Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Why it’s ok to get your news through people who share your beliefs

[2b2k] Why it’s ok to get your news through people who share your beliefs

I was steeling myself a couple of days ago to say something in a talk that believe but don’t want to: We shouldn’t feel guilty about relying on sources with whom we agree to contextualize breaking news. It’s ok. It’s even rational.

For example, if the Supreme Court hands down a ruling I don’t understand, or the FCC issues a policy that sounds like goobledygook to my ears, I turn to sites whose politics I basically agree with. On the one hand, I know that that’s wrong on echo chamber grounds: I’m getting reconfirmed in beliefs that I instead should be challenging. On the other hand, if I want to understand a new finding in evolutionary biology I’m not going to go to a creationist site, and if I want to understand the implications of a change in Obamacare, I’m not going to go to a Tea Party site. [Hint: I'm a liberal.] Oh, I might go afterwards to see what Those Folks are thinking, but to understand something, I’m going to go first to people with whom I basically agree.

Unfortunately, saying that in my talk meant I’d have to acknowledge that if I can to go to, say, DailyKos for primary contextualization, then it’s fine for right-wingers go to Fox News. Then I was going to have to explain how Fox and DailyKos are not truly equivalent, since Kos acknowledges facts that are unpleasant for their beliefs, and because Kos allows lots and lots of community participation. But that’s a distraction: If it’s ok for me to go to a lefty site to contextualize my news, it’s ok for you to go to your righty site. That feels wrong to me, and not only because I think right sites are wrong.

I finally realized that I’ m using the wrong sort of sites for my example. I do feel queasy about recommending that people get news interpreted for them by going to sites that operate in the broadcast mode. Fox News is like that. So are Slate and Salon, although to a lesser extent because they allow comments and because they present themselves as opinion sites, not news sites. Kos much less so because of the prominence of blogs and community. But I have no bad feelings whatsoever about taking my questions about the news to my social networks.

Because I’m old, much of social networking occurs on mailing lists. Some of the lists are based on topic, and contain people who broadly agree, but who disagree about most of the particulars; that’s what conversations are for. For example, a couple of the lists I’m on this morning are talking about what it would mean if Tom Wheeler [someone give that man a Wikipedia page!] were appointed as Chair of the FCC as seems increasingly likely. Tom comes out of the cable TV industry, which raises suspicions on my side of the swimming pool. So there has been an active set of discussions on my mailing lists among people who know much more than I do. The opinions range from he’s likely to be relatively centrist (although veering to the wrong side, where “wrong” is generally agreed upon by the list) to he’s never once stood up for users or for increasing competition and openness. Along the way, people have pointed out the occasional good point about him, although overall the tenor is negative and depressed.

Now, do I need to hear from the cable and telecoms industry about what a wonderful choice Tom would be? Sure, at some point. I even need to have my more fundamental views challenged. At some point. But not when I’m trying to find out about who this Tom Wheeler guy is. If we take understanding as a tool used for a purpose, it becomes a wildly inefficient tool — a hammer that’s all handle — if we have to go back to first principles in order to understand anything. Understanding is an efficient tool because it’s incremental: Given that I favor a wildly open Internet and given that I favor achieving this via vigorous competition, then what should I make of a Tom Wheeler FCC chairmanship? That’s my question this morning, not whether an wildly open Internet is a good thing and not whether the best way to achieve this is by increasing competition. Those are fine questions for another morning, but if I have to ask those questions every time I hear something about the FCC, then understanding has failed at its job.

So, I don’t feel bad about consulting my social network for help understanding the news.

And now, like the fine print in an offer that’s too good to be true, here are the caveats: My social networks may not be typical. Some types of news need more fundamental challenge than others. Reliance exclusively on social networks for news may put you into an impenetrable filter bubble. I acknowledge the risks, but given the situatedness of understanding, every act of interpretation is risky.

And yet there is something right in what I’m saying. I know this because going to “opposition” sites to understand the meaning of particular FCC appointments would require me to uncertainly translate out of their own unstated assumptions, and sites that try for objectivity don’t have the nuanced conversations enabled by shared, unstated assumptions. So, there is something right in what I’m saying, as well as risk and wrongness.

9 Responses to “[2b2k] Why it’s ok to get your news through people who share your beliefs”

  1. [...] Why it’s ok to get your news through people who share your beliefs [...]

  2. David,

    First of all, I own your book, Too Big to Know. I put it right up there with several other contemporary classics, like Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman) Here Comes Everybody (Shirky), and The Black Swan (Taleb).

    That being said, when I ran across your Twitter entry and then this blog, it struck a note with me. I’m a contrarian chameleon. I start from the assumption that all information sources are biased, and partake of some at different points in the spectrum, fallaciously trying to confirm my biased assumption.

