You live in an information bubble

Most people today get their news through social media. In fact 62% of adults in the US get all their news on social media. Sites like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, feed you news constantly and there’s very little you can do to shelter yourself from the torrent. Truly, staying on top of relevant events and other people’s lives is easier than ever.

Social media does serve you news that’s relevant for you, but it may sometimes be worth considering how broad “relevant for you” really is. Social media always feels like it’s delivering everything important in the world right now, straight to your shiny new smartphone, but is it really? Most people are aware that social networks (and many other sites) employ a variety of strategies to personalise your information feed, but few understand the scale and precision with which this is happening.

Some of these strategies are fairly obvious. Facebook shows you things that are getting a lot of engagement within your group of friends or things that it deems to be relevant to you that are trending or viral. Other strategies used are less obvious, like grouping you with other users users who are clicking on similar things, creating invisible social circles of similarly minded people you probably don’t even know. Then when someone in the group likes a post or a video the social network can go ahead and spread it to everyone else, knowing that the rest of the group is likely to engage with the content as well. So you, along with everyone you know, belong to one of these invisible groups where you are all seeing a lot of very similar content.

Why do social networks do this? Because it works. You click more, watch more and rarely, if ever, stop to wonder why you are being shown any specific piece of content. The reason is simple: they already know you are likely to engage with it and that’s exactly what social networks want. Their entire business model relies on users being on the site for as long as possible, so they get as much information on you as they can, to serve you targeted ads and even more content.

This cycle continues forever, constantly giving you more relevant content, constantly making you click more. Social networks are not only targeting ads at you, they are targeting everything from world news to the comments you see. The effect of this is that you only see what you want to see. People are more likely to click on content that confirms their opinions (confirmation bias) than something that offers a differing viewpoint, so everyone ends up living in a massive information bubble with their invisible peer group. A massive personalised propaganda engine of our own making.

Try a little experiment. Right now, decide to get interested in a random subject you’ve never been interested in. For example you could suddenly get very excited about kangaroo mating rituals or how Elon Musk plans to go to Mars. Do some reading about it online and maybe even post about it on Facebook. Keep doing this for a while and you will begin noticing something interesting. You suddenly just happen to stumble upon this subject more and more where ever you go online. You may think maybe you just never noticed it before as it wasn’t in your field of interests and you possibly just kind of ignored it. This, unfortunately, is not the case. You can do this again and again, if you have the will and the determination, but the result will be the same.

So it’s likely you, like many people, think you’re seeing a wide breadth of content and getting a good cross section of the world’s information. When in reality you’re getting a tiny, tiny sliver of it, because you aren’t as interested in everything else. What’s worse, you are only getting one perspective on this sliver. This is dangerous, because you’re constantly getting confirmation for your own beliefs and opinions, regardless of how inaccurate or biased they are.

Look at any political election, any war, any important global debate. Don’t you think it might be valuable to get both sides of the story? Currently you need to go out of your way to do that. I believe that just being cognisant of this in your daily life will help you be a more rational and empathetic person. Targeting is just going to get worse. Soon we’ll be talking with AI all day (think Amazon Echo in a few years) and it will be trained to make you feel great about yourself and your opinions (while persuading you to buy more Amazon products). It will be a world that seemingly agrees with your every thought. Even the bad ones.

We can never be successful as a global society if everyone stands steadfast in their beliefs. We need to strive for harmony, regardless of sex, race or political affiliation. This is especially important as we march deeper into potentially the most frightening century modern humans have ever seen. The catastrophic effects of climate change, over population, income inequality, massive job loss, political turmoil, SuperAI and war on a grand scale will all quite possibly be realised in our collective future. Not some distant future, but within the lifetimes of a sizeable chunk of the world’s population. In order to survive, let alone thrive, we need empathy and understanding, which only comes from experiencing the full diversity of thought we as humans are capable of.

So go read something you disagree with today.

Feel free to tweet me your thoughts @teempai.