The Factual’s media literacy scholarship was open worldwide in Spring 2021.The Factual received over 150 submissions for the competition.The essay prompt was: “How did misinformation impact our lives in 2020? What steps can we take to ensure we get credible news?”
Nolan Fletes’ essay was chosen as the winning submission. Here is his essay below:
Parallax is the apparent shift in position of an object based on the angle from which it is viewed. Simply put, it is the reason my Mom thinks the gas tank is empty when there is still gas in the tank. From her position in the passenger seat, it really does look like the needle of the gas gage is on empty. From my position in the driver’s seat the needle is clearly two ticks – (1/8) above empty. Despite looking at the same issue, at the same time, our slightly different perspectives lead us to very different conclusions. In the digital age, parallax is exacerbated. Filters feed targeted clickbait stories, masquerading as factual news, to people twenty-four hours a day. If you read a story online espousing a particular political view, suddenly more stories supporting that same perspective are directed toward you. Viewing an issue from only one perspective often results in an understanding entirely different from someone else viewing the same issue from a different angle. Widespread biased reporting and the behind-the-scenes filtering of news, commentary and videos narrows one’s perspective, reinforcing the credibility of a one-sided view which leads to division and polarization.
In 2020, the situation came to a tipping point. The tipping point was the bipolar reaction to the U.S. Presidential Election. We have a two-party system in the United States of America. The dominate two political parties are the Democratic party and the Republican party. The two parties have polar opposite views on many issues; big vs. small federal government, big vs. small welfare programs, more vs. fewer regulations, more vs. fewer global interventions, more vs. less military spending, etc. Elections are polarizing events. Presidential Elections take polarization to the next level. The political rhetoric used in Presidential Elections is intended to energize the base and turn out the vote. In the not-so-distant past, voters read carefully edited newspapers, watched carefully edited televised national news programs, watched stately televised Presidential Debates, received Democratic and Republican flyers in the mail and saw Democratic and Republican commercials on television. It was understood that respectable newspapers and respectable national news programs reported both sides of an issue factually, without bias. It was understood that candidates were prepped for debates but moderators would be neutral and the questions asked would be fair and unbiased. It was also understood that election flyers and commercials were inherently biased and one-sided.
Fast forward to the 2020 Presidential Election with widespread internet access and 24/7 connection to the worldwide web. The voters, in the 2020 Presidential Election, were bombarded on a daily basis with targeted biased commentary masquerading as factual reporting based on their digital profile and viewing history. Voters were targeted with non-neutral printed, audio and visual information, unedited biased postings, inflammatory soundbites, self-published opinionated material and reactionary tweets, over and over and over again. The bombardment of digitally profiled voters with deceptive information intentionally stoked division and polarization. Instead of digital profiling being used to help counteract the phenomena of parallax it was used to laser focus perspectives and increase polarization. If a person’s profile and viewing history appeared to lean left, they were targeted with left-leaning information, commentary, commercials, music, videos, and movies. If a person’s profile and viewing history appeared to lean right, they were targeted with right-leaning information, commentary, commercials, music, videos, and movies. Left-leaning individuals moved further left. Right-leaning individuals moved further right. Democrats are experiencing parallax from the left. Republicans are experiencing parallax from the right. Both sides are convinced they are right and cannot see any merit to the opposing view.
Biased reporting and invisible filtering stoked division and suppressed real debate in the 2020 Presidential Election. The best idea should win and evolve, not the loudest idea or the only idea. In order to debate an issue, people need to understand the facts not spend the debate arguing the facts. In order to understand that a stance on a particular subject may be the result of parallax we need exposure to alternate views and open intelligent discussion. The targeting of people with biased reporting and opinions masked as facts encourages parallax. If we don’t recognize the effect of parallax, we end up endlessly bickering about whether or not there is gas in the tank, which solves nothing. If we recognize and acknowledge the effect of parallax we can move past the initial differences in perspective to a more productive meaningful discussion. The right mix of opposing views and genuine debate on issues leads to a deeper understanding of issues and progress. Diversity of thought is needed in a tolerant, empathetic society. We need to stop the targeted filtering of information based on digital profiles and viewing history. We need widespread factual, unbiased news to understand the merits and demerits of issues. We need widespread factual, unbiased reporting to promote civilized discourse and arrive at common ground. In my situation, we agreed the gas tank is not empty but filling it now, so it is full for the future, is a good idea. I am hopeful that others can all do likewise and see the value of a full tank for America.