Eli Pariser, former director of the online organization MoveOn, discovered a surprising and alarming thing about Google. When he does a Google search, the menu he sees on a give topic is different from the menu one of his friends would see. That is, Google has algorithms, based on his past Google searches and his demographic characteristics, that give him a unique menu based on what he is likely to be interested in. Facebook, too, deletes links from his Facebook page that its algorithms determine that he is not interested in. He found Facebook deleted links from his conservative friends because he clicked on them less often than links from his liberal friends.
The problem with this, he said, is that unless you proactively seek out diverse sources of information, you will wind up in a bubble in which everything you get through Google or Facebook will confirm what you already think you know. He wrote a book about this (which I haven’t read) entitled The Filter Bubble:What the Internet Is Hiding From You.
What this means is that unless you proactively seek out diverse sources of information, you’re not going to get diverse sources of information. That is a fixable problem. The more serious problem is the other uses that Google, Facebook and other Internet companies make of the data they come on us. By integrating seemingly minor bits of information from diverse sources, they can come up with a well-informed guess about what products you’ll buy, your politics and religion and even your personal habits.
The problem with this is that (1) this information can be made available to credit reporting agencies, employers, the Department of Homeland Security and other organizations who will use it in ways adverse to your interests and (2) the information may not be accurate. Parisi in the TED video above says that if you drink milk rather than wine with your meals, and you frequent fast-food restaurants, demographers would say you’re probably a political conservative. Well, I drink more milk than wine, and I greatly enjoy an Arby’s roast beef sandwich, and I consider myself a political liberal.
Years ago I used to joke that the same software that Amazon uses to determine that “people like you liked the following books” could be used by the Department of Homeland Security to determine that “people like you committed acts of terrorism.” I no longer think of this as a joke. President Obama and the Central Intelligence Agency use computer algorithms in drawing up kill lists of people in tribal areas of Yemen and Pakistan.
Click on Bubble Trouble for an argument by Jacob Weisberg of Slate that Parisi exaggerates the problem. Weisberg had friends of different political beliefs do Google searches on highly charged political subjects, and found little difference in the results.
Click on Google Personalization for directions as to how to turn off the Google personalization feature.
Click on The Filter Bubble for Eli Pariser’s web log.
Hat tip to Steve B. and Daniel B.