Law Enforcement and the Dangers of Confirmation Bias in Social Media

Fortune cookie wisdom

This.

There is an issue that lurks its head around every corner as we log into our social media of choice each day. Confirmation Bias. We get to choose who we follow or friend on social media. As a result, we often follow people we like and we like people who think like us.

This represents a problem. By only opening the door for the views of people who already think like us, we are simply permitting funny witticisms and memes that evoke the same emotions we already have towards a subject. It’s like an amplified echo chamber. Let’s take politics as an example. There are plenty of photos calling Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump names that seek to impugn their intellect, honesty, and position as a nominee for president for a major political party.

This, to some degree, is nothing new. Political witticisms and cartoons have been used for political discourse for decades. Sometimes the messages can be positive and others serve to attack the opponents. We expect this type of propaganda from political messages and parties, but what happens when this same level of rancor is observed against our fellow citizens who disagree with us?

We get angry. Angry about everything. Especially angry with people we disagree with.   We give up, lose, or simply don’t want to entertain the possibility that we could be wrong about beliefs that we hold so strongly. Through the lens of social media, we don’t see the world through rose colored glasses. Instead, we add our voice to the cacophony of others who see things largely as we do.

Unfortunately, we spend an enormous amount of time on social media, feeding the beast of Confirmation Bias. No one is immune to it, including me. You see, I am an American. I see things through the lens of American Exceptionalism. I believe in it.

My Confirmation Bias

I am a Christian. I am convinced the Bible is God’s Word. That it doesn’t just tell a good story, but the Greatest Story Ever Told. The story that God’s Son Jesus Christ came to Earth as a man in order to save us from the punishment of our sin and to a relationship with Him. God desires that all come to a saving knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)

Many of my friends believe the same way, but not all of them. In America, our culture celebrates the Bill of Rights which includes the belief that people should be able to enjoy freedom of speech, press, and religion. We are taught this early on in our education, but it is rare that a person learns to actually love The Constitution. It took me awhile to learn that speech that makes me angry isn’t necessarily bad speech. In fact, it could be important speech that makes me think and consider my own beliefs.

I am a police officer. Many of my friends are police officers. I swore an oath to uphold and defend The Constitution of the United States of America. I love The Constitution. I love every part of it. I love that people are guaranteed the right to face their accusers and see the evidence against them. I love that women and historically underprivileged and disadvantaged groups now have the right to vote. I love the right to bear arms. I love every part of it. I should. I swore to uphold it.

Police as Viewed through Confirmation Bias

Currently, our culture is obsessed with my profession. The 24 hour news cycle has a narrative that is on the airwaves every day. It says that police officers are trigger happy and targeting black men, specifically unarmed ones. The police are depicted as an occupying army subduing the general populace for their own gain. Photographs and videos of officers wearing intimidating looking Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are shown on TV. Without context, the police can look like an occupying army.

But context is what’s important. It is easy to take a still image of a SWAT sniper on top of an armored vehicle and put a witticism below it. By comparing it to a war zone on a fancy meme, those who see the police as that occupying army are able to score points with their friends who think like they do.  Even the presence of a large armored vehicle is intimidating.

All of the PPE is only deployed in extraordinary circumstances. Even then, it is only deployed in a defensive posture. The critics of the intimidating appearance of police officers postulate the officers look as though they are gearing up for a fight. They have to remember that it is officially too late to put a helmet on after rocks have been thrown. Police want people to exercise their constitutional rights. Remember, they swore to uphold them! The PPE is designed to help the officers achieve their mission to defend the rights of others and get home safely. No one gets angry at hard hats on construction sites.

In nearly every circumstance, the officers would rather be at home with their families. For these officers, loving The Constitution means living out their oath to uphold it. If that means they have to stand on a skirmish line in order to protect the community from agitators that hijack legitimate protests in order to push an agenda, officers are willing to do that.

Let’s be clear. The history, even the not so distant history, of law enforcement in America is marked with controversy when it comes to the subject of race. FBI Director James Comey has an excellent speech on this subject. I highly recommend watching it. In many departments, minorities are underrepresented when comparing the community make-up with the members of the police departments. This is without controversy. But racism is not endemic in today’s police departments. Despite the allegations of agitators, it is not “open season” on young black men.

Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, presented that the police are the public and the public are the police. As a citizenry we need to come together in order to allow for mutual understanding of the role of police so the public can make decisions as to how they want to be policed.

Why Social Media (Currently) Only Hurts Race/Law Enforcement Conversations

The situations is far more complex than can be presented in a few moments of banter on a 160 character social media platform. It is to our detriment as a society that we fail to understand the arguments and positions of fellow citizens that believe things differently than we do. Rhetoric and rancor will only serve to increase the temperature of our discussions. Suddenly the people who believe differently than we do become our enemies. Dehumanizing words such as “racist” are used to describe the police. Others in turn use words such a “thugs” to describe their detractors.

None of this helps anyone. Honestly approaching the subject with the understanding and belief that your fellow citizens are not monsters should engender a higher level of discussion. In the words of James Comey, “this only becomes a conversation, in the true sense of the word, if we are willing not only to talk, but to listen, too.”

Law enforcement 40 years ago was vastly different than it is today. These improvements are important, and more improvements are coming. If you’ve read this far, I hope you will also take the time to listen to this sermon by Matt Chandler of The Village Church.

Leave a comment below! I love reading the comments and feedback I receive from the Contact Me page.

5 thoughts on “Law Enforcement and the Dangers of Confirmation Bias in Social Media

  1. Adam

    I think Confirmation Bias is self reciprocating. I can’t express original moderate opinions in the presence of most conservatives because I am met with an onslaught of mental barriers that have been set up and developed over decades. Very few people are willing to engage in “What if” discussion without letting their bias seep in. Typically men are dominating and unyielding. Women are disinterested entirely. I think the sum of it could be that we are all selfish and don’t really care to explore anyone else’s thoughts or opinions unless they directly align with our own.

    Reply
    1. Neal Landfield Post author

      If that is the case, it is to our detriment that precludes any chance at a conversation where iron could sharpen iron. Sorry it took me so long to approve these comments – I am still tweaking the site. I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      Reply
  2. David

    Well written. While confirmation bias is nothing new, social media has amplified it to a degree that is not being talked about too much. I don’t feel anyone was/is prepared for the proliferation of social media and it’s impact on our society. And how could they at this rate of indoctrination in our culrure? That being said I try very hard to seek out opposing viewpoints outside of my “stream.” It is hard, however, as I imagine it is for others as well.

    Reply
    1. Neal Landfield Post author

      Thanks for your comment, David. I don’t know what a solution to the issue could be aside from people simply being willing to listen to the other side(s). It is unfortunate that the prevailing sentiment seems to be people who believe differently than we do are our enemies. That will only lead to greater animosity, dehumanization, and a lack of intellectual honesty on both sides when it comes to difficult conversations.

      Reply

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