One of the more pervasive and pernicious aspects of social media and web based marketing is what is known as “the filter bubble”. This impacts all of us since the content we are viewing on the internet is selected or customized, without our knowledge, to show information (advertising, news, etc.) that is congruent with what is calculated to be our beliefs.
The intent of this content conditioning is to show individuals content that will reinforce their world view and then push advertising at them that is congruent with their world view or interests. The simple goal of that is to maximize the likelihood of a sale for advertisers.
In this article, I am discussing the impact of the “filter bubble” and in another article I will address the related issue of using “big data” to manipulate public opinion.
The Internet and the platforms that we use have been subtly hijacked from information-based facilities to marketing facilities. While this may seem somewhat harmless, since the ads we are presented with pay for “free service”, there are concerns about how this impacts our perception and world view.
What most don’t realize is that the scale of information collection on Internet users is massive, and of course, happens without their awareness or consent.
All of us are profiled. These profiles are stored and include a huge number of so-called data points. This includes both personal information and online behavior such as: age, gender, location, online search and browsing history, online purchase history, political beliefs, religious beliefs, video views, social media views and many many more. All of this data is very helpful to advertising vendors such as Google and Facebook in deciding what content and ads you will see as you browse the web or use their platforms.
For internet searches, you and your neighbor will not see the same content even if you use precisely the same search terms. This is because searches are executed based not only on submitted search terms, but also on user profiles that are constructed over time by monitoring the online behavior of each user.
On social media platforms, your profile will be constructed not only on your own behavior, but also on the behavior of friends, family and others you are associated with.
Even users who are aware of this implicit contract which states: “You get my personal information and in return, I get free searches and social media platforms”, seem unconcerned, but should they be?
Is their any cause for concern about any of this? Are their unintended side-effects of these techniques? Are there broader social impacts since the filter bubble affects so many, and most of those affected are unaware of how pervasive it is?
There are a number of reasons for concern since:
- A large percentage of Internet users are completely unaware of the pervasiveness and depth of data collection that occurs based on their identity and behavior.
- Even those who are aware of it may naively believe they have nothing to hide.
- There would be no filter bubble if it was not an effective technique for manipulating beliefs and behavior.
- The filter bubble can create the misperception that each persons world view is more widely shared than it is, by skewing the content they are presented with.
- The filter bubble can create silos of users who share common world views and come to believe they are unvarnished reality when they are a manufactured reality created by the filter bubble.
All of the points, listed above, can have very profound impacts since they reinforce or alter particular world views, which creates an artificial reality for users.
The primary impact of the filter bubble is that it tends to create isolation rather then bringing people together. In other words, it is inherently polarizing since it distorts perception to reinforce each individuals world view as being correct and dominant. Which of course makes those who don’t share a particular world view, a minority and wrong!
A related impact of the filter bubble is that it tends to reinforce binary thinking. This creates and exacerbates artificial divisions between people based on any particular topic such as:
- You are either left wing or right wing
- You are a pro-vaxer or an anti-vaxer
- You are a socialist or a capitalist
- You are religious or a heathen.
- You are a conspiracy theorist or completely rational
- You are pro-science or anti-science
In a debate, there should be far more nuance than simply picking sides and presenting one biased view versus another. This is the opposite of critical thinking.
Sadly, it is easier to characterize the effects of the filter bubble than it is to recommend or promote an antidote, since the effects are so broad and pervasive, and they have become effectively invisible for most.
My purpose in writing this article, is to shine some light on the filter bubble and its’ effects and encourage others to engage critical thinking around their own behavior and the behavior of others and how they view what they are being shown on the Internet.
Awareness is an ally in combatting the filter bubble. Good luck and best wishes.