The internet is an amazing tool. Type a search query into Google, and you’ll get hundreds of millions of results in a fraction of a second. It’s like having a superpower in an information age, and anyone with an internet-enabled device can wield this power. At the click of a mouse, you can access more information in an instant than the most educated people of previous generations could access in their entire lifetimes.
This seemingly limitless access to information is incredibly exciting. Entire libraries and college courses are now available for little or no cost online, giving many more people than ever before access to information and the tools to empower themselves professionally and personally. This access can open doors that would have otherwise been closed.
Still, few things are completely free, and that applies to convenient access to information on the internet, as well. Someone must invest in storing this information and in creating ways to search and access it. Companies like Google offer these valuable services, but they are also looking to make a profit. They have expenses to offset, and they are looking for a return on their investment as well as a reward for their financial risks. Most commonly, this reward comes in the form of advertising income, and the internet provides unprecedented opportunities to profit in this area.
In many ways, social media sites and search engines are the most sophisticated and targeted advertising tools in history. When we set up our social media accounts, we willingly fill out our profile information, freely giving away information about our likes, dislikes, demographics, hobbies, and more. This is the same valuable information that companies have long paid big money to acquire. The better that advertisers know their audience, the better they can target their products to those who are most likely to purchase them.
While we give away this information in our social media profiles, sophisticated algorithms also collect it from us every time we use the internet. These algorithms compile information each time we log in to our accounts, conduct an internet search, or make a purchase. With every keystroke, information is logged about our location, interests, search query history, and online tendencies. This data, and more, is funneled into the sophisticated formulas that often determine what information we see next. Because of this, two people conducting the same online search will undoubtedly receive a different list of results and in a differently prioritized order. Their results are shaped by the information collected about them and fed into the algorithm.
Since companies are trying to turn a profit, they want you to keep coming back. To increase the likelihood that you return, they give you what they think you will want. This might be very helpful when you’re trying to find that product you bought the month before or when you’re trying to find a website you recently accessed. However, this algorithmic redirection can also have negative consequences. If we only see information that aligns with what we’ve previously been seeking and consuming, it’s much less likely that we’ll be introduced to new or conflicting ideas. Ultimately, this can narrow our perspectives and limit our understanding by constantly feeding us the same type of information with similar viewpoints.
Eli Pariser greatly increased awareness of this phenomenon in his 2011 TED Talk titled, “Beware Online ‘Filter Bubbles.‘” In his talk, he specifically calls out the impact of social media. Like search engines, these platforms attempt to give you what you want in order to keep you coming back. By logging your clicks, likes, and searches, they give you more results that are similar to those with which you have previously interacted and fewer results that diverge from your past browsing history. In this way, the information that you are seeing and consuming becomes more and more homogenous, and it can begin to insulate you in your personal “filter bubble” of like-minded information. If you click on links about music, you will see more posts and advertisements related to music. If those links are related to the guitar, more guitar posts will appear.
Filter bubbles are great for targeting advertising streams and maximizing profits, but they can be damaging in several other ways. First and foremost, filter bubbles reinforce narrow-mindedness. By filtering out new or opposing viewpoints, we don’t get the opportunity to have our opinions challenged or our understanding broadened. This bubble can give us the unrealistic impression that everyone believes the same way we do, and it can lead to confirmation bias—the interpretation of new information as confirmation or reinforcement of what we already believe. If we never see or read anything from a different perspective, it’s easy to rationalize that everyone else shares the same perspective we do. If that’s all we see, it’s all we know. When this shared perception is based on inaccurate or incomplete information, these filter bubbles can deepen and perpetuate injustices, like systemic racism.
For a democracy to function effectively, voters must be able to make informed decisions based on accurate information. While the internet should, in theory, allow people to be more informed than ever before, filter bubbles have the power to undermine this potential by narrowing our perspectives and keeping opposing viewpoints from us. Not only do information bubbles tend to divide people into like-minded groups, they also provide the perfect soil for spreading misleading information or, worse yet, disinformation. This is especially true with social media when dissenting opinions are filtered out and disinformation is targeted to those most likely to accept it as truth.
On one level, we are exposed to filter bubbles through algorithms we don’t understand. We may not even be aware that information is being filtered out. Other times, we make personal choices that create or reinforce these filter bubbles. This happens when we watch news programs that align with our beliefs or choose to only have conversations with like-minded friends. When we do this, we insulate ourselves from the full story and make it easy to overestimate how many people agree with our personal perspectives. In this way, filter bubbles can decrease our empathy for others, and this resulting lack of understanding can reduce opportunities for sincere dialogue that can lead to meaningful change.
Whether we like it or not, information bubbles have contributed to people becoming more polarized in their opinions and beliefs. This is a significant challenge for a democracy. When we live entirely in our filter bubbles, either intentionally or not, we reinforce this polarization by surrounding ourselves with like perspectives. Some might say that ignorance is bliss. After all, it’s comforting to think that everyone agrees with us. However, ignorance also divides and destroys our ability to listen, work together, and compromise.
Get Started Addressing Filter Bubbles
It’s easy to dwell on the negative impacts of filter bubbles, but we should remember that we have the power to overcome these potentially negative effects. We also have an obligation to teach our students how to recognize and overcome those effects. After all, our students are future adults, future voters, and future change-makers. To help you get started, explore the free resources and lesson plans available online from trusted organizations like Common Sense Education and Checkology.
You can also use our list of 10 Ways to Pop the Filter Bubble. The list can help you facilitate conversations about what is happening online. It can also be used to frame discussions about how we might ultimately recognize and look beyond our own personal filter bubbles.
10 Ways to Pop the Filter Bubble
If we can learn to see past our filter bubbles, we can take advantage of this incredible opportunity we call the internet. Access to nearly endless amounts of information and perspectives can make us stronger, and it can be a great opportunity to create what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop called “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” “Mirrors” are opportunities to connect with others like us, and we need to feel connected to others, but we can’t stop there. We also need to find “windows” into other perspectives and ways of life, so we can better understand other people and develop the sense of empathy that will allow us to work together to solve problems and live peacefully. We can then turn these windows into “sliding glass doors” that we can see through and ultimately push open, providing opportunities to understand other points of view. Not only will this help us be more empathetic and develop a more well-rounded perspective, but it can also help us to become better citizens in a voting democracy that relies so much on informed voters.
Extend Your Learning
- Filter Bubble Trouble (Common Sense Education)
- Challenging Confirmation Bias (Common Sense Education)
- Media Bias Chart (Ad Fontes Media)
- Are You in a Social Media Bubble? Here’s How to Tell (NBC News)
- Beware Online “Filter Bubbles” (TED Talk by Eli Pariser)
- How Filter Bubbles Isolate You (GFC Global)
- The Causes and Effects of “Filter Bubbles” and How to Break Free (Medium)