I think most Americans would say that democracy is good. It was thought that the internet with its ability to access much more material by many more people would support broader access to information, and therefore support democracy. A founding father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote that, “Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” Are we currently going down a path that may promote a less informed citizenry rather than a more informed citizenry?
In a March 2011 TED talk, Eli Pariser spoke about a filter bubble effect, which is limiting the information we receive through an “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.” Why? The purpose seems to be to personalize our web experience. There is a LOT of information out there, so the algorithm is working to pull out the information it thinks will be most interesting to the user based on our past internet behavior. On Facebook, this may mean prioritizing the feeds of friends you have clicked on most. On Google this may mean skewing your search results for Egypt towards politics or towards tourism. This seems convenient, so what’s the problem?
Pariser points out that if our searches on Google, Washington Post, Huffington Post and other sites are filtered, this creates an artificial bubble in which one may think you have objective and well-rounded information, but you don’t. Outside of the internet, my sister-in-law chooses to listen to Rush Limbaugh as her “news” source. Although I don’t agree with listening to a conservative editorialist for one’s only source of news, she is aware of the choice she is making and that it is one-sided. On the other hand, if my concern over this practice finally sinks in and she went on-line seeking broader information, the results to her search on “environmental laws” would be filtered by her past searches and interests and would therefore be more likely to bring up commentary in opposition. Although she is trying to become more informed, the limited results of her search could re-enforce her biases creating a filter bubble.
Case in point, I just Googled “environmental laws bad for jobs” in order to link to an example of what she might get, but instead all that came up on my search were stories rebutting that argument, which is my bias. If her biases are reinforced in search results, and my biases are reinforced in search results, this creates an ever-widening political gap that promotes stalemate on pressing issues, not to mention an increasingly unpleasant Thanksgiving dinner. I agree with Pariser that at a minimum internet users should be informed that the filtering is happening, and preferably that users would be able to choose whether and when that application is employed. To my mind, if everyone got balanced information about climate instability rather than polarizing information, it would be easier to move forward with a necessary solution.
Another core threat to equal access and an informed democracy is the question of whether the internet will remain equally accessible to all, i.e.: net neutrality, or whether fast lanes will be accessible to those who pay, while others have slower access. A Harvard Kennedy School podcast with Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association discussed this topic. The Federal Communications Commission is currently reviewing testimony on this topic, which will be one of the most critical to democracy in this fairly new and evolving field. Unequal access to information on the web could widen the divide between those in power and those not.
The internet provides wonderful opportunities in many ways, but if we want to have a functioning democracy that can address the current world’s pressing problems, the internet must be accessible and present varying points of view.