they have gained abroad and the newfound information and knowledge that this entails, will lead them to develop beliefs in Western ideals such as freedoms of expression and the press. They can then spread these ideals at home. This hope however, has yet to materialize.

Various interviews and studies have found that Chinese international students who have access to the open web often are just as patriotic and jingoistic as their non-international counterparts. Victor Teo, assistant professor at the University of Honk Kong, remarks that “there are plenty of Chinese outside of China who use Google, Facebook and Twitter, on a daily basis, and who read the New York Times, listen to western music and are just as every bit as nationalistic – and perhaps as jingoistic – as some Chinese who live in China.”

There are several contributing factors to this, such as the importance many Chinese attach to being loyal to their country.

What I found interesting though is that Chinese students often perceive anti-China bias in both the American media and American students who discuss China-related issues with them, believing that they “often exhibit misinformed, prejudiced and offensive views of Chinese current events”. This is essentially the exact opposite of how Americans and others in the West feel about people in China – we generally feel that China’s media coverage is biased and untruthful, leading the people there to also have biases and misconceptions about the U.S..

What is actually going on here is unclear. Though Chinese students may have a point when they claim to perceive anti-China bias in American media and students, I believe that their perception could be colored by the censored, pro-China media that they’ve been exposed to for all their lives. It is easy to be more oversensitive to criticism when you’re used to hearing something else your whole life. Sometimes, criticisms are legitimate and are not merely due to media bias. Furthermore, for all the bias that the American media may have, at the least it is not plagued by government censorship, as its Chinese counterpart is.

Nonetheless, how Chinese international students feel probably plays little difference in the context of Internet usage trends. With so much else available on the Internet, young Chinese simply don’t have much time or interest for political and social issues. A recent survey showed that of the total time spent among Internet users, only 4.6% is dedicated to “news”. Another survey showed that the top 3 activities among young Chinese Internet users are music, gaming, and video.

Such findings reinforce the argument that there is a large enough amount of domestic content within the Great Firewall to satisfy the average person, or that the average person simply isn’t all too interested in politics. Further, the fact that even Chinese students who are exposed to an open Internet mostly do not undergo any sort of change of heart, or gain any motivation to become more active politically, paints a bleak picture. Thus, it appears as if China’s web censorship may prove to be more resilient than previously thought. It capitalizes on the average person’s reluctance to go past the Firewall by providing content that caters to their tastes, and even when Chinese people do have access to open Internet, they mostly do not undergo any significant change.