Out-of-Context Biases All Have One Solution

Slow. Down.

Posted Jan 05, 2020

Source: mirceaianc/Pixabay

In the fast-paced consumption of news, cases of quoting out of context are both obvious and underrealized. An ad that calls a movie “hysterically… entertaining” is obviously misleading when the critic actually said the movie was “hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining” (Bialik, 2008). But most of us don’t investigate movie blurbs to check their true meaning.

In politics, there are quotes attributed to politicians not just out of context but when the politicians were actually quoting somebody else. In 2011, the Romney campaign criticized President Obama when Obama said, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” But Obama was actually quoting what the McCain campaign had said (Montopoli, 2011).

If the condensed quote deserves criticism, it obviously should be levied against the person who originally said it and not the provider of the quote, as in “don’t shoot the messenger.” But again, most of us don’t verify quotes, especially if they fit what we already believe.

On the other side, Romney and other Republicans have also been quoted out of context by liberals. Trump was once quoted to say that “immigrants” would “carve you up with a knife,” but Trump was only referring to certain gang members and not all immigrants (Greenberg, 2019).

The biases here may both precede and follow the appearance of the out-of-context quote (Dwyer, 2019; Stalder, 2017). If you dislike a famous individual or desire big ratings, you may consciously or unconsciously exclude crucial context in quoting that individual. If it’s conscious manipulation for personal or political gain, that goes beyond bias and the scope of this article. If it’s unconscious and you care about fairness, then take your time and get input from impartial others before condensing the quote (or provide the full quote).

But for many of us, after we see the quote, our preconceived notions or trust in the provider of the quote can simply make us blindly believe and share it.

Is Biden a White Nationalist?

The latest high-profile out-of-context quote is against Joe Biden. In a recent campaign event in reply to a question, Biden gave a lengthy comment which included several words that, on their own, seem to fit a white-nationalist message. In the edited video clip, Biden said, “Our culture, our culture. It’s not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It’s our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture.”

The full clip showed Biden to be reflective and regretful about a culture in which women are mistreated and which he thought needs to change. He said, “Folks, this is about changing the culture, our culture, our culture. It’s not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It’s our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture, that says it’s all right” (Sargent, 2020).

Technically, Biden may still secretly hold white-nationalist feelings, but an out-of-context quote like the above is not fair justification to draw that conclusion.

Beyond Quotes

Of course, we can take more than quotes out of context. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has apparently done so in posting a 22-second video clip of what he called Iraqis “dancing in the street for freedom” after the U.S. killed an Iranian leader. But it appears to have been “only a handful of men” running within “a crowd of thousands” and “was over in less than two minutes” (Tran & Hassan, 2020).

Source: AILes/Pixabay

Nonverbals are especially easy to take out of context. Sports-related or sign-language-based hand gestures have been misinterpreted as gang signs which have led to black athletes being kicked off their teams and people with hearing impairments being physically attacked (Stalder, 2018).

All close-up photos are nearly contextless in that they cover a fraction of a second and show nothing beyond their four sides. Michelle Obama was misinterpreted as angry and jealous in her infamous snapshot at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. To jump to conclusions about these photographed individuals could be part of prejudice and partisanship, but it could also be a common and quick bias called the fundamental attribution error that can occur regardless of preconceptions (Stalder, 2018).

To combat these biases, is it the job of every social media user or blogger to investigate the original source or check the fact-checking sites? That would be beneficial, but no, I think that’s unrealistic to expect.

Should we at least pause before believing and sharing a condensed quote or picture or clip? Should we wait for verification from one or two mainstream news sources? Yes, that is part of my message.

The Social Media Challenge

American writer and blogger Parker Molloy has issued a challenge to all social media users. Molloy tweeted “figure out the context of very tightly edited videos before sharing them on social media challenge 2020.” That’s the right idea. Whether a video, picture, or quote, slow down the sharing and retweeting. If you don’t “figure out the context” yourself, at least wait for mainstream news sources to chime in (not Fox News or MSNBC).

After viewing something upsetting, just pausing for a few hours or days can help reduce bias (Truchot et al., 2003). During the pause, new information has a chance to come to light, and the neurotransmitters underlying the anger or disgust can return to baseline and allow a more logical assessment. If you still feel upset or concerned and want to retweet a day or two later, you of course still can.

Source: RobinHiggins/Pixabay

Another way to look at it is like the anti-scam advice. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If a political candidate you oppose was caught saying something sexist or racist or treasonous, that’s like the you’ve-won-an-all-expense-paid-vacation phone call. It may be too good to be true. Numerous anti-scam PSA’s suggest things like “take the time to investigate” and “don’t let anyone rush you into making a decision.” Exactly.

I know this approach takes some of the satisfaction out of breaking news or being the first to announce something incredible on social media. It’s rewarding to be first and to get a lot of likes (Talwar et al., 2019). And through diffusion of responsibility and some anonymity, we might not individually feel we need to act more responsibly.

But the immediate mass sharing of misleading (if not fake) news is likely contributing to driving American political groups deeper into their echo chambers. And given foreign disinformation campaigns, slowing down the sharing of provocative political pics and quotes can reduce intergroup hostilities and may increase the chances of more fair U.S. elections. If you normally retweet a few times a week, maybe just try cutting back to once or twice.

Here are other suggestions to help in slowing down.


Carl Bialik, “The Best Worst Blurbs of 2007,” Gelf Magazine, January 6, 2008.

Christopher Dwyer, “7 Reasons Why We Fall for Fake News,” Psychology Today, November 16, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thoughts-thinking/201911/7-reasons-why-we-fall-fake-news.

Jon Greenberg, “Joe Biden Takes Donald Trump’s Words about Gang Members Out of Context,” Politifact, August 9, 2019, https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2019/aug/09/joe-biden/joe-biden-takes-donald-trumps-words-about-gang-mem/.

Brian Montopoli, “Mitt Romney Attack Ad Misleadingly Quotes Obama,” CBS News, November 23, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mitt-romney-attack-ad-misleadingly-quotes-obama/.

Greg Sargent, “A Deceptively Edited Video of Joe Biden Signals What’s Coming,” Washington Post, January 2, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/02/dishonestly-edited-video-joe-biden-signals-whats-coming/.

Daniel R. Stalder, “Conformity and Bias in Sharing Fake News,” PARBs Anonymous, January 6, 2017, https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/conformity-and-bias/.

Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).  

Shalini Talwar et al., “Why Do People Share Fake News? Associations Between the Dark Side of Social Media Use and Fake News Sharing Behavior,” Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services 51 (2019): 72–82.

Millie Tran and Falih Hassan, “A Video Tweeted by Pompeo Was Authentic. His Description Was Misleading,” New York Times, January 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/04/world/middleeast/pompeo-tweet-iraq-video.html.

Didier Truchot et al., “Do Attributions Change over Time When the Actor’s Behavior Is Hedonically Relevant to the Perceiver?” Journal of Social Psychology 143 (2003): 202–208.