27 November 2014

Ferguson – Big Data, Bias and a Megaphone

I cannot seem to escape the retinue of updates from my Facebook friends sending me their points of views on what is happening in Ferguson. Actually, I look forward to my friends’ opinions. First, they are very smart. Second, I am always interested in views and counter views. Unfortunately for me though, my friends are not sending me their views / counter views after looking at a lot of data and then taking the time to write out their well formed opinions.

What I am getting is my friends sending me yet another link – with a line penned by them which basically says “Yeah – whatever he said”. Funny part is that if one puts all the so-called-facts from all my friends’ links together, it makes for a real self-contradictory hodge podge of a story.

I asked myself what might be driving this behavior. In my own analysis (admittedly, I am not the sharpest analyst around) this is a by product of three things. First, we have a “Big Data” problem. Second, we have the problem that we do not recognize “Bias” within ourselves. Third, technology platforms like FB, blogs etc give each one of us a big, faceless “Megaphone”.

First the big data problem: Given any event, it used to be that the sources of information were limited in number – you know there were a few newspapers and a few TV channels creating original content. Today, there are numerous blog sites, talking heads, expert columns and so on spewing out zillions and zillions of points of views / opinions / “facts”. As a consumer of information that is just way too much information to digest. You do not have time nor the ability to process all that. That is a true Big Data problem.

Then comes the Bias angle. Forget the biases of the creators of content. As a human being, faced with the Big Data problem, we narrow down our sources of information. And without exception, we choose sources that bolster our inherent belief (bias). There is a fascinating book that deals with this cognitive bias topic called Descartes’ Error. For whatever it is worth, cognitive bias was absolutely required for humankind to survive. In this case, though, it serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one believes the police officer committed cold blooded murder, one always gravitates towards articles and blogs that quote “facts” making the above case. Similarly, for those who believe the police officer had to kill as a self defense. One has great doubts when reading “facts” suggesting the opposite of one’s inherent belief. It creates a conflict between the limbic part of our brain and the neo-cortex part of our brain that makes us very very uncomfortable.

As an example, none of my friends ever post two different links – one making the case and one negating the case. In fact, for most of my friends, based on their past posts, I can predict with pretty good accuracy which way their latest link is going to opine.

Finally, you have this great thing called social media, blogs and such. They are great platforms. But like every platforms, they are merely tools. They have their positives and their negatives. One of the feature of these platforms is that it lends its user a big megaphone. It allows the user to say anything. Usually without much “talk back”. When is the last time you have seen, in any blog, a comment has been as long as the post itself? Or the same person walking into a party and as freely opening up the topic of discussion by stating his and her points of views without solicitation?

The above three often interplay in very interesting ways. Have you noticed how most of the time the comments to posts are made by people who agree rather than disagree – especially on divisive topics like politics, religion etc? That is the Megaphone and Bias playing together. And guess what happens when people use the Megaphone to talk about how they so much agree with views that agree with their “Bias”. They create more “Big Data”!!!

My point is not that people should not express their points of views. They absolutely should. I look forward to those, hopefully, opposing views. But I would love the courtesy of somebody writing out their thoughts instead of sending me all those links. Usually, I do not follow those links.

Perfect would be if one could make the points, the counterpoints and then give his or her opinion on where her belief system is pointing to. Now, that would be a great post to read. Not like the boring ones I write ๐Ÿ™‚

Posted November 27, 2014 by Rajib Roy in category "Musings


  1. By Ramesh Krishnan on

    The biggest bias is the “outgroup homogenity bias”. We assume that in an outgroup ( not our group ) an individual perfectly represents a group. An incident by an AA typifies his race.. Or an act by a cop typifies the entire cops. With such bias, we attribute attitudes to behaviours of outgroup and it always ends up in a mess. The only way out is to think people as individuals and not as members of a group. However this has to be an overt effort and the default human thinking is otherwise (a rudiment of survival instinct of early human history)

  2. By Manish Bhatia on

    Most of the times comments to posts are by people who agree. Really? Clearly you have not followed threads on the recent Indian election.

