Did you know that the internet might tailor the content you see when browsing? Based on the information you provided websites and search engines in the past, you might see different search results and news than other people. A filter bubble is a name for algorithms that personalize web content to suit what they believe is your preference. Are filter bubbles good and bad, and are they a violation of privacy and the right to think freely? Here is what you should know about web content filtering and how to get out of a filter bubble!

What Is a Filter Bubble?

Almost a decade has passed since Eli Pariser coined the term filter bubble. Internet users have probably been facing this problem a lot more than that. But what exactly is a filter bubble? It is a concept of intellectual isolation imposed by algorithms that filter website content for a specific user. The idea is for the algorithms to get to know your browsing habits and act accordingly. As a result, the more they learn, the more they filter the content shown. That means you get less exposure to content and viewpoints that might not be in line with yours. It leads to intellectual isolation because there is no content that would challenge your mind. The most frequent searches on Google are related to the latest trends. It doesn’t come as strange that coronavirus has attracted the interest of people throughout the world in the last several months. The graph below shows thousands of people searching for COVID-19 during the last 12 months. However, the idea of a filter bubble is that not all of them will get the same results when entering their search term. For example, a young person from Spain might get different search results from an elderly adult in Italy.  That is because the algorithms use location, gender, age, and other browsing information to tailor the content you see. Over time, you enter this filter bubble deeper, and you get minimal exposure to content not in line with your viewpoints.

Screenshot from Google Trends: COVID-19

What Are the Benefits and Dangers of Filter Bubbles?

The main purpose of filter bubbles is personalizing media and content shows while you are browsing the web. That is both an advantage and a drawback. It is a benefit because you would probably prefer seeing the content that fits your viewpoints more often. The fact that the algorithms are selecting the content for you based on what you like seems tempting. But if you are constantly seeing web pages that go in line with your viewpoints, is it possible to challenge your mind? The way you think can affect who you are as a person. If someone is feeding you particular information, are they training your brain? Widening our perspectives and learning about different viewpoints is the only way to develop our minds and ourselves as persons. That is why you want content from various sources, and it is up to you to decide whether to read them. You are the one who should pick if you consider a source fake or reliable.

The Right to Privacy

Filter bubbles might apply to both the content and advertisements you see while browsing. Google Ads might obtain this information from tracking cookies in your web browser. They memorize your search queries, location, and other details to tailor advertisements and results shown in search engines. But why would a third party even have access to that information? Each internet user has the right to their privacy. Your search queries are not embarrassing or dangerous, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t stay personal. That is why breaking out of the filter bubble is an essential way of protecting your privacy.

Meet Eli Pariser – the Man Who Warned the World about Filter Bubbles

Eli Pariser Warned the World about Filter Bubbles
The first person who used the term “filter bubbles” was Eli Pariser. He is an entrepreneur considered to be a pioneer in online citizen engagement. Pariser is also a political activist focusing on methods of making media and technology more democratic. Pariser coined the expression “filter bubble” in 2010. While it immediately attracted some attention, it took until 2011 and his book “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You” to ensure that this problem reaches millions.  The book quickly turned out to be a bestseller, and Pariser and his topic became popular. TED.com published a video featuring Eli Pariser. The author explains why you should beware of online filter bubbles in this footage:

Pariser explains that web companies personalize search results and news for each user. However, that leads to limiting people’s worldviews, which is eventually bad for democracy.

The problem of creating a specific information universe for each of us is that it modifies how we find information and ideas.

Pariser had an example where two people typed the same thing in Google. Their search for British Petroleum yielded different results – one person saw an investment news piece and the other one about oil spillage. Neither had easy access to the news the other person saw. It is worth noting that tailored content comes at a price. Pariser mentions that you get information that supports your viewpoints, but provide a large quantity of data to web services. The problem is that you probably wouldn’t reveal some of that information to even your closest friends.

You might search for “depression” definition online. The website could install dozens of cookies that allow advertisers to show you antidepressant ads in the future. It is like you are a dog, and the internet even knows which breed you are, and offers a suitable kibble.

How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think

The Filter Bubble Book
Eli Pariser published the book “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You” with this subtitle. The book discusses the issues of personalizing the internet for a particular user. The author discusses how the internet controls the content it shows us. He argues that web services gather information about users and modify the information they are shown in the future. The book discusses what is happening behind the scenes. That includes gathering your personal information and preference and selling that data to advertisers. The information you might unknowingly share could include embarrassing searches, but also political viewpoints and other sensitive data. Pariser mentions that most major websites utilize personalization and potentially jeopardize your privacy. The book also discusses what could be done to improve the situation and resolve the problem created by filter bubbles.

