Filter Bubbles & You

Kostas Katsanevas

 In the early 1920’s Walter Lippmann, one of the most important intellectuals in the field of public opinion, made a staunch observation about the relationship between the media of his time and public perception, “public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today”. Some time later, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google articulated what Lippmann feared - “ I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next”. Media are at the forefront of public opinion, as the information they provide to the public inevitably shapes the political environment.

A diversity of opinions made available by the press assures, at least, a minimum threshold for democratic decision-making. Given that we live and breathe in a mass society, the most efficient way to get the news on issues affecting public life is through the mass media. Traditional media institutions such as the television and the newspaper have long seen censorship and filtration by their owners, making any accessible information for the public either partisan or unavailable. Standing in contrast to this media environment, technology advancements such as the Internet appeared in the late nineties as a liberating power by promising to open up public life to a free-flow of information. I argue that while the Internet has improved the diversity of information available, this has not led to the actual betterment of democratic life.

Below as you will surely notice, I attempt to critically analyze the relationship between the dominant media platforms: television, the newspaper and the Internet. I also try to illustrate the concept of personalization on Internet query results, which as many scholars argue, lead to the creation of informational “filter bubbles” for each user. This results in the alienation of the public from exposure to a diverse set of political information and hence effectively limits democratic plurality in the public sphere.

Renowned scholar Harold Innis described the early evolution of media in The bias of Communication as depicted in writings on clay, to papyrus to oral communication by the Greeks emphasizing its power to shape a culture: “…the use of a medium of communication over a long period will to some extent determine the character of knowledge to be communicated…”. Parallel to this line of thinking lies within Bernard Cohen’s work in The Press and Foreign Policy stating that people tend to form their thoughts “depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the paper they read”.

Building on this idea and after decades of research, Maxwell E. McCombs solidified this argument and engraved his name in literature of this kind. Beginning his work, McCombs accompanied by Donald Shaw formulated the “Chapel Hill study” around the 1968 presidential elections coming to the conclusion that “The day-to-day selection and display of news by journalists focuses the public’s attention and influences its perceptions”. This came to be known as the agenda-setting theory. In addition, Raymond Williams’s critique of the effects of television and its capacity to be a ‘new and powerful form of social integration and control” further supports the idea that media and its filtration of information heavily influences our perceived reality.

Finally, cultivation theory by George Gerbner and his research team showed after decades of research that the effect of television on the public is strong and long lasting. Heavy viewers of television will hold views that are reflecting the stereotypes presented by that medium. The effect will come not only from newscasts, but from content such as sit-coms and talk shows. More recent studies on the Internet include Cass Sunstein’s 2.0 who warns of Internet personalization and its capacity to create ‘echo-chambers’ that encourage like-mindedness. Concomitantly, Lucas D. Introna and Helen Nissenbaum argue that functions such as these are in juxtaposition to the Web’s initial intent.

To be informed about a subject means to become exposed to a diversity of viewpoints on that issue. Informed citizens are conceived as the cornerstone of democracy, yet the inevitable truth may be that citizens can never be completely informed on every subject, as they will not have enough time to devote to in learning, and deliberating about the full array of issues that affect public life. This is the problem of “rational ignorance”, as Anthony Downs defined it: scarcity of time necessitates that most people will be informed on some issues very well, and on most issues only on the surface of things.

However, again, an ideal aspect of democracy is to provide to each citizen, as best as possible, a diversity of opinion on issues of public importance. The more issues there exist in the public sphere, the more available the options there will be for each one to make an informed opinion and subsequently express that through political action such as voting or political rallying.  Traditional media institutions such as newspapers and television stations formed in the past an oligopoly of information management.

Especially in countries like the US, but even so, in a rather more pluralist media sphere such as the Canadian, communication of political information was, and still is to a great degree controlled by few conglomerates that own those institutions. As Ben Bagdikian has argued in the past, such an oligopolistic ownership of media has greatly affected the content of public information and as a consequence, it also affected the diversity of available information in the public sphere. Public opinion hence, was biased because the information it received was heavily filtered by the choices of the owner corporations, as well as television and newspaper editors. Those are the gatekeepers of the information source. 

Today, it is contended that the Internet will save democracy by providing an informational landscape that is much more diverse and interactive than ever before. As Henry Jenkins and others have argued, the Internet disallows for the tight controlling of information in the public sphere. More so, the rise of the blogosphere has allowed everyone to be a publisher and hence, to diversify the availability of public information available online.

