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How ‘confirmation bias’ created fake news

Our tendency to believe what we want to believe is what gives life to fake news

Are our biases letting us make fools of ourselves? (Photo by Alexas Fotos from Pexels) CC

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These days, ‘confirmation bias’ is beginning to trend. People are catching on to how politicians and their ilk are deliberately using this psychological ploy to manipulate our minds to believe what they want us to believe.

This post is my analysis of how ‘confirmation bias’ evolved from a belief of an individual to a belief shared by millions, and is the foundation of fake news.

My first encounter with confirmation bias

This happened in India’s pre-internet era, and it nearly saw me go under the knife.

I was a fitness freak in those days but had suddenly begun to find it hard to stand still on my feet, even for short periods. What was odd was that I could run or walk for hours but standing was painful. So I paid a visit to this doctor who was also a reputed surgeon. He took a look at the somewhat prominent veins in my calf muscles and exuded scepticism about my view that it was caused by my many fitness activities. He opined that I was suffering from varicose veins and recommended surgery to ‘strip’ them away.

I wasn’t going to allow anyone to cut me up without putting up a strong fight. So I took a second opinion from another doctor. He had me get a few checks done and eventually came up with a diagnosis of a pinched nerve in my back. He advised physiotherapy and my issue was sorted out in short order.

So why did that reputed surgeon make such a massive blunder?

In hindsight, I think the surgeon exhibited symptoms of acute confirmation bias (which wasn’t a thing back then). To put it in simple words, confirmation bias is the tendency to believe what you want to believe. Here’s a more scientific definition:

Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, favor, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs, and ignore any information that doesn’t.

Using the above, let’s try to analyze why the surgeon acted the way he did. The short explanation is surgeons love to cut so he was biased in favor of anything that indicated cutting.

Here’s the long explanation.

Interpreting information to support his existing belief: Being a surgeon, his instinct is to resort to surgery as the first solution to any issue and he will actively seek info that supports his solution. When he saw the prominent veins in my legs, he believed it was a case of varicose veins, and recommended surgery to resolve my issue.

Only remembering details that support his belief: The surgeon recalled that inability to stand was a common complaint of people with varicose veins and that supported his diagnosis and recommendation of surgery.

Ignoring information that challenges his belief: As a surgeon, the doctor must have been aware that standing for long hours is one of the causes of varicose veins. I wasn’t doing anything that involved standing for long. Besides, I had informed him that I was into cycling and that might explain the prominent veins on my legs. But the doctor brushed both these facts aside as it challenged his belief that this was a case of varicose veins.

Not looking for objective facts: An inability to stand for long can be due to many reasons. Unlike the surgeon, the second doctor didn't jump to a conclusion and then try to justify it. Instead, he chose to objectively explore all possibilities. He clarified that I wasn’t doing anything that involved standing for long hours, a common cause for varicose veins. He also noted that I did a lot of cycling on a racing bike in a posture that involved sitting in a hunched posture for long periods, which put a lot of pressure on my lower back.

Photo by Chris Peeters from Pexels

So this doctor ran a few tests on me and found enough evidence to suggest that a pinched nerve in my lower back could be the culprit. It was worth first trying to treat it with simple physiotherapy instead of straightaway going for invasive surgery. I took his suggested treatment without a second thought and was better within a few weeks.

Bless that doctor!

Now let’s look at how confirmation bias evolved from a belief by an individual, to a belief shared by millions of people, and eventually became the foundation for fake news.

The 3-stage evolution of confirmation bias

Stage 1: Simple confirmation bias

At this stage, confirmation bias is still an unconscious act limited to a small circle, and without any malicious intent. This was the case with the surgeon. This kind of bias wouldn’t really fly on larger forums because the flaws in its logic are easily exposed in a larger public circle, which in my case was a second doctor at a different hospital. The other thing to note is the surgeon firmly believed that his recommendation was what was best for me. There was no malice intended.

Stage 2: Conspiracy Theories

In this second stage, the confirmation bias has evolved from an individual bias to go public into mass media as a conspiracy theory. But there is still no malice intended. The believers are usually simple nut cases. What really made this possible was the arrival of the internet. Suddenly, you could link up with a whole lot of people who shared your confirmation bias on whatever bizarre theory you have, and this theory would take on a life of its own.

