THE BLOG

Filter Bubbles Are Shrinking Our Minds

11/09/2016 10:55 PM IST | Updated 14/09/2016 8:20 AM IST
NEW! HIGHLIGHT AND SHARE
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
Getty Images/iStockphoto

We live in the age of "filter-bubbles". A whimsical name for a phenomenon that could have far-reaching and dangerous implications. But before I dig deeper into the concept of filter-bubbles, let's look at a few incidents that are relevant.

A senior Indian classmate in my Master's course in Monash Malaysia pointed out recently, and I quote her verbatim, "When I was young, and I am at least a decade older than everybody in this class, religion was still there, but it wasn't such a big deal. These days it seems to be a big issue, with everyone flying their religious flags over their heads."

Things that we find uncomfortable and contradictory to our existing view of the world simply get edited out.

This student wasn't alone in voicing her concern over our increasing obsession with religion. As reported by the Hindustan Times, Indian youth, primarily the middle and upper middle class demographic aged 18-45, are now more inclined towards religious practices, observing traditional rituals and conservative in their beliefs.

And this trend is not limited to the Indian subcontinent. According to a recent paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, young adults born between the 1980s and 1994 are far more politically polarized than GenXers or Baby Boomers (the research takes into consideration data from the 1970s to 2015). Additionally, they are more likely to identify as political conservatives; the number of people who identify as "extremely conservative" or "extremely liberal" has also risen over the past few decades.

So coming back to filter-bubbles. The term was first coined by internet activist Eli Pariser, who argues that personalized newsfeeds and search results might be squeezing your perception of the world into a "filter-bubble". To put it simply, if you read the liberal press and have liberal views, your Google search results, your Twitter feed, your Facebook newsfeed will be flooded with content that supports your pre-existing worldview. Because that is the kind of content you are most likely to engage with, an assumption gleaned by a highly complex algorithm that routinely analyzes your social media and online behaviour.

In a Ted Talk, Eli Pariser demonstrated how the same search query can produce very different results for different individuals, based on their past online behaviour. As Pariser argues, these algorithms are playing the role of information gatekeepers. They shape, or reinforce, our world view based on what we want to see or what is relevant to us instead of what we would rather not see but may need to see. Things that we find uncomfortable and contradictory to our existing view of the world simply get edited out.

A religious conservative will keep being exposed to content related to religious conservatism and a liberal will routinely be exposed to content with a liberal bias. This situation creates extremists...

For example, a Ugandan student who displays an interest in Justin Bieber, will be flooded with content regarding JB's recent spat with Selena Gomez on Instagram, completely editing out news relevant to a new legislation that might make it harder for her to obtain and pay her student loans.

Similarly, a religious conservative will keep being exposed to content related to religious conservatism and a liberal will routinely be exposed to content with a liberal bias. This situation creates extremists from both camps.

We're all too familiar with the antics of right wing extremists, so I'll cite a left wing millennial as an example. I met her roughly a year ago, after posting a link on a Facebook group, about my upcoming book. Long story short, within a few days the 20-something psych student was giving me lectures on how polyamory is the best thing since sliced bread. The last time I spoke to her was a few months ago; she's now in a relationship of sorts with a person she describes as "non-binary", as in someone who doesn't identify as either male or female. For the aforementioned millennial, "binary gender roles feel too passé"... I'm not too sure what that means, though.

I guess I need to spend more time in her filter-bubble.

More On This Topic