Today’s biggest threat to democracy isn’t fake news—it’s selective facts

Can you believe everything you read if you’re not reading everything?
Can you believe everything you read if you’re not reading everything?
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There are two contrasting stories that vividly show the benefits and downsides of illegal immigration in America: that of the immigrants who are making the country a better, more inclusive place, and those who are destroying the cultural values on which the US is predicated.

During the 2016 US presidential election, Democrats and the Republicans had raucous debates over these competing narratives. The Trump campaign widely shared stories about illegal immigrants who caused horrific crimes like murders or rapes. Later, for his first Congressional address, the newly minted US president invited the relatives of Americans killed by illegal immigrants to emphasize his point. On the other side, the Clinton campaign stressed individual stories that highlighted the value of illegal immigrants to America.

Media organizations on the right and left followed their favored politicians’ cues when deciding which stories to cover. A horrific murder by an illegal immigrant would be favored by a right-leaning news source, while a heartwarming tale of an illegal immigrant making a difference would be favored by a left-leaning news source.

But it’s impossible to make a good judgment on our immigration policy without weighing both sets of facts. Some illegal immigrants do indeed kill and rape Americans—but others do tremendous good. To determine the best immigration policy requires weighing both sides.

Rather than fake news or alternative facts, the primary danger of these times are selective facts. Selective facts are “true” facts that only tells us part of the story, and they influence our views on every issue from gun control to Islamic terrorism to free trade.

While social media and partisan news has allowed more voices to be heard, it also means we are now surrounded by more people manipulating what facts make it to our newsfeeds. We’d draw a different conclusion—or even just a more nuanced picture—if we were given all the information on an issue, not just the parts that best benefit a particular viewpoint.

The media, social media, and selective facts

Most of us use the news to help us make personal decisions. For something like terrorism, these decisions range from how scared to be, to what safety precautions to take, to deciding what you want to demand of your political leaders. News sources aim to cover—in the words of the editor in chief of Reuters—the “facts [we] need to make good decisions.”

But news has to engage us for us to read it. Selective facts occur because news and social media companies focus predominantly on their readers’ interests. Media organizations maximize readership and increase profits by creating and sharing content that their readers want to read. If you’re a journalist, you’re incentivized to write articles that get many views and are “newsworthy,” thus helping your publication make money through advertising revenue. When these “engaging” articles are published, social networks like Facebook and Twitter use data from our daily media choices to determine what “relevant” content to show us next, maximizing our time spent in their apps—and their profitability.

As readers, we also suffer from what’s called confirmation bias: We tend to seek out news organizations and social media posts that confirm our views. Selective facts occur precisely for this reason. When trying to maximize readership and revenue, news sources and social networks pick and choose content that their audience wants to read about—and whatever content the audience picks is likely to confirm their pre-existing views. The publisher and social media algorithms learn what the audience wants to hear, gives it them, and the selective cycle continues.

Business leaders of media organizations therefore consciously focus on what readers want, not what they need to make the best decisions—even though most of us use news for the latter purpose. Sam Zell, the former CEO of Tribune, is characteristically blunt, telling journalists, “You need to help me by being a journalist that focuses on what readers want and therefore generates more revenue.” Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch echoes him, saying “Stop writing articles to win Pulitzer Prizes…Give people what they want to read and make it interesting.” On the social media side, Mark Zuckerburg, likely the most powerful news editor in human history (though, of course, he wouldn’t call himself that), designed an algorithm that focuses on featuring news we’re most likely to engage with.

In the past, we may have thought of news as a mirror of what’s going on in the world. Today, we need to think of news as a mirror of our own beliefs—and it’s time to take a good, hard look.

Selective facts throughout history

Selective facts appear throughout the history of media. During the Revolutionary War, atrocities by African slaves and Native Americans against white patriots were widely covered in patriot newspapers. Newspapers were filled with horrors the Native and slave population committed against white patriots, such as scalpings, rapes, and murders. The many atrocities by white patriots against these minorities were much less covered, which lead to what one historian argues is the root of generations of racism.

If you were a white patriot living in the 18th century, how interested would you be in reading about an attack by Native Americans on one of your own? How about a similar unprovoked attack on a Native American by one of your own? If you were a newspaper editor pitching your paper to white patriots, what would you cover to engage your readers and sell the most papers?

The conflicts around Islam are a more current example of this bias. For a Muslim living in the Middle East, which of these news items would they be more interested in reading about: An American-sponsored airstrike in Syria that killed 200 civilians in a school where families had sought refuge from violence, or the Orlando nightclub terrorist attack, perpetrated by a Muslim in America?

Now suppose you’re a non-Muslim living in America. Which of those news items would have interested you more? How does this differential interest influence how news editors and social algorithms in both geographies decide what to cover?

