Burst Your Filter Bubble

Co-written with Richard Wolman

Take back some power by getting out to challenge your thinking and find new ideas

Are digital technologies a force for democracy, or do they in fact reduce our access to information?

You might think that events like the ‘Facebook revolution’ in Egypt in 2011, or the ability to vote online in many countries, or massive sharing of political material on social media points to one thing: digital tech supports democracy.

Democracy means power or rule of the people, the ability of the people to do things.[i] This presupposes some level of free choice.

But how are we making our decisions?

Psychologist Kris de Meyer at King’s College London argues that we start off with a small preference towards something — like a political party — influenced by our backgrounds, experiences, friends.

When we decide to support that group, or person, we are confronted with a problem: other people disagree with us. Could they be right? The idea that we might be wrong can feel very uncomfortable.

Psychologists have a name for this unpleasant experience: cognitive dissonance.[ii] So what do we do?

We take a stronger position. We reject others’ views. We even bad-mouth them.

The result is a closing-off of our abilities to seek and evaluate new information. We selectively look for information that supports what we already believe. This is known as confirmation bias.[iii]

Over time, two people might take small incremental steps in opposite directions towards a stronger position. They end up with views which are vastly different, despite only starting out with small differences.[iv]

We band together with others who appear to share the same views, cultivating a group identity around a leadership figure, political party or whatever.

Humans have a strong drive to belong to a group

Humans feel more comfortable being part of a group, and shared identity also makes it easier to attack the rest, lumping them together.[v] This is despite ‘opposing’ groups probably having internal differences of opinion which may be larger than the differences between them.

For instance, some Labour MPs were pro-Brexit, others pro-Remain. Who does the pro-Brexit Labour MP have more in common with: a pro-Brexit Tory MP, or a pro-Remain Labour MP?

In situations like this, it can be hard to tell whose side we’re on, or should be on. But, we’ve made a choice, and we’re in a group, so we stick with it: human nature.

When the internet can provide us with limitless information about any choice we care to make, we should be able to escape this slavish, rigid mindset. We can break out of the confirmation bias, embrace cognitive dissonance, reject group-think, right?

Wrong.

These processes are operating more intensely than ever before. Why?

Because many of us spend hours every day on websites, apps and social media platforms which are designed to keep us hooked in, online.[vi] You can read more about the psychological effects of that on us here.

These sites operate according to the logic of algorithms, which pick up your data on interests, locations, activities and contacts. Often this occurs without you being aware it’s happening, though you did agree to it in the small print that time you feverishly pressed ‘Accept’ on the new app you wanted to use….

The algorithms turn this mass of data into targeting information which is then used to tailor advertising, messages, featured posts, news and other material.

We become trapped in an online ‘filter bubble’ which actually narrows our access to information, because algorithms are deciding what we see, based on our previous behaviour.[vii] And the apps and sites are designed to keep us in that bubble.

De Meyer argues these processes account for the ability of ‘fake news’ sites to convince people.

Businesses operating in the sector of the economy known as the ‘attention market’ sell advertising based on the number of hits they can generate to a webpage.

They favour ‘clickbait’ headlines that promise to change your life if you just follow the link to “8 things that will double your earnings in a year” or “6 ways to tell if your partner is cheating” or “You’ll be amazed how this celebrity looks now!”

Recently, ‘fake news’ sites — often established by political supporters — can put out stories with outrageous and unsubstantiated claims. Significant examples include the ‘Pope Francis endorses Trump presidential campaign’ piece, or the Hillary Clinton ‘Pizzagate’ story, which actually led to a man walking into a restaurant with a gun.[viii]

To sum it all up, our attention is being grabbed by sites designed to keep us online, hitting us with headlines we cannot resist clicking on, which will tell us stuff that reinforces our existing views, deepening our suspicion of those in ‘other’ groups. When marketed at undecided ‘swing’ voters with slight preferences, it could change the outcome of elections.

Put that way, it’s hard to argue that such use of digital media is a force for democracy. It’s also no surprise that ‘post-truth’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary this year.

So how do we break out of this cycle, take back some power over our own choices, and burst the filter bubble?

One way is to disable the ability of apps and sites to access all kinds of information about us — by not agreeing in the first place, or by changing settings inside the app. This can be tricky, though (such options are deliberately made hard to find), and may result in loss of functionality.

Another, perhaps better way, is to get out and connect with people offline. That’s right, ‘IRL’. Not just your mates. But people who are getting together for an activity.

The person you might meet for some guerrilla gardening, the woman across the field from you in tag rugby, the guy on the other side of the skate half-pipe.

They could be the person you slate online, disparage in your ‘all [insert name] voters are legends/scum*’ (*delete as appropriate) Tweet, whose honourable/deplorable treatment of men/women/LGBTQ/migrants/environment/animals you’ve just lauded/blasted for the eighth time that day.

You might not agree with them. But they may turn out not to be the person you thought they were. After all, you probably started out with views that barely diverged from theirs, a little while ago.

Take the step to get out and link up with them over something you both love.

And see what happens.

@DrCJMerritt

[i] Ober, J. (2007). The original meaning of “democracy”: Capacity to do things, not majority rule. Paper delivered to American Political Science Association meeting: Retrieved June 30, 2017 from: https://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/ober/090704.pdf

[ii] Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[iii] Klayman, J. (1995). Varieties of confirmation bias. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 32, 385–418.

[iv] De Meyer, K. (2017). Brexit, Trump and ‘post-truth’: the science of how we become entrenched in our views. The Conversation. Retrieved July 3, 2017 from: http://theconversation.com/brexit-trump-and-post-truth-the-science-of-how-we-become-entrenched-in-our-views-69228

[v] Tajfel, H. (1979). Individuals and groups in social psychology. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 18, 183–190.

[vi] Dillon, K., & Olberding, J. C. (2017). Promoting events through cause marketing, social media, and “gamification”. In J. C. Olberding (Ed.) Social Enterprise and Special Events: Market-Based Approaches to Mission-Driven Gatherings. (pp. 37–51). New York: Routledge.

[vii] Wendling, M. (2017). Solutions that can stop fake news spreading. BBC World Hacks, 30 January 2017. Retrieved July 3, 2017 from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-38769996

[viii] Griffin, A. (2016). What is Pizzagate? The Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory that led to a man opening fire in a pizza restaurant. The Independent Online, December 2016. Retrieved June 30, 2017 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/pizzagate-what-is-it-explained-hillary-clinton-paedophile-conspiracy-gunman-fake-news-a7456681.html

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