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COMM 200 4: Media Literacy and Analysis

Bias and Information

Most people have at least some idea of what bias is. That said, for simplicity, we'll start with a definition for this class: Bias is a prejudice either for or against a particular point-of-view. While there are many other ways bias can present itself (such as bias against a particular group of people, or bias towards family), we will be talking about bias in terms of information.

Even within that limited framework, bias can present itself in many different ways. In general, we are concerned with the way our brain tricks us to misinterpret the world around us. These "flaws" are largely biological responses that allows us to function in a complex world.

There are hundreds of different types of cognitive biases but for our information literacy purposes, there are a handful that we need to understand.

The Decision Lab does a wonderful job at introducing all of the complexities of Cognitive bias.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is one of the most common types of biases. Simply put, confirmation bias states that we tend to trust information that supports our beliefs, and discount information that disagrees with those beliefs.

Evaluating information can be tricky, and it takes time. Confirmation bias is our brain's way of creating a shortcut. Because, our brain suggests, we have already done the work of evaluating the underlying belief, it does not need to reevaluate it every time new information pops up. If it agrees with our initial evaluation it must be true; if it disagrees, we already know it is false.

For example: In 2019, the New York Times launched 'The 1619 Project'. In it, they challenged America's founding mythology. The information they provided was (mostly) factual and well-researched, supported by experts in American history. However, President Trump argued that it was 'teaching people to hate America' and 'spreading lies' because it went against what he believed. This is a form of confirmation bias. Rather than examine the new information on its own merits, he dismissed it entirely because it contradicted what he already believed.

If you find yourself having an emotional reaction to a piece of information, question that. Why do you feel that way? What belief is it challenging? Recognizing that you are having an emotional reaction to the information is the first step in overcoming your confirmation bias.

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias is something that affects all of us in one way or another. It states that we tend to believe the first thing that we learn about a given topic. Our brains often default to a set of simple, original ideas, instinctively dismissing information that contradicts those ideas. First impressions really are everything.

We often see anchoring bias pop up when people are arguing, for instance, against transgender rights. A common refrain that anti-transgender activists will say is, "There are only two genders. That's just third grade science!" What they are saying there is that they learned as children that there are boys and there are girls, and they refuse to accept new information that may suggest that gender is socially constructed, no matter how scientifically supported that idea is.

If you ever find yourself citing information you received as a child, or rejecting new data in favor of old, stop yourself. Do you have a good reason for rejecting the new information? Or are you merely uncomfortable accepting that the old information may be wrong, or at least incomplete?

Bandwagon Effect

The Bandwagon Effect is closely tied to the Illusory Truth Effect. It states that we have a habit of adopting a belief because others, particularly people with whom we are close, also believe it. This is another way our brain copes with the massive amount of information we subject it to: If other people I respect believe this, they must have a good reason. We want to be part of the 'right' group.

One recent story about the Bandwagon Effect involved GameStop and the stock market. Initially, GameStop's stock started to rise because it may have been genuinely undervalued. However, as the story spread online, more and more people started to agree: It IS undervalued. Despite the fact that it is a struggling business in an industry rapidly transitioning to digital sales and streaming, its stock price jumped 4,000%. Had the business become 4,000% better? No. Instead, people were jumping on the bandwagon.

If everyone around you agrees with what you are saying, stop and ask yourself: Why did I start believing this? Is it because I learned something true, or is it because I was trying to fit in? If you find yourself in an echo chamber, it might just be because of the Bandwagon Effect.

Algorithm Bias

As you search Google, or scroll through your Facebook feed, liking pictures and articles, these sites are presenting you with this information according to mathematical equations. These equations are generally based on a combination of the quality of the content and your previous actions and reactions to similar content. Algorithms are the set of mathematical equations that each site has coded to help maintain the order of content and what advertisements individuals see.


It is important to note that every algorithm is different and they are constantly changing. Facebook will prioritize different factors than Google or Instagram. These companies keep the specific configurations a tightly held secret but will periodically publish major changes to the priorities of their algorithms. To see the specifics of different social media sites (in 2018) see this article from the Prosper for Purpose blog.  If you are interested in staying up to date with the changes that Facebook is making to their algorithm, check out the official Facebook Blog.