Confirmation Bias and the Dangers of the Internet

When people ask me why I have this blog, my usual response is to say that I write to give myself the knowledge I wish I had in 2013. That was the time when I was trying to up my game in sales. It’s also when I was asked to help build a website design agency with my friend.

The problem is that in the 2 or so years of having this blog, I don’t think I have been doing a good job of that. I’ve been holding back.

Not intentionally, but there is a lot of information out there that tells you to niche down and focus on only a couple of items so that you can build authority and be found online.

I thought I was doing a decent job of creating content around the areas that I am passionate about (sales, marketing, business, and constant improvement) but I think I have been leaving out some information that would be very helpful.

The plan is to stop caring about algorithms, growth, and everything else that I’m normally so focused on.

Now that is out of the way, let’s dig into this.

COVID sucks.

I mean, it really sucks on so many levels.

And to make matters worse, the media spin on both sides has gotten to a level that is unbearable. The lies, the exaggerations, the finger-pointing. It’s all too much.

I can go on and on about the 24-hour news cycle that we all live in and takes up so much of our time. I can talk about how ad revenue is more important than actual news. I can talk about how people just like terrible news because we are wired for it, so everything is exaggerated or drummed up for dramatic effect. 

I could go on and on, but that isn’t the real goal of this post.

Because there is SO MUCH information out there, it’s literally pouring out of our phone screens, everyone thinks that they are an expert. Everyone thinks that their data is the best and is always looking to rip up someone else’s opinions.

Add the distance and relative anonymity of social media, and the whole thing escalates so much faster.

When you start to dig into how search engines work, your view changes. I have been exploring that side of Google for a while now because you have to if you are going to be in business and do anything around digital marketing.

They get paid to show you what you want to see. There is big money in making sure that your content and articles show up before a competitor. 

The way you word your questions has never been more important because, essentially, Google is the best way to reinforce your confirmation bias.

If you’ve never heard of this, confirmation bias is the idea that when you have your mind made up about something, you either consciously or subconsciously look for information that lines up with your perception, and you avoid (often not consciously) the information that doesn’t agree with you.

As a real-life example, (because this doesn’t just occur on the internet), I trained in Kung Fu for 15 years. And during that whole time, I was subtly taught that all other arts were inferior to the point that I actually believed it. I believed that many of them, including and maybe even especially Jiu-Jitsu, had no technique. They were just about being strong and/or fast. 

And I’m positive that I looked into it and found plenty of search results that confirmed that belief. 

Then I left Kung Fu, needed something else, and Jiu-Jitsu was recommended. Sceptically at first, I tried it out and quickly found that all of my beliefs about it were completely wrong. 

So you can see how easy it is to get so entrenched in one belief system and never find anything to sway you. 

And the internet makes this so incredibly easy. It’s literally designed to keep people on one path and eventually put money in people’s pockets. Whether it’s political campaigns, charities, or just products or services. 

That’s why the wording of your searches is so important.

If you go and search for “do Facebook ads work?” you are probably going to get a lot of information telling you that it does. And you’ll see ads offering services for building or improving them. If you search for “do Facebook ads really work?”, you’ll see a lot of the same articles stating that it does. But you’ll also see more ads offering services for both Facebook and non-Facebook advertising. And you might even find some that claim they don’t work and will point you to something else.

The assumption with that small difference is that they assume that if you’re asking if they “really” work, that you are more open to paying somebody to help you.

Then what happens is when you land on whatever site you click the link for, you are going to get tagged with something called a pixel. A pixel is a little bit of tracking data that savvy marketers will use for a number of things.

With almost every search result, there’s probably going to be an agenda. Joining email lists, selling products/services, or just gathering more info to show you more of what you’re interested in. And as you probably already know, it goes beyond just googling.

You start seeing ads for a product you looked at on Amazon. That’s the result of you hitting that page and getting tagged. Then you see it pop up in your social feeds, and it reinforces the authority of the brand. You remember it from shopping, so you “like” the page, the post, or comment. 

And you’re way more likely to buy it the more you see it.

Then the moment you “like” a page on Facebook, you raise your hand to every digital marketer trying to generate interest and engagement for other brands or companies that are peripheral to the page you just liked.

Believe it or not, it’s not necessarily as insidious as it sounds. Sure, marketing and targeting exist so that companies can make money. But typically, it’s beneficial for consumers as well. 

When everything goes the way it should, people find the products or services that they need and want. They find companies and brands that align with their values 

As a technical guy, I love how all this works and it does some very cool things for helping a company grow and scale. There are some big brother aspects to it, but there are ways around it.

The really scary part though is that this isn’t just about shopping. 

A recent and ongoing study was done with over 5 million users and 1.5 billion pages loads to see how much tracking is going on.  Over 70% of the sites studied use tracking tools to follow you after you visit the website. While the average number of tracking tools per site is 8, 33% use over 10. 

And the most prevalent sites using multiple tracking tools… are news sites. 

The media and political parties use these same systems to manipulate messaging. And that’s the thing that really chafes me.

There are a lot of other people who do a better job of explaining this than I do, so I will let you wander deeper down this rabbit hole if you want to.

My point in saying all this is that, the constant pushing of marketing is not healthy for us in the long run. Everything you are doing is giving information to people who would love to use it for their own ends. 

It is just a matter of time before the wave after wave of targeting and messaging will slowly wear you down until things that didn’t seem interesting before, now do. Things that seemed ridiculous and impossible might start to make some sense. 

Because of what you’ve searched for in the past, all of your searches will continue showing you results to confirm the spin you’re in. 

And, to be clear, it’s coming from both sides of the table. Again, the media is designed to draw you in, so they make it as big and interesting as they can to get more clicks.

All media. Left, right, and middle, the supposedly “unbiased.”

Democrats are inundated with information that builds the belief that all Republicans are gun-toting, bible thumping, homophobic, racist bigots that put party and money before people.

Republicans are inundated with information that builds the belief that all Democrats are tree-hugging, religion bashing, baby-killing, socialist anti-Americans who have no idea what would be best for the country. 

Both are taught that the other side is bad. And they’re both incredibly wrong. 

What I am saying is that it is hard to change your mind, in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. We are stuck at home, apart from others, and too connected to the news and social media.

And unless you’re able to set up multiple roadblocks to limit or stop these tracking tools, (something that’s possible but not easy), you have to be very intentional about how you search for and interpret results. 

Here is what would have helped me 3 years ago.

Own your inbox; don’t let people into it on a whim.

Own your data and make sure you are aware that it is being used both for and against you and consider your stance on that.

And stop thinking in terms of “always, never, everybody, nobody.” There are nuances and exceptions to almost everything.

When I see something in the news now, I try to use the questions as a stumbling block to making sure I am not letting my mind get out of hand.

  • Why do I believe this is correct?
  • Is there some sort of proof, or am I having to take them at their word?
  • Could it be viewed in another way? How?
  • If someone believes the other side of this than I do, are they actually a bad person?
  • How do I know for certain?
  • Would I bet on that?

These questions help me check my thinking and biases to make sure I am not building a vacuum around myself.

And yes, it is almost impossible not to have some kind of vacuum. Having your beliefs and values be challenged is uncomfortable, to say the least. 

But it’s important if you want to have a more open-minded, inclusive, and empathetic view of the world and people around you. 

Kids question everything. And as adults, we tend to lose that ability and drive. Shouldn’t we work to change that?