Wednesday, November 16, 2016

News media bias and how to read through it

This morning I saw a Facebook post from a fairly liberal friend about how he watched something on Fox News and couldn't believe people thought this stuff was real. It's interesting to me, because of course it's "real", but it's only telling the parts that their audience want to hear. So to that end, I thought I'd share some tips on how to detect bias and separate "opinion" from "fact". I'm not a journalist, but this skill is very helpful in "real" life too. All people can have a variety of opinions, some deeply held, some changing all the time, but some people confuse opinion with fact and it is a major reason reason for conflict.

Opinions are judgements (hopefully) based on facts, facts are verifiable

For a little more detail, here's a pretty good assessment I won't go into detail, but a key thing to consider is "how can I disprove this?". If it is possible to disprove something, then it's probably an opinion. If two different people can observe different "facts" in the same situation, it's still an opinion. If no matter how hard you try, you can't disprove something, it's probably a fact.

So now, for my illustration of the differences (using recent events as an example). Recently, there were riots in Greece. This is verifiable from multiple sources and there are multiple pieces of photographic evidence to this. Generally, you COULD hold the opinion that all this evidence is faked by some huge conspiracy that is seeking to misinform you (and some people hold this to be true...unbelievably), but it would make your world so small because the only thing you could really trust is your own opinion based on your personal life experience and perception of the world. If you instead trust that other people can report facts to you reliably, you simply need to strip their opinions away and you can get to some kernel of "fact".

Let's look at how this has been reported in the news: Fox News has the headline "Greek police use tear gas, stun grenades to quell anti-Obama protesters in Athens". This is a really catchy and emotional statement that seems to imply Fox News has intimate knowledge of the protesters' intent. While an interesting opinion, there are many manufactured pieces of information that are presented in a manner that implies the people reporting the news are somehow omniscient and can know "why" the rioters are protesting. Nowhere does it explain how they know that communists are protesting a visit by President Obama, it's just floated as a fact (but is really an opinion). At the very end of the article, there is a quote which reads "American imperialism has not changed," Lafazanis said Tuesday. "The U.S. presidents and administrations have played — and still play — a leading part in the bailout-linked plundering of our country ... and their interventions are drowning our part of the world in blood and creating refugee waves." which seems to imply that Panagiotis Lafanzis a Populist politician in Greece is very angry with United States foreign policy. Makes sense, I respect his opinion and understand why he might feel that way.

Now, another source, CNN proclaims: Arrests in Athens as protest turns violent during Obama's visit to Greece. This seems to only state verifiable facts... President Obama is in Greece, people rioted and were arrested. Furthermore, in reading the article there are no statements that aren't attributed to a source about the rioters INTENT or theories about their THOUGHTS, simply clearly written statements about "what happened" and "who did what".

Finally, we have The Telegraph and their headline is: Greece crisis: a second day of riots in Athens (they're a few hours ahead of the US so they're reporting day 2). They have a bit of colorful opinion, because they're stating the opinion that Greece is in a crisis...not sure how they can possibly know that is or isn't fact, knowing if something is a crisis or not is inherently an opinion, so I'd have to ignore that judgement. What's interesting about this (very brief) article is that we get the nugget of information that the protesters were a group of communists who had a legal permit to protest and they were attacked by a mob of counter protesters. Funny that this information is somehow lost to CNN and Fox News, but mostly just an observation on "what is important" to different news agencies.

After analysis, my opinion is that it's reasonable that pro capitalist (or plain 'ol anarchist) folks attacked a bunch of people they disagree with. It's difficult for me to understand how Fox News reached the conclusion that anyone was protesting for or against President Obama, but it's stoutly proclaimed in such a manner that an uninformed reader might believe to be a fact. Again, to read through the bias, it takes a bit of mental training to ask yourself "how do they know that?" and "can I prove or disprove it?", if the answer to those two questions is either "I don't know", or "they must have information I don't have that they didn't share", or "I don't really care, I want to believe it and it fits within my worldview so i won't challenge it", you're probably reading about folks opinions, not facts.

P.S. Japan Times has an even better article...better meaning it has more facts than any of the other three and almost zero opinion...

