2. Selection Bias

  • img SM Syano Musyimi
  • POSTED ON 08 Nov 2018


I consider this to be the greatest impact that mass media has on its readers – the power to choose what others can know. Ironically, selection bias is the most innocent and unavoidable type of misguidance, but probably the most influential. No one company (news or otherwise) can inform us about everything, and so they have to choose what to broadcast. These institutions constantly have to answer the question ‘How important is this information?’ This will automatically depend on the producers’ values and judgement. So even the best-intentioned producer of mass information still must, by necessity, exercise the power of declaring one item of information to be more important than another.

Now we ask what dictates their final choice. Here is where incentives come into play. Many times the incentive is financial. What will get more traffic? Intrigue, scandal, gossip, conspiracy – these sell far more than facts, and so news producers have every incentive to publish any hint of these types of information when they can.

This become dangerous when instead of asking ‘How important is this information?’, the producers of information ask themselves ‘What should society know or not know about this or that?’, or to rephrase ‘What do I want society to know or not know?’. If you’re on the left wing would you be interested in knowing something good that Trump did or something bad about him? If you’re on the right wing would you be interested in learning his faults? If you have an anti-Catholic bias would you enjoy reading about the good this institution does, for the homeless for instance? If you were Catholic would you be interested in knowing how homosexuality is more genetic and completely out of the control of a person’s decision to orient their own sexuality? The answer to these questions is probably ‘no’, and so the sources of information are unlikely to publish what does not interest you. The question is, are they morally obliged to tell you what you may not prefer to know?

What happens to our opinions about Trump if all we hear is the bad or the good? What happens to our opinion of the Catholic church when all we hear about them is negative or positive? Recall the Brexit story I told in the previous section? What does a Remainer think of a Leaver if all the information they get about the Leave position is negative? What does a Leaver think about Remainers? Again, the consequence of this is MISTAKES; false perceptions; and eventually, we may even change our behaviour towards people of certain groups. In fact, that is why I believe the mainstream news is more toxic, and has more ability to split society, than fake news.

Introduce technology into the picture and the problem is exacerbated. For those who intend to read more broadly, algorithms in our search engines constantly feed us news that confirms our biases, solely to increase traffic on sites with certain content. It’s almost as if we have no choice but to see the world in a narrower way. It is such an irony about the mass information age –the more informed you are, the more narrow minded you're likely to be.

The same happens in movies, especially if they are historically based. They may depict certain aspects of events and people that uphold or denigrate certain identities without revealing everything that the audience needs to know in order to make a balanced judgement.

How do we address Selection Bias? The first thing to do is ask ourselves two questions when reading information, especially if it news – ‘Why do these people think I should know this?’, and ‘What have they left out?’ We may not know the answer to these questions, but they need to be asked. It opens our minds to be more receptive to facts and opinions that challenge us; it makes us genuine truth-seekers.

Platforms: Movies, News, TV Shows, Social Media