In the current political and social global landscape, online ‘filter bubbles’ are increasingly becoming a threat to our access to unbiased information, and the efficacy of democracy itself.
What are filter bubbles?
Filter Bubbles — a term originally coined by Eli Pariser, author of ‘The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You’— is the state of intellectual and ideological isolation that occurs online. Personalised algorithms effectively ‘filter out’ any information contradicts your beliefs. Analysis of your click behaviour, location, browsing habits and search history form filter bubbles.
How are filter bubbles affecting politics?
Although filter bubbles exist online, they have begun to have serious impacts on the way real-life politics. According to Pew Research, 61 per cent of millennials use Facebook as their primary source for news. This makes it the most common source for news about government and politics by far. We are largely only exposed to information that confirms our own biases online. Therefore, this poses some serious repercussions on the way we engage with political discourse.
This most dramatic example of this to date is the 2016 American presidential election. Professor Philip Howard, of the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, is one of many professionals studying how social media filter bubbles work. Howard suggests that filter bubbles were a major cause of the ‘mistake’ outcome of a Trump presidency. Until the election results were released, the general consensus in the U.S. seemed to be that Clinton would easily win. The issue was that the opinions of pro-Trump voters were being filtered out from everyone else’s search results and newsfeeds.
Filtering election results
Emerging evidence suggests that filter bubbles similarly impacted on the result of the recent Australian Federal Election, four years later. All major polls predicted the Australian Labour Party (ALP) simply could not lose. However, the shock loss for the ALP suggests that our way of understanding politics in the digital age is seriously flawed.
One expert who did accurately predict the result of the Australian election was Professor Bela Stantic from Griffith University, who specialises in data mining. Stantic also accurately predicted the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote. She did this by analysing the opinions people share on social media. This suggests that the traditional ways of analysing and interpreting the motives of voters have become dysfunctional. Therefore, the importance of social media becomes crucial in this debate.
It has become clear that our traditional ways of understanding and engaging with politics have become irrelevant. We have a responsibility to seek out information that challenges our filter bubbles until the technology catches up. Democracy as we know it is at risk.
Here are some ways that you can reduce the impact of your personal filter bubble:
1. Use an anonymous search engine or delete your search history.
Google is notorious for using specific algorithms to change search results. Use a search engine like GoDuckGo to access an unbiased web search result. If you don’t want to part with Google, then clear your web history. This minimises the amount of information changing your search results.
2. Actively follow accounts and individuals whose views you may disagree with online.
If you are only following and interacting with content that you agree with, chances are that you will continue to be fed content you like. Go out of your way to follow or like accounts that you don’t agree with to gain a balanced feed.
3. Turn Off Targeted Ads.
Depending on what Browser you use, you can turn off targeted advertising. On Safari, turn on the ‘Do Not Track’ feature. For Google Chrome, install the ‘Keep Your Opts-Outs’ extension, and for Internet Explorer, turn on the ‘Tracking Protection’ option.
4. Delete your browser cookies.
Cookies are data that your web browser store when you are on a website. If permission is enabled, then the site can track your history. This is then used to determine what to show you. On most browsers, there is also an option to delete all cookies when you delete your search history.
5. Manage your social media data.
In particular, Facebook has often been found to make your private data public to certain sites and organisations. You should hide your birthday on Facebook because this can help the browser identify you. Also, review the ‘privacy tools’ section on your account, and turn off ‘instant personalisation.’