You can’t always believe what you read, the old saying goes but in the modern world it might be more accurate to say many only read what they want to believe.
The widespread shock and incredulity following the US presidential election of Donald Trump, not the least in substantial sections of US and world media, indicates that many people are viewing the world through a selective lens that focuses on what they want to see and filters out what they don’t.
Mia Freedman, founder of MamaMia and a high profile media identity, admitted after the election that she had been living in a bubble.
“Every single one of my Facebook friends opposes Trump, is appalled by him,” she wrote.
“Throughout this campaign, I’ve sought out media that supports my view of the world: tolerant, in favour of equality and progressive.”
She was describing what psychologists might call confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out, more readily accept and place importance on information that conforms to previously held beliefs, which in her case led her to believe that surely there could only be a minority of Trump supporters.
Recognising that for those who get most, or all, of their news via a Facebook feed there is an inbuilt danger of only seeing things that confirm what you already think the Guardian recently got 10 people in the US, five from the conservative right side of politics and five from the left, to swap their feeds and see how the other half browses.
While viewing the news and opinion favoured by those of a differing worldview did not ultimately convert any of those who took part, although one non-committed but likely Trump backer decided not to vote for him , it did open many participants’ eyes to how much of an echo chamber they were inhabiting.
A danger of this, as recognised by the Oxford Dictionaries’ naming of “post-truth” as its word of the year, is that false stories and information are increasingly being circulated by those inclined to believe them.
It even throws into doubt the prospect of every truly having a broader conversation across political lines, when those camped either side are only interested in talking amongst themselves rather than to each other.
Do you recognise confirmation bias in your own media and social media use? Should we be making more of an effort to challenge our preconceptions?
Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr