Media and Political Bias Isn’t Binary

Nor is it just news media bias. As we saw with the recent revelations in the New York Times story, it extends to (anti-)social media as well (see The New York Times: 14 November 2018: Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Mathew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas: “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis”). It also happens in non-news programming.

There is a tendency to believe that if the media is biased against conservatives, it can’t also be biased against progressives. This is clearly false, as bias is anchored on difference, and the media has its own political culture to defend.

The media is biased against conservatives in some ways, and some of those biases are reasonable; for example, being pro-environment and therefore biased against those who are indifferent, at best, to the environment. But the media is also biased against progressives, seeming to believe that math works differently when it applies to money, and therefore that a universal healthcare system is rainbows on roses and whiskey-toting kittens.

The right-wing uses this effect as a handy political signal. They made hay of the IRS looking for political groups in social welfare clothing. They made hay of (anti-)social media having a bias. But we know in both cases that the IRS also targeted progressive groups and that Facebook has a bias against progressive criticism.

The constancy of the “Democrats in Disarray” narrative is such that you could set your watch, if you still wore one. The media dutifully revives the notion of the “fiscal conservative” like it’s a civilian costume on a superhero. Poof! Where did the tax-slashing big-spending party go? Nobody here but us arch-penny-pinching conservatives.

We saw the ultimate absurdity of this media tendency on several occasions in Trump’s first year or so. He would read a speech, and the media actually thought it was worth pretending he was presidential. They still give enough gravitas to him, merely for occupying the oval office, that they’ll print his lies as headlines.

Media bias is a thing. It comes in many forms. Not all of them are unreasonable, but every one of them is acknowledgable, and those that aren’t reasonable should be discarded.

How to Fight Fake News

First, a proper definition of the problem. The problem of democracy is always about the electorate choosing the people who will best-advance government, given the difficulty of figuring who that is, the complex tradeoffs at hand, and limited information.

The Russian Federation Fake News and any other rogue propaganda from any nation state agent are therefore just a subset of the problem of a dirty information stream flowing to the electorate. Trying to solve the de-Putinification of social platforms and the larger web, even if that were possible by itself, would not solve the larger problem.

So, we look to traditional noise problems for inspiration.


From Wikipedia: “Signal-to-noise ratio”: Improving SNR in practice:

It is often possible to reduce the noise by controlling the environment. Otherwise, when the characteristics of the noise are known and are different from the signals, it is possible to filter it or to process the signal.

From Wikipedia: “Combined sewer”:

This type of gravity sewer design is no longer used in building new communities (because current design separates sanitary sewers from runoff), but many older cities continue to operate combined sewers.

From Wikipedia: “Ad blocking”: Methods:

The more advanced ad blocking filter software allow fine-grained control of advertisements through features such as blacklists, whitelists, and regular expression filters.

From Wikipedia: “Bug bounty program”:

These programs allow the developers to discover and resolve bugs before the general public is aware of them, preventing incidents of widespread abuse.


Unless you can eliminate the source of contamination, you must rely on some sort of filter. It can be a complete sequestration of the contaminant (in the case of separating wastewater from runoff) or it can be a processing filter as with ad blocks or some radio noise removal systems.

The platforms that act as inlets of pollution may have their own cases against adopting of appropriate filters here, which makes it a harder problem.

But some combination should work to reduce the noise.

Separate the streams

In the vein of sewerage, social sites can make a hard break between reputable periodicals and up-and-comers. This should not present a barrier to entry, but should be based upon independently-verifiable indicators such as readership, credential-issuance by major organizations, and other factors. They should likely separate opinion and commentary from reporting for similar reasons.

This is in line with what companies often do. Newspapers separate opinion from reporting, and Valve Software, maker of the Steam game platform, separates humorous reviews from serious reviews for similar reasons. It’s something social sites should do, too.

Strength-in-numbers

Google and other search engines have long sought to fight against those gaming their rankings. Many of those techniques can be employed to de-rank noise, including looking for multiple, independent submissions that give credence to a source before spreading it. This is also similar to Wikipedia‘s notability requirement for article creation.

While this technique will not eliminate much, it does raise the bar for cranks to inject their swill, as it will be easier to identify when a group is colluding to post noise unless they expend considerable effort to make their fake accounts seem credible.

Check for divergence

Most credibly-sourced news content contains a chunk of background that isn’t new, with a small supplement that is new. Fake news tends not to follow that rule, and looking for that can be useful. Again, the enemies of signal may work to change their formats to avoid this detection, but it raises their costs considerably.

Make ads public

Finally, micro-targeted advertising creates the problem that it is not readily subjected to many eyeballs who can debunk it or call it out. If advertising platforms were required to maintain records of all the ads they serve, allowing for independent review, it would help guard against abuse.

Alternatively, if regulators and advertisers are opposed, browser extensions that automatically upload copies of ads to a non-profit service could enable this practice.

A brand opportunity

Apple has tried to brand themselves privacy-conscious. Google attempts to tout speed and security. Mozilla, openness. Microsoft… has a marketing problem, because I’m not sure what their salespitch even is now.

But the point is that all these browser and OS vendors can work on the problem of fake news and try to brand themselves the one that gives you the tool to quash the invasion.


These are just some ideas of how to combat propaganda in our news feeds. The problem is worth working on. It’s not impossible, as we have had noise problems in other areas and have done a lot to minimize them.

Bad Titles in Social Media

Did you read the title to this post?  If you’re like me, you read titles.  There’s so much data every day, and a title, like an email subject, lets you quickly acquire the context for that item.

But there is a problem in the Social Media realm (I’ll get to the rest of the media shortly) whereby many users are able to submit or title content without giving it much thought.  The main issue from where I stand is the users do not take their audience into account.  That is, some types of titles are appropriate in some communities.

Humor communities often rely on the surprise of the punch line, and so it’s still appropriate to put some of the set-up in the title without giving a full title that would indicate the type of humor or content explicitly.

Communities centered on a particular viewpoint (eg, video games) need not avoid opinion in titles.  If their community agrees that bans on violent games are ill-conceived, they don’t have to avoid that (“Idiot politician wants to ban fun!” might be fine there).

But even in these places, ongoing responses to previous items should provide at least some context.  If there’s been a series of posts and you happen to have been busy that week, it’s a lot like coming out of a coma to find out that the robots have won.

And then there’s the media at large.  Often they have experience in making headlines that push agendas (mainly the agenda that you buy their media or keep watching it).  And they use that to the detriment of their readership.  That’s quickly becoming part of Social Media, too.

The solution I follow in dealing with bad titles is to ignore those items, just like I do items from unsavory sources and spam.  I’m pretty sure that’s the best way, as bad titles aren’t going anywhere, but they shouldn’t be encouraged.

Even if the content of an item is worthwhile, it’s like buying something packaged in that horrendous clamshell plastic: not worth it.  Either someone will submit the item in good packaging, or you’ll spend your money and time on something else.

In closing, I’ve recently got my drawing tablet to work in Linux, so here’s something I drew:

Mishmash of shapes and colors...