Tips for Identifying Bias and Propaganda for the GED Social Studies Test

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

Writing is often biased toward a certain idea or cause. The GED Social Studies test will expect you to be able to identify these instances of bias or propaganda. All writers know the phrase “massaging the message.” It refers to authors’ ability to present information in whatever light they want. The media make their living by the art of persuasion, whether to sell people goods or services they didn’t know they needed or to present a situation in the best or worst possible light.

Presenting information subjectively rather than objectively is generally referred to as bias. When politicians do it, it’s referred to as spin. When it’s used to control the thinking and behavior of a group of people, it’s called propaganda.

Some communications experts argue that all writing is biased because all truth is filtered through human perception, which is subjective. They may have a point, but everyone agrees that some writings are more biased than others. When asked to analyze passages that present an argument, examine the following areas for bias:

  • What’s included and what’s omitted: Whether writing a newspaper story or history book, authors select the facts to present and omit others. When history books present the Cuban Missile Crisis resolution, they often overlook the fact that the United States also had missiles on the USSR’s borders. The crisis was resolved only when the United States agreed to remove its missiles just as the USSR agreed to do in Cuba. Presenting only the fact that the USSR backed down when confronted in Cuba paints a different picture than stating that both sides had missiles on the other’s borders and both sides agreed to remove them.

    This particular type of bias is difficult to detect because you’re looking for something that’s not there. However, if only one side of a complex issue is presented, then you can be fairly certain that the presentation is biased.

  • Language: The words used to describe people or events can influence perceptions. For example, militants fighting against established governments often refer to themselves as “freedom fighters,” whereas the established governments they’re fighting against consider them “terrorists.” These words are more than just descriptive; they carry an emotional overtone. When analyzing a passage, examine word choice carefully.

  • Sources: Media content, from articles and video clips to research studies, is sometimes sponsored by people or corporations. Media outlets can be for or against political parties and views; corporations, such as tobacco or oil companies, may sponsor research into climate change or the health effects of smoking. Consider such sources when evaluating the credibility of any source.

  • Statistics: Writers use statistics to support their arguments. These statistics may be selective, incomplete, or show only part of the picture. Even how a graph is designed can influence perceptions. Showing only part of the data can change how readers interpret the graph. Read statistics carefully and remember that unless you can verify the data in other ways, it may not be reliable.