I recall my first brush with such a ‘conspiracy theory.’ I was getting myself a coffee at the pantry of the office where I worked. The office boy was in a chatty mood and informed me the US moon landing in 1969 was a fake. Seeing my surprise, he claimed what had been shown on live TV was actually a film shot in a fabricated movie set somewhere in Hollywood. I tried debating it but he brushed aside whatever said, and instead presented more ‘proof’ from the net to back up his belief.

I eventually gave up trying to change his mind. However, I remember feeling distinctively rattled by my sudden awareness of the shaky nature of truth. I had an uneasy feeling that my old world that stood firmly on a solid base of facts and logic was crumbling before my eyes. I even caught myself wondering if it was possible the Americans had indeed faked the moon landing.

That was my first encounter with the ‘confirmation bias’ evolution into mass media. That office boy was focusing only on evidence supporting his stance while ignoring anything that contradicted it. In the pre-internet era, a belief of this sort would have seen him roundly ridiculed and would have brought him back to his senses. But the internet made it possible for him to stand by his bizarre theory by linking up with a whole lot of people on the net who believed it. That strength in numbers is what gave life to the ‘conspiracy theory’ phenomenon.

There was still however one important fact. No malice was intended in these beliefs. Like my office friend, these guys really believed their theories and were lost in their little worlds where logic had taken a back seat.

Stage 3: Fake News

In this stage, politicians and others realized the potential of confirmation bias, and how it could be consciously used to manipulate the thinking of large segments of society, with malice intended.

I think Donald Trump was the first to really capitalize on this. His theory was simple. If you repeat a lie endlessly, people will soon start believing it.

A good example of this is Trump’s endlessly repeated claim that the then President Obama was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, a kind of Manchurian candidate who had been deliberated planted as a baby with a US family, and carefully nurtured as a politician into the White House with a goal of handing over the US to the Islamic fanatics.

Obama tried to put an end to this ‘birtherism’ conspiracy theory by putting up his birth certificate on the net, along with newspaper cuttings announcing his birth. Trump simply countered by saying he believed this birth certificate was fake, and blatantly lied that he couldn’t find anyone who had actually studied with Obama at school.

It all sounded quite insane but there was a method to this madness. By repeating the same thought endlessly in right-wing media, Trump was able to give the birtherism conspiracy theory a life of its own, and one survey said that 40% of Republicans believe Obama was born in Kenya.

This was clearly confirmation bias: people believing what they wanted to believe. But what was really scary was how it had been scaled up from an individual belief to a mass belief, with the truth being subverted and cynically manipulated by a crafty politician for his personal gain.

You don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s this same playbook that Trump rolled out when he lost the election to Biden and led to the Capitol Hill riots. He simply repeated endlessly that the voting had been rigged with a nice catchy slogan: ‘Stop the Steal.’ Trumpists believed it, despite every court, including the US Supreme Court dismissing the claims.

That’s what makes ‘confirmation bias’ scary. Evidence is irrelevant. Till recently, if you have solid evidence, there’s a good probability you can convince someone who doesn’t agree with you. But what if people illogically dismiss all evidence out of hand as fake?

You can’t beat illogic with logic. So what’s the solution?

The only way out is to study people who used to have confirmation bias and stopped having it. If we can figure out why and how they stopped having it, we can apply that learning to tackling confirmation bias.

Oddly enough, I myself had succumbed to confirmation bias and am just coming out of it. Here’s my story.

I have been guilty of ‘confirmation bias’

In May 2020, China and India were involved in a border clash in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed. The two armies went on to face off each in the icy heights of the Himalayas for the next few months. Around the same, Trump took an aggressive stance against China.

That’s when I became susceptible to ‘confirmation bias.’ Like a whole lot of Indians, I became a fan of Trump. His standing up to China on several occasions and even his attempt to ban TikTok in the US, which followed in India’s footsteps of banning a whole lot of Chinese apps that were accessing the private data of Indian citizens, added to his popularity here.

Among my friends’ circles, all Trump’s flaws were dismissed as fake stories created by the Democrats. Biden was deemed pro-China and corrupt, and my friends claimed it would be better for India if Trump won the election, as his tough stand against China would not be matched by Biden.