    Naturally, if I read Huffington, it’s likely that I’ll get a completely different mindset from the folks at Fox. Knowing where the two examples here come from helps me to recognize bias in both sources, and to separate fact from opinion from bias from spin. I’ve found that by refusing to hold either in much respect, I can more fallaciously form an unbiased and fence-sitting viewpoint.

    Though I’m (hopefully) not as old as you(!) , my years of experience here in the South have shown me that everyone’s opinion is much like their taste in food, that is, sacrosanct. I’ve run into just as many biased South Disparagers as I have biased southerners. Nine times out of ten the bias is a result of limited experience and excessive assumptions.

    Every once in awhile, someone comes along who is both intelligent (easy to find) and honest (much harder to find) about their assumptions and biases. Fortunately for me, most of you write books.

  3. I read this post and then I read a ‘favorite quotation” on a friend’s FaceBook page. The quote seemed germane, so I’ll reproduce it here:

    “We all dance around the circle and suppose. The secret sits in the middle and knows.” Robert Frost

    The more I re-read that bit from Frost, the less I understand it, but as a hobby-horse epistemologist, I like it all the same, personification of “the secret” notwithstanding.

  4. David, I know it doesn’t do any good for me to write stuff like this, but I deeply disagree with your post here. And think it’s part (an extremely small part) of some extremely dangerous trends. It has to do, broadly, with the philosophical argument with whether truth is “subjective” (what people believe) or “objective” (exists as independent). Obviously this is a big topic, it’s not 100% on either side, etc. etc. – we can take that as stipulated. But, going past that disclaimer, for the sake of saying anything in particular, I see your article as a pushing from what should be striving for the “objective”, into the “subjective”.

    Eh, I’ll end with that, on risk/reward basis.

  5. David, we’ve already seen from your past writings that you live and work in Google’s corporate echo chamber, so it’s no surprise that you wish to contextualize all current and possible future events in ways that suit Google. Rather sad.

  6. Brett, this doesn’t have anything to do with Google per se. There’s nothing to prevent a hypothetical person who was a telecom shill from having a similar view. Indeed, it comes back to a question put classically by a Roman Empire shill, Pilate’s “What Is Truth?”.

    [Must restrain snark, risk/reward, reward/risk, no benefit from it ...]

  7. David,

    Your post seems plausible to me, especially if we examine what prima facie seems like a less controversial assertion: It’s OK to get your news from _familiar_ sources. When poked at, however, this seemingly innocuous assertion raises a set of inter-related, causal questions including, but not limited to the following:

    (1) Did I let source (x) become a part of my go-to set of sources because I liked what source (x) had to say in terms of matching up with beliefs I already held?

    (2) Did some other feature of source (x) cause me to frequent it more often than others? For example: source (x) uses syntax familiar to me because it is similar to that which is used by source (y). But sources (x) and (y) relay content from disciplines which do not have any crossover.

    The result of (2) may have caused me to develop new beliefs, or discover less reflected-upon beliefs.

    If I may risk over-interpreting your post, I take you to be espousing something similar to Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. All along, the concept of inauthentic gerede is contextualized according to the assumption that there is an opposing concept: namely, authentic discourse. Of course, SZ doesn’t follow that trajectory, and instead asserts that we can have only inauthentic gerede; there is no other possibility, much less an authentic alternative.

    We can resist becoming extremely troubled by the content of your post if we acknowledged that what it means for source (x) to relay “true” information is much more complicated than a simple true-false binary. This does not mean, however, that we cannot evaluate the credibility of sources, or that we cannot judge some sources to be better than others. Your repudiating social media sources for gathering news is one example of this.

    In sum, our beliefs are not the result of collating bits of “raw” data; there is no raw data. So long as we have available some standard to follow in order to, at some point, measure the success or value of one standard to another, then there is no real reason to decry keeping your set of sources close to home. None of us operates in a vacuum, so this doesn’t necessitate that consulting familiar will result in a perpetuation of unreflective thought. (In fact, the more sources we have at our fingertips–the more information and possibilities we have–the less afraid I am at making such statements.)

    Please ignore this if I’ve been too incautious with my interpretation. At any rate, I think there is merit to what you are offering here.

    There’s a Heideggerian in all of us, deep down.


  8. I wrote my last message in haste and made a pretty critical error:

    “Your repudiating social media sources for gathering news is one example of this” should read “Your repudiating SOME social media sources…”

    Also, I want to stress that my comment is not supposed to be endorsing some sort of subjectivist view. While we are constantly interpreting, there are certainly some methods that are more sound than others, even if our foundation for these judgments cannot be called “true” in the strict sense that many use the term (esp. when discussing which news sources are better than others).

    So, if a source allows you to engage with others who are familiar with the same terminology as you and the general course for parsing the information at hand, then this facilitates discussion and can lead to a richer understanding of the topic at hand. This gets more complicated the more sources we consult and allow to enter into our go-to set. There are repercussions, but there are also rewards — as you mentioned in your original post.

  9. That’s an innguioes way of thinking about it.

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