The Impact of 2016 US Election on Filter Bubbles

It is interesting to analyze the trends of searching for the “filter bubble” on Google: Screenshot from Google trends: Filter BubbleThe graph shows this problem gained some interest in 2004, but it was in 2010 and 2011 when it reached its peak. That is understandable because that is when Eli Pariser published his book and revealed filter bubble details on TEDtalks. If you take a closer look, you will notice that the 2016 US Election increased the interest in the topic toward the end of that year. It seems that people wanted to learn more about the so-called “walled gardens of content.” You can find sources speaking about the exposure of voters to specific news. Although the studies could also be biased, they discovered Trump’s voters largely watched and read Fox News. On the other hand, there wasn’t a specific media that Clinton voters focused on during the campaign. Did the filter bubbles affect the content that these voters could have been seeing? While personalization could have played a small role, it is hard not to admit that the voters picked their sources themselves. The takeaway is that the US election process inspired people to be more interested in filter bubbles. That could indicate their willingness to put effort into removing this bubble when surfing the web.

Can Social Media Affect Political Content users Are Seeing?

Take a look at this chart published by Facebook: It is an excellent example of considering whether homophily is present on this social media. You have conservative and liberal groups and information about how news links could be presented. If a random concept is applied, the voters would see about 40-45% of the content supporting the other party. However, the next item is the network potential in tailoring the news links. Most of the content you see on social networks is published by your friends. That means you will end up with a lot more like-minded news, especially if the majority of your friends support the same party. The rate drops significantly, and it is proof of how a network potential could act as a filter bubble. The “Exposed” statistics describe the cross-content news these people actually saw, and the final piece of the graph shows the selected quantity of news content. Eli Pariser explains this graph like this:

If you are a liberal with friends who are liberals, the odds are you won’t see a lot of conservative content. The same applies vice versa, which is why we see the steep reduction caused by network potential. However, the graph also shows that the algorithm and user decisions also play a role in selecting the content.

Does Bill Gates Believe Filter Bubbles Are a Problem?

 Bill Gates on the Filter BubbleThe biggest world minds and successful businessmen like Bill Gates are also concerned about filter bubbles. In an interview given several years ago, Gates mentioned that content filtering is a bigger problem than he anticipated.

Social media and similar websites allow you to communicate only with people who think like you. That means you have limited access to other viewpoints,” explains Gates.

Gates believes that narrowing people’s worldview is a major problem. According to the businessman, people search for various things online, but they don’t come across facts. Instead, they find sources that fit their preference, which limits their worldview. The co-founder of Microsoft doesn’t have a single dilemma that filter bubbles are bad for people.

It can’t be good to hear that a medication allegedly has contraindications when that is not true. If you keep listening that vaccines are bad, you are not exposed to people trying to explain why they might be good,” says Gates.

According to Gates, people will start fighting against filter bubbles, which will correct this problem in the future. He explains it could be because information filtering could lead to a decreased number of job opportunities people come across.

We can help stop filter bubbles and put things back in balance with education.

Despite the fact algorithms lead to filter bubbles, Gates believes technology is a solution in fighting them.

You don’t only have access to a single newspaper written by local authorities. Today, you can access various sources easier than ever,” says Gates.

Will the Media Companies Do Something About Filter Bubbles?

It was a question of whether the media will even admit that filter bubbles exist. However, Pariser seems to have done a big job in alerting the public so that the issue has become impossible to ignore. As the largest social network out there, Facebook admitted that filtering exists on this media. After reporting that some people didn’t see some events despite the fact they were highly-discussed, Facebook deleted personalization from the offered Trending topics. The idea that Facebook implemented is to use a reverse approach. If you read content that has been shared from another source, it will now post similar articles, but rather different viewpoints on that topic. The network explains they only try to show content from sources proven to provide credible information. It took until 2018 for Google to admit filtering issues on their site. The platform admitted their algorithms use relevancy and authoritativeness when deciding what to show to a particular user. Many platforms, such as Craigslist and Mozilla, joined this cause. They even invested $14 million for this purpose. Their idea is to improve informing the public on various issues and boost journalism trustworthiness worldwide.

A Guide to Getting Out of a Filter Bubble and Improving User Experience on the Web

The important thing to note is that getting out of the filter bubble is a process. Specific actions will get you one step closer to unbiased content. Here are the guidelines you should stick you to ensure your internet searches and browsing remains “unfiltered.”

1. Avoiding Filter Bubbles on Social Media

While you are setting up your Facebook account, you leave this social network personal information. Apart from your name, you also leave your date of birth. That information can be used for putting you in a specific age group. Your gender, marital status, and other details could all participate in filtering content to make it “more suitable” to your preference. The experts advise removing your birthday information, as well as not allowing your data to be accessible by everyone. You can adjust this in privacy settings, but photos and updates on your profile should only be visible by your friends since they should be a group of people you trust. While that might not have anything to do with the content filter bubble, it is vital to protect your privacy. Instant personalization is a feature that allows other websites to get your information from Facebook. You’ve read that right – an active account on Facebook allows some other websites, such as Bing, to get to your personal information. The idea is to provide a better and more social experience when visiting those sites. However, that could lead to filtered content, and that is something you want to avoid. You can deactivate the instant personalization in your Privacy settings. It is located under the Apps and Websites section, and everything that is required is to untick the corresponding box. If you a Twitter or Instagram user, here is a useful trick. Try to find several accounts with updates that might not be in line with your stances and opinions. We are not talking about following people talking nonsense. If a social media user acquired a certain reputation within the community, they might be worth following. Those accounts could offer different perspectives and broaden your awareness.

2. Enter Incognito or Anonymous Modes

Internet browsers offer you the option of using the incognito mode. You’ve probably used it to visit websites without leaving tracks in the browser’s history. And while the incognito mode is helpful, it is not the same as anonymous browsing. If you log into your Google account, you will still receive biased content when searching the internet. The solution is to conduct anonymous internet searches. It is easier than you think and doesn’t require advanced tech knowledge. All it takes is using an anonymous search engine like Privado. Here is how these platforms secure anonymity while searching the web:

  •         A private search engine won’t keep your IP address stored. Instead, each search receives an anonymous ID.
  •         No tracking tools are used. You don’t have to worry about cookies, but also advanced tracking methods like pixel or fingerprinting.
  •         Encrypted search terms and time-sensitive searches. Your browser history won’t list query terms, and searches are time-sensitive in case you leave the window active when you move away from your computer.

Since each query is anonymous, that means search engines don’t have what to go on when deciding the results to show. That secures unbiased content that didn’t pass any filters. It ensures you have access to search results from different sources instead of receiving websites that “fit your preference.”

3. Deleting Search History and Browser Cookies

Did you know that Google and other search engines store your IP and query information each time you use them? These platforms also memorize your location and use data from Google accounts to tailor the content shown. While you are visiting other websites, that information is stored by using cookies. Although they sound cute, “cookies” are data files. Your browser stores information about your browsing and that can be used to show customized ads. Websites also use cookies to recognize the content you frequently read, and make sure it is the first one you come across during your visit. The solution is to delete cookies from your browser after each browsing session. The exact steps are different depending on the software you use. But whether you prefer Google Chrome, Firefox, or Opera, you should find the corresponding option in the Settings menu. Apart from deleting cookies, you might also consider disabling tracking cookies altogether.

4. Ad Blockers Can Be Your Best Friend

Some websites can be intrusive when it comes to advertising. While nobody minds an advertisement or two because we understand how financing works, aggressive campaigns are annoying. Additionally, you should be aware that the ads you see might be personalized because of the collected information from your browsing. Ad blockers are tools that help to remove these advertisements and promote user experience on the web. They can prevent pop-ups as well as on-page advertisements, such as Google Ads. The websites have started to fight ad blockers by recognizing who uses these tools. If you have an extension installed for your browser, they won’t show content until you sign up for a website subscription or turn off the blocker.

5. Don’t Be Afraid of Looking Across the Aisle

In the beginning, we said that getting out of a filter bubble is a process. That is because it involves changing your filter bubble or “eliminating” it by developing new browsing habits. Reading the news is the most common area where this filter bubble could appear. Let’s say that you are reading several news sites that fit your sensibility. As time develops, the content you see in searches and websites becomes similar to the one on those news portals. The internet will start “hiding” the content it thinks you don’t want to read. While that might be true, it means you are only reading biased content without being open to different opinions and ideas. That is why you want to put in an effort and take a look across the aisle occasionally. Why not read a website that you haven’t read before, or a news portal you know supports causes you don’t? If you want to develop your mind, it is crucial to be open to various perspectives. That is where looking across the aisle helps.

6. Sign Up for Various Newsletters

This goes hand in hand with our previous tip. You might forget or don’t have enough time to visit websites that could widen your perspectives. That is why you should consider having the news delivered straight to your inbox. Most websites offer a free subscription to their newsletters. You sign up to receive regular news updates to the e-mail provided. The only thing you need to do is to pick the websites for a subscription. From that moment, you don’t have to look for news focusing on a wide range of perspectives. This news will come to you, and that will help to break the filter bubble.

Are Filter Bubbles Dangerous for Other Areas of Our Lives?

The filter bubble is noticeable in web browsing, but does it affect other areas of our lives? The experts believe that is an interesting topic to discuss. First, the content you read affects the way you think, so why wouldn’t it affect the behavior toward other people? We often witness situations where people who support different political options can’t stand each other. They refuse to listen to the other party because of their firm believe they are wrong. That is what leads to people avoiding each other and spending time in the company of like-minded people. And we don’t even have to limit ourselves to politics. Social, economic, and cultural factors are also the reasons for division within society. All those are “bubbles” that affect the community, which means that filtering can be dangerous for other areas of our lives.

Final Thoughts

Filter bubbles might seem like it helps the user tailor internet browsing to their preference. The problem is this personalization leaves them out from learning more about other perspectives and viewpoints. The limited worldview leads to polarization and restricts people from developing their minds and determining the worthiness of information themselves. While filter bubbles are an ongoing problem, there are ways to fight it. The increased awareness and admittance from major platforms and minds like Bill Gates that content filtering is an issue is important. Until we see changes in how internet services process our data, users can apply tips to help them access unfiltered content. Getting out of a filter bubble might require some effort, but it will be worth it.