In the wonderful world of Internet politics, it’s common for people to freak out about an outrageous story that seems less outrageous as more information comes out. But all this really does is reveal our biases, and even though I’ve known that for awhile, I can now offer quantitative evidence for it thanks to Reddit.
Earlier this week libertarians and conservatives were going ballistic about a North Carolina preschooler who was forced to eat cafeteria nuggets because a state inspector determined her home-packed turkey sandwich and banana wasn’t nutritional enough. The story hit all the right buttons: the government setting arbitrary standards about health, the government wasting money, the government messing with children and usurping the right of the parent. It made me angry, and I was planning to whip up a blog post about the increasing tyranny of government around the United States, combining this story with the ones about the LA County frisbee fine and the Amish milk farm shutdown.
But before I had time to do that, I was alerted to an article by Josh Barro imploring conservatives to dial back the hysteria as more details were coming out. He noted that the story had “been picked up in large swathes of the libertarian and conservative blogospheres,” but apparently the mother had volunteered for the lunch program, which apparently had something to do with the school getting more money for signing up more kids, and apparently there wasn’t actually a “state inspector” rummaging through preschool lunch boxes like a diabolical food Nazi. The story still contained plenty for a good conservative or libertarian to be concerned about, but Barro seemed to take the outrageous, anger-rousing, door-busting edge off of it. I was glad I hadn’t rushed out a post about a story that was simply “too bad to be true” (although I would love to one day be important enough to be chided by people like Barro). It looked like a classic conservative freakout and backtrack.
Of course, the less-outrageous follow-up details didn’t make as many waves in anti-government waters. At this moment the discussion over the first article stands at 77 net upvotes in /r/libertarian; meanwhile, a follow-up article has only mustered 28. Those with an anti-government bias paid more attention to the outrageous story that confirmed their view of government, and less attention to the story that didn’t.
Now the reddit community at large, which is rather liberal, paid little attention to the first outrageous story (it never got more than a handful of votes in the subreddits where it was posted outside of /r/libertarian). But they paid a whole lot of the attention to the second anti-outrageous story that confirmed their bias about conservatives. One of those other discussions got over 1100 net upvotes and was featured on the front page. It’s full of comments about how much conservatives hate poor people and how they’re always engaging in smear campaigns like this one. So now the liberals are all worked up about the conservatives being worked up, but if the story really had been as outrageous as we thought at first, they never would have paid any attention to it!
But wait, there’s more. Now there’s a detailed story about a second North Carolina mother complete with an alleged document from the principal (Barro has added an update to his aforementioned post). Is the story tipping back into the outrageous libertarian view? I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THE TRUTH IS ON THIS STORY RIGHT NOW. But I am very certain of this: no matter how outrageous or non-outrageous the real story is, conservatives and liberals will both ignore or never hear about the angle that doesn’t confirm their bias, and conservatives and liberals will both get extremely worked up about the angle that does. And since this story has multiple layers, we get the increasing bonus of smug vitriol aimed at the opponents who are armed with fewer respective layers. “That story was proved to be bogus you dumb Tea Partier!” “You didn’t hear about the second mother that came forward, you stupid liberal!” (This sort of thing happens every time someone brings up Bush’s war budget accounting in a Megan McArdle comment thread.)
Ah, but it’s not just the conservatives that start these freak-outs, either. Also this week: Someone at the conservative Heartland Institute got tricked into emailing some internal files to someone who leaked them to the public. The organization is involved in climate change skepticism (or “denial,” if you prefer), and there was an immediate liberal uproar about this evidence of Heartland’s attack on science. The most “gotcha” quotes came from a strategic memo that talked about plans to dissuade teachers “from teaching science” and that sort of thing. Well, just like the conservatives and the nugget nannies, this story pressed all the liberal buttons. It hit the front page of reddit with almost 2000 net upvotes, full of disgusted comments about “f***ing mindless, blatant selfishness” and “Koch whore astroturfers” and everything else.
But just like the nuggets, more details came out suggesting that things weren’t quite as outrageous. Anthony Watts confidently announced that the incriminating memo was a fabrication. It wasn’t too surprising that Watts would be defensive, but then Megan McArdle went after the extremely suspicious memo – and she doesn’t even disagree with the climate change “consensus.” When presented with this evidence, liberals still don’t seem to like the leaked documents. But the picture of an evil-doing, money-hungry, science-hating, corporate-funded conservative organization doesn’t paint quite as clearly if this memo is really a forgery. But posts like these have only gotten a dozen or so net votes across reddit.
Call it confirmation bias. Mood affiliation. Whatever. As stories develop on the world wide web, the most outrageous parts get the most attention by people who expect such things based on their biases. People don’t look as much for the less outrageous context that doesn’t confirm those biases. Fewer people click on less outrageous headlines. People don’t get as angry or excited and don’t tell as many people about the less outrageous details. Now for the next ten years, drive-by commenters who only heard the first outrageous story will be bringing up the Carolina nuggets and the Heartland leak in respective articles as evidence of the other side’s outrageousness. It’s enough to make one despair of this whole Internet thing.
Yet I try not to be too pessimistic about it. Outrageous confirmation bias has the unfortunate effect of further entrenching people in their biased views, but that’s the worst of it – especially if the real events weren’t really that outrageous. And these mostly harmless rage storms have a silver lining: they help protect us from the things that truly are outrageous. Now I know that if the government really was forcefully inspecting children’s lunchboxes, I could count on conservative and libertarians around the country to raise a wild ruckus. And if, say, corporations started trying to buy outrageous controls from the government, I know I could count on Reddit to make an unholy scene (what’s that? They already did this to SOPA? And helped kill it? Oh, thanks, guys!).
It’s not a perfect place out here. It’s sad that the real truth is hard to find. But, hey, it’s a complicated world, and this is the best we can do. Overall I think, or at least I like to think, that technology is giving more power to individuals and less power to corrupt authorities, despite their best efforts to turn that tide. Biased rage storms are probably here to stay, but you can help limit them by recognizing your own biases and maintaining a healthy skepticism about new stories that seem “too bad to be true.” I’m trying to do the same.