Eli Pariser, author of “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You” is on a book tour and made a stop at the KUOW 94.1 studios in Seattle on Tuesday.
According to the former Moveon.org chief, web services like Facebook, Google and Yahoo! News aim to personalize content and maximize the likelihood of the user clicking on sponsored displayed links. On KUOW’s The Conversation with Ross Reynolds, Pariser talked about what troubles him about these practices. His main concern is that the practice of steering viewers to specific content is not transparent. This is what Pariser calls the “The Filter Bubble,” which he fears can increase polarization and limit engagement across ideological lines. While convenient for individual users, this is not always in the best interest of the public as a whole. As he explained in the New York Times editorial on May 23, 2011, Pariser sees this filtering of news and information as a direct threat to democracy because it limits exposure to content with differing viewpoints and increases content that already jives with users’ typical behavior and preferences.
Follow the Money
According to Pariser, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” At Facebook, “relevance” is the sole criterion that determines what users see.
“Focusing on the most personally relevant news — the squirrel — is a great business strategy. But it leaves us staring at our front yard instead of reading about suffering, genocide and revolution,” said Pariser, adding that “there is no algorithmic equivalent to journalistic ethics.”
“Reading a lot of Facebook news is not really that satisfying of an experience,” Pariser claims in comparing the Facebook news feed to that of a traditional news organization like the New York Times. Pariser is sounding an alarm and summoning the warnings of Postman, Huxley and Orwell’s Big Brother as allies.
“We spend a lot of time watching cat videos. We’re amusing ourselves to death and quite happy about that,” Pariser said on Tuesday.
Return of journalistic ethics?
This is where the journalistic sense of ethics comes in–a standard that has been refined over he last century. These are the standards that consumer’s expect from traditional newspaper organizations such as The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. According to Pariser consumers don’t necessarily expect the same standards from purely online sources like Yahoo! News. This journalistic ethic and desire to serve the public interest through careful editorial filtering returns a blend of news we want to read (stuff that sells copies) and news the editors think we should read (things we probably won’t seek out ourselves but that makes us choke on our morning coffee).
“The newspaper industry has principles that go directly against profit in terms of what ends up on the front page,” Pariser said.
Pariser explained that the way a site like Gawker uses metrics is very different than the way the New York Times does.
“Gawker is hungry to feed the algorithm and the filter bubble. They have ‘The Big Board’ in their newsroom that tracks each blog post and how many hits it gets. There is a great deal of competition in the newsroom to produce the blog posts that get up on the ‘Big Board.’ In the New York Times’ newsroom, you never know how many hits your blog post gets,” Pariser said to the studio audience at KUOW 94.1. He said that the New York Times let their editorial judgment guides their decisions on stories not what they think will generate the most clicks or sell the most copies.
“At the New York Times, they’re proud to present a mix of what people need to know and what people need to see, not just what will sell the most copies if we put it on the front page,” he said.
Pariser is not convinced that Facebook, Google or other major players in the internet ecosystem are acting in the public’s best interest–nor should we expect them to. At the end of the day they are corporations that answer to their shareholders and boards of directors. However, Pariser does recognize that the Internet could move closer to the ideal everyone once envisioned–with more information and content helping bring awareness to issues that need attention and thereby contributing to facilitating solutions. According to Pariser, “In a sort of a best case scenario, the Internet would bring us closer together,” noting that the industry has a ways to go and should be willing to build on its journalistic heritage by re-adopting the practices that have been guiding journalism for decades.
“The best values of 20th century news reporting–some stuff they want and some stuff they need–would get integrated into the algorithm and that we can adjust the filters and the algorithms become more transparent,” Pariser explained. “But the consumers don’t demand changes.”
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Eli Pariser founded a website calling for multilateral fight against terrorism. That website merged with MoveOn.org later in 2001. He became the organization’s executive director in 2004 and remained in that position until 2008 when he transitioned into the president of organization’s board.
Pariser’s book “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You” was released in May, 2011. His blog TheFilterBubble.com features a collection of his own and other blog posts on the topic and related content, as well as links to his TED talk and 10 Ways to Pop Your Filter Bubble.