You Won't Be Better Informed By Following News Media

I cannot reliably remember headlines and breaking news stories from a year ago, let alone last week. Unless the story was encoded as a “flashbulb” memory.

We all have certain memories that we can recall as though they just happened a moment ago.

Flashbulb memory - “a vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event, often including such details as where the individual was or what he or she was doing at the time of the event. People often believe that such memories have the quality of a photograph taken at the moment they experienced the event, and they believe with high confidence that these memories are accurate. However, recent research has shown that although flashbulb memories are more likely to be retained than the memory of an everyday event, they are not always accurate.”

American Psychological Association

It gets lost in the dustbin of my unrecallable memories. Like many, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the World Trade Center’s twin towers were struck by planes piloted by terrorists. I was working at Jacuzzi Canada’s call centre and my co-worker Cynthia got off the phone and informed us of both the first plane strike, then the second plane strike. The first strike I felt sympathy for the passengers aboard. The next strike I feared we were under attack.

Weeks after 9/11, endless loops of the World Trade Centre implosion and plane crash would replay, prevent wounds from healing.

When Princess Diana died in a car crash while trying to flee paparazzi, I was at home in my parent’s kitchen and heard the tv in the next room over make the sullen announcement. I never paid much attention to the stories surrounding her but at that moment I recalled all the good she tried to do for humanity through her charity work.

Last week, the world held its breath while Russia was on the verge of a coup d’etat initiated by The Wagner Group, a company of 50,000+ private military mercenaries and today there is no mention of them in the main headlines where I live in Canada. This event was high stakes. The trajectory of world events would have been altered. Today, barely a peep. Instead we have headlines of nuclear disaster warning in Ukraine as staff is ordered to leave Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, affirmative action admissions for post secondary schools in the United States. Unless the Ukrainian nuclear station is attacked, I’m unlikely to remember these headlines a month from now.

The Rise of Alternative And Independent Media

Anyone can start a media company this moment. The barriers to entry are almost non-existent. A smartphone and internet connection and you can broadcast to a global audience. Understand the fundamentals of psychology and you have virality. Legacy media’s influence has waned in the last decade while twitter, facebook, youtube, instagram, podcasts, medium and others have risen. Popularity is democratic. Access to audience is no longer dictated by large corporations or state organs purchasing airtime. Enter the cult of personality and content creators.

Since audiences are available to anyone and everyone, accuracy of information has become an epidemic where everyone has an opinion and entertainment is rewarded over accuracy and rigor.

Since the buildup to the 2016 United States federal election, the term “fake news” has become part of our lexicon and signaled growing distrust in the messaging and programs of the established media. We were told stories Russian interference to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. We heard that Hillary Clinton used a private server for her official public communication rather than official state email accounts maintained on federal servers where security risks of classified documents was a concern. Depending on one’s political compass determined where one got their daily dose of controversy from.

In 2020 the world watched footage of entire cities on lockdown from the threat of a cataclysmic virus that was reported to be the next biblical plague. Wild conspiracies circulated as to the origins of COVID19. Was it the Wuhan wet market? Was the Wuhan Lab funded by Chief Medical Officer Anthony Fauci and the US government? Designed by Bill Gates or Klaus Schwab? Was this a “Plandemic” to cull the population masterminded by the World Economic Forum? Was this a harmless virus that mutated and spread to humans with lethal effects?

Loss of Faith In Government And Experts

Remember the United States’ “War on Terror”? In 2003, as a progression of the United States’ “War on Terror”, President George W. Bush spearheaded a campaign for war in Iraq citing possession of weapons of mass destruction as main justification for invasion. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invited United Nations weapons inspectors to see for themselves that they were not developing nuclear weapons or threatening to destabilize the region by stock piling arms. After testimonials from Iraqi nuclear scientists, proclamations from General Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice assuring the public that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons despite his protests of the opposite the US and its coalition moved forward with Operation Iraqi Freedom to liberate the people of Iraq. To this day little damning evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program was found. Not enough to justify the deposing and capital punishment of Saddam Hussein. Iraq has been in turmoil ever since.

