Four Steps to Getting Better Political and Election News

  1. Broaden your news diet. Probably the most important thing you can do is make sure that you’re not only getting news that confirms what you already believe. At the same time, it’s important not to “overcorrect” and seek out sources that have a totally opposite bias from yours, which will almost certainly just make you angry and reinforce your current opinions. As Eli Pariser, author of the book The Filter Bubble, puts it, “There’s a tendency to go right to the opposite strand, like ‘if I lean left, then I’m going to start reading Breitbart.’ That doesn’t end very well and will generally make people unhappy and upset.”[1] Instead, find sources from a more moderate, different point of view.

Another option is to use a news aggregator such as AllSides (https://www.allsides.com/blog) that provides summaries and links to stories from across the spectrum, to help you see how people with different points of view see issues differently, or a collaborative news source like WikiTribune (www.wikitribune.com) that lets you see who wrote and edited every part of a story. It’s also valuable to find sources that reflect an entirely different spectrum, such as newspapers in other countries: though they too will have their biases, because they’re in such a different context you may find them less likely to trigger your feelings of loyalty to your side.[2] You can also use a tool such as the Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed, Red Feed (http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/) to see what people with other political views are discussing in social networks.

It’s important to remember that news that comes to you through search engines and social networks has already been filtered. Some of this filtering is based on how these platforms evaluate overall relevance (for example, they may provide more news about a candidate who is already receiving more mentions in the news, either because they are leading in the polls or because they say controversial things)[3] or, as noted above, sometimes the filtering can be manipulated by disinformation agents.

What’s probably most significant, though, is that both search engines and social networks are designed to deliver what’s most relevant to you – which in the case of news means information that you already agree with. The best way to avoid this is to limit the ways in which search engines and social networks collect data about you, so that they’re less able to build a profile. To do this, you can:

  • Make a habit of using Incognito or Private Browsing mode
  • Change your settings to limit tracking in browsers such as Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Edge
  • Use a non-tracking search engine such as DuckDuckGo
  • Install a blocking plugin such as PrivacyBadger
  • Set the ad tracking and feed preferences in your social network and search engine accounts to not deliver customized content

Interacting with a broader range of sources will also help reduce how heavily your feeds and recommendations are filtered.

Keep in mind that the purpose of broadening your news diet is to challenge your own biases; as NPR’s Brooke Gladstone puts it, “That’s the hardest thing – to bring into the conversation stuff that you might find challenging that might take you aback.”[4] What may be most important is not getting more facts but developing more empathy for those who hold different views: people who see the world in black-and-white are most likely to believe in conspiracy theories.[5]

  1. Make fact-checking a habit. Our Verifying Online News section has detailed information on how to fact-check news in general, but there are a few things that are particularly relevant to political and election news:
    • First, draw on fact-checking sites such as Snopes and Politifact to save you the trouble of debunking false stories.
    • Second, turn to general-purpose sources such as encyclopedias or librarians to help you get a good grounding in the subject. This can be a good way to learn the different terms and imagery that different sides of an issue use, so that you can more easily recognize where a source is coming from. (Keep in mind that like any other source, encyclopedia articles need to be viewed critically. For user-created encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, look for warning banners that suggest there are major problems with a page and check the “Talk” tab to see the article’s rating.)
    • Third, don’t pay too much attention to anecdotes and analogies: both of those are valuable ways to illustrate a story, but don’t prove anything.
    • Finally, when a claim is made about a politician or political party, go to the source. If the Pope were actually to endorse a particular candidate, for example, you can be sure that the endorsement would be on that candidate’s website! (Make sure you’ve navigated to the real site, though, rather than following links that might lead you to a spoof site.) To really understand where a candidate stands on issues, watch televised all-candidate debates. And “take it offline” by attending debates in your riding, visiting the campaign office, or talking to a campaigner canvassing your neighbourhood to ensure what you read about a candidate is actually true.
  1. Be responsible when sharing and discussing news online. Don’t make the problem worse by sharing stories that you’re not certain of (nearly a quarter of Americans have shared fake news online)[6] and be respectful when you talk about politics: in 2016 more people said they were harassed online because of their political views than almost any other reason, ahead of sex, race, religion and sexual orientation,[7] a situation which can only lead to our communities and our news environment becoming more fractured and polarized.
      
  2. Complain about false news and disinformation when you see it. Despite improvements in tools to automatically filter out disinformation, online platforms still rely on users to report when things go wrong. This can be particularly important during an election or in the wake of a major news event, when platforms can be flooded with disinformation, or when the disinformation is not sufficiently widespread to have been corrected: for example, sources that deny the Holocaust happened no longer appear high in search results or in autocomplete suggestions, but searches for “did the Holodomor happen” still give high ranks to sources denying the existence of the 1932-33 Soviet-sponsored famine in the Ukraine. Most social networks, along with YouTube, have options for reporting individual posts, while Google has a general “Send feedback” button at the bottom of each page of search results and also allows you to report inappropriate autocorrect predictions (a small grey link at the bottom of the suggestions window that says “Report inappropriate predictions”).

If reporting disinformation does not lead the platform to remove it, consider complaining about it to companies who advertise on it. (For instructions on how to respond to outright hate speech, consult our Responding to Online Hate Guide.) Nearly all search engines and social networks earn their revenue from advertising, and many of the major changes they have made in how they do business have been the result of pressure from advertisers – who have themselves usually been responding to consumer pressure.[8]

 


[1] Ponsot, Elisabeth. “A complete guide to seeing the news beyond your cozy filter bubble.” Quartz, February 23, 2017.
[2] Stray, Jonathan. “How Do You Tell When the News is Biased? It Depends on How You See Yourself.” Nieman Lab, June 2012.
[3] Diakopoulos, Nicholas. “Understanding bias in computational news media.” NiemanLab, December 10, 2012.
[4] Pitts, Rebecca. “5 Steps to Improve Your Media Literacy.” Teen Vogue, April 26, 2017.
[5] Oliver, J. E. and Wood, T. J. (2014), Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 58: 952-966. doi:10.1111/ajps.12084
[6] Pitts, Rebecca. “5 Steps to Improve Your Media Literacy.” Teen Vogue, April 26, 2017.
[7] Dewey, Caitlin. “The most compelling reason to never talk politics on Facebook.” The Washington Post, August 4, 2016.
[8] “A Brave New World: How the Internet Affects Societies.” Chatham House, May 11, 2017.