Inside the Filter bubble

Algorithmic Isolation and politics

Beatrice Medved, Chiara Passalacqua

A filter bubble – a term coined by internet activist Eli Pariser – is a state of intellectual isolation that allegedly can result from personalized searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user, such as location, past click-behavior and search history. It exists on the search engine we use, as Google; on social media as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; and also on platforms as Netflix.

algorithms on a screen

Technopedia gives a more detailed definition of filter bubble: «A filter bubble is the intellectual isolation that can occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively assume the information a user would want to see, and then give information to the user according to this assumption. Websites make these assumptions based on the information related to the user, such as former click behavior, browsing history, search history and location. For that reason, the websites are more likely to present only information that will abide by the user’s past activity. A filter bubble, therefore, can cause users to get significantly less contact with contradicting viewpoints, causing the user to become intellectually isolated».1

Poster during a protest
Democracy has been affected by the problem of filter bubble because everyone is convinced only of what the Internet and the social media show him.

We do know that there are several methods in which ads are configured and displayed. The biggest is by gathering data that we, the users, provide willingly or unknowingly. This enables the giants to control or manipulate the price of advertising. Companies decided to use them to make the user experience better, but they have not only positive outcomes.Eli Pariser affirmed also that not only companies are responsible for them, but also consumers: he made an example with human tendency to choose, between healthy and unhealthy food, the worst one. Infact he said that people know they should feed themselves only with healthy food, but at the same time they prefer to satisfy their taste buds. 2

Eli Pariser in his viral TED Talk, defined this echo chamber as a “personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out.”

There are a lot of problems about filter or reinforcement bubbles: because they force us to see only what we are interested in or what we agree with, they cause an overestimate of our perspective and a decrease of our empathy for the others. A further consequence could be also the inhibition of our capacity to discuss and have arguments without being aggressive. So, due to these filter bubbles the risk for everyone is to have a limited point of view in a infinite and broader network. Obviously, other problems are caused by filter bubbles: “mouthpiece” (cassa di risonanza figurativo) and “fake news”. The phenomenon of mouthpiece consists on the continuous support of an opinion also by the other members of the bubble, who do not consider alternative point of view. The phenomenon of fake news is linked to the mouthpiece, because agitators send and support hoaxes in filter bubbles where they can be spread in an unchallenged way until they compete with real news.3

Everything that has been said about filter bubbles can be applied to politics. Nowadays, politicians all over the world use social media to attract new voters and make people feel closer to them. It has been found that bubble tend to create a polarization between two or more political positions, so that not only supporters are not able to discuss without being aggressive and without lapsing into private topics, but also politicians themselves. 4

photo of italian parliament

«The real problem is that social media and open web, for their nature, should have broken these cages, instead of making them stronger.»

But people being trapped in “filter bubbles” is not the only cause of the segregation of the internet into different political camps. The global internet is split into a number of nationally-administered internets aligned along physical borders between countries and region: the phenomenon of “cyberbalkanization”.5 It only increases the polarisation of opinions on opposite sides of a border, but not within one country or region. Another big difference between these two phenomena is that cyberbalkanization is created deliberately via censorship of internet traffic, while “filter bubbles” typically occur unintentionally due to our own actions. They are not the same thing and should be distinguished from each other.

Since 1953, polarization has gradually spread inside the USA politics until 2011 where the two factions are completely separated. 6

Anyway, the issue is a controverse one: indeed not everyone thinks that the digitalization, and especially social media, have caused this polarization.Some researchers assert: not only people who use social networks live in a bubble. Every person has the tendency to surround himself with friends, colleagues, newspapers, tv programs consistent with his values. It could be called “offline filter bubble”.

In the Italian case, we can observe that there are four main parties using social media: Lega with Matteo Salvini, Fratelli D’Italia with Giorgia Meloni, Movimento 5 Stelle with Di Maio and Italia Viva with Renzi. 7 Under every post of each of this political exponent, we can observe only insults by their opponents’ supporters and a lack in the capacity of listening and considering other points of view, or an unconditional love for the speakers. There is not the “right medium” as Aristotle theorized : there are only extremes. But this polarization is not only visible in the online world: it is transferred also to the offline one and every political debate in TV or live, is affected by the tendency to be so convinced of our personal ideas and opinions, that we can’t accept and tolerate every person who says something different from them.

photos of italian politicians

It has been observed that the polarization has caused as a consequence the primacy of the leader. As Giovanni Orsina, Luiss’ professor of Comparative History of European Political Systems and History of Journalism in digital media, said: “We are living a crisi of the political dimension: a lack of elaboration of ideas for the future […]. If the substance of politics perishes, it will explode its theatrical part. So politics become entertainment and the leader becomes a mask on the stage: his job is to entertain us, to thrill us or to shock us. This metamorphosis is linked not only to the figure of leadership, but especially to the transformations of politics.”