At the end of 2020, COVID19 vaccines given government approval were launched and campaigns used nuclear grade social pressure to have vaccines accepted and administered. This caused a major rift in the population and people’s personal and familial relationships. There were many who believed the vaccines were launched too soon to the population with the US government’s rollout aptly named “Operation Warp Speed” emphasizing the speed of the development and administration of the vaccines. Others feared that by not taking the vaccines that they would inadvertently kill immunocompromised people and didn’t want that weighing on their conscience.  

Many felt unsure what to believe. The reported vaccine effectiveness and mortality rate of the unvaccinated kept changing leaving many not know where to put their trust, where and whom to look for guidance. Were we oversold on the effectiveness of the vaccine so corporations and bad actors could line their pockets? Were the vaccine launches a success? Did they help prevent the deaths and harm they were intended to?

Perceptions Affected By Cognitive Biases

We all fall victim to the same blind spots in our thinking. Even Daniel Kahneman, considered the grandfather of cognitive biases, still falls for them. With awareness of cognitive biases (thinking and judgment that are influenced by automatic and unconscious mental shortcuts or distortions, leading to errors in reasoning and decision-making) we can reduce but not eliminate these errors in thinking.

Recency Bias - Refers to the tendency of individuals to give more importance or weight to recent events or information when making judgments or decisions, while neglecting or underestimating the significance of past events or information.

Bandwagon Bias - Bandwagon bias, also known as the bandwagon effect or the appeal to popularity, refers to a cognitive bias where individuals are influenced by the beliefs or actions of a large group of people. It occurs when someone adopts a particular opinion, behavior, or belief simply because it is popular or widely accepted, rather than based on their own independent judgment or critical evaluation.

Confirmation Bias - Cognitive bias that involves the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a common human tendency to seek out information that aligns with our existing views and to downplay or ignore information that contradicts them.

When someone experiences confirmation bias, they tend to selectively perceive or remember information that confirms what they already believe, while disregarding or dismissing information that challenges or contradicts their beliefs. This bias can lead to the reinforcement and strengthening of existing beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence.

The Clustering Illusion - Cognitive bias that leads individuals to perceive patterns or clusters in random or unrelated data. It occurs when people mistakenly perceive meaningful connections or structures in sets of data points, even when there is no statistical or logical basis for such patterns.

Base Rate Error - Also known as Base Rate Neglect, occurs when people overlook or underestimate the general probability or frequency of something happening and instead give more weight to specific details or personal information.

Example of base rate error would be imagine a company has 100 employees, with 70 of them being engineers and 30 being lawyers. Now, let's say you have a friend who works at this company, and they tell you about a person named John. They describe John as being very detail-oriented, organized, and methodical in their work.

Based on this description, you might assume that John is likely an engineer because these traits are commonly associated with engineering roles. However, if you overlook the base rate (the proportion of engineers to lawyers in the company), you would fail to consider that there are significantly more engineers than lawyers in the company overall. Consequently, even though John possesses certain engineering-related qualities, there's still a higher chance that he is a lawyer simply due to the higher number of engineers in the company.

Outcome Bias - Refers to the tendency to evaluate the quality of a decision or action based on its outcome, rather than considering the decision process or the information available at the time the decision was made. It means judging the decision as good or bad solely based on the end result, without adequately considering the factors that were within the decision-maker's control or the level of uncertainty involved.

Survivorship Bias - Cognitive bias that occurs when we focus on the individuals or things that have "survived" a particular process or selection, while ignoring those that did not. It involves drawing conclusions based only on the successful or surviving examples, which can lead to a skewed understanding of the overall picture or the factors that contributed to success.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of cognitive biases that even the most educated among us fall prey to. We can see from this list how our perceptions can be altered or mislead from faults in how we interpret or report data.

Breaking News & Historical Context

Write of Passage founder and twitter personality David Perell sums up our tendency to consume news and information heavily weighted in the present moment at the expense of historical context.

By heavily weighting our information diet for the present moment, we miss out on the chain of events and influences that led to the present outcomes. By reading different perspectives on history, psychology, religion and philosophy, we can gain deeper insights on the drivers of our present conditions.