Circumventing the Filter Bubble

My current beliefs, passions, and politics tend to fit into a progressive paradigm. I’ve swung far to the left from the worldview I was raised in, though; as a child, my family was part of a conservative Baptist church with a predominantly white congregation. As is common in conservative evangelical churches, our politics and our faith were bundled together: to renounce the Republican cause was cause for concern that you’d soon renounce Christianity. During my past few years of exploration and questioning, I’ve been more and more reticent about posting honestly on social media, not wanting to get into situations that involve people on either end of my journey interacting on social media–or, like the self-conscious teenager inside of me would say, not wanting either side to judge me.

In any case, my journey has kept my Facebook feed somewhat more diverse than the typical filter bubble has. Ever since I became aware of filter bubbles and the ways we pigeonhole people who don’t agree with us, I’ve tried to intentionally broaden the scope of what I click on and who I “like” on Facebook. Being able to listen to personal stories from multiple perspectives on an issue is so important for me. Pigeonholing rapidly turns into dehumanizing, and part of the Christian worldview I still embrace is to recognize people for the humanity in them, beauty and flaws and all. However, that’s hard when social media hands you one perspective and pulls other perspectives back.

The websites we visit influence not only our beliefs but also the content we will see in the future. The proliferation of data mining means both our voluntarily provided information and the clicks we think nobody else is seeing can be collected and sold. Alice Marwick goes on to report in “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined” that private companies like Acxiom collect our personal data systematically and then sell it to corporations for predictive advertising (New York Review of Books, 2014). While it may seem like our clicks don’t say that much about our personal lives, the NSA General Counsel goes so far as to say that the content isn’t necessary: metadata is enough (David Cole, “We Kill People Based on Metadata”, New York Review of Books, 2014).

Marwick gives another example of big data in a context we might not typically think of: Obama’s presidential campaign. A group of data scientists was pulled together to figure out the most effective way to reach potential voters with fundraising emails and advertisements. I am not surprised by corporations that collect this data and use it to advertise; for some reason, big data’s implication in politics and government seems much more ominous.

Knowing that presidential campaigns have already used big data to send very targeted advertisements, I’m concerned what my filter bubble is telling me about politics that I haven’t consciously agreed to. I’m torn between avoiding posts I don’t agree with (for both the sake of not giving them page views and the sake of my mental health) and wanting to keep those channels of communication open. The same goes for politicians: I don’t want to “like” or “follow” them on social media because I don’t support them and I don’t want people to think I do, but I want to be able to understand that perspective. One of the scariest things about filter bubbles is that they exacerbate partisan polarization. They encourage us to unlike, unfollow, and unfriend those who are different from us. They also create fear that to disagree means rejection (and in “Generation Like”, that fear is even more visceral). The Internet should be connecting us, not driving us apart. In his TED talk “Beware online ‘filter bubbles’”, Eli Pariser says:

“algorithms don’t yet have the embedded ethics that the editors did.”

When algorithms control so much of what we consume, what are the implications of their “camouflaging” of human biases (Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction)? Should we be circumventing these algorithms–and how can we? How do these filter bubbles affect our face-to-face interactions and relationships, especially with those we don’t agree with?