OPINION: How to be an informed citizen in the age of misinformation

Do not fall for confirmation bias



Navigating the internet can be difficult due to the nature of free information, so it is critical to know how to engage with online content responsibly.

GRACE SLOAN, Evergreen columnist

We live in an incredibly digital era – I am sure your grandparent had to buy an iPhone to successfully communicate with the rest of the family, and your cousin just got an iPad for their fifth birthday.

The increasing dependence on technology to facilitate aspects of our lives is crazy, considering the first iPhone was not released until 2007 — only 15 years ago. You were most likely alive when owning a personal cellular device first became the norm, and is now a basic expectation.  

But what does this rapid adoption of new technology mean for information? More importantly, misinformation. Just as easily accessible as our technology is, public information — fact-based, misinformed, “fake news” — is just as easily accessible on those devices. 

Remembering we have a right to free speech, and understanding that with this comes false information online, can help us be better informed citizens when discerning real news and information from the fake.

In case you do not care to read the entire article, the key to being an informed citizen in the age of misinformation is to understand that much of the content you view online is fed to you by a digital algorithm. The algorithm takes into account the things you already seem to know or care about based on your searches, and feeds you information and sources that will confirm that. This phenomena is known as confirmation bias.

You must consider both sides to every story in order to make an informed decision — look past the confirmation bias!

Every time you press the “enable cookies” button when you visit a new website, you are allowing the data analysts at that company to track your movements online to deliver personalized advertisements to you on different websites later.  

There are people behind every social media platform, as described in Sang Kim’s article for the Georgetown Technology Law Review. Computer engineers, data scientists and analysts all control a data algorithm and have the power to amplify or diminish how much we see certain content—especially based on your existing digital preferences (through your cookies). 

Have you ever thought about why search suggestions appear when you click or tap on the search bar of your device?

Not only do different websites track your browsing history online, but your search engine does as well. Sometimes this occurs even down to a single letter.

Go on your computer’s search engine and type every letter of the alphabet one by one. For every letter of the alphabet, a website you visit consistently starting with that letter will auto fill the search bar.  

Based on this algorithm determining what site you will visit next, most of what we see online is going to be confirming our beliefs instead of challenging them.

If information about the websites we spend the most time on is tracked, ads for those websites are shown on other webpages. And if not for those exact websites, then similar companies or brands.  

The most harmless version of this confirmation bias is online shopping. The stores you browse online the most have most likely been advertised to you on a different website.  

For example, I bought a dress from Reformation yesterday, and now the ten different advertisements displayed on Easybib.com are either for Reformation, other clothing brands or sustainable products.  

Because Reformation is a popular sustainable fashion brand, an algorithm determined that based on my history shopping at Reformation, and similar online searches for sustainable deodorant, that the advertisements I was offered would appeal to me. They confirmed what I already knew – that I support sustainable brands by purchasing from them online.  

The more harmful version of this confirmation bias is with news online. After the first time you click on one of the many and incredibly random news stories on the homepage of Bing when you first open the search engine, you will see ads for other news stories on that news platform or other platforms with similar views.  

This becomes dangerous when political views or affiliations are dictated by our search history (i.e., searches of pro-life bumper sticker versus how to donate to Planned Parenthood) and overshadow neutral news by catering to our preconceived beliefs. How are people — especially impressionable people like your five-year-old cousin — supposed to make informed decisions about current events and issues if the only content they see or is advertised to them online confirms what they already believe?  

Understanding how the information in front of you came to be and that your digital footprint probably influenced its advertisement to you is important in overcoming this confirmation bias. Understanding and then acknowledging the opposing side of the argument, considering multiple, opposing sources on the same topic and then forming an opinion is crucial in being an informed citizen.