Voting Against the Algorithm
Why Siva Vaidhyanathan will argue that the Internet constricts politics at the Slate/Intelligence Squared debate on April 17.
Vaidhyanathan: The “filter bubble” phenomenon shows itself most clearly with Facebook and Google. I know of no similar filtering or bending of results on Twitter. In general, Twitter is a much better platform today for learning about the world—but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be that way forever. Twitter is committed to free speech, but it’s also committed to Twitter. There are going to be moments when that conflict becomes serious.
Slate: What are the means by which these platforms shape our political views?
Vaidhyanathan: When I go on Facebook, I almost never see posts from my conservative friends. I have 3,100 Facebook friends. I’m guessing that there are 700 conservatives on that list, including relatives. But Facebook has over time made sure that things that might upset me get hidden.
Google’s doing similar things by customizing search results. If I were a skeptic of climate change and I had clicked on a lot of climate change skeptic sites, Google would know that. And as I searched more for issues related to climate change, it would recognize my pattern and try to give me more of what it thinks I like. That means I’m less likely to be challenged, to find something that might surprise me.
Slate: So should we all opt out of Google’s personalized search option?
Vaidhyanathan: It depends. People should be aware of what’s going on, and of the advantages and disadvantages. If you’re a baseball fan in Boston and you type in S-O-X, you’re probably going to want to see Red Sox results, rather than White Sox results. In Chicago, it’s just the opposite. When your engagement with the information at that moment is consumptive, then by all means, personalized search helps. But if what you’re doing is trying to learn about the world—if your search is driven by curiosity or even by commitment, you should turn personalized search off, at least occasionally. You can even have two browsers open side by side.
Slate: What do you make of the argument that the mainstream media, pre-Internet, was its own filter bubble, and that information circulates more freely now?
Vaidhyanathan: I agree in the abstract. When we had fewer channels, we had a bubble that was rather extreme. And everyone agreed it was a problem, on the left and right. There were a lot of regulatory attempts, like the Fairness Doctrine, to come up with more publicly-minded accounts of what was going on. Then, it looked like the unlimited channels of the Internet would solve the filter bubble problem. But the fact that Facebook and Google are now the dominant venues through which people explore the world has reinstituted a filter bubble system. Those platforms select the channels we get.
Slate: Your critics say that you don’t give humanity enough credit. Why assume that people will only click on links they think they’ll agree with?
Vaidhyanathan: I’m looking at how people actually behave. My approach is to concede that Google should do what Google wants: Companies should do what’s good for them. We’re fooling ourselves if we think they’re there to do anything else. So it’s important for us to remind our neighbors, our fellow Americans, that there are different and perhaps better ways to interact with these tools, because we’re not always going to get the results that are optimal for running a democratic republic.
Katy Waldman is a Slate assistant editor.