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The end of election 2016 is near! (Thank God)

I'm not really a political guy, in my lifetime, I've voted for: Bush, Clinton, Nader, Mccain, and Obama, so it should be clear I'm all over the board and have no political affiliation (If you're keeping score, that's 2 Republicans, 2 Democrats, and a Green Party candidate). In previous elections I was largely indifferent to the primaries and really only started researching a month or so before the election. The cycle, while I still ignored the primaries (largely), I did a little bit of research as the VERY broad republican field and the interesting wild card (Bernie Sanders) on the Democratic ticket was unavoidable (thanks twitter and Facebook! :).

As we near election day, I thought I'd share my observations as a person who "doesn't have a horse in the race". What I mean by this is the following:

  • I don't care about political ideologies... Political Parties such as: Republican, Democrat, Green, Constitution, Natural Law, Pirate (yeah, it's a thing, look it up) all are just marketing ploys. If you're a staunch "Party person" you probably can stop reading because your unconscious bias is just going to be a problem...I know this, it's've made your decision and I'm OK with it.
  • I don't care about media hype, hyperbole, ad-hominem attacks, and the 30 other ways folks are unconsciously manipulated. I prefer to challenge myself and my perspective about things to try and get to an understanding of what candidates "real" agendas are. If you're a particular fan of a candidate and have dreams about how wonderful they are, you may want to stop reading. The fact is, largely based on what I believe to be fairly strong scientific evidence, most candidates are Ego Centric Narcissists and many are probably Psychopaths. It's OK, because to do the job you need that to do the job...The only alternatives to these are #1 an almost superhuman ability to rise above the fray (I think our current President falls into this category), or #2 an almost subhuman sense of self in that you don't even care what people say because it isn't "YOU" they're talking about, it's "the party" (I'd put Bush Jr into this category).
  • I think most US media outlets have a general bias so I spend a lot of time on alternate outlets. I DO still read/watch fox news and NPR (my conservative and liberal outlets), but also follow CNN (slight liberal bias), Al-Jazeera (somewhat conservative if a bit focused on the middle east), Deutsche Welle (slight conservative bias for US topics, slight liberal for German), and the BBC (seems to be all over the board, but fairly liberal...).

My assessment of the two main candidates this year follows:

  • Donald Trump - He's running because he wants to 'Make Trump Great Again'...He gives zero shits about the "working man" or "America" except as a source of labor in the first case and a legal system for him to exploit others in the latter case. He's not really a great businessman but a GREAT marketer (he's probably better than PT Barnum IMHO). A vote for Trump is going to be good for America as long as he can actually do things to keep his ego afloat...anything that challenges that (like congress being in a deadlock and him being unable to actually DO anything) will cause him to lash out. He's going to be a great president for SNL and Comedy Central, but I think in general he will be unable to get ANYTHING done. As he has been unable to articular any concrete plans except "build a wall", we MAY see a jobs boost in the skilled trades and manual labor market as we hire millions of people to build this wall (assuming he can actually make that happen), but in the end I personally think it's a boondoggle. Perhaps, if we're lucky, that will translate into a better appreciation for this underserved area of the market and he'll be able to create infrastructure advances. As this will likely also serve his needs, he might be "good for America" and actually "make America greater than it already is", only time will tell.
  • Hillary Clinton - She's running because she believes she wants to improve the general state of affairs (pun intended) in the United States. As an egghead and political animal, she is very qualified to actually "get things done", and is willing to wheel, deal, negotiate, strong-arm, lie, cheat, and any other political maneuvering necessary to achieve her goals. Her goals seem genuinely well intended, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with. I think personally, she will be able to make effective, but only incremental, changes to things and in general we'll see her able to both articulate plans, but also report on progress. Many of these reports might just be spin or outright fabrication, but in four years I think we'll likely be only a small increment ahead of where we are right now.

Given those two statements, the question really is: Do I take a huge gamble and possibly live through another era of "Bush Jr" where the president is an embarrassment and just grunt through it...with the potential for an upside....or do I take the safe bet and have another "Clinton" presidency. It's a tough call this year, and I might just be inclined to throw my hat in the ring with another independent (perhaps Gary Johnson) knowing that they'll unlikely to get 270 votes, and even if they did, they'll likely be ineffective, but at least more of an idealist instead of being so ego driven.

For all the folks that think Trump is going to start WW III, it's doubtful to me. For the folks that think Clinton is somehow "unfit" because of all her scandals and other sketchy're just wrong and worrying about the wrong stuff. They're both qualified --enough-ish--, make your choice and look forward to 2 years with election drama taking a sideline to cat photos in your Facebook feed. I, for one, cannot wait...

That is all...