We need to remind ourselves of the potential bias of our information sources
By Janis McMath, Senior Columnist
Recently, Google executive Jen Gennai was accused by Project Veritas, a right-wing news organization, of implying that Google tampers with search results in relation to the American presidential election. on hidden camera saying, “Smaller companies who don’t have the same resources that we do will be charged with preventing the next Trump situation.” Whether the actual claim of tampering is true or not, this should serve as an important reminder to everyone who consumes media: There is a lot of politically motivated censorship and bias everywhere we obtain information.
Politically motivated censorship is by no means new and occurs on all ends of the political spectrum. We all need to remember that info suppliers are capable of “clipping” the truth before they give it to us, so we need to be responsible with who we trust to give us all of the information. Doing a simple search on search engines Google and DuckDuckGo—a search engine that does not build a user profile and does not employ personalized content filters—shows us the dramatic differences in what type of information we are offered and given access to. For example, when searching the phrase “Project Veritas” on Google and DuckDuckGo, the two search engines yield different results. The same variation across platforms occurs with many other search terms. This is just one example of how, if we aren’t smart about how we try to obtain information, our findings can be manipulated by the phenomenon of “filter bubbles.”
To clarify, I am not condemning sources for having a political bias. However, they should certainly be explicit in stating their bias if they have one. I believe that it is the public’s responsibility to be consuming news from of more than one side. Taking in just one side’s story is a recipe for disaster since it promotes a narrow perspective.
It doesn’t make sense to only read articles from one political perspective. Even if you have a political bias, you should read the other side to ensure that you comprehend the whole picture, since the opposite side will present a different narrative. If you don’t know what the opposite side’s arguments are, how can you be certain yours are better? Being well-informed of both sides only enhances the strength of your political arguments. Since information sources are almost invariably biased, they will include different information, emphasize different points, and focus on different details. Because of this we need to understand all sides, and by doing so we can avoid a common type of censorship: The lie of omission.
The lie of omission occurs when one deliberately leaves out certain details to skew the full truth. For example, with the Project Veritas situation and Google, right-wing news sources omit the fact that, according to other outlets including The Daily Beast, Gennai claimed that the video captured without her consent was selectively edited and her imprecise language was taken out of context. (The Daily Beast describes itself as “non-partisan but not neutral” and states it “do[es] not defend any particular political party or ideology.”) Project Veritas’ article also failed to mention that Gennai thought she was speaking to a group of people who were interested in a “mentoring program for young women of color in tech,” as she explained in her post on Medium. These are very convenient lies of omission committed by the right-wing articles.
However, left-wing outlets aren’t innocent of omission either. These publications often fail to acknowledge the accusations of “algorithmic unfairness” made by conservative sites like The American Spectator. According to supposed leaked confidential Google documents, Google skews results around algorithmic unfairness, which the documents define as “unjust or prejudicial treatment of people that is related to sensitive characteristics such as race, income, sexual orientation, or gender, through algorithmic systems or algorithmically aided decision-making.” The example given is that if a Google image search for “CEOs” yielded mostly photos of men, that would be algorithm unfairness even if it were accurate and based on statistical evidence that more men than women are CEOS because that “would reinforce a stereotype about women in leadership positions.” This accusation of algorithmic unfairness is a huge claim and a clear lie of omission considering how important this information is in making an informed decision about whether or not Google’s search results are potentially politically biased.
Anytime we are consuming information, we need to remember that we might not have the whole picture. We need to avoid letting political censorship in media misinform us of the entire scope. This is a dangerous road to polarization. Thankfully, there are many resources that can help us avoid this.
I personally believe that everyone should be using resources like AllSides.com, a website that states its mission as: “One-sided news and technology divide us. Dangerous polarization prevents us from solving problems. AllSides works to change that.” The website offers media bias ratings for nearly 600 media outlets and writers. The ratings are “based on blind surveys of people across the political spectrum, multi-partisan analysis, editorial reviews, third party data, and tens of thousands of user feedback ratings.” The website lists popular news stories and offers three sources for each story, each source from a different political bias: Left, centre, and right. I believe that resources like these are incredibly important to understanding all the details of a story and that all readers have a responsibility to use these resources. Another tool I use is the site Mediabiasfactcheck.com where you can search certain media outlets to find whether that outlet has a reputation for a particular political bias.
We are always telling children in our society to think critically, yet are we actually encouraging these habits with our own actions? We need to ensure we are always digesting new information discerningly, and since that requires knowing all the information, we need to ensure that everyone knows how to get all the facts. Censorship is a direct threat to productive critical thinking, and we all need to make the effort to combat it by educating ourselves.