Like in American politics, this coverage imbalance leads to a deep empathy gap across countries and religions. It’s especially hard to have empathy in either population when the content you read consistently heralds your side as the victim and ignores extreme actions by your own members.

This is why some Americans might think there is a “war on the West” by the Muslim world. American news sources like the New York Times cover Western terrorist attacks by Muslims more than any other terrorist attacks, even though most victims of Islamic terrorist incidents are Muslim. As one American accurately observed in an article in the New York Times, “I don’t begrudge my grandma who never met a Muslim in her life—but all she sees on TV are Muslims blowing things up. It is not irrational that people are worried.”

Selective facts are more dangerous than fake news

Selective facts are worse than outright fake news because they’re pervasive and harder to question than clearly false statements. Compare how much easier it is to dismiss content that’s quickly shown to be false (“Playing Christmas Music Before Thanksgiving Now A Federal Crime”) than to dismiss an argument where the supporting facts are all true (“Watch CEOs admit they won’t actually invest more if tax reform passes”). That latter story does not contain enough information to understand if the proposed Republican tax plan will increase US economic vitality—even though some readers will draw the conclusion that it won’t from reading that article.

Having facts—no matter how one-sided and cherry-picked—makes us overconfident that we know what’s going on. Studies have shown that when we see facts that are later shown to be wrong, we still remain confident in our beliefs. Other studies show how we’ll especially favor facts when they’re convenient to our view.

For example, free trade provides both advantages and disadvantages to the American economy. It reduces prices and enables American companies to stay competitive on the global stage, but it also can be detrimental to specific jobs and devastate communities that depend on certain industries. These free-trade facts are all true—but depending on which community or working class you’re part of, you’re more likely to value one set over the other.

For those who believe the former, they’re more likely to click on articles such as pro-trade opinions pieces in the Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, those wishing for more trade protection will have a news feed favoring vivid stories about the downsides of trade. To make the best decision about your opinions on free trade, however, you need to weigh both sides.

Political coverage especially shows us selective facts that match our political beliefs—and paint the other side in the worst light. Compare the following sets of stories:

These articles are composed of verified facts, but it’s not appropriate to draw inferences about the whole picture by reading only a single row. To make the best decisions, we need to have a more representative view.

A Democratic voter might subtly favor the upper row of stories. For them, it’s more newsworthy to see an extreme statement or action by an extreme Republican. For partisan news sources and social networks, the first stories are an easy way to anger and engage Democrats—and therefore profit from them. Similarly, a right-leaning publication might use the bottom row of stories to do exactly the inverse.

Partisans on the left and right both benefit from selective facts, as they can choose the facts that justify their views and rally their base. This leads to a huge empathy gap between the groups—and a sense that the opposite side is solely composed of extremists.

How to de-select selective facts

It’s up to us as readers to correct for how prevalent selective facts are in our news feeds and in the publications we read. To make good decisions in this era of social media and personalized news, you have to realize that selective facts surround us. Just because you think you’re a well-reasoned person doesn’t mean you haven’t accidentally cocooned yourself in an algorithmic bubble. If your goal is to make good decisions for your family, your community, or your country, you must consciously work to get a representative set of facts.

Here are some tips for doing just that.

First, put any news you read—even when you trust that it is 100% factual—in context. Ask yourself what important information might be missing, and how that influences the conclusions you might draw. Generally, one-sided arguments that don’t acknowledge their shortcomings are an easy giveaway that you’re seeing selective facts.

Second, follow people online who you disagree with—and not just because you want to understand the “other” side. Extreme positions are the easiest way to stand out in social media, but they don’t always represent a broad view, so make sure that any opposing opinions you read are thoughtful, not inflammatory. For example, if you’re using Sean Hannity or Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to assess all Republicans, you owe it to yourself to follow Senator John McCain. If you’re using Rachel Maddow or Jane Fonda to measure all Democrats, you should also follow Senator Claire McCaskill. Consciously following well-reasoned oppositional voices allows us to hear sensible dissenting arguments and better collect the full set of facts. At worst, they will only make our own reasoning stronger.

Third, demand more from others. Point out selective facts when you see them on social media; friends with similar views are much more likely to convince each other of bias than being attacked by outsiders. Implore media organizations, especially social networks and their advertisers, to do more about selective facts—not just fake news. There are simple design and algorithmic fixes (like making it easier to follow thoughtful voices with divergent views) that don’t require overt editorializing. Finally, call out politicians who hold themselves up as principled leaders, but continuously favor selective facts.

When we read the news, we must understand the incentives behind what is covered: The news is not a representative view what’s going on in the world—it’s what a news organization’s audience wants most to read about. Likewise, on social media, it’s not what the most important thing for us to read is—it’s about what they think each one of us wants to read about.

If old media was a communist grocery store with absurdly limited choice, today’s media is a glittering Vegas buffet laid out to trigger our every weakness—and we need to learn how to consume a more balanced meal.