Perceptions

“If those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television – can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.”

I’ve shared these words of Howard Zinn’s before along with the Weapons of Mass Communication image, but it bears repeating once again as we grapple with increasingly divisive interpretations of the facts.

I’ve also previously shared this wonderful Wall Street Journal look at a ‘typical’ liberal vs conservative Facebook feeds. The link is kept current (so the content changes with events), and covers several hot button topics. If you haven’t seen it before – and even if you have – I urge you to take a look. It shows how the presentation of information skews our perception of it. Recognizing that reality, understanding it, and taking steps to broaden our information sources to include opposing views – and to avoid the inflammatory ‘click bait’ headlines will take us a long way in our quest to heal the divisions in this country.

When we realize that our innate tendencies toward confirmation bias are precisely why we we get caught up in feeling angry that the other side (whichever side you are on) fails to be upset by something, or seem not to care about an issue that we deem critical, and we recognize that those with opposing views share that same tendency, we can begin to work on bridging the divides. We may not always succeed, but we can begin to see that sometimes we are as ill-informed about a given topic as others are about a different one.

I’ve lamented before – and surely will again – that the Information Age has, in many respects, made things much harder for us. Yes, communication has vastly improved, and the speed of communication, and the ease of communication, has helped shrink the world, and has exposed us to more socially, culturally, commercially. But it has not been without some pitfalls. That same speed of communication, that same ease, has broadened the reach of misinformation – both intentionally (as with lies and conspiracy theories) and sometimes just prematurely disseminated (as when the press initially incorrectly reports information in a disaster). And digital information, once it is has been disseminated, can never be fully retracted or corrected. “Fake” news and conspiracy theories now reach more people than ever before – and that’s not a particularly good thing.

And the fact that information lives forever is sometimes used a a manipulation tool. A recent example that comes to mind in Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and currently one of his senior advisors (and frequent spokesperson), Kellyanne Conway. A couple of weeks ago, she referred to factually incorrect statements made by White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, as “alternative facts” – which is about as Orwellian as you can get, and is hard to classify as anything other than a poor attempt at spin from a very intelligent woman. The other day, she did something slightly different – she referred to the media not reporting the Bowling Green Massacre during a speech defending the president’s executive order on immigration while lamenting all of the negative press attention it was getting. Of course there was never a massacre in Bowling Green, nor was there any indication that one was even contemplated. What had happened was that two Iraqi nationals were arrested in Bowling Green in an anti-terrrorism sting for intending to send funds and weapons to Al Qaeda in Iraq to use overseas. They were subsequently convicted and are in prison. Ms. Conway, after much ado about her speech, said that she’d misspoken and intended to say Bowling Green terrorists (and that the speech itself was a wonderful speech). The thing is, I don’t think she made a mistake. I don’t think she makes many mistakes at all. She knows full well that her initial words, the ones that matter for a subset of Donald Trump’s supporters, will live on. And that those same supporters are not troubled by “alternative facts” because they do not trust the factual facts that they hear.

There is a popular line “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts”.  And while certainly true, I suspect that we tend to forget that opinions are formed, in part, by the way that facts are presented – humans, by and large, are not really objective perceivers of reality. So while ‘facts’ are always going to be facts, the ‘truth’ about those facts and what they represent may not always be what we think they are – especially when we only hear information sources that confirm our own biases. Our lives are not always lived with the rigor of scientific testing to support our perceptions of reality.

All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Image borrowed from “Master in Mass Communication” – article on Priming Theory.

 

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