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Follow the Filter Bubble

Filter bubbles for democracy


/ June 15th, 2011 /

Speaking on a panel at last week’s PDF Conference, Eli asked: what happens when political campaigns are so successful at micro-targeting their messages that we each experience our own personalized election season?

We like to think that, in a democracy, political campaigns are a time for citizens to engage in a national conversation on the issues.  If those issues are sliced and spun to appeal to ever smaller slivers of voters, it’s hard to imagine what, if anything, a national discussion would be based on. Without a starting point for discussion, there’s no dialogue. And without dialogue, democracy has got to suffer.

But are targeted political messages only bad for democracy? Maybe not. A recent study looking at radio communications in Serbia and Croatia suggests information silos could have a sunny side.

Serbs and Croats, who have a history of animosity, share a common spoken language so can understand each other’s radio broadcasts – although not all villages along the Serb-Croat border have radio access from the other side. Researchers wondered what the effect of being able to tune into Serbian radio would have on Croat villagers. Would listening to broadcasts from a historical enemy make Croats more anti-Serbian?

Factoring out distance from the Serbian border the study found that, indeed, when Croat villagers were able to catch Serbian airwaves, they were more likely to vote for nationalist (ie anti-Serbian) parties and to have anti-Serbian graffiti covering their village walls. The increase in votes for nationalist parties was small – just around 2% – but statistically significant (as in, not a statistical fluke).

The researchers conjecture that in hearing Serb broadcasts Croats were reminded of past Serbian belligerence and became more attuned to a possible resurgence of Serb-Croat violence. Their natural reaction? Vote fear.

Looking at the US, one wonders if hearing political messages from the enemy party has similar effects. Of course, we can’t draw an exact parallel between Democrats and the GOP and Serbs and Croats. Our parties haven’t been gunning each other down recently and we don’t have physical barriers separating broadcasts from either party. But it’s not far off to say the parties are in a perpetual cold war and that targeted media has built virtual walls between liberal and conservative messaging.

Could those virtual walls make us less antagonistic toward our ideological opposites, just as being ignorant of Serbian messaging made Croats less fearful of their historical enemies?

To use a sample size of one: I, like most Americans, read magazines and newspapers that align with my ideology (in my case, center left). On the rare occasions I pick up publications like the National Review or glance at the New York Post’s national news section, I find myself trembling with rage (extreme lefty sources also tick me off, but to a lesser degree). If I were subjected daily to far right theorists and their liberal-jabs, I could easily see myself getting crazed, losing sleep over the prospect of a right-wing take-over and increasing my donations to the ACLU and MoveOn. I might even, like some of my liberal friends, find it impossible to date Republican men. Luckily for me, however, far right messages rarely pierce my bubble; my center-left cocoon leaves me mildly concerned for the future of our nation, but thankfully un-panicked.

Of course, extremists are familiar with the crazing effect of the extreme statements of their counterparts. It is the bread and butter of the Keith Olbermanns of media and Sarah Palins of politics. But it might be that Glenn Beck mediated through the commentary of Keith Olbermann is less hair-raising for a liberal than watching Beck straight up. In other words, we’re protected from enemy-messaging even when it comes to us through our own preferred media.

We certainly need more opportunities to engage in discussion with Americans who do not share our views, not only because dialogue fosters mutual respect, but also because we may all actually learn from each other. But maybe messaging from politicians, particularly on the extremes, is not conducive to true dialogue; perhaps it does more to get our dander up and block dialogue instead. If that is so, then here is one case where the filter bubble is good for democracy.


Our audiobook has launched!


/ June 15th, 2011 /

The Filter Bubble has just been released as an audiobook — and not a moment too soon. June is audiobook month!

Click here to listen to a sample.


Why Rick Santorum’s “Google Problem” Actually Isn’t Such A Problem


/ June 12th, 2011 /

As you can see above, Rick Santorum has a bit of a ‘Google problem.’   The arch conservative’s predicament is the result of an ingenious strategy by Dan Savage to make www.spreadingsantorum.com the top result on Google when users search for “Rick Santorum.”   Eight years after the first post suggesting the campaign, googling “Rick Santorum” still yields drippy results.

Much has been made of the “Google Problem.”  (See coverage here, here, here, herehere, and here).  Roll Call’s article is typical of most coverage of Santorum’s conundrum;

“Rick Santorum has a Google problem.

The former Pennsylvania Senator might be well-known on Capitol Hill, but his name more regularly produces blank stares in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, if recent polling is any guide. The likely Republican presidential candidate knows he needs to expand his name identification.

