An exercise in debiasing
Does framing changes your perception? Or is it just me?
Daniel sent this article published in Time to me and several other people. Some leaned Left and some Right.
The article is about a group of people concerned that Donald Trump would try to remain President through manipulation, intimidation, and force. Their objective, the article states, was
… not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted
Those who leaned Left tended to see this as a redemptive effort to preserve democracy.
Those who leaned Right tended to see it—notwithstanding this statement of objective—as an effort to manipulate the system, so their guy won.
I think the article is a Rorschach test. Meaning - as best I can tell - people see in the article what they want to see.
I see his point. I also see something different. I think it’s an object lesson in the effect of framing.
My reading: there are two mechanisms at work: the facts and the framing.
The framing is caused by statements that change a reader’s emotional reaction to the article and the meaning they take from it.
Some of the framing will encourage people who lean to the Right to conclude that the article is about a conspiracy. Referring to it as a “conspiracy”—as the article does—will do that.
But if you ignore that framing—or pay attention to the opposite framing—for example saying that Trump was trying to “steal” the election—as the article does—then it’s easy to conclude that article was about protectng democracy.
Eric Weinstein points to one of the mechanisms in an Edge.org article about Russell Conjugation.
We are told that we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. This leaves out the observation that the war for our minds and attention is now increasingly being waged over neither facts nor opinions but feelings.
…[People who attempt to influence others] maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions.
I think that’s what’s going on in the article. On the other hand, I might just be using my own arsenal of language to subliminally instruct you readers on how I expect you to color your perception.
The experimental setup
I copy/pasted the original article in a Google Doc and removed videos and images that did not render.
Then I removed words and phrases that I thought would cause framing effects—both those that encouraged a reader to interpret the actions as an effort to undermine democracy and those that caused one to interpret as an effort to protect democracy.
For example, I changed:
This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election.
This is the story of an effort to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election
Now a conspiracy is:
a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful
If you read the text, I think you will not find anything that the people mounting the effort did that was unlawful. I think you will also be hard-pressed to find something that was harmful—unless you believe that not maintaining Donald Trump in office—by whatever means—was harmful.
Calling it an “inside story” makes it sound more secretive than I think the facts bear out.
Saying “save the election” creates a stronger emotional valence than “preserve the integrity.”
I base this reading on the public statement made by the group on election day:
It is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws. We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.
Although we may not always agree on desired outcomes up and down the ballot, we are united in our call for the American democratic process to proceed without violence, intimidation or any other tactic that makes us weaker as a nation.”
I also removed words like “billionaire” describing Betsy DeVos on the assumption that her being a billionaire makes her unsympathetic. I changed the description of Trump’s post-electoral intent from “stealing the electron” to “overturning the result.” Which may still be too partisan. Maybe I should have said: “ensuring his rightful victory.” You can do that if you want and see how that fits the facts.
In several cases, I added words that emphasized my reading. I put my additions in [square brackets] to make clear that I was editorializing. My goal was to help you see that even those small changes have a framing effect in my preferred direction. You can take them out if you object.
There are several ways to carry out the experiment. You can read the original and then my version with my deframing and reframing changes. Or you can read my version and then the original. You can use the “Compare versions” feature of Google Docs and compare the current version with the one labeled. “Before deframing.” That will expose all my attempts to de-manipulate (and to remanipulate).
You can also make your own copy of the document and play with it yourself.
The goal is to become aware of how these framing effects work and how—even despite your intention to be objective and neutral—that the chosen words strongly affect your emotional reaction and the meaning you apprehend.
I found the exercise helpful. I hope you do as well.