It’s easier than ever to share news. But sharing of information is biased against complex and depressing news. So where does this leave the complex and depressing world of environmental news? Host Jeff Young asks Eli Pariser, founder of MoveOn.org and author of “The Filter Bubble,” what the internet is hiding from us?
YOUNG: It's Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young. Now, if you and I both do a Google search on the same environmental issue, let’s say 'climate change'…
[SOUNDS OF KEYBOARD TYPING]
YOUNG: You’d probably guess that we’d both get the same search results. Google is Google, right? Not necessarily, says Eli Pariser. Pariser, the internet organizing guru behind MoveOn.org says companies like Google are pushing a personalized internet experience. And that personalization, combined with the influence of social media, forms something he calls the “filter bubble.” That’s the title of Pariser’s new book, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You.” Eli Pariser, welcome to Living on Earth.
The Filter Bubble looks behind your search engine. (Courtesy of Penguin Press)
PARISER: Thanks for having me on!
YOUNG: So if we have two people of different stripes searching on the term climate change what do you think they’re likely to come up with - do you think that they’re going to see the same news, same opinions, about climate change?
PARISER: Well, they may not. Google may decide that one person is clearly clicking more on links with a certain kind of valence or a certain kind of perspective on climate change. And that the other person has a different perspective and shows them more links on that. For two different people with two different search histories and different political perspectives, that may be very different. What it means though is that they’re each getting a pretty different view of the world. They’re getting a different sense of what the main topics are on climate change - of what the lay of the land is.
YOUNG: So when we look at these public opinion polls that show this great polarization on climate change, and disagreement even over what scientists would tell us is very settled science, we say, “well, gee, it seems like these people are getting totally different information!” What you’re saying is “yeah, they are.”
PARISER: That’s right, yeah. I did this last spring with two friends who Googled for BP. One person had search results that were full of information about the oil spill, about the environmental consequences. The other person literally had nothing about the oil spill on any of the search results.
YOUNG: Now, we’ve detected a little bit of push-back against some of your claims, with people trying to recreate your experiment. And, what people find is that they get more or less the same results. Do your claims stand up?
PARISER: Well, there is a good academic paper that just came out. It basically found that about
64 percentof Google results will differ from each other after you have about 3,000 queries. So that’s about a year’s worth of use, maybe a little less. As you’re using Google again and again, it means you’re seeing a pretty different view of the world.
YOUNG: So this is what you’re calling the ‘filter bubble,’ right?
PARISER: Well, the filter bubble is sort of this personal unique universe of information that is created when we have these sort of personalizing algorithms following us around everywhere we go online. And because it’s not just sort of Google search, it’s also Facebook, it’s also Yahoo and Netflix, but increasingly it’s also the news sites that we visit. On the front page of the New York Times which now has a recommended section; the Washington Post just invested in Trove - a company that tries to provide this totally personalized news experience, and the problem with that is, there are certain kinds of topics that just won’t do very well in that kind of world.
YOUNG: Hm. So what kind of story makes the cut in a world where we’re each other editors – via, say, Facebook and we’re clicking the ‘Like’ button, we’re sharing the links, what gets shared? What gets ‘Liked’?
PARISER: Well, the ‘Like’ button is really worth thinking about for a moment, because Facebook is becoming this place, for better or for worse, where people are increasingly getting their news, they’re getting their information about the world. And the primary way that you spread information across Facebook is that you click ‘Like’ on it. But, ‘Like’ has a very particular valence as a positive word and it’s easy to click ‘Like’ on “I ran a marathon” and it’s hard to click like on, you know, “Global Climate Continues to Climb.”
YOUNG: Right. What does it say about me if I click ‘Like’ on “Climate Change Worse than We Thought.” It’s a value judgment that’s going to keep me from hitting 'Like'.
PARISER: Topics like a lot of environmental issues or climate change don’t get the kind of attention that they need. There’s no ‘Important’ button that balances out the effect of the ‘Like’ button on Facebook.
YOUNG: You write here, "The filter bubble will often block out the things in our society that are important but complex or unpleasant. It renders them invisible." I read that and I thought: complex and unpleasant…hm…that describes I don’t know, three quarters of the stories that we do here - what are the implications here for the public getting, say, environmental news?
PARISER: Well, I don’t think they’re good. You know, one of the ways to think about this is, you know, the best media give us a kind of balanced information diet. They give us some information vegetables and some information dessert. They give us some stories about the ongoing effects of the BP oil spill, and some stories about Justin Bieber. You know, when these companies talk about what, giving you what you want, the question is, what you, which self? And it’s really sort of balancing those two things that can fall out of the equation in this filtered world.
YOUNG: Well, if the game of the personalized, tailored, filter bubble internet is ads, basically, is advertising then a possible route for getting environmental messages across?
PARISER: It may be, but even that is increasingly susceptible to these same pressures. The way that advertising increasingly works is that it’s cheaper to run ads to people who are receptive to the message that you’re sending. And so actually reaching the people that you most need to reach with these messages is a much more expensive project then reaching the people who actually agree that, say, climate change is a problem.
YOUNG: You give an example here of the ocean advocacy group Oceana, which tried this route. Buying ads as part of its campaign to get cruise ships to stop dumping sewage at sea. What happened there?
PARISER: Well, Google took the ads down. Their advertising policies do not have to balanced. And, it means that it’s easier to advertise for a brand than to advertise against the brand. In fact, you can’t run Google ads that mention a brand if you’re not the owner of that brand. But it means that it’s very hard to propagate these ideas or to get the word out or to hold these companies accountable. Everybody who depends on this medium now, and increasingly, that’s most of our society, you know, we have to kind of take some ownership of it and push it in the right direction.
YOUNG: I like that you use an environmental analogy to get that point across in your book. You write “to rescue our digital environment, we’ll need a new constituency of digital environmentalists.”
PARISER: That’s right. I think we need a new group of digital environmentalists along with real environmentalists. There are some really strong analogs in a lot of ways - this is a space that, for too long, has been primarily shaped by these commercial interests. And I think that it’s time for all of us who love that medium and want it to be the sort of beautiful connective thing that we all hoped it would be to actually get engaged in pushing it in the right direction.
YOUNG: The book is called: “The Filter Bubble.” Eli Pariser, thank you very much!
PARISER: Thanks so much for having me on.
YOUNG: Eli Pariser has tips on how to push back against the filter bubble, they’re on our website - loe.org. And we got this response from Google: Gabriel Stricker in Google’s public affairs office wrote - via Gmail, of course: “We actually have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page. On the other hand, personalization helps you find answers that are more relevant to your life. We will continue thinking about how best to combine personalization and diversity."
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