Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Why do we trust the media so much?

Suppose you read an article in a big-name reputable economics journal about a person who got lured into investing into a certain banking company, and who lost all of his money. The article goes on to say how the people at the banking company used manipulative tactics to lure this person to invest, and didn't warn him clearly enough of all the caveats and risks.

If you are a normal person, like everybody else, you'll just believe that article. After all, it's written in a reputable journal. They couldn't possibly make such a thing up. That would be way too egregious.

Except that kind of thing happens all the time. In fact, this particular example is based on an actual such article written in an actual journal about an actual banking company. It turns out that the person described in the article doesn't actually exist, and it's a complete distortion of what actually happened. Somewhere along the way somebody invented a fictitious person, full of fictitious details, and distortions of the actual situation, and succeeded in having an article published about it in a reputable journal of economics. (I do not know in this particular example whether the journalist was duped into believing a false story by a third party, or whether the journalist himself fabricated it. It is my understanding that the journalist was duped by someone else, but I can't be completely sure. He is, however, at least partially guilty in that he has not posted any sort of retraction.)

The online version of this article has many user-submitted comments. Not a single one expresses any skepticism. Every single person who commented on the article clearly believes it to be completely true, without even a shadow of a doubt.

I wish this kind of false story was extremely rare and unique. Unfortunately it's only the tip of an enormous iceberg. All kinds of journals and newspapers publish constantly fabricated and/or distorted stories. It has become so bad that if an article deals with politics, social issues, economy, education, and often even scientific studies, it's actually safer to assume that it's completely false, or a complete distortion, than to assume it's true.

In later years the knowledge of this has become more and more public knowledge. Distrust in the media has increased rapidly. Yet, despite of this, we still tend to believe the media, and lack healthy skepticism. We still have an instinct to believe something written or said by a "reputable" news organization. Surely the biggest newspaper of TV news channel wouldn't fabricate or distort stories? Surely they wouldn't be so bold as to publish a complete lie?

Yet they all do it. It's much rarer to find a newspaper that always sticks to the truth and has strict journalistic ethics, than it is to find one, no matter how big it is, that has no qualms about sensationalizing things, or even making things up in order to promote a sociopolitical agenda.

Most news organizations embrace sensationalism and simply elide even the most superficial of fact checking. They will easily make big headlines and lengthy articles about things that the journalist stumbles across the internet, or read in other news sources, without doing any sort of fact checking. If a random blog somewhere claims that such-and-such scientific study shows such-and-such sensationalistic new result about some sociopolitical issue, news agencies will just copy it without even checking the original study (assuming it even exists).

And a good majority of news organizations are even more nefarious than that, and don't shy away from outright writing pure propaganda, often for political purposes. We often don't want to believe it from the major news corporations, but it's just how it is.

And the sad thing is that it works. It works even for people who are more skeptical about the news media. We all have biases, and we all succumb to them. I have such biases. You have such biases, even if you want to believe you don't. It's something hard-wired into our brains, and those biases are extremely hard to overcome.

These biases work in both directions, making us not only be more ready to accept claims that we like, but also be overly critical of claims we don't like. These happen mostly with subjects we are very fond of, or have strong feelings about.

As said, I have these biases too, even though I try to fight them. For example, if I read an article that says, for instance, "new study shows that video games do not cause sexism", I will instinctively be less critical and skeptical of it, and instinctively want to believe it, without doing any further research. Conversely, if the article had said the opposite, "new study shows that video games do indeed cause sexism", I would be very tempted to dismiss it as bollocks and fake news, based in a faulty research, again without doing any further research.

And I do too often put too much trust in news organizations. When I read that article I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I automatically assumed that it was indeed talking about an actual real person, who had experienced such a thing. It didn't even cross my mind to doubt the article, and even the very existence of the person described in it.

I constantly find myself doing such things, being biased in one direction or another without proper research, and making assumptions about the veracity of what's claimed. Often I realize I have done that only afterwards. You probably do that as well, all the time, even if you think of yourself as a skeptical person who doesn't automatically believe things without proper evidence (or who is ready to accept a claim if enough valid evidence is provided).

Why is it so hard to be properly skeptical of claims made by news organizations and other similar "authorities"? Is it really hard-wired in our brains?

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