Bursting the “Filter Bubble”

View gaps

I’ve mentioned many times that it is our nature to preferentially seek out information that tells us what we want to hear, while ignoring those facts which are inconvenient to our beliefs. It is an insidious problem.

The problem of this “selection bias” is bad enough by itself. The scary thing is that the web makes matters worse: search engines like google and Facebook have built in “predictive filtering”. Information is presented to us according to predictions of what we would like to see (based on our past search behavior).

Selective filtering by search engines and web pages is a nice idea on paper. In practice, it serves to further insulate us from information that would challenge our beliefs. We end up living in an information bubble where we receive only the information that we want to hear. Not only do we choose to ignore challenging facts, but google (and others) already makes the choice for us. It becomes all the easier to get entrenched in our over simplistic ideological world views. Perhaps this media trend is part of the reason for the growing political polarization in America.

In 2011, Eli Pariser gave a great Ted Talk on the subject. I highly recommend it.

Just yesterday, my sis-in-law Andrea sent me an interesting article in the MIT technology review on a group who is working to solve this problem:

http://www.technologyreview.com/view/522111/how-to-burst-the-filter-bubble-that-protects-us-from-opposing-views/

Another interesting solution I’ve seen is a browser-plugin that can connect readers on a particular website to webpages that rebut the arguments on the site:

http://blog.rbutr.com/about-us/

In both cases, I’m glad to see people working on solving this problem.

My own two cents

I think this is an excellent idea. However, I would caution both of these approaches not to present the world as a dialectic, a two-sided “point-counterpoint”. People tend to sort themselves into two opposing camps on any issue, but the real world does not work that way. The real world shows much richer complexity than dualisms allow. On any issue, there is a wide range of possible views and available facts.

I think it would be interesting, not only to expose people to “opposing” viewpoints, but to also expose them to atypical “hybrid” viewpoints: like animal rights activists who belong to the NRA, or social conservatives who want to legalize pot.

People are more receptive to contrary evidence from those closer to their worldview than they are from people who are polar opposite of their worldview. You have to ease someone into new ideas. And, the best way to shake people out of their box is to show them that the world has many more than just two possibilities available to it.

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