From News Comfort Zone to Isolation: Breaking Through the Web of Me

May 24th, 2011 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a short piece reporting that “almost as many Americans now receive their political campaign news from the Internet as from newspapers.”

This is significant because, as the Times story pointed out, “online news tends to be partisan.”

The purpose of the Times story was to draw attention to a Pew Foundation poll that (not surprisingly) found a significant number of online readers go primarily to sites that share their point of view: 44 percent of Republicans who use the Internet to get political news prefer to go to these sites, as do 37 percent of Democrats, according to the poll. The Times reported:

“In recent years we have noticed a distinct increase in the number of Americans getting online news from sites that share their own political views, particularly among those with strong ideological leanings,” said Aaron Smith, senior research specialist for Pew.

The Pew report itself says those who were polled:

. . .hold mixed views about the impact of the internet: It enables extremism, while helping the like-minded find each other. It provides diverse sources, but makes it harder to find truthful sources.

So, those who want their political news straight up – as non-partisan as possible – might want to continue getting political news from newspapers and newspaper web sites, whose editing ranks still  include those trained in ethics and fairness. Because of this, readers justifiably hold newspapers to a higher standard, which is why we here at keep hammering away at the Journal in that regard.

But what if you get your political news online and you don’t want to focus on sites that reinforce impressions you already have? What if you want to be challenged by all points of view, so you can make independent decisions about the candidates and issues of the day?

Well, try as you will to find all possible viewpoints online, it might not be possible.

Eli Pariser of the progressive group has written a book called The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, which says browser sites are filtering your searches and customizing them, based on your online use preferences. Which means, you could be getting “like-minded” results whether you want them or not.

For those concerned about fellow citizens who refuse to venture outside of their comfort zone, the prospects for productive dialogue become even bleaker considering this Internet trend.

Pariser laid out his discovery of this “invisible, algorithmic editing of the web” in a speech available at  In it, Pariser shows how news searches are personalized for the reader, whether it’s being done by Google, Facebook, Yahoo or another web provider.  At his request, two of his friends searched the same topic and came up with very different search results. “There is no standard Google anymore,” he says. “The Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

He brings newspapers into the conversation, pointing out that in 1915 papers evolved from focus on scandal toward better educating the public. In getting more information from the web, we as readers are witnessing a “passing of the torch, from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.” He says:

The algorithms don’t yet have the kind of embedded ethics that the editors did. So if algorithms are going to curate the world for us, if they’re going to decide what we get to see. . .then we need to make sure they’re not just keyed to relevance. We need to make sure that they also show us things that are uncomfortable or challenging or important – other points of view.

At the conclusion of his talk, Pariser addressed the gatekeepers actually in the audience, which reportedly included Google’s founders and Bill Gates, saying:

We need you to give us some kind of control. We need the Internet … to introduce us to new ideas and new people and new perspectives, and it’s not going to do that if it leaves us isolated in a Web of one.

It’s a speech worth taking the time to watch. And for those of us who think a democracy needs an informed populace in order to function, the subject of its message is one more disturbing hurdle to overcome.

Tags: ·······

One Comment so far ↓

  • Roland

    Well, on the surface it sounds like Pariser is making a somewhat naive plea for “fair and balanced” coverage of the issues on internet, and he is using print media as an example of how that should be done. The problem is, newspapers are even more biased in the way they select and package news and opinion pieces, as is shown by the ABQ Journal. Rather than the invisible hand of the “algorithm,” readers are restricted to the even more biased invisible hand of the editors who decide what is fit to print — and in the case of the Journal this usually consists of Cal Thomas, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, and company. Internet makes possible a vast array of choices and it is up to the reader to dig and delve and harvest the information. Also, as we well know, reality is inherently subjective. If we want “real” in-depth coverage of the Middle East, it is necessary to read not only American information sources (such as the AP), but also European (such as BBC), and Arab (Al-Jazeera). You’ll never find that kind of balanced information at your finger tips in the ABQ Journal.

Leave a Comment