As masters of our curated universes, we can fix the 'filter bubble' problem

It seems like every day there’s a barrage of headlines telling us about the evils of filter bubbles. This month was no different, with DuckDuckGo publishing a study titled “Measuring the ‘Filter Bubble’: How Google is influencing what you click.” It showed that volunteers searching the same keywords (“gun control,” “immigration” and “vaccinations”) at the same time across the United States received different search results on Google, and the variations had little to do with their locations.

It showed that logging out of one’s Google account and using private browsing mode had little effect on the extent of the personalization. (Worth noting: DuckDuckGo is a competitor to Google, and according to Google’s public liaison, DuckDuckGo’s results vary by person.)

ADVERTISEMENT

As we saw during Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s congressional testimony, critiquing the tech giants has become a bipartisan sport (one of the remaining few). Yet Google’s, Facebook’s and Twitter’s user growths and bottom lines remain unscathed for the most part. Similarly, despite all our handwringing about hyperpolarization and a bifurcated media, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow continue racking up TV ratings. The virality of a “news story” and the veracity of its claims have little to do with each other. The passions of commentators and bloggers are poor indicators of the strength of their arguments.

How did we get here?

Freely and enthusiastically, as it turns out. We are the masters of our own curated universes, and we have brought this upon ourselves. Every time we clicked on a sensationalist headline. Every time we “liked” an article without reading it. Every time we blocked someone whose political views we didn’t like. The tech giants and media conglomerates are only giving us what we repeatedly have demanded.

At the same time, as any first-year psychology or neuroscience student will tell you, the human mind isn’t equipped to process vast amounts of complex, abstract information. For most of our evolution, we were focused on poison/not-poison distinctions. But even barring our myriad of cognitive limitations, one may be inclined to ask, exactly how much time can or should the average person spend every day sifting through news sites?

On the one hand, demonizing corporations for being too good at catering to our preferences seems silly. On the other hand, “let’s get rid of filter bubbles” seems an equally silly plan.

So what do we do?

There actually is plenty to be done. There are the small things, such as taking five minutes a day to read the Bipartisan Policy Center’s blog or The Flip Side (yes, this is a shameless plug). There are the mildly inconvenient things, such as seeking out lesser-known talk shows that are having real conversations across the aisle; BoldTV and Sanity Media come to mind. Then there are the hard things, such as attending a Better AngelsMake America Dinner Again or Experiment in Dialogue event. There are a plethora of bipartisan efforts out there; let’s find one or two that resonate with us and give them our support.

The problem is not that filter bubbles exist; it’s how information is filtered that’s the problem. Further complicating the filter bubble narrative, research shows that under the wrong circumstances, people can actually become more partisan when confronted with opposing viewpoints. It is not enough to splice together headlines from different outlets; we need truthful, compelling arguments to have any hope of moving the hyper-partisan needle.

We are the masters of our own curated universes. We can choose to click on A and not B. We can choose to turn on X and not Y. We can choose high-quality information sources and forums that encourage nuanced debate, and ignore clickbait headlines and screaming matches. We can train the algorithms to filter for truth, for quality, for good.

This is not to absolve corporate CEOs of their responsibilities. But as a politically tumultuous 2018 comes to a close and the madness that promises to be 2019 has yet to begin, let’s take stock of what we as individual consumers can do differently come January. Many of us are dreading going home for the holidays, afraid for when Uncle Bob inevitably brings up politics at the dinner table. Let’s do better next year.

The tech and media companies may have created the filter bubbles, but we are the ones perpetuating them. Let’s stop lamenting and take action. Let’s stop pretending we can get rid of filter bubbles altogether if only we write enough hit pieces on this company or that CEO, and instead fix the filter.

Annafi Wahed is founder of TheFlipSide.io, a daily digest of liberal and conservative commentary. It recently launched a campaign to Fix The Filter.