Where Bias Comes From?

Maybe it’s the case that people don’t like those who disagree with them?

Image result for Social media pic

A new research study from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide is about social media. Pointedly, the researchers reported that they could predict a person’s preferences (let’s call her Jane Smith) and beliefs based on what the Jane’s friends posted, without ever looking at Jane’s own posts or even if Jane didn’t have an account on the site. The predictions were 95% correct.(1)

The researchers presented this as a finding about privacy, and about how a corporation or government agency could profile you fairly accurately based on what your friends write online. You don’t have to have an account on social media, as long as they have some way to link you to people who do. For example, that could be a picture that a friend might have taken that includes your face and posted. Facial recognition software makes that trivial.

At another level, this is old fashioned “guilt by association.” Will 95% accuracy be sufficient for a search warrant in the future? In some countries, it probably already is. In the US of the future?  Who knows. It will certainly be accurate enough for targeting advertising and spam.

At a third level, it’s a comment on human weakness. A lot of people seem to like to avoid discussions about topics on which others might disagree. I’m sure you’ve heard cautions at social gatherings not to talk about politics or religion.

One way to do avoid those types of discussions is to associate only with people who agree with that you think, or who at least won’t openly disagree. When that happens in business or government, it’s called “groupthink” and it’s the way executives talk themselves into blunders.  “Everyone agrees so it must be right.” The Iraq war is one example, but a lot of business acquisitions work much the same way. Which is why shareholders of the buying company usually take a beating. After all, how did an astute venture capitalist buy Sears and turn it into a train wreck? Groupthink.

Education is supposed to open one to the free exchange of ideas, but apparently it isn’t as successful as it used to be outside of hard science. That may explain why the US is losing its edge in innovation. When you can’t tolerate disagreement, you can’t find breakthroughs.

So while the social media research may be a real warning about privacy, it also calls out real weaknesses in our society, as well as perhaps the underlying causes of the extreme disagreements between Left and Right.


  1. James P. Bagrow, Xipei Liu, Lewis Mitchell. Information flow reveals prediction limits in online social activity. Nature Human Behaviour, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0510-5
  2. University of Vermont. “On Facebook and Twitter your privacy is at risk — even if you don’t have an account, study finds: Identity and actions can be predicted from friends — undermining idea of ‘individual choice’ on social media.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 January 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190121115354.htm>.

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