    Or maybe your sample has very few Indians. Cos the threads I read have lots of posts from people disagreeing.

    And you that now has at least one post.

  3. By Manish Bhatia on

    Most of the times comments to posts are by people who agree. Really? Clearly you have not followed threads on the recent Indian election.

    Or maybe your sample has very few Indians. Cos the threads I read have lots of posts from people disagreeing.

    And you that now has at least one post.

  4. By Manish Bhatia on

    Raghu Ram I got an error on my facebook phone app saying post was unsuccessful, click here to retry. So I did. Clearly facebook needs to learn how to build better apps.

  5. By Shelly Semrad on

    Well- I have forwarded a few links that I have read, and that make finer points than I could elucidate. I think that the entire situation could have been handled much better from start to finish. The saddest thing is that we are seldom our best selves. Another very sad thing is that we seem to become complacent and it seems difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our brothers. The third thing that is sad, is that we forget that those “other people”?

    They are our brothers.

  6. By Sibapriya Dasgupta on

    Sometimes the bias is towards the authority, the poweful, the majority so that I might not be branded as an outsider and it is all due to the lurking fear, the fear deep down..insecurity!

  7. By Rich Huffman on

    Shelly said it pretty well.

    My take is that the cop probably wasn’t acting out of racism per se, but out of bigotry towards those in that poor, crime riddled neighborhood based on his and his fellow cop’s experiences.

    That said, the cop should have to stand trial if for no other reason than to get the facts out in the open for all to see. The way this was handled feels too much like a cover up.

    Obviously, anytime an unarmed man is shot eight times by a supposed “professional”, wrongful death has occurred. It isn’t an accident and it is hard from a distance to blame the victim here. So a trial would at least air out all the details.

    In the end, I personally think it was involuntary manslaughter, but I am purely making a judgement based on very limited facts – so my opinion means nothing.

  8. By Narayan Venkatasubramanyan on

    i think your post has a bit of a problem: you talk about the “big data problem … zillions and zillions of points of views / opinions / “facts””. notice that the only *data* you pointed to was in quotes. the truth is that no one really knows what happened in this particular instance. perhaps those who have examined all the testimony before the grand jury could be said to be closer to the facts but i wonder how many people have done that. i know i haven’t. even if i did, there is one account of what happened that is missing from that testimony. in short, what we have here is at best an incomplete set of data. further, this data includes conflicting accounts coming from people who have their own biases that makes their testimony suspect.

    the situation is further confounded by social media. it is hard enough to keep your personal biases out of reporting when you’re a professional journalist. on social media, you see a proliferation of narratives, each narrative threading together a subset of facts, liberally embellished to suit the biases of the author. these narratives form the basis of a range of opinions. if you apply a metaphorical machete to the undergrowth of narratives and opinion, what you’re really left with is this: something happened and someone died.

    but then things happen and people die all the time. roughly 90 people die every day in road accidents in the u.s. alone. none of these draws the same level of attention. the reason why this one stands out is that it reminds people of a lingering problem that goes far beyond the individuals involved. it is clear that the black community in the u.s. — or at least the more vocal elements of that community — feels that the institutions that underpin society do not work for them. the rest of american society would like to think that we’re beyond that. the former would like to see this incident as an example of that. the latter would like to believe that this was anything but that.

    that larger problem will continue to be ignored as long as we continue to quarrel over the details of this one incident. the bigger question is far more difficult because it goes to the root of what we would like to think are core american values.

  9. By Sourav Ray on

    So much of our opinions are formed by press reports… A big challenge is to discern the reliability and validity of the content. If one reads the same things again and again (let’s say due to some bias in the default channels one follows), one might start thinking that the content is reliable. But it does not speak to its validity (as in, the truth), for which one will have to seek out maximally different sources. That is a challenging task both cognitively and economically speaking. So it is really a matter of passion and/or incentive of the individual. Social media cuts both ways. It can introduce noise for sure. But it also makes it easier to access maximally different sources for those so inclined.


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