I Have a Hypothesis On How Your News is Politically Biased

On Saturday night I was on a rooftop, sipping beer #X, talking with a poor fellow who happened to mistakenly press one of my political buttons, and I went into full-power rant mode about political awareness. He was a smart guy, voted a certain way, and seemed kindof blissfully unaware of a whole lot of facts that would challenge his political position. I, uh... "educated" him on some of these. 

If you're reading this, friend, I'm sorry. And thanks for being... diplomatic. 

But I did learn something from it, and I have a new hypothesis I want to share and get peoples' thoughts on. It's about political bias.

I think the common narrative about political bias is this: if your news source is biased, they tell a story a certain way, or inject a lot of opinion into something. You might be thinking of talk radio or podcasts or online articles that are telling you quite obviously, "here's what you should think! So and so is terrible! Anyone that disagrees with me is an idiot!" That kind of stuff.

But you're probably pretty clever and you probably have some sense of when that's happening, even when it's people that you're prone to agree with. But I think the way that smart people develop political bias is more nuanced. 

What Narratives Haven't You Heard?

Let me tell you a narrative:

"An arrogant American president decides to topple an admittedly-terrible Middle Eastern dictator. Despite warnings that this would lead to a prolonged sectarian civil war and that about 200-500,000 people (depending on who's doing the counting) would unnecessarily die, the president decides to get involved, believing that the group he backs will embrace democracy with open arms and manage to take control of the country and generally make it a better place, especially considering that this dictator is gone. By the way, the dictator also definitely used chemical weapons on his own people and probably funds terrorists. Unfortunately, we mistakenly backed, funded, armed, and then strengthened terror groups in the meantime."

Which president did you think of? 

What if I told you that this narrative applies factually just as well to each of the last two American presidents? That it's a narrative that applies equally well to our forays into Iraq and Syria? 

I had gone on my rant when we were talking about Iraq. My hypothesis is that those playing for the Blue Team have heard the above narrative about Iraq and George Bush, but have heard a completely different, more benign narrative about Syria and Barack Obama. And I suspect there's going to be some emotional resistance to applying that narrative, in part because this has been going on for years and they haven't been exposed to it. 

Similarly, as much as people on the Red Team are really upset that Hillary Clinton used personal email servers as Secretary of State, they simply haven't heard that Colin Powell did the same thing. But similarly, I don't think Red Team people suddenly want to put Colin Powell in jail.

Arguing Different Stories

I think it's going to often be the case that each side is dealing with a different story. It may not always have contradictory facts, but it will have different sets of facts that the other side won't be exposed to.

Here's one, for example, I heard from the more Libertarian camp: "US poverty was in sharp decline until the War on Poverty began. As soon as it began, the poverty rate stabilized and never really dropped again." The implication of course is that the War on Poverty is, at best, not helping. 

Is it true? Here's the graph:

I suspect a lot of people who are keen on expanding access to welfare haven't heard this narrative at all, and haven't had the opportunity to crunch through the counter-intuitive idea that the War on Poverty may not be helping reduce poverty. 

The "War On" narratives are pretty good, because they can be contradictory. Let's take on the War on Drugs, and gun control. Imagine who might say these two lines:

  1. "If you make guns illegal, criminals will have just as much access to guns."
  2. "If you make drugs legal, everyone will start doing drugs!"

This may not be a contradiction in itself, as we're obviously dealing with different markets here, but it would take some explaining to reason that both of these are true. And then consider also the opposite-color person on the political spectrum, saying the opposite. 

I Think, for Smart People, Bias Is Curation

So there are people that just aren't smart, critical thinkers, able to get their own facts, etc. Let's ignore those folks for now.

But there are smart people, and I think they usually lead the way for others (or can, at least, be part of a swing vote group). So they matter. I know that smart, well-intentioned people disagree on politics. I also know that they are often boggled that other smart, well-intentioned people will disagree with them. In fact, I think the depth of their bogglement causes them to create a story in their heads that, "only idiots/bad people disagree with me."

But in our better moments we can stare this fact in the face, that smart people disagree with us, and just embrace our uncomfortable bogglement. What's driving it? 

I really think a lot of it comes down to curation. I've got a lot more research to do. But I think it's largely a matter of what facts and narratives you're exposed to that causes you to develop a political bias. So if you're exposed to our Middle Eastern war narrative about Bush/Iraq all the time, you're going to think one way; if you're exposed to it about Obama/Syria all the time, you'll think of it another. No wonder some people think that GW Bush should be in jail for war crimes, where other people think that Obama is criminally negligently responsible for the rise of ISIS. But many of us have had only one of these narratives--we just simply don't hear the other one at all.

I expect this goes all the way to our news media. What does HuffPost vs. Fox News put as its headline? What stories get pushed to the front and what stuck in the back? Which ones will trumpet the death of a civilian by a police officer, and which the opposite? Which will spend more time on the stories of Muslim immigrants sexually assaulting German women, and which will focus on American non-Muslims discriminating against Muslims? 

In short, which tiny portion of narratives get "air time" in the news you read, and what don't you even hear about to be able to consider? 

If anyone knows of any research projects on this, I'd love to hear about them. 

--Erik

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.