United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously wrote in the Washington Post in 1983: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Moynihan died in 2003 — the year before the launch of a little company called Facebook.
I try not to read too much into that, but there are days when it’s hard not to.
People may not be entitled to their own facts, but thanks to the rise of the interconnected worlds of online search and social media, they certainly have access to their own facts more than ever before.
The algorithms that power search, and especially social media, reinforce our preconceived notions and opinions by showing us content similar to that which we already consume and by connecting us to more people who think the same way.
Ironically, that ability to connect people of similar interests is what makes social media such a powerful force for good. But that sense of belonging to a group of like-minded people makes it easier to become attached to our views and the sources than underpin them — and makes it harder for us to change our minds when presented with new information.
Then, when we do encounter people of different viewpoints, they can sound either hopelessly ignorant or actively trying to subvert the truth for some malevolent reason — and guess what? You sound the same to them.
All that makes civil discourse far more challenging than ever before. Arguing whether two and two make four doesn’t sound hard, but try doing it with someone who doesn’t seem to admit to the concept of addition, let alone the existence of the number two, and thinks you’re trying to foist an evil numerist agenda on them.
So what’s the solution? There isn’t one — not a big overarching one that can be imposed from outside.
Rather, there are millions of small solutions — one for each of us. It starts with being aware where the information we consume comes from, and actively seeking to broaden our sources.
That doesn’t mean switching off social media. It’s here to stay — even for community news sources online like the ones I work with, more than a quarter of our audience online comes from social sources.
Rather, a simple solution to start is: when you find a piece of information that triggers a strong emotion — anger, surprise, fear — look for a second source. Putting a few search terms into Google might just show you a different perspective on the same issue.
Is that more work? Absolutely.
But it’s worth it.
Tim Shoults is the operations manager of Aberdeen Publishing.