I wanted to believe this, and I did. Confirmation bias, alright.

All this while, the Indian army refused to back down to China’s bullying and even won a vital skirmish to occupy a strategic height at the contentious border with China.

A spell that’s hard to break

The standoff continued at the border, but it seemed to me that India didn’t need US military support to take on China. With that realization, Trump’s ethics, his alternate facts, his racism, and lack of basic decency once again began to grate on me. My daughter, who is sensitive to any sign of male bias, demanded to know if I was pro-Trump and by then, I could honestly admit that I no longer was, whatever his China stance.

Then the Capital Hill riots happened. I found myself firmly supporting Biden even though the general consensus in India seemed to be that he would be anti-India. Biden is now the US President. As of now, I’m still not sure if he will stand with India. That’s a bridge we will have to cross when we reach it.

Meanwhile, I had been listening to Barack Obama’s autobiographical account of his first term as the US President. He talks about witnessing the beginning of the fake news era and underestimating how much of a game-changer it was going to be. Listening to Obama’s voice, the contrast between him and Trump is huge. On one hand, we have Obama’s basic decency, integrity, and intelligence. On the other, we have Trump’s boorish bullying, his manipulative lying, his racism, his crude references to women, and general nastiness.

Having listened to both sides of the story, I was finally able to break the spell that Trump’s anti-China rhetoric had cast upon me. I had to reluctantly admit I too had succumbed to ‘confirmation bias’ vis-a-vis Trump.

Many of my friends still back Trump’s claim that the Democrats had fraudulently won the elections. I point out that Trump and his associates had over 50 legal suits asserting election fraud dismissed by the US courts (including the US Supreme Court which was packed with judges appointed by Trump). The courts simply cite lack of evidence while dismissing the suits. The rioters themselves claim they went to Capitol Hill because the legally elected leader of USA had asked them to. Even Republican Party leader, Mitch McConnell, turned around after saving Trump from impeachment and condemned him point-blank for having incited the riot.

My friends brush all this aside as irrelevant, and instead point me towards conspiracy websites, which speak of Biden and the Democratic Party’s dark connections and Soros and his billions and even weirder stuff.

This was pure deja vu. What worries me is back then, it had been an uneducated office boy who directed me to conspiracy websites about a moon landing that never happened. But today it’s highly educated professionals who point me towards conspiracy theories of a supposedly stolen election.

To prevent confirmation bias, listen to the other side

My own susceptibility to ‘confirmation bias’ has opened my eyes to how easy it is for the human mind to confuse fiction for fact.

I have always believed I have an open mind, and whatever opinions I have are based solely on facts. But I admit that my anti-China bias influenced my opinion of Trump. We, humans, are creatures of emotion, and these do have a tendency to cloud our judgment.

If we accept we are susceptible to ‘confirmation bias,’ the next step is to test if we have it. For fevers, we use thermometers. To recognize if we have a bias, we have to methodically listen to opposing views and analyze why they say it. Listening to Obama’s book took 29 hours. But it’s what finally drove home my acceptance that I had been biased. The fresh perspective on my beliefs opened my mind to the possibility that my anti-China bias was allowing me to ignore Trump’s obnoxious actions.

Are the US Democrats biased against the Indian government?

Having said that, I think Obama has a confirmation bias. I could sense his uneasiness when he discussed India’s Hindu nationalist government. But it’s this same Indian government that stood up to China and caused them to finally beat a humiliating retreat a few days ago, with no gains for their pains. Unlike 1962 when a secular Indian government lost land and dignity to Chinese aggression.

It’s not clear why China attacked India. But I go with the school of thought that China felt threatened by India’s growing global stature and wanted to cut us down to size. The historical precedent favors this argument. In 1962, China attacked India when the world was distracted by the missile crisis in Cuba, and succeeded in humiliating India under Nehru. In 2020, China attacked as they believed India was distracted by the Covid crisis but it was Xi who was humiliated. Though, Xi is making sure the Chinese media never utters a word about it.

Obama (and by extension Biden) might want to check their confirmation bias about nationalistic parties being unequivocally bad for India, as a biased Western media seems intent on portraying.

Hello, we are good out here!



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