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Media literacy: Understanding bias in a digital world dictated by apps and algorithms

Photo by Drew Marshall and Illustration by Sarah Schmid

United States adults spend nearly 11 hours per day consuming media in various formats, such as listening to music, scrolling through social media, watching television and reading the news, according to a study published by The Nielsen Company. In today’s digital world, media consumption is at an all-time high.

As technology advances, global communication and accessibility to information continues to grow. However, the seemingly unlimited power of the internet and mass media also presents many hurdles for modern citizens to tackle, such as finding credible sources with reliable information. 

Throughout the recent wave of ‘fake news’ accusations and the public’s distrust of ‘mainstream media,’ developing media literacy skills is very important, especially regarding current events like the pandemic, the upcoming election, and climate change.

According to Carissa Wolf, freelance journalist and Boise State sociology lecturer, the switch to digital journalism in the early 1990s had a huge impact on the way people consume media.

“I became a journalist in a time when people were still getting newspaper subscriptions, and it was very predictable in people’s lives,” Wolf said. “They would settle down and buy a house and a washing machine, and get a daily newspaper subscription. We just don’t see that happening today.”

Wolf believes that, before the digital age, print media created a sense of community and togetherness. Because news outlets were much more limited, a majority of people would receive the same news and information. 

Nowadays, picking up the daily newspaper is not as common of a habit for the general population, especially within younger generations.

“They don’t necessarily have subscriptions. They’re not reading the newspaper from cover to cover. They might be reading an article here and there in their social media feeds, and that’s a little bit different,” Wolf said.

Apps and Algorithms

In today’s media landscape that is generally dictated by apps and algorithms, it is much more unlikely that individuals are being exposed to the same media content.

“I think that the biggest change now is that we have so many outlets available to us,” said Dr. Julie Lane, associate professor in the Boise State Department of Communication and Media. “Whether they’re traditional news outlets that used to just be in print or broadcast, or whether they’re outlets that have only always been online [like] blogs or social media, we have such an array of information available to us. There’s an overwhelming amount of information to go through.”

According to a 2018 study conducted by Reuters Institute, 53% of respondents preferred to get their news through third-party gateways, like search engines, social media and news aggregators. 

News aggregators, like Apple News and Google News, compile news stories from various media outlets in order to fine-tune the user’s experience and target their specific interests. Essentially, these aggregators track your online behavior and use the data to determine what articles you are most likely to click on. 

Aggregators utilize behind-the-scenes algorithms that weed through the vast amount of information that is readily available on the internet and creates a curated feed of articles. However, this process can often lead to a phenomenon that is known as a ‘filter bubble.’

 A filter bubble is created when a media consumer gets “trapped” within a cycle of information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, also known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the psychological phenomenon that describes how people are more likely to believe facts or information if it aligns with their individual preconceived notions or opinions.

As an individual continues to click on articles that appeal to them, the algorithm within their interface (Google, social media, other aggregators, etc.) begins to show more media that is categorically similar to things they have already read or clicked on.

“You have to be selective. The amount of information available to us makes it much easier to only read things that confirm your bias,” Lane said.

The Digital Age 

As a result of cultural and societal influences, everyone holds unconscious biases that affect the way each individual views the world. These biases often influence an individual’s social media experience, as users are able to pick and choose who or what they follow.

“I think certain age groups get the majority of their news from social media,” Lane said. “If a person is getting most of their information from social media, how has that person curated that feed? Think about how you can really cultivate or curate your social media feed. It just makes it very easy to do with just a click of a button.”

This individual curation may be mindful or unintentional, but either way, it perpetuates the filter bubble phenomenon.

According to Lane, confirmation bias was not as big of an issue before the digital age.

“Many [people] were still exposed to other media outlets [before digital media]. Now it’s just so difficult because it’s very easy to only encounter things that confirm your bias. And that’s no matter where you fall on the political spectrum,” Lane said. 

However, there are ways that media consumers can counteract their own biases and improve their media literacy.

Lane says that distinguishing between news reporting and opinion based articles is an extremely important first step. 

“There are sections on websites that are labeled [opinion], but it’s very easy just to click from one piece to another, and kind of lose track of what’s a news piece, what’s a piece of analysis and what’s an opinion piece,” Lane said.

Lane also suggests changing up your news feed by searching out topics or outlets outside of your regular interests and varying the sources you subscribe to via social media or otherwise. 

Scott McIntosh, the opinion editor for the Idaho Statesman, agrees that actively pursuing different media sources can help to override the filter bubble.

“I think that it really comes down to consuming different media,” McIntosh said. “I think people are choosing what to believe and what not to believe. I think Fox News viewers should read the New York Times and watch CNN; and I think New York Times readers and CNN viewers should watch Fox News.”

McIntosh also suggests being critical of the information you read, no matter what outlet it is coming from. With the oversaturation of information in media, it is important for media consumers to dive a little deeper into the topic they are looking at to make sure it is credible. 

McIntosh believes that some articles aren’t always what they seem if only viewed from the surface level. 

“I think it’s important when you see a story on Twitter or on Facebook, definitely read the story

skeptically and look for the sources,” McIntosh said. “Look and see who the sources are. If it’s a study that’s being cited in a story, go to the study and see if the study is being accurately portrayed and completely portrayed in the news article. And then go find another news source that is covering the same story and see how they played it, see how they framed it. It might be framed slightly differently in a different context.”

Increasing a person’s media literacy skills can help individuals more easily spot biases and discrepancies.

“Media literacy is really important [because], when people are consuming media, they can distinguish between what is an opinion piece [or] what is fact and be able to choose their media accordingly to what their understanding of it is,” Wolf said.

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