The wealth of human knowledge offered through the Internet has empowered people from all walks of life to better themselves and their communities. Hence, the Internet has been called the next great equalizer. Despite this, an alarming trend is for individuals to limit their growth through biased thinking. People are consuming more media than ever before, but are not getting a balanced diet of content.
Most of us want to make good, well-informed decisions. The best way for me to be well-informed is to think critically, especially when it comes to my own consumption of media and information.
According to Scott Plous in his book “The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making,” confirmation bias is the tendency to only seek for or interpret information that confirms our own beliefs. Biased thinking can contribute to poor decisions because contradictory facts are ignored when they conflict with existing knowledge. Since the 1960s, scientists have been suggesting that people are highly prone to this sort of bias.
If you have ever tried to have an open discussion about politics, it is likely that you have seen the problem first-hand. Oftentimes, people react emotionally or from ideological viewpoints, unable to hear dissenting opinions. Turns out social media is not much different.
What Facebook, Twitter, Google and many other services are doing is “invisible, algorithmic editing of the Web” according to a TED Talk with Upworthy chief executive, Eli Pariser. The people behind these services think they are helping citizens of the Internet, but they are actually creating what Pariser calls “filter bubbles,” small sections of content that computer algorithms choose for us to see.
A study conducted in 2014 by the Institute for Communications Technology Management at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business found that on average, each of us consumes over 15 hours of media per day. Yes, that’s per person. From television to Twitter, humans are spending ever-increasing amounts of time consuming all forms of media, with 30 different categories of digital media accounted for in the USC study.
The Internet is truly a game-changer here, as it allows people to have almost complete control over their media consumption in real time. The USC study calls it the “Age of Interruption,” as our always-on devices compete for our attention — annoying the people right in front of us.
As a product of the digital age, I am no exception. I often take breaks to check Facebook and Tumblr, watch YouTube videos, stream TV shows on Netflix and occasionally play video games. Many people I know do this more than I do. For others it’s podcasts at the gym or texting a friend while watching old episodes of “Law & Order.”
Now, I’m not trying to demonize the new media landscape, but the universality of it poses some interesting questions. Chief among them is what do we do with all the information available to us?
Short answer: not much.
There was a time when scholars believed that news media only affected what people thought about, whereas a study from the University of North Carolina in 2013 claims “the media also influence[s] the way people think and act.” Knowing this, I find it troubling that there are still only a handful of news organizations that provide almost all the world’s news for radio, television and now social media, which limits the diversity of ideas people are exposed to.
There are more grassroots journalists who contribute to the conversation via a variety of other social media venues, such as UStream or Twitter, but despite more diverse sources of information and more places for public discourse, people are actually having less discussion on critical topics.
This due to the “spiral of silence” which is the tendency for people to not speak up if they believe their opinion is not widely shared. It is more commonly applied to the likelihood of people discussing topics in person with friends, family and colleagues. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, people are actually less likely to discuss controversial issues on social media than they were in person, unless they believed that their audience agreed with them.
This affects not only politics and social issues. A teacher asks a class to explain a concept from an assigned reading and is met with silence. Similarly, a class discussion may be painfully silent despite students being encouraged to share a variety of opinions.
Remember this: silence is sometimes seen as agreement. If you don’t speak up, then who will?
Okay, so how does someone start to think critically about hard topics? Thinking critically can be challenging, but luckily the folks over at Pearson Education came up with a strategy to get us started. It’s called “Think RED,” which stands for:
• Recognize Assumptions
• Evaluate Arguments
• Draw Conclusions
By questioning the logic and assumptions of both sources and ourselves, without letting emotions get in the way, we can gain deeper insights to better solve any problem we are facing.
It can be hard to remain objective and apply critical thinking effectively. Human beings are emotional creatures, and emotion often trumps logic. With practice, curiosity, an open mind and some effort, however, anyone who wishes to, can learn to think critically about anything.
Even with content providers filtering information, I realize that I have a choice. I have decided to dig deeper and question underlying assumptions. I’m gathering new information to evaluate issues and draw the most effective conclusions that I can from my efforts.
Thus I challenge you to always be curious and questioning and not to let emotions cloud your judgment. The Internet is a tool that can help you be a well-informed citizen. How will you use it?