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Opinion: Confirmation bias and political polarization in the U.S.

Confirmation bias has harmful effects on the public's consumption of news in mainstream media and heavily contributes to political polarization in the U.S.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/hugochiasson23/" target="_self">Hugo Chiasson</a>

Hugo Chiasson

October 10, 2022
It’s not a very big leap to assert that most Americans would agree that the United States is divided right now. With more than 40% of Americans denying that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, how could we not be? The question at hand is not whether or not we are polarized, it’s how we got here and what we can do about it. 

Mainstream news media, from print journalism to televised news, has suffered a sharp decline in public trust in recent decades, both as a product of the rise of the Internet and public distrust in institutions. It is no longer the stalwart institution it used to be. Now, many citizens choose alternative sources of news such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the radio, etc.

This is primarily due to confirmation bias, or the tendency to search for or favor news that confirms one’s own existing values and beliefs. A prime example of confirmation bias is “The Rush Limbaugh Show, a conservative talk-radio show hosted by the late Rush Limbaugh, which first aired in 1984 and peaked in the ‘90s. His strategy was not to report the news, but to “[defeat], politically, people I disagree with… and I don’t think I defeat them by compromising with them,” as he shared with NPR back in 2007. His stance was an extreme representation of what often goes on in news media — limited reporting of facts that don’t agree with one’s own perspective.

In a 2008 article published in the Journal of Public Economics by Bernhardt and colleagues, the authors convey the economic reasons for and electoral effects of biased media. They found that “the fundamental reason for the inefficiency in electoral outcomes is that voters choose to listen to biased media. This effect is likely to be quite stable, even though the population as a whole would be better off if media reported unbiased news…The best option for society may be to foster a culture in which citizens appreciate learning about both sides of a political debate” (Bernhardt et al., 2008).

“[The] value of news for an individual citizen is primarily given by its entertainment value, and not by its informational value.” (Bernhardt et al., 2008)

Beyond the confirmation bias, there is another reason for polarization. Authors Sounman Hong and Sun Hyoung Kim published an article in 2016 about the capacity for social media, Twitter in particular, to polarize citizens in relation to government sourcing of information from social media. They said that “social media’s capacity for information personalization may contribute to heightened levels of extremism—thus further increasing online political polarization” (Hong et al. 2019).

The article demonstrates how the algorithmic personalization of social media sites like Twitter can create “echo chambers”, which further polarize the U.S voter base. This is an issue of money, similar to the shift towards bias in news media. Companies, in wanting to maximize profits, need to maintain a user’s attention. They do so by creating a constant stream of information, determined by an algorithm constructed based on personalized interest. That algorithm doesn’t necessarily have to push users to extremes or isolate them in an ideology, but it is more economically effective if it does so. America is a capitalist nation where profits are the goal for many, if not all, corporations. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that companies will not move towards more humane and conscious algorithms because they wouldn’t want to risk decreasing profits.

So what can be done? While some elements of confirmation bias are impossible to escape, we can take steps to support news media with minimal bias. A cultural shift toward viewing and utilizing non-profit news sources is an important way in which we can try and diminish the bias we see in the news. This may seem a futile effort, as if no one else wants to change their ways, but even a small shift in that direction would still be a step in the right one.

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