Filter Bubbles

You’ve been hearing lots about filter bubbles.

The websites we visit make assumptions about us – and show only the information they think we would be comfortable receiving. That is a filter bubble. They have personalization tools, algorithms, that tell them about us – where we live, our internet preferences, browsing history, search history, even what kind of computer we’re using. It may seem like we are searching the entire web, but we are actually receiving curated information when we do a Google search, or receive a news stream from Facebook or Twitter.

Many web companies tailor their output to our personal tastes. The downside is that we get trapped in our very own ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to alternate views. The media filter bubble troubles me most since I want to understand all perspectives on important issues – not just the ones my internet company assess as my preferred world view. This is how much of the media explains what happened in the presidential election. The Trump supporters were in their own filter bubble and Hillary supporters were in theirs, and never the twain shall meet. The only good news is that the internet is very good at bringing like-minded people together.

When peoples’ sources of information are so filtered, can they find common ground with those who disagree with them? Could this affect our democracy? A N.Y. Times article referred to the filter bubble as a ‘personalized feedback loop’ with ‘news sources, cultural touchstones and political inclinations’ customized for each of us.’ It is constant self-affirmation.

In the beginning, the internet was viewed as a way to connect to people and information. When social media entered the picture, with Twitter and Facebook, we were delirious that we could find old friends from summer camp and connect with our favorite 5th grade history teacher. It all seemed harmless, fun and highly entertaining. Now, Facebook, Google and Twitter, just to name a few, invisibly filter what we see based on our ‘clicks’.

Filter bubbles , Internet Channels

The term ‘filter bubble’ was coined by Eli Pariser in 2011, and in a great TED talk he describes how he  filled his Facebook page with both liberals and conservatives because he likes to learn from both groups.  One day he noticed that all his conservative ‘friends’ had disappeared from his Facebook feed. His page was suddenly edited without his permission. Facebook had observed that he clicked more on his liberal friends’ links than his conservative friends’ links and they edited out all his conservative friends without asking him!  Pariser calls it ‘invisible algorithmic editing of the web’. Google does it as well. If you search for something and I search for the exact same thing we might get very different search results. It is an interesting exercise to try with friends. Google and Facebook are only two among hundreds of companies personalizing our information. Yahoo News, the largest internet news site, Huffington Post, Washington Post, New York Times are all curating information in various ways.

Eli Pariser says “The internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see”. We don’t know what we don’t see. “Instead of a balanced information diet, we may end up with only information junk food”. This means that even our reporters, researchers and writers are only seeing what’s in their filter bubbles when they give us the news. For example, when college seniors are researching and writing their senior theses, are they only being shown half of the story about their topic because their personalized filter bubble is filtering some information out?

Clearly, we need to know what we are not seeing. We need to be able to control what is and is not filtered out for us. We need to know what the rules are. The algorithms need to be transparent. The internet needs to go back to what it was in the beginning – a way of connecting us to new ideas, different perspectives, current trends and ALL the news.

Filter bubbles, sorting priorities

What can you do?

Clear your browsing history – often.

See instructions for: Firefox | Chrome | Internet Explorer | iOS

Disable Tracking Cookies feature. Cookies are data that is stored in your web browser when you are on a web site. If you have enabled the permission, other sites can see what you were looking for, and looking at. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that you’ll be on a completely unrelated website reading, say, about fevers in babies, and up will pop an ad featuring the pair of shoes you almost bought last week? Very annoying.

Turn off targeted ads – however, even if you ask your browser to alert companies that you’ve chosen “Do not track” the ad companies do not have to honor your request.

Search under cover. DuckDuckGo or Ixquick are search engines that don’t track your search history.

Be more thoughtful about how you search. If you are looking for information about a specific topic, do basic research first to get background information. Then search Google with keywords that specifically zero in on some of the major aspects you’ve discovered, including opposing points of view.

Make yourself harder to ‘personalize’. Click on links that are diverse or unusual for you.

When doing research, verify that the webpage you have clicked on is a valid one. This link will help you determine if the author is an expert, if the information is accurate, how to check for bias and how to know if the information is current.

Keep Facebook private and hide your birthdate.

There are new tech products coming out that promise to free us from our filter bubble. I am researching an article about those products and will be back to you soon about their success or failure in delivering on that promise.


Header Image Credit; Le Moal Olivier ©123RF