As the Internet is rising in world penetration, reaching ever-farther corners, the argument of those techno-utopians such as Jenkins and Clay Shirky is that the Internet will allow for the dissemination of political information across the world. Other advocates of its perceived unfettering power such as John Perry Barlow heralded this new medium as emancipatory from sovereign rule, as a virtual self-determining spread of information, a “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace”. Hence, it will realize the dream of democratic and informed citizenry that will allow for its effective participation in political matters.

However, we live in an era of controlled opinion not recognizing the phenomenon of our time. While the Internet has provided an increase in available information, it has not opened the platform for true plurality of opinion. Drawing on the influential argument of Cass Sunstein in 2.0 and Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, who argued in a nutshell that Internet personalization encloses each user into a cocoon of informational scarcity, the Internet is helping the “power elite” (C.W Mills) to firm their grip over the population and over democratic processes.

More so, the public is relatively unaware of this problem, because it is influenced by the techno-utopian scholarly arguments, which argues that available diversity is equal to pragmatic diversity. Conversely, the modern personalized algorithm from which many of us get the news today, only serves us information and political opinions that is already similar to our preexisting ideas about how the world works. That is to say that we get served over and over, information that resembles our prior beliefs. And hence, we do not engage in a diversity of conflicting viewpoints, as the ideal of democratic citizenry would necessitate that we do.

As Sunstein puts it, “…a well-functioning system of free expression must meet two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to material that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself… Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences”. Therefore, the mass media landscape, and consequently the political landscape have not changed that much from the days of the old traditional media, that of television and the newspaper. 

Thus, we find the Internet is following a similar trend, contrary to the arguments made by Henry Jenkins, Clay Shirky, and most importantly Yochai Benkler, who argue that the Internet increases the diversity of available information yielding positive social gains. Nonetheless, in 2.0 Cass Sunstein puts forth the idea of online query filtering, the decline of diversification of information and its relationship with democracy and free speech.

Sunstein argues that personalization algorithms, which are the order of the day, as Google and other information services are proved to pursue and implement, create a space of information for each individual where every users gets to interact with ideas that are similar to his or her preexisting opinions, “…the Wall Street Journal, allows readers to create “personalized” electronic editions, containing exactly what they want, and excluding what they don’t want”. This leads to the creation of an informational environment for each user that is anemic, hence lessening the democratic necessity for democratic diversity.  

Accordingly, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia cautions: after filtering our queries by preference, I.P address, past searches and amongst other codified relevant catered information, it is “harmful when people … trust a simple Google search as the first step towards the truth”. Add to that, Tarleton Gillespie a professor at Cornell University, highlights the new responsibilities that intermediaries such as Google and Youtube are facing as they attempt to organize and facilitate their massive collection of information to the public.

Facebook for example, and the way in which we get our news today through its personalized newsfeed leads to a political environment which is commanded by the choices that computer scientists who write the algorithm make. Their choices about what is important, and what will fill in the digital real estate in front of our screens will eventually affect the political information that we interact with. Finally, in Shaping the Web: why politics of search engines matters Lucas Introna and Helen Nissenbaum argue that “access to the Web is preconfigured in subtle but politically important ways, resulting in exclusion of significant voices”. 

The Internet as we know it today, through its ever-expanding global media system has become the dominant platform through which we obtain information. Unfortunately and contrary to those techno-utopian arguments it is not fulfilling its initial intent, in fact its going in the opposite direction, following in the footsteps of its heavily controlled and influential predecessors. The Internet along with all mass communication platforms hold within them a dormant power that, if unleashed, can yield a measurable increase in institutional transparency giving way for the emergence of a more informed citizen. As mentioned earlier, central to democracy is to provide to each citizen as best as possible a diversity of opinion on issues of public importance.

The more diverse the pool of viewpoints on an issue, the more available the options there will be for each individual to make an informed opinion. Consequently, this will allow each citizen to express himself through political action such as voting or political rallying more efficiently. Surely, the elimination of the gatekeepers of information, that is the editors, broadcast networks and finally personalization algorithms is a radical way to ensure this but it will nonetheless result in the enhancement of decision-making and thus a better functioning democracy. I do not advocate for an anarchical form of medium, I only intend to raise awareness of our reality in hope for serious reform in the accessibility of information through mass media.

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