Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

The Filter Bubble and the News You Need To Know

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, June 3 2010

(UPDATE: For reference, see this Wired article — thanks @jakebrewer.)

At Personal Democracy Forum 2010 earlier this morning, Eli Pariser said that the increasing sophistication with which information is filtered for us to consume is reducing our ability to engage with differing points of view.

"You don't choose it," Pariser said of what he called the "filter bubble," made up collectively of the way in which aggregators like Google and social sources like Facebook filters out news from points of view divergent from our own.

It's a "just give people what they want" way of operating, Pariser said, and it's great for consumers.

But, he said, "it's bad for citizens."

Much the same way that the old gatekeepers to information chose what their consumers — the readers of their newspapers, for example — had the opportunity to digest in their daily reading, the new gatekeepers are making similar decisions, just in an automated way and with a different reasoning. Rather than the agenda of a publisher, Google filters your news algorithmically. But it's still a filter. And you don't choose it.

"It doesn't tell us what we need to hear," Pariser said. "It doesn't expose us to points of view that [challenge] our thinking."

He added it doesn't expose us to things that might disturb or upset us.

Here was a core of Pariser's argument:

"We really need to get away from that silly idea that code doesn't care about anything."

Programs are the product of programmers, and some of their biases and agendas can make it into the source code. I think there's no better way to explain why that's important than to quote from an intro-level computer science textbook explanation of "semantic error."

From How to Think Like a Computer Scientist, a Python text by Allen Downey, Jeffrey Elkner and Chris Meyers:

"If there is a semantic error in your program, it will run successfully, in the sense that the computer will not generate any error messages, but it will not do the right thing. It will do something else. Specifically, it will do what you told it to do."

Programs do what you tell them, which is not always what you expect them to do. The Google app that you expect to find you the best and most informative news about a given subject is really finding you the best and most informative news about a given subject, as it understands "best" and "informative," and as it understands what is relevant to you.

So if you want to create a search tool that finds the news you need to know, rather than the news you want to read, where do you begin?

News Briefs

RSS Feed tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

More