The Filter Bubble – Why Researching Stuff on the Internet is misleading

 

Regular readers will know that I am scathing about scaremongers like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group who combine a despicable lack of sincerity with an astonishing lack of knowledge.  The problem is basically that these people are businessmen selling fear while posing as consumer advocates.  But there are genuine environmentalists out there who I respect greatly.  They don’t really have much to do with cosmetic products because they tend to be very well informed and so are interested in real problems.  But there is a category of blogger who makes me pull my hair out.  These are the green tree hugger types who are obviously sincere and trying to do the right thing, but who seem to get all the facts wrong.

It is fairly easy to tell the difference.  The scoundrels are the ones that start soliciting donations for their ‘important research’ as soon as you end up on their website, and when you get through to it you find affiliate links to all the stuff they advise you to buy.  The ones who really believe it are more likely to have posts about how to dispose of your rubbish in the most environmentally friendly way – this usually involves a compost heap – or how to save energy.  In other words they are trying to live life in a lighter way and to be good custodians of the planet.  Even if you disagree with this kind of thing, and I tend to sympathise most of the time, you have to at least concede their hearts are in the right place.

And yet these blogs often drive me to distraction by perpetuating myths about cosmetics being full of toxic chemicals.  It is easy to see why the scaremongers and the sellers of natural and organic products might be tempted to twist the facts a little.  (A temptation that some of them find harder to resist than Silvio Berlusconi can resist hair dye and teenagers.)  But why do the green bloggers fall for it?  They seem to have a high level of honesty and the actual facts are not particularly hard to come by in these days of Google.

Or are they?  I have just finished reading Eli Pariser’s excellent book The Filter Bubble.  In it he points out that searching the Internet isn’t what it used to be.   The algorithms used by search engines, either the pure ones like Google or the ones built into Facebook and the like no longer work by trying find to the information most relevant to the search terms you have entered.  Instead they analyse the kinds of things you generally click on and do their best to anticipate what you are looking for by taking into account what you have tended to read in the past.  He calls this the filter bubble.

There is a pretty good logic behind this.  I can still remember trying to find out what was going on at the Body Shop and finding myself on the website of an auto repairers from Detroit.  (Mind you, they did sound pretty good, it was just a shame they were three thousand miles away.)  There is so much stuff on the net that a bit of filtering does help a lot in finding what you want.  But it does create a sort of bubble.  You tend to get directed to much the same kind of site you always read.  So if you get an idea and investigate you might well find that everything coming up is confirming rather than challenging what you believe.

What is the answer?  I don’t know.  But it is as well to be aware of the problem.

6 thoughts on “The Filter Bubble – Why Researching Stuff on the Internet is misleading

  1. Jean

    I might have been to that body shop!
    What annoys me is how many times I have been told by women that they will not use face products that contain by-products of the petroleum industry yet they drive cars, have DVDs etc etc

  2. Jean

    Twist the facts a little or out and out barefaced lies, I have read so much rubbish in my life, I have been involved in the beauty industry since 1976 and interested for as long as I can remember so sometimes, when listening to people I struggle to keep a straight face

  3. Jan

    This is why I need you Colin to help me see through all the rubbish. I remember asking my uncle who is a chemist to explain what the ingredients were in a cleanser that I was using after getting tangled up in a cul de sac of web searches and whilst it was a bit belt and braces it was clear, concise and without extraneous unnecessaries.

  4. Minou

    When people see only what they want to see (or what search engines think they want to see)–there is a real problem. This “filter bubble” is skewing people’s perceptions of reality. To your question, I don’t know the answer either. But at least search engines like DuckDuckGo is a start. It doesn’t record user information and gives everyone the same search results without any individual filters.

  5. Peter Taylor

    Another problem is the information equivalent of Greshams Law – bad information drives out the good. If so many people keep finding and passing on myths about parabens, SLS etc because they fit a particular world-view, the myths soon get seen to be seen as the truth. Meanwhile the real facts get swamped and become part of the conspiracy against ‘the truth’.

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