Breaking the Filter Bubble

Have you noticed your Google searches becoming more personalized: knowing where you are, what you like and what you do? Is your Facebook feed full of information from people who share your interests, hobbies, perspectives and politics? This is no accident, as sophisticated computer algorithms have transformed the way information is disseminated, tailoring the internet experience for each unique user.

In a popular TED Talk, internet activist Eli Pariser called this the “filter bubble,” and many believe it’s becoming more and more of a problem. “We’re kind of back in 1915 on the web,” Pariser says, referring to the days when newspapers were king, and a journalistic code of ethics was established to keep public information unbiased and accurate. “We need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility into the code that they're writing.”

A Public Religion Research Institute study found that white Americans have 91 times as many white friends as black friends—an example, says writer Courtney Seiter, of a related phenomenon known as clustering: the tendency to “associate with those who are similar to us—whether politically, economically, racially or otherwise.” Likewise, Mostafa M. El-Bermawy of Wired.com notes his discovery that an article with the headline “Why I’m Voting for Donald Trump” was shared online 1.5 million times… yet he and his liberal friends didn’t see it once.

Designed to select relevant content for users, these algorithms tend to “cluster” the news, providing only what the user wants to see and ignoring the diverse spectrum of opinions and news sources available. With more people using Facebook as a primary news source, this is becoming a genuine concern in a highly divided society. Combined with the “fake news” phenomenon, it can even be dangerous.

There is value in exposing yourself to opposing viewpoints and new ideas. Whether or not it changes your mind, it opens you to different perspectives and makes you think more clearly about the opinions you do hold. For more on this phenomenon, check out Pariser’s TED Talk at ted.com/talks, or find El-Bermawy’s “Your Filter Bubble is Destroying Democracy” at wired.com. For tips on diversifying the news and opinions to which you’re exposed, search for Seiter’s “12 Ways to Break Your Filter Bubble and Gain Diverse Perspectives.” iBi

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