Santorum can only hope voters don’t turn to Google, the world’s most popular Internet search engine, to learn more about him.”

There is an embedded assumption here about how people use Google to get political information.   The coverage assumes that curious citizens are blank slates about issues or politicians whom they are currently ignorant of.   As they go about their daily lives, they hear chatter about some new campaign or current event; such as Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign.  Curious to learn more they turn to the intertubes to use “the Google ” and type in a term about the topic which has sparked their curiosity; such as “Rick Santorum.”  Then, they click on several of the links returned by the search.   Based on the information which the links provide, the newly informed curious citizen rationally forms an opinion; such as “I think Rick Santorum should be president of the United States.”

If this assumption were true, Rick Santorum’s campaign would be in big trouble unless anal sex becomes a favorite pastime for Iowa Republicans between now and the caucuses.  Fortunately for Santorum, the curious citizen described above is mostly mythical.  Very few people actually use search engines in this way.

Santorum, dismisses the “Google Problem.”   He says; “I don’t see it as a problem at all”   Though Santorum has recently found himself at odds with scientific consensus — last week he called decades of peer reviewed climate science “junk science” — his position on the “Google problem” is corroborated by academic research.   In his excellent book “The Myth of Digital Democracy,” Matthew Hindman definitively debunks the myth of the curious googling citizen.  He reports that;

Most news searches in these data are not focused on current events or subjects of interest.  A substantial majority of searches, rather, contain the names of specific news outlets or specific Web pages…In short, most searches involve citizens seeking news organizations they are already familiar with.

Scholars have seldom provided clear and specific expectations about what citizens will choose to search for in the realm of politics and political news.  Yet one common assumption is that citizens will begin with an interest in a political topic, and then type queries about that subject into search engines.  Although much news traffic does come directly from search engines, news-related queries show a different pattern: citizens searching not for topics but for known sources.

In short, Hindman’s research show that it is much more likely that a Republican Iowa caucus voter would learn about Rick Santorum by searching “Fox News” and getting directed to coverage of Rick Santorum on FoxNews.com rather than googling “Rick Santorum.”

The personalization of Google searches is certainly a big deal that affects our information diets.  But it’s not as big a deal for politics as many assume it is.

And, for our old friend Rick Santorum, it’s still quite unlikely that he’ll be the next President of the United States.   But, with all due respect to Dan Savage, Santorum’s “Google problem” is just a small obstacle among the many that should keep him from reaching the Oval Office.


What’s the Internet hiding? Lets find out.


/ June 8th, 2011 /

What does the filter bubble look like? We decided to do a little experiment to help visualize what’s taking place.

The comparisons below only scratch the surface of what the Internet’s filters are up to, but they give a good troubling idea.


The future of personalization is here


/ June 7th, 2011 /

Writing The Filter Bubble in 2010, Eli didn’t lack current examples of how personalization algorithms shape the content we see on our browsers – from Netflix and Amazon suggestions to Google search returns and ads that trail us around the internet.

But many of the creepiest applications of the filter bubble were left to the imagination. What if, someday, search engine results changed depending upon your friends’ preferences? What if you visited your favorite online magazine and the front page was “personalized” to show you the stories it thought you wanted to see?

Well, it didn’t take long for “someday” to arrive.

Last month Bing started giving users the option to plug into to their Facebook accounts to “receive personalized search results based on the opinions of your friends,” thus “bringing the collective IQ of the Web together with the opinions of the people you trust most, to bring the “Friend Effect” to search.” Such a move was expected when Bing and Facebook joined forces last year, but it’s still something to see it in action. To Bing’s credit, the “Facebooking” of search is opt-in (at least for now), so searchers can decide for themselves how much they want their Filter Bubble to collapse in on them.

It remains to be seen whether Washington Post and Slate readers will be given a similar option. Trove, a project of the Washington Post, creates a personalized news experience based on your Facebook profile. It’s still a separate site and in its early stages, but from an interview with Chief Digital Officer, Vijay Ravindran, it looks like the Washington Post will be integrating parts of Trove into its own site and subsidiary Slate in the not-too-distant future. It shouldn’t be long before my Washingtonpost.com is something quite different from your Washingtonpost.com.


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    "Eli Pariser isn't just the smartest person I know thinking about the relationship of digital technology to participation in the democratic process—he is also the most experienced. The Filter Bubble reveals how the world we encounter is shaped by programs whose very purpose is to narrow what we see and increase the predictability of our responses. Anyone who cares about the future of human agency in a digital landscape should read this book—especially if it is not showing up in your recommended reads on Amazon."

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