Thursday, 24 September 2015

Popping the filter bubble

Your social media feed may not reflect reality, so tear yourself away from it to discover the world outside
By Ignatius Low, The Sunday Times, 20 Sep 2015

According to my Facebook feed, the world consists of animals (mostly dogs) doing cute, sad or amazing things, celebrity musicians on late-night talk shows, tech freaks with hack tips and gym freaks with training tips.

And, oh, the most important nations on earth are Taiwan and Japan, both having citizens that take an awful lot of selfies.

Of course, I'm exaggerating (or am I?) but I was recently compelled to take a closer look at the items that appear in my social media feeds.

Like many others, I was somewhat surprised by the results of the recent General Election.

In my line of work, I scrupulously avoid following any politician on social media, so my social media feed is relatively free of party propaganda.

Although my friends list skews more to the left of the political spectrum, there is a good spread of personalities and viewpoints.

Yet judging by the postings I saw on my Facebook feed and the comments that followed them, I could have sworn support for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and the opposition would be much more even when the votes were finally counted.

I certainly did not imagine the landslide for the PAP that materialised and it became obvious in the comments and postings of the post-election period that most of my friends didn't either.

To many of us, the election showed in the most dramatic fashion that sometimes, the world that you think is faithfully mirrored by social media doesn't quite match up to the reality outside.

And that got me interested again in a phenomenon in the online world known as the "filter bubble".

The term was first popularised by Internet activist Eli Pariser, who wrote a book on it and also gave an influential 10-minute Ted talk which is well worth watching.

Basically, filter bubbles are created when algorithms on websites such as Facebook and Google try to personalise the Internet experience for users.

The algorithms analyse information about a user, such as what he likes to click on to read or watch and the friends he tends to follow the closest. They then serve only news articles, postings or videos that is their best guess of what the user might like to see.

As a result, the user starts to become separated from any information that he disagrees with. He sees only the information and viewpoints that he likes, effectively isolating him in his own cultural or ideological bubble.

In other words, the Internet is no longer that neutral source of information that many thought it was. "The Internet is showing you what it thinks you should be seeing, instead of what you should be seeing," says Pariser.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put it more starkly:

"A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa."

But back to GE2015 and the reality of the filter bubble. To test the concept, I asked a few friends (in person, not online) what their social media feeds were saying about the election as it approached.

One, who is my age and glad for the PAP win, said that in the final few days before Polling Day, her social media feed was somewhat like mine and it worried her. She said: "The fear was real.

I was struck by the sense of foreboding a few friends expressed prior to the results.

"I am sobered by how unreflective of reality my social media bubble is - and grateful too."

Another friend in her 20s had a very different take. She said her social media feeds gave her no indication at all that the opposition was gaining in any real way.

"It's your friends! I've seen your Facebook wall," she said dismissively.

If filter bubbles exist and do indeed have the power to distort a person's sense of reality, then the implications are quite serious.

Whole generations weaned on social media could grow up quite out of touch with the society they live in. Some thinkers even think the idea of democracy itself could come under threat.

Yet more and more online service providers are turning to algorithms like these in their drive to attract more eyeballs in an intensely competitive landscape.

The most popular news aggregators now, such as News360 and SmartNews, are those that curate the news according to a user's click-through behaviour.

In June, it emerged that Facebook would be tweaking its news feature by taking into account not just whether someone liked or commented on an article, but also by how much time they spent reading it.

Meanwhile, traditional news sites such as The Huffington Post, Washington Post and The New York Times are also jumping on the bandwagon, exploring ways to customise news delivered via apps or online according to each individual user's preferences.

Google chairman Eric Schimdt's version of the future is that "it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them."

What's been tailored for them will be tailored by them, and there is little doubt people will take the path of least resistance.

"Consuming information that conforms to our ideas of the world is easy and pleasurable," says Pariser. "Consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is frustrating and difficult."

How can we break out of that cycle and "pop" our filter bubble?

Well, there are plenty of tips on this online, but they require you to really make an effort to change your online browsing behaviour.

The most obvious solution is to deliberately click on links that you wouldn't normally click, making it difficult for the personalisation engines to pigeonhole you. But this, I suspect, won't come naturally to many people.

Another set of tips revolves around changing the settings of your browser or the applications you run. Some tell you to erase your browser history and cookies from time to time or to use an "incognito" window for exploring your most-liked content.

Yet others recommend using sites and apps that don't personalise what you see, such as Twitter. There are also search engines such as DuckDuckGo that don't track users.

I've also discovered a tip of my own. In Facebook's News Feed Preferences Tab, you can prioritise which friends' postings you see first.

As you open up the window to do this, you get a listing of which friends are currently prioritised and in what order, based on your past click behaviour. It is a very illuminating list.

But my best piece of advice is to tear yourself away from the mobile or the computer once in a while. Go out and read an actual newspaper for once, or watch a television news bulletin. Talk politics, for a change, with your colleagues, churchmates or sports buddies.

You'll be surprised how much of a world there is outside the confines of your social media feed and one day, you'll be grateful for it too.

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