15 years ago, the Pew Research Center opined that there was no evidence of “information bubbles.” We had asked because we suspected that the human proclivity to select self-validating conversations would find fertile ground in (then-nascent) social media.
15 years on, the information bubble concept has found popular appeal as “echo chambers.” The idea is that as people define the filters on their communications using online channels, they inevitably filter out points of view they might disagree with. This includes who we “friend” or follow. The result, for each individual, is the illusion that society generally agrees with his or her worldview.
From Wikipedia:”In ‘The Filter Bubble,’ [Eli] Pariser warns that a potential downside to filtered searching is that it ‘closes us off to new ideas, subjects, and important information’ and ‘creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists.’”
My own news feed, for example, is an orgy of liberal self-validation, and I like it! For some reason, though, I am reticent to quibble publicly with points of view there. No one wants to alienate their tribe. It seems reasonable that, in a social context, the bubble does more than sharpen opinion; it seems also to dull dissent. Dialogue has devolved into infotainment.
All this has implications for the dissemination of information in general, how it becomes public opinion, and the extent of people’s willingness to assimilate diverse points of view. Bubbles presumably impact how any communication is digested, including advertising.
Education might be defined as a process for communicating ideas, and imbuing students with tools to evaluate them. The great thing about the ideas we get from our education is that they do not consider our bias. They reflect, instead, the bias of another person or process, ostensibly with our best interests in mind. In that sense, it’s editorial.
Education injects information and ideas we did not ask for, and may not agree with. It imparts the ability to deconstruct and evaluate any idea. But critical thinking is like muscle memory, and living in a comfortable bubble of prepackaged, pre-validated reasoning surely engenders atrophy.
News is like education inasmuch as it packages facts and opinion, promulgated by an external party that ostensibly has the best interests of the reader in mind. However, unlike education, it suits the profit goal of a news outlet to write what sells media. So, pandering to an audience, even a high-minded audience, is part and parcel. With Web distribution, articles can be atomized, excerpted, and distributed to any audience by a third party. News gets coopted into any bubble it might reinforce, context notwithstanding. And social media is an amplifier with bad distortion.
In hindsight, fake news was a predictable outcome of the infinite granularity of facts, fragmented news “brands,” and the universal ability to take any factoid out of context and distribute it.
Advertising, like education, imparts information we didn’t know and may not need. Unlike education, though, the agenda of the sender is to change a specific behavior. Also unlike education, advertising aspires to find and then contact specific bubble occupants. When the echo chamber lights up, we celebrate.
However, in advertising we are required — by law — to be truthful. Can you imagine what would happen to social publishing or politics if all claims were held to that standard? Sure, we can load our messages with emotional (ergo unverifiable) subtext, but at least if we say it kills germs, the law says it must kill germs.
Political rhetoric, like advertising, aspires to change our behavior (vote). Politics, though, are comfortably amoral, inasmuch as the goal of the persuasion can be anything, and truth is not a legislated requirement. Actors can ruthlessly deploy the tools of advertising and persuasion, shape the perception, and push it into an echo chamber.
Unbridled use of our tools is dangerous enough in the hands of those seeking power, but bubbles make it worse. Anyone can harvest, deconstruct, annotate, and distribute any fact. That blows up context, allowing for “fact-based” conclusions designed to resonate with a particular bubble. Like sound waves in a gym, time separates an event from its echo, leaving behind only random overtones as a version of what happened.
Perhaps facts are not dead but distorted, because all we hear is the echo.