In 2004, we spoke with law professor Cass Sunstein about the echo chamber effect, the phenomenon by which the explosion of information streams allows us to cherry-pick our media diet so we encounter only news that reinforces our worldview (while evading facts and opinions that contradict it). And so, seven years later are we on a path to ever more intellectual isolation? Eli Pariser, Lee Rainie, Clay Shirky, Joseph Turow and Ethan Zuckerman weigh in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone, with another examination of the evolving media echo chamber. We all know the Internet is a moving target, and so our concerns about it can yo-yo. The fact that we can now choose among myriad information streams allows us to cherry pick our media diet, so we encounter only news that reinforces our world view.
Back in 2004, University of Chicago Professor Cass Sunstein, who now works for the Obama administration, said that we should be afraid, very afraid.
PROFESSOR CASS SUNSTEIN: The greatest danger of the echo chambers is unjustified extremism. So it's a well-known fact that if you get a group of people who tend to think something, after they talk to each other, they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before.
And the danger of that is you can make a situation where people demonize those who disagree with them. And that's an ongoing threat to our democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That gave me the willies, until 2009, when I spoke to Lee Rainie of the PEW Internet and American Life Project. He conducted a study of people's behavior on the Internet during the 2004 presidential campaign.
LEE RAINIE: One of the surprising things we found in that survey was that those who are the most technologically adept and those who are the most engaged with information actually are not in the echo chamber pattern. They are actually seeking out and finding out more arguments opposed to their views than those who are less technologically adept and less interested in political information.
The most technologically adept people are, you know, scanning every horizon they can. And they can't help but bump into stuff that doesn't agree with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I stopped being afraid, until last month, when I spoke to Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble. He said that Google, which once ranked search results solely on popularity, now personalizes results according to our online clicking behavior. In fact, there's a whole industry based on gathering information, so that websites and advertisers can serve us better.
ELI PARISER: One of the underlying dynamics here is that a lot of what this personalization trend is about is making the Web a more passive experience, delivering information to you, rather than you having to seek it out.
As Steve Jobs famously said, you have to have your brain on, you have to be leaning forward to use your computer. And that was sort of what was good about the Internet; it was an interactive medium.
What these companies are trying to do is make it easier and easier just to sit back and have the information passively come to you. And it would be sad if it went in that direction because when you do get yourself on the hunt for information that's exciting and interesting and different, you learn a lot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example from your own research of how the same search might yield different results for different people?
ELI PARISER: Earlier this year I asked a number of friends to Google “Obama” and see what came up. Sure enough, you know, one person got the top link from The New York Times about Obama. The other person got the top link from FOX News. And there did seem to be a partisan tilt in the information that they were getting, based on, apparently, what they had been clicking on before.
You know, neither of them were even aware that their search results differed from each other at all. I mean, you can't see how much your experience of the Web is re-directing you towards things that you're gonna find palatable or you're gonna already agree with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing that you mentioned to us is that as a founder of MoveOn, you wanted to cultivate online a number of FaceBook friends who were clearly conservative. And you did. You friended conservatives but, slowly but surely, FaceBook caused them to fade away.
ELI PARISER: One morning I logged onto FaceBook, and they just weren't there. FaceBook was looking at who I was engaging with, what I was clicking on, watching everything I was doing on the site, and it was editing my newsfeed to edit them out. It was saying, you say that you’re interested in these people, but actually we that, you know, you are interacting more with people who are like you. And so, we're gonna show you more of their stuff and we're gonna let these people fade away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble.
Joe Turow, author of the forthcoming The Daily You, how the new advertising industry is defining your worth and your world, from Yale University Press, says we're living in a whole new Internet ecosystem.
JOE TUROW: That is looking at us, collecting data, analyzing it, predicting what we do and then targeting us with ads, discounts and eventually news and information.
And while it’s not gonna totally take over our lives, it will certainly put us in buckets – I call them reputation silos – as we move forward, that may be problematic for society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Expend on the “problematic” aspect.
JOSEPH TUROW: Let's say you have a family with kids. And the kids go online and they talk about what they do, and advertisers figure, God, this kid is heavy. Maybe he likes fast food. So all of a sudden the son in the family starts getting fast food discounts, the daughter starts getting gym ads that talk about losing weight. The husband begins to be put into buckets that reflect probabilities about income, and all of a sudden sees more used car ads [LAUGHS] and old car ads. We will get TV commercials and even suggestions about what to watch, based upon the buckets that were put it. And we don't even know how we're being described; we don't even know where those data are coming from. And yet, they will shape the kinds of things we see in our lives.
JACOB WEISBERG: Well, I won’t say I’m not worried about the effects of personalization. I think in many ways we're still at a very early stage with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of the Slate Group.
JACOB WEISBERG: But this is a version, Brooke, of a concern that I've heard since the very beginnings of the Internet. My complaint about Eli Pariser’s type of thinking is it's totally unempirical.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you tried to reproduce his results. What happened?
JACOB WEISBERG: Well, he starts his whole book very elaborately with this anecdote about Google, and he says two friends of his searched for BP, British Petroleum, during the oil spill. And one of them got news about the oil spill and the other one got investment results about BP. And that’s – that just doesn't make sense. I mean, I just don’t have any experience of people getting search results that vary that much.
So I just set up a very simple experiment, and I wouldn’t make any claim for it, except that it’s a better experiment than he did, and he wrote a whole book about it.
And I asked, you know, some people – I used Twitter and I said, can I have some volunteers, people with different politics, different parts of the country, to just do the same searches. And let's take some terms that are obviously political – Obamacare - and then just the names of, you know, John Boehner, Barney Frank. I had five or six people do this, and they all got essentially the same results; there were only minute differences, and the differences were insignificant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The insurance consultant from Dubuque got Wikipedia entries for the first two congressmen ahead of the official websites –
JACOB WEISBERG: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - while the others got the official websites first.
JACOB WEISBERG: Right. And then with Boehner’s it was an interesting test. There was a kind of Wikipedia type site, very hostile, to Boehner. And everybody got that in the same place, whether you're right wing, whether you're left wing, whether you’re in Dubuque, whether you're in New York City.
So I just don't believe what he says about Google, and I think that casts into doubt the larger way he raises the issue, not about whether this is something that could happen, but – but whether it is happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you yourself list a whole slew of efforts to create personalized news services, whether it's coming from The New York Times or The Washington Post or these personalized magazines for tablets that are based on our FaceBook and Twitter feeds. These are efforts to anticipate what news we are interested in and what news in which we have no interest.
JACOB WEISBERG: But this is the interesting question: How personalized should personalized news be? Do you just want to get news about sailing and Greyhound racing? No, even if you’re interested in those subjects, you want them as a supplement, maybe an over-sampled supplement to what actually happened yesterday in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a rebuke to Pariser in your column, you wrote, “Why assume that when people have more options they will choose to live in an echo chamber?” I think past behavior allows us to assume that, to a large extent. Homophily, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together, is wired in.
JACOB WEISBERG: It's never been hard to live in an echo chamber. In fact, I think in many ways it’s harder now and was easier before. People didn't used to have a big range of options about information sources. Maybe they had a local newspaper or they had the network news. There were three networks. You could make an argument that most of the country lived in a kind of bubble, with a limited range of opinion, in the days before the Internet brought us this huge variety.
But I just try to look at it in terms of my own experience as a starting point, and the experience of people I know. On Twitter, you follow people you're interested in, and the people are a proxy for the subjects. So you think someone is good either in your field or another field you care about, or some subject that’s happening, you start to get this range of sources you've never heard from before. And I find that by using Twitter to personalize the news, I have hugely broadened my range of voices, of ideas.
Now, I'm not saying that's absolutely a common experience either. I'm just arguing against the automatic assumption that, oh, because there’s some kind of personalization happening, what the personalization is gonna to do is narrow us.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Once we encounter an information environment like the Internet, which is driven by our choices, rather than driven by the constraints of a professional editor, I think we have to take very seriously the notion that we might be giving ourselves only what we want to hear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at the
Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who suggests that there may be something to fear, not necessarily in our technology but in ourselves. Our online social circles, the wide collection of loose ties we assemble on FaceBook and Twitter can put us in the path of new ideas, but only if we want them.
Pariser says that FaceBook stopped sending him news from the conservatives he friended because he didn’t interact with them. So is FaceBook to blame or Pariser?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: The question is agency. Did you choose to do this, you have control over it? Or is it happening to you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Zuckerman.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I think it's worthwhile to be a careful critic of these algorithms. But I think the personalization that we all do every day by choosing what information we look for, choosing who we talk to and who we interact with is a much ore powerful force in limiting our exposure to different forms of information.
CLAY SHIRKY: Everybody will say they're gonna sign up for this kind of varied diet, just as everybody says their musical tastes are quite varied and unpredictable, and yet, when we look at what they actually do, there's a much narrower range there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clay Shirky is a consultant, educator and author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.
CLAY SHIRKY: Some of it may be because people's interests are in a narrower range. Some of it may be because people imagine that they have more time to explore the world than they actually do, right? You know, there's a handful of coast-hugging eggheads who have all the time in the world to just experience the media landscape in its full, crazy and chaotic glory. And we think everybody ought to do like that.
But, of course, everybody has a job and most people's jobs don't involve sitting around playing around with the Web to see what it's doing today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right now there are plenty of people at work on the problem of engineering encounters with unexpected information, of engendering what netheads call serendipity. For his part, Shirky visits group aggregation sites, like 3 Quarks Daily and Crooked Timber, sites with more than one editor.
CLAY SHIRKY: And that gives me a more varied media diet than essentially using my own filters against the Web what do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But for the reasons he just stated, the group that seeks the ideas of people who think differently from themselves will always be small.
CLAY SHIRKY: This is, I think, the great weakness in the work being done on these kind of serendipity options, is to assume that everybody somehow deep down wants to be surprised or challenged.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, he says that the new media are exposing us to unwelcome information far more than back when you were limited to cable and the daily paper. The conservative and liberal blogospheres link to each other all the time, and it's degrading public discourse.
CLAY SHIRKY: Constant exposure to the idea that people disagree with you actually enrages people. So the polarization, I think, doesn't come from us cutting ourselves off from people who disagree with us, but rather from the irritation of constant exposure to the idea that there are people who disagree with us and that they are also out speaking in public, just as we are.
I think that the threat of polarization is there but I think that Sunstein’s diagnosis of the reasons it happened were wrong, so in the way the cure he proposed might make the disease worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The cure, meaning greater exposure to other people’s views – [LAUGSH]
CLAY SHIRKY: Exactly right. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's very dark, Clay!
CLAY SHIRKY: You know, look, I’m a Madisonian. I don't think that you ever get rid of factionalism. I don't think that what we want is for each individual to become more moderate. I think what we want is for the democratic system to produce the kind of fights that lead to moderate outcomes, even if all of the participants are partisan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm. Two years ago Lee Rainie at PEW’s Internet and American Life Project soothed me with data. I think I need to call him again.
LEE RAINIE: More people nowadays say they get political news and information from sources that share their point of view than were telling us that a couple of years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, no!
LEE RAINIE: At the same time, we see among the heaviest Internet users, the people who presumably would have the most sophisticated filtering tools and the inclination to go into that echo chamber, if they felt like it, those people are getting more information from more sources and greater diversity of points of view than they have before. So it's a mixed picture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many of those latter people are there?
LEE RAINIE: There are fewer of them than there used to be. We definitely know that there are fewer people now on any given day who get any kind of news. About a decade ago it was about a tenth of the population. Now it's about a fifth of the population who say, on any given day, I didn't get news from any source.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the Internet creating a situation that enables us to be and results in us being more intellectually isolated?
LEE RAINIE: Possibly. Brooke, I had you in mind when I drafted this battery of questions that we –
- ran in that post-election survey we did in 2010. And it shows you what a mixed bag this situation is. So I'm just going to read you a bunch of questions and a bunch of data to show you how confused and fun this world is for us to be studying.
“Would you say that the Internet makes it easier to connect with others who share your political views or had no impact?” Fifty-four percent said it's easier for me now to find people who share my point of view, and 42 percent said it didn't make any impact.
So then we asked them, “Which of the following statements comes closest to your point of view: ‘The Internet increases the influence of those with extreme political views,’ or, ‘The Internet reduces the influence of those with extreme views, by giving ordinary citizens a chance to be heard?’” Fifty-five percent said it increases the influence of extreme views, 30 percent said it reduces the influence of extreme views. And the rest said they didn't really know.
So, again, people are worried about the echo chamber, particularly if it drives up the power of extreme voices.
But then we asked people, “Do you think that the Internet exposes people to a wider range of political views than they can get in the traditional news media?” Sixty-one percent said it increases the range of views. So that flies against the notion that an echo chamber is there, because the Internet is providing a lot more people the opportunity to expose themselves to points of view that they wouldn't get from traditional media.
The final question we asked, again, sort of our Brooke [LAUGHS] battery here:
“Thinking about the political information you find online, would you say it's usually easy or difficult for you to tell what is true from what is not true?” Fifty-six said it is difficult, 33 percent said it is easy.
So this is just a more challenging information environment that yes, is pushing more people towards people who are like them or towards point of view that are similar to theirs and, yet, they can celebrate the fact that they are aware of more things or they think their fellow citizens are aware of more things because the Internet just has allowed this proliferation of voices and niches to come into being.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you feel less sanguine about this echo chamber business now than you did say, five years ago?
LEE RAINIE: Yeah, there are more structures in place that potentially push people into echo chambers, but I don't think we fully understand yet the pathways of information, in order to be able to say definitively this is happening, it's bad, or this is happening in certain ways that aren't necessarily so bad.
So, it's a pretty mixed picture, and we haven't yet reached the end of the road with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm counting on you, Lee.
LEE RAINIE: Brooke, there are so many more Brooke batteries for us to – to ask –
- that I have confidence that we'll keep talking about this as long as your show is on, and I keep getting funding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lee Rainie, thank you very much.
LEE RAINIE: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ultimately, as Ethan Zuckerman observed, it comes down to choice. We choose echo chambers. In fact, we’re wired to. But with conscious effort regularly applied, we can defeat that impulse by adding new circuits and connections to the standard array. The new technology makes it so easy –
- and so hard.