Fighting Bias and Misinformation, from Pierre Bayle’s 17th Century to the Social Media Age

Many people insist that media bias and misinformation are getting worse in the social media age, and we need to do something about it. Depending on whether one leans Democratic or Republican, tech companies are either not doing enough to stop right-wing misinformation from spreading, or are censoring legitimate conservative content. Some conservatives feel so aggrieved they are even pushing to revive the fairness doctrine, which they used to oppose.

Bias and misinformation are impossible to measure, which puts a rather obvious damper on peoples’ certainty about them. Ironically, this is at least partially because of the human brain’s built-in biases, such as recency bias, availability bias, and pessimistic bias. In fact, media bias and misinformation are nothing new, and have likely gotten neither better nor worse over time.

These problems have been around so long that the 17th century philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote in an issue of his 1680s periodical Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters):

“History is dished up very much like meat. Each nation and religion takes the same raw facts and dresses them in a sauce of its own taste, and each reader finds them true or false according to whether they agree or disagree with his prejudices.”

More than 300 years later, this holds up well. And it’s not just with history. People also put their own tastes on current events. Different people take identical facts and prepare them differently, usually in line with whatever their ideological priors are.

Just being aware that everyone does this can go a long way toward minimizing the harmful effects of bias and misinformation. Beyond awareness, there are also many simple, low-effort actions one can take, some of which Bayle might endorse if he were alive today:

  • Avoid cable news channels. They do not inform people, so much as get them riled up. People who feel outraged click on more articles, keep the TV on, and generate more ad revenue. Outlets encourage this by framing news stories as us-vs.-them struggles first, and only secondarily by presenting information. These are two very different things! Learn to tell them apart. If you find yourself getting outraged over something a personality figure from the other political party said, or about the culture war story of the day, that’s usually a good sign that you’re getting riled up rather than informed. There are better uses for your time, and for your blood pressure.
  • Purge low-quality sources from your social media feeds (or abstain entirely). Use those mute and block buttons on people who post low-quality content that does not add value to your feed. That’s your space, and you can curate it however you want. If someone’s posts are mostly outrage stories, your social media feed will likely be both more enjoyable and more informative if they are not part of it. Spend some real-life time with that person instead, which will likely elicit better social etiquette. People are more considerate of others when they are face to face rather than venting their spleen, alone, into a keyboard.
  • Put a little effort into statistical literacy, and be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true stories that appeal to your ideological priors. Arming yourself with the right tools is as easy as picking up a layman-friendly book or two. Financial Times columnist and BBC presenter (and friend of CEI) Tim Harford’s latest book, The Data Detective, is an excellent guide that is also a delight to read. I also recommend Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I reviewed earlier on this blog. Jonathan Rauch’s new book The Constitution of Knowledge has a lot wisdom, which he also shared earlier this year at a CEI online event. My colleague Iain Murray strongly recommends his old boss’ book, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter’s It Ain’t Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality. Reading a chapter a day from any of these books is a far better use of 30 minutes than getting outraged over Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow’s latest rant.
  • Keep an eye on the longer arcs of history, not just today’s ephemeraElizabeth Nolan Brown’s recent Reason article “40 Ways Things Are Getting Better” is one example of journalism that gets this. There are plenty of reasons for short-term pessimism; that keep groups like CEI busy. But there is also a strong case for long-run optimism. Both can simultaneously be true, as CEI founder Fred Smith captured in his “Despairing Optimist” letters. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and his new book How Innovation Works, for which he also did a CEI event, are immensely helpful for seeing the big picture.

Notice that none of these strategies involve government regulating political speech. They are all ideas that you and I can implement right now; change begins at home. Ultimately, individuals hold power over bias and misinformation, not the other way around. We should learn to use that power wisely, and not delegate it away to Washington, where it will get politicized and misused. It takes some effort, which is why many people don’t bother. But the payoff is worth it.

Pierre Bayle had a good sense of this dynamic. He was an important bridge figure between the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment—which means he helped to inspire modernity as we know it. He emphasized the virtues of tolerance and skepticism by individuals, in part because he was forced into exile from his native France over his religious beliefs. He settled in the more tolerant Netherlands, where he produced works in astronomy, philosophy, religion, literature, and even produced the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), an early encyclopedia that predated Denis Diderot’s more famous 1751 Encyclopédie by 60 years. France’s outrage-induced loss was the Netherlands’ gain, and ours.

We live in better times. But the lessons Bayle took from his day’s outrage culture are still useful in dealing with today’s excesses. Times change, but people are people, wherever you go. That is mostly to the good—though as we see in the news and on social media, not entirely. There is always reason for optimism, if we know how to look for and act on it.

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