Filter Bubbles and Fake News. How Free is our Individual Expression on the Internet?

Posted November 30, 2016
By John Degen

A while back, I made the decision to take a longish vacation from all things social media. The weeks (months… years…) leading up to the last American election saw my various social feeds fill with bile, anger and surprisingly little fact-based discussion. It exhausted me to shovel all that stuff out of the way each day in order to get at the nuggets of book news and friend updates I was actually looking for. I still touch down on Twitter or Facebook et al for work purposes, but when official duties are over for the day, I very happily close those apps on my phone, and face a much calmer, quieter world unmediated by voices and pressures from what has become an insistent, intrusive sphere filled with angry rhetoric and little else. I don’t think I’ve been this relaxed in a decade.

I’m an advocate for authorship and free expression – my whole thing is people expressing themselves, talking, agreeing, debating, disagreeing, even arguing. And I probably have a higher than average tolerance for heat in these discussions, developed through years of arguing online about copyright. My preference, though, is that there be some facts in the middle of all the heat. Free expression, it seems to me, is a whole lot less free and meaningful when it is choked and clouded by falseness.

My colleague on this blog, law professor Richard Moon, recently wrote about the post-truth, post-fact age we seem to have entered in both politics and political discourse. The ultimate failings of traditional media in the face of rather easily debunked statements seem to be less about the act of debunking – a skill Toronto Star journalist Daniel Dale displays to great effect – and more about how consