16 September 2021

Social media really does amplify bias

The Back Page

Social media platforms have a lot to answer for.

Take the rise of the social media “influencer” for starters. Your ageing correspondent has been informed that being an influencer is now considered a “proper job”.

But that’s relatively harmless; it is the echo chamber effect of Facebook and friends which amplifies conspiracy theories and other harmful and hurtful beliefs that needs to be called to account, IOHO.

Don’t just take our word for it that social media is terrible.

Research recently published the Journal of the European Economic Association shows that people really do tend to listen to people who tell them things they’d like to believe and ignore those who tell them stuff they would prefer not to be true.

The research paper, called “Social Exchange of Motivated Beliefs”, says this results in like-minded people tending to make one another more biased when they exchange beliefs with one another. 

This phenomenon is called “motivated believing” and goes as long way to explaining how events such as stock market bubbles and invasions of the White House occur.  

To measure and analyse how motivated believing works, researchers paired subjects based on their score on an IQ test such that both members either both had scores above the median or both had scores below the median. The subjects then exchanged beliefs concerning a proposition both wanted to believe was true.

In a nutshell, what the researchers found was people selectively attributed higher informational value to social signals that reinforced their pre-existing motivation to believe, resulting in bias amplification.

“This experiment supports a lot of popular suspicions about why biased beliefs might be getting worse in the age of the internet,” Ryan Oprea, one of the paper’s authors, told media.

“We now get a lot of information from social media and we don’t know much about the quality of the information we’re getting. As a result, we’re often forced to decide for ourselves how accurate various opinions and sources of information are and how much stock to put in them.  

“Our results suggest that people resolve this quandary by assigning credibility to sources that are telling us what we’d like to hear and this can make biases due to motivated reasoning a lot worse over time.”

See! We told you so! But then we would say that, wouldn’t we …

If you see something that reinforces our existing beliefs, send it to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.  

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