Are filter bubbles making us ignorant?

Did you ever notice how Google seems to know what you’re looking for even before asking the question?

As granted as it might seem today, the emergence of the internet has completely transformed information broadcast by breaking down the barriers hindering communication: information could be shared by and with anyone on what we know as the world wide web.

Recently, however, our ambition of making the internet “easy” by way of personalisation has been changing the very quality that made it such a diverse and informative place. This subtle yet dramatic change has come about with the help of algorithms. From Google to Netflix and The New York times, most digital information outlets are governed by these computer curation processes which, thanks to language processing, deep learning and data, exchange our personal information for welcome suggestions, most often predicting with almost complete accuracy our preferences.

There is great comfort in having not only a sea of information at our fingertips, but the exact type of information we are looking for. As enticing as this might seem, we have to stop and wonder about the cost we pay for this convenience. Particularly concerned with the issue, internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to describe an internet user’s lack of exposure to conflicting viewpoints, thus becoming isolated in one’s own informational sphere.

Mark Zuckerberg once explained how the Facebook feed works by saying that “a squirrel dying in your front yard might be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa”. While this can be true from a machine point of view, one cannot but stop and wonder: is this the direction in which the internet is leading our society?

Historically, possession of control over information and its broadcast could highly influence public opinion. Today, are we relinquishing the rights over information manipulation in favour of machines with no ethical queues? If personal relevance and preference are the only criteria that separate information reaching us from all that is available, we run the risk of becoming, dare we say, ignorant. In the light of recent political and social events, we can clearly observe how ignorance towards news which we might not like to see, but should be aware of, created the perfect context for propaganda, the effects of which have rendered even seemingly impossible events plausible.

So, the next time you scroll through your news feed, ask yourself: are you receiving alternative viewpoints about the world, or are you just sabotaging your ability to access information by having your ideology reflected back at you?