Bursting Our Filter Bubbles

3 Oct

This blog post is an analysis of an article ‘Are we stuck in filter bubbles, here are 5 potential paths out‘ by Jonathan Stray in Nieman Lab.   The concept of filter bubbles is basically that users of social media tend to exchange opinions and links only with those that tend to agree with them in their online networks.  Magnifying this effect, social media companies like Facebook derive algorithms based on your online behavior; to customize your news feeds that they believe matches your preferences.   The concern is that people, become entrenched and isolated because they are not exposed to stories or opinions of those who have opposing points of view.  This, the theory goes, is exacerbating the political divisiveness that we are seeing, particularly here in America, where the public appears less willing to find common ground and compromises to resolve issues that impact us all.

Stray notes that it is not yet clear that these algorithms are indeed having this effect.  Recent research of Facebook users indicates that although users do frequently re-share articles or links from close ‘friends’ or ‘close ties’ (defined as those we interact with frequently online) that are typically consistent with their own previously held views.  However, Facebook users also share and view links and stories with or from weak ‘friends’ that may hold novel or different views that they likely would never have come across on their own.  Additionally, most people have more weak ties than close ties, so the possibility of being exposed to different points of view is pretty likely.

So though it is not clear to what extent online behavior and algorithms are truly creating a filter bubble, Stray does make a strong case that users should be aware of how the algorithms work, and we should be thinking of ways to allow users to better personalize filters themselves.   Given the diverse rich content on the web, users should be able to use different techniques, such as a slide bar tools, (for example political left to right for political stories/opinions) or graphical interactive interfaces portraying a wider array of content, not only political, that would allow users a measure of control  over their own ‘filters’ and what kind of information and stories are directed their way.

It is clear that we are just in the infancy of how the World Wide Web functions in terms of moving news stories and opinions through cyberspace and social networks.    It may have made good sense to have online news and stories filtered for you based on known preferences and online behavior, how else could you manage the vast content available.  However, there are a number of factors that we now should consider before thinking about where society and filters go from here.  Allowing mega-corporations to direct our attention to the news and stories we see, assumes that corporations will always have our best interests at heart.  As Rebecca McKinnon points out in her book ‘Consent of the Networked’, this is probably a naïve assumption.  Too much power, whether in the hands of powerful states, (whether national entities or corporations) will eventually lead to the power being wielded in their own self-interest.

From a professional perspective, I am already thinking of how my agency, The Department of Environmental Protection, can use social networks to direct stories with environmental information not only to environmentally active citizen groups but to ordinary citizens and especially to those that are not environmentally aware and would not normally seek out environmental stories or information.  Creating needed but potentially controversial environmentally policy, (scientifically sound but not without some cost) is nearly impossible without public support.  My perspective is that too often our, (Department of Environmental Protection’s) ability to ‘message’ is only heard by those who already are concerned about environmental matters.   This is a challenge because the filter bubble is not restricted to only technological information streams.  However, our filters from traditional media sources are self-imposed.    It is clear to me that understanding and leveraging how information flows through the World Wide Web, and who will control the directions of the flow will be essential for anyone wishing to shape public opinion.

Public awareness of how these forces are shaping our stream of online information is the first step for social network users to demand more control over their online experiences.    This would be a small but positive step in learning how to burst filter bubbles now being imposed upon us.

4 Responses to “Bursting Our Filter Bubbles”

  1. Daniel Sosa October 5, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    interesting read! social media is an exploding market that needs to be properly studied. although most would consider it part of the “public domain”, it is subject to the same bias and private interests as any other business. is scary to think that “smart” filters and search engines could be misused by the powers that be to control the flow of information.

    also, i feel that most individuals tend to look for affirmation instead of information in regards to politics. as a concerned citizen, it is maddening to have to sift through heavily biased sources to get to the real data. social media just might be the vehicle to help your average Joe gain access to a full spectrum of viewpoints regarding a particular topic.

    • chrisvibe October 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

      Thanks for comment Dan, I hope we have more tools and controls at our disposal instead of these filters just happening to us blindly. Here the filters work because Google is trying to send you what you think you want, a little disturbing not to be in control but not sinister, but in China, Google finally left their market because the government put so many restrictions on content that had to be removed from return lists to chinese citizens, the flow of info is severely restricted, it is sad because China has now built the chinese version of google with the help of silicon valley.

  2. jtannian@liberty.edu October 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    I enjoyed the article and thoughts contained. In my age category 50+, I don’t see social media having any impact on my view points or my peers.
    However, the internet and its many news outlets do. The following comment is true. <>
    I am often leary of those attempting to shape my opinion to their end. Hopefully the Internet will remain largely free and open so diverse views can be expressed.

    • chrisvibe October 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

      Thanks for staying tuned, we in the US are lucky, many countries go to extreme lengths to prohibit speech on the ‘digital commons’ – term for consent of the networked. Even still we are affected in surprising ways – try doing a search for say ‘egypt’ at your work pc and then at home on Rene’s, I would be surprised if googles response is the same since one of the variables in the algotithm is prior behavior – fascinating stuff.

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