by Christopher Breen
You follow the #OnPoli hashtag religiously, and you certainly know your way around the Google search engine. All things considered, you might think you are a reasonably well-informed voter. But when you go to the polls in the upcoming Ontario election, will you really know all there is to know?
It’s almost an absurd question, in reality no one could ever achieve perfect information. Fortunately, as goes the common point of view, the internet exposes us to an endless number of differing viewpoints – and the healthy debate that comes with them. Right?
Not so, argues Eli Pariser. In his recent work The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, the Chief Executive at viral content website Upworthy argues that we are not receiving the wealth of information from the internet that we might perceive we are. He calls what we are living in a filter bubble – the product of algorithms personalizing our search results to feed us what they think we want to see. If two people search online for the same company, one might primarily see updates on their recent stock performance, while the other may primarily see articles on recent their recent ethical violations. It all depends on what the algorithm decides the reader wishes to see.
This is not a small or relatively contained phenomenon. Google, a prominent administrator of the filter bubble, had a staggering 74.5% of the online search market share in 2017. If you are looking for information online, there is a good chance you are using Google and there is a good chance that you will have a hard time finding all the information there is to find. Not at least without putting up a good fight.
If you are a fan of seeing only content that is directly tailored to your interests, then perhaps this is not so bad. But for democracy as a whole, this is bad, bad news.
Measuring the strength of democracy is tough. At its core, democracy is held up by free and fair elections. While at face value this may seem like a simple binary measurement, it turns out that the matter is incredibly nuanced. What makes for an election that is truly free and fair? A crucial component, per several scholars, involves citizens having access to numerous sources of information. Which, while technically provided by the internet, is severely hampered by the existence of the filter bubble.
Furthermore, what makes for fairness itself is a muddy subject. Per principles of liberalism a relatively common approach is that of equality. According to scholar Elizabeth Anderson, a crucial tenet of democratic equality is that everyone be provided not only with real options, but also a general awareness of all their options. They need to be granted the responsible agency to make informed decisions. Where is our agency when we do not get to choose the information we are receiving?
And when you mix the filter bubble with the toxic combo that is Facebook and its recent plague of fake news – news intentionally fabricated to mislead or deceive the reader, usually with political aims in mind – our democracy is at risk. In a recent blog post, Facebook Head of Civic Engagement Samidh Chakrabarti said he wished he could promise us the Facebook’s positives outweigh its negatives, but he cannot.
An echo chamber, we choose to be in. A filter bubble is chosen for us.
This is the crux of the issue. Our ability to seek out our own information, on our own terms, is being hampered. What is a free and democratic society without citizens who have the agency to find information as they please? Perhaps it is time for the government to take a hard look at regulations. Until then, especially as we approach the upcoming Ontario provincial election, try to make sure you have popped your own bubble before making any decisions.