The Age of Filter-bubbles


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.”

The senior student wasn’t alone in voicing her concern over our increasing obsession with religion. As reported by Hindustan Times, the Indian youth, primarily the middle and upper middle class demographic aged between 18-45; is now more inclined towards religious practices, observing traditional conservative rituals, and age honoured ethos. 

And this trend is not limited to the Indian subcontinent. According to a journal published in Personality and Social Psychology as recently as last Wednesday, 7th September, 2016; young adults born between 1980s and 1994 are far more politically polarized than GenXers or Baby Boomers. Additionally, they are more likely to identify as political conservatives, and the number of people who identify as ‘extremely conservative’ or ‘extremely liberal’ have risen over the past few decades. The research takes into account relevant data between 1970s to 2015.

So coming back to filter-bubbles. The term was first coined by internet activist Eli Pariser, an online activist who argues that personalised newsfeeds and search results might be squeezing your perception of the world, into a ‘filter-bubble’. Basically, in simple words; 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 analyses your social media and online behaviour.

In his Ted Talk, Eli Pariser demonstrated how the same search query could 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, shaping our world view based on what we want to see, or what is more relevant to us; rather than 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. They simply get edited out.

For example an Ugandan student who identifies as a ‘Belieber’ and displays a strong interest in Justin Bieber through her online interactions, 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. Last time I spoke to her was a few months ago, she’s now in a relationship of sorts with a person she describes to be non-binary, as in someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. For the aforementioned millennial, “binary gender roles are too passé”…. I’m not exactly sure what that means, though.

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

Also published in Huffington Post, 14th Sep, 2016

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