A challenge society faces today is that we live in a bubble of information based on our beliefs and previous search queries. If you don’t know something or want to know more, you Google it. The search engine then feeds you pages of information you take as gospel. It’s on Google so it must be true right?
Actually – no!
I’m by no means telling you that information provided by Google is incorrect. This company is extraordinary in what they’ve achieved since their inception in 1998. Their algorithms that provide you with search results are phenomenal with the best of the best in the industry ensuring you’re so satisfied with using the service. They do such an extraordinary job it’s ingrained in our lives.
Obama explains the dangers of Algorithms
I recently watched an interview with David Letterman and Barrack Obama on Netflix where the former president summed the situation about information delivery online perfectly. “At a certain point you just live in a bubble composed only of friends who tend to share your views and reinforce your biases.”
The former president demonstrates with “an example from the Arab String era to demonstration how algorithms drive the content we read based on social media and search engines“…
“You are getting all of your information off algorithyms being sent through a phone and it is just reinforcing whatever biases you have which is the pattern that develops. There’s an interesting experiement. Not a scientific experiment but just an experiment that someone did during the revolution that was taking place in Egypt.
Somebody took a liberal, a conservative, and a quarter moderate and sent them on a Google search.
‘Egypt – type it in.’
For the conservative it came up – muslim brotherhood.
For the liberal it came up – Tahrir Square
And for the moderate it came up – vacation spots on the Nile.
Whatever your biases were, that’s where you were being sent. And that gets more and more reinforced over time. That’s what’s happening with these Facebook pages where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point you just live in a bubble and that’s part of why our politics is so polarised right now. I think it’s a solvable problem but I think it’s one we have to spend a lot of time thinking about.”
Former US President Barack Obama perfectly demonstrates information polarisation online with this simple example. These algorythms work to our benefit but it’s vital everyone recognises the challenges we face as part of a broader society when we base all our information on what we read online last night.
How do Algorithms work?
They read your online interactions and you’re categorised. This categorisation benefits the quality of your search queries. For instance, I don’t have children but I have a sweet tooth. When I Google ‘lollypop’ I’m shown candy shops in my area which Facebook sees and I’m then shown candy shop advertisements as I scroll through my news feed.
On the other hand, my sister (who also has a sweet tooth) has children and often reads kids articles online and has used her phone while at a kid’s play centre. She is shown Lollypop play centres where kids go to play and hang out with other kids, not candy stores.
This is what makes the algorithms so powerful, they recognise our need and deliver on the services and products we’re likely to be looking for. The downside to this is that when we search for news or facts, we’re also shown the side of the facts were likely to be looking for.
What does digital information polarization of news mean?
It’s necessary we recognise that our news delivery online (via search engines and especially social media) is a biased representation. It’s not because the company delivering the results is biased, it’s because our historical behaviour results in the bias.
This influence isn’t usually a concern as our position on matters at hand don’t tend to shift. Where this does become a concern is in matter of politics. The last US election is a significant example of this. The Trump party had funds available to invest in some seriously intelligent digital marketing strategies that trapped many into their algorithms. While this isn’t the only reason Trump one, one aspect I’d like to propose to you is perception about a country who engage these strategies when convincing citizens it is appropriate to go to war or launch a nuclear attack on another country.
Let’s use this as a very random example, imaging if Hitler was alive today and he had the budget and power to launch war via digital marketing. Imagine if he had the power to not only influence the opinions of Nazi Germany, but also billions of people around the world too. Now take that example and apply it to some of the international relationships we’re reading about today.
Out of curiosity, this is a screenshot of my Google search for “Egypt”. I challenge you to do a search for the same single keyword and post your results in the comments to highlight the power of polarization of news based on your search of this one word. Include details about yourself (if you dare)… for instance, “I’m a bi-racial middle-aged female Australian in Australia who has no political interest and my search resulted in tourism.“