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Breaking out of filter bubbles

How to stop being at the mercy of algorithms

August 12, 2018 04:53 pm | Updated 04:53 pm IST

A few months after Donald Trump took over as the President of the U.S. in 2017, Michiko Kakutani stepped down as the chief book reviewer at The New York Times to devote herself to studying the post-truth, divisive political era that his election marked. Or, as she writes in the book her inquiry has now yielded, The Death of Truth : “How did truth and reason become such endangered species, and what does their impending demise portend for our public discourse and the future of our politics and governance? That is the purpose of this book.” Her inquiry is multilayered, with insights that echo worldwide as institutions and expertise are undermined, but it is useful to pause at her reference to “systemic problems with how people get their information and how they’ve come to think in increasingly partisan terms”.

Echo chambers

Filter bubbles created by algorithms and social media are crucial here, with their capacity to create echo chambers so that one world view is repeatedly conveyed to the exclusion of all else. For instance, Kakutani cites a 2017 Harvard study which found that in the 19 months leading up to election day in 2016, pro-Trump audiences were reliant on an “insulated knowledge community”, with “social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world”. This creates a fertile ground for what a Trump aide later called “alternative facts”, so that such “facts” are not just being floated, but also used to contest reportage in the mainstream media.

Kakutani’s important study has a rather specific context. But even away from the ideological fight in the U.S. and elsewhere — and perhaps even away from the danger of concocted stories gaining credence by virtue of having been forwarded, shared, liked, and retweeted — each one of us would benefit from an appraisal of how we get information and how we read it.

A lot of it is through social media, including links to news stories, many of them put out by news media itself. Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a riveting call for self-preservation. Lanier, an Internet and virtual reality pioneer, lists some of the gains to be made by doing so: “To free yourself, to be more authentic, to be less addicted, to be less manipulated, to be less paranoid…” There is, he suggests, no good way to be on social media and retain a free mind. In fact, among the reasons (all very convincing, and urgent) are that “social media is undermining truth”, “making what you say meaningless”, “making you unhappy”, and “making politics impossible”.

Lanier also says that social media is destroying your capacity for empathy: “When we’re all seeing different, private worlds, then our cues to one another become meaningless.” Anxiety is easy to whip up. It’s like the childhood prank where one kid rattles the rest by gazing at the sky, so that everyone else gets anxious and keeps looking up, he explains. Soon, I suppose, the children snap out of it. But with filter bubbles, the anxiety keeps getting reinforced. He cites the American example of a man reacting to a conspiracy theory, targeted at Hillary Clinton, that a pizza place in Washington was running a child-abuse racket by firing shots at the site. In India, we could substitute as examples the horrific lynchings in recent months based on viral WhatsApp messages about kidnappers being on the prowl to harvest children’s organs.

But even as he attempts to persuade readers to get off social media, one person at a time till Silicon Valley gets the message, Lanier emphasises that this should not mean a rejection of the Internet. And whether you are brave enough to get off social media or not, do heed this advice to keep your sanity and ensure the integrity and cohesion of your information gathering: “You can still get news online. Read news websites directly (instead of getting news through personalised feeds), especially sites that hire investigative reporters. Get a feel for the editorial voice of each site, which is only available when you go direct.”

Quiet time

It’s tough to delete one’s accounts, admits Lanier, in the face of addiction and the network-effect lock. But advice from physicist Alan Lightman may help break the addiction to being constantly online. In his slim book, In Praise of Wasting Time , he suggests some society-wide moves to roll back “the destruction of our inner selves via the wired world”. He recommends a daily ten-minute period of silence in schools, an “introspective intensive” course in university, a “quiet room” at workplaces that are mandatorily free of devices for employees to retreat to, an “unplugged” (i.e. free of phones, computers, etc.) hour at home, and “screen-free zones” in public areas. Sounds also like advice for saving time.

Mini Kapoor is Ideas Editor, The Hindu.

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