Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

June 22, 2011

Protecting the internet’s freedom of information

Filed under: Computers,Geekery,Politics — zarazilla @ 8:37 pm
Tags: ,

A while back I was sitting on the tube, and a woman sat down next to me who was perusing a Daily Mail app on her phone. It was only then that it occured to me that none of my friends or colleagues actually read the Daily Mail (apart from to make fun of it). It was then that I realised just how much I live in my own little bubble, where my friends agree with me on most of my political views. I mean sure I have an ex-classmate on facebook who is a member of the Tea Party and a friend who has recently come out on the Austrian side of economics, but he still believes in many of the same things I do and she and I agree on…

Okay. There is not much politically that the Tea Party member and I agree on, including abortion, immigration and climate change. We do, however, agree on at least one thing – the freedom of the internet.

And that is what I am writing about here because, unfortunately, her views and posts on all these things are slowly getting erased from my facebook News feed. I say ‘unfortunately’ unsarcastically (if that is a word) because I believe in looking at all sides of the debate for informed opinions and her posts have kept me informed on the Tea Party arguments. I may not click on 99% of them, but I like having them amongst pictures of babies and cousins’ vanity pictures and vague status updates about the night before to peruse.

Of course if you’re on Facebook you know that they have a very select filtering process. I have 476 ‘friends’ (it’s a TCK thing) and there is no way I am seeing facebook updates from, say, 90% of them. So when I’m not clicking on the posts on guns and why Obama is an asshole, Facebook decides her posts are not worth my time and starts filtering them out of my news feed.

This, however, is not merely a Facebook phenomenon. My main search engine, Google, has been busily filtering things specifically for me too. Pushing things it thinks would be more interesting to me up the search results.

This, to me, is a huge threat to the internet that promised so much in the past decade with the ability to give the average layperson (in a relatively developed country) free information and opposing viewpoints in order to make informed decisions – on purchses and politics (and probably other things but I can’t think of them right now!). The provision of comparison sites have made markets in music, flights and insurance (to name a few) much more competitive, the provision of information from global sources has been a lifeline to many in propaganda-pushing countries.  No wonder one of the first things Egypt’s beseiged government did during the Egyptian demonstrations was cut off the internet. It’s also why I think internet astroturfing is such a huge threat.

But this ‘filter bubble’ is a threat too – because unless we are actively looking for information or views outside of what we are normally exposed to, or are happy with, we won’t get it. How many people will say they actively look for it? This is a danger because many opinions on subjects we are not very informed about are formed through what we, probably unconsciously, pick up from the people and information that surrounds us.

I listened to a great talk on this subject by Eli Pariser, who recently released the book ‘The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you‘. One thing I found particularly interesting is the danger of the Facebook ‘like’ button – and the use of the word ‘like’!

You can download the podcast from the LSE website.

If you are interested, Pariser has also given 10 tips on how to get as unfiltered an internet experience as possible.


  1. As the aforementioned friend who subscribes to the Austrian school of economics (“Come out” if you like, but it says something about the attitudes of the views of ‘mainstream’ economists to use that expression), I’d like to share a quote I have on my Facebook wall by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was a socialist at heart, although later became a bit more moderate (and emigrated to America, lol) so we are in no way politically similar:

    “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

    I apply this philosophy to Facebook. It’s about connections after all, not “people who like the stuff I do”, and actively comment on things I disagree with. If people don’t like this they’re free to delete the comment or unfriend. Likewise, I always turn off the filtering stuff.

    Comment by Adam — June 22, 2011 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

    • Adam, I didn’t mean to attach the secretive to ‘come out’ – you could just as easily have come out on the mainstream side. Obviously it says something about your attitude to the Austrian school that you have thought so! :P Care to suggest a reword?

      As for turning off filtering – you really can’t turn it off. You may think you are, but you’re not! Unless you have comprehensively gone through this list and then maybe you might still not have…

      Comment by zarazilla — June 22, 2011 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

    • Also, have you ever tried debating with someone who doesn’t at all listen to your points? It’s utterly exhausting and not worth it in the end because they will never believe anything you tell them, even if you provide all the references. I reserve all my debating with the Tea party member to just climate change related issues because I don’t think that is a matter of politics, and yet I still walk away knowing that I haven’t moved her a millimetre with my facts, references and resources.

      Comment by zarazilla — June 22, 2011 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  2. Halfitect approves. I do occasionally filter my news feed (usually from people who post slushy updates about their partners) but this is in the hope that there will be more space for posts by the people who have more coherent things to say. My censorship may be well intentioned, but perhaps hearing how they have the bestest boyfriend ever would be more honest.

    One of the things that enticed me about old school Facebook was how the information about your friends was almost hidden in that you had to visit their page to see what they were up to. I felt it was a practical compromise between not being able to physically meet up with your friends yet still going out of your way to check up on them. When news feed was introduced, there was a continuous flow of information and I inevitably started to forget about certain people. I think my main criticism is that it emphasises the people who post more frequently, similar to how the noisiest kid in the class gets all the attention, regardless of what they have to say. It’s equally not a comprehensive list and by logging in at the wrong time, you can completely miss a brilliant post.

    Overall, I’d agree with your bubble theory in that I only know of 5 people (mostly colleagues) who voted for the current government and even fewer who voted no to AV, whereas I know around fifty who voted differently in either case. Similarly, I guess social networking sites, because of their nature, are unlikely to pair you with people with polarised viewpoints. Perhaps this is a niche in the market? I’m patenting Faceoffbook!

    Comment by halfitect — June 22, 2011 @ 11:28 pm | Reply

    • Ah, the point of this post is not that you are filtering your newsfeed, but that Facebook is filtering it for you, based on what you have shown interest in (clicked on, and amount of time spent on page) in the past. Maybe I should make that clearer.

      (P.s. Halfitect, have you been filtering me out of your facebook feed???)

      Comment by zarazilla — June 23, 2011 @ 10:00 am | Reply

  3. Noo, your points were nice and clear. I was just asking 1, whether my self-censorship defeated the purpose of me being on a social networking site and then I got sidetracked onto 2, whether news feed’s censorship was ruining my friendships. Which it most certainly is. Probably.

    Comment by halfitect — June 24, 2011 @ 6:08 pm | Reply

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