What are Filter Bubbles? A look at the language that is helps to shape our political opinions in the internet age.
opinion | tech | filter bubbles | social media
The political rhetoric that surrounded women in 2019 was horrifying. Mark Zuckerberg's mentor and Facebook board member, Peter Thiel, questioned the value of female voters. Donald Trump quite brazenly admitted to grabbing women in places they really shouldn't be grabbed. Their collective fear of the increasing likelihood of a female president entering the White House this year fills them all with visible dread. People do not react so strongly to things they are not afraid of.
Zuckerberg's self-interest is astounding, but not surprising. Sacha Baron-Cohen referred to the Facebook CEO and his cohorts in a recent speech for the ADL, as the Silicon Six. Mr Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai (Google), Larry Page (Alphabet), Sergey Brin (Alphabet), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube) and Jack Dorsey (Twitter), could be considered the most morally corrupt group of individuals who currently have control of the World. Everything from our elections, the climate, to our healthcare is in their hands.
Eli Pariser, an internet activist and author, who coined the term "filter bubble" in 2011, wrote about the effect of endless personalisation, saying:
The rights that the last century saw us fighting for seem to be slipping through our fingers like sand. The questions that confront me each time I read an article or watch the news are: What are these people so afraid of? What threat do women, people of colour, the LGBTQI community and other minorities pose? What connection is there with the rise of national populist politicians? Why do facts no longer hold any sway? Why is everyone so afraid of Islam? Has the rise of social media really given the voiceless a voice? Have politicians and tech leaders jumped on this "free speech" bandwagon, filling our feeds with "opinions" and "facts" that are said to be representative of the "real people"?
Farage, Trump, Salvini, Orbán, Bolsonaro et al; they each like to present themselves as the ambassadors of "the people"; those ordinary, hardworking folk like you and me. The reality is that they consider us as one-dimensional figures to be used in their cruel and increasingly vicious game of political chess. They pretend to speak to and for "the people", using emotionally-charged language and presenting us with quick-fix solutions to grievances that are often deeply-rooted, and that individuals all over the World are genuinely concerned about. Issues like de-industrialisation, shortages of affordable housing, automation in the workforce, financial insecurity and a lack of job opportunities and of course, immigration.
We're surrounded and happily live inside our little bubbles with our feeds showing us exactly what Facebook and Google's algorithms have assumed we will be interested in. Our minds become narrower. Our thoughts become tribal. We start to dislike those with opinions that differ from our own. We begin to doubt reputable news agencies and broadcasters if they don't support our worldview. At a time when Facebook's chief executive is refusing to remove false political ads from his platform, despite 200 of his own employees asking him to reconsider his opinion and see the difference between free-speech and paid-speech, it's becoming more and more difficult to decide what news is believable and which is simply being targeted at me because I hit the "Like" button on certain posts in the past. It's the most effective propaganda machine we've ever known.
Christopher Steele, the ex-MI6 intelligence expert, had this to say about the discovery of Cambridge Analytica's role in election maniputlation in the US and UK:
Democracy is in turmoil across the globe. Citizens are rising up in the UK, Iran, Venezuela, France, Spain, Iraq, Hong Kong and probably many more once this post goes out. I believe this to be a truly good thing, and in a perfect World these protests would be completely peaceful. The problem remains, though: Will these voices be heard? Will their concerns be taken seriously?
At the heart of the matter, I believe, is Capitalism. When I look around, read and watch the news, talk to friends and family and the new people I meet, everyone has the same issue. An issue that can be directly traced back to the system we have, ourselves, put in place. Capitalism: The root of all evil, perhaps. With it's unbiased and completely dispassionate response to everything, we are now bearing the full brunt of Capitalism's wrath. It seems almost ironic and slightly contradictory, that these new populists on the World stage use such emotional language to appeal to people's deepest fears, when they are the ones benefiting the most from a system that does not care one iota about people and their needs or desires.
Unfettered growth has led to inequality, which is the bedrock of society's woes. Inequality, in all of its myriad forms, is financially based and affects how individuals view the World around them, dividing people into the haves and have-nots. The concentration of wealth and the way it is distributed has changed. After the industrial revolution, societies in western Europe were highly unequal. Private wealth was concentrated into the hands of a few rich families who sat at the top of a rigid class structure. After two World Wars, the pattern was disrupted and high taxes and inflation saw a huge number of bankruptcies. This led to the introduction of the welfare state. The private riches shrank and the income and wealth was more evenly distributed. For a while, anyway...
Now, as we begin a new decade, wealth is once again asserting itself as the biggest factor in the rise of inequality. Companies and wealthy individuals do all they can to avoid paying tax, while the average person on the street is made to give away more of their income for health, transportation, food and rent.
I've been reading a lot of non-fiction lately; about the environment and the climate disaster we're facing, about the rise of populism and Brexit, about race, sexism and gender politics. The overarching theme in all of these books is that the system needs to change. It can't go on like this anymore. It's broken and we keep fixing it and repairing it with band-aids so that the few who do reap the benefits continue to do so, while the rest of us turn on each other in some all-too-real episode of Black Mirror. I don't have any plan to end this post with a solution or call-to-action. I don't have the answers, only an opinion. But I definitely agree that something needs to change. And, whatever you think of Extinction Rebellion, I like their manifesto for peaceful collective action. I think we could actually achieve something with that. With times looking and feeling very bleak, perhaps collective action coupled with collective optimism can, at the very least, make us feel as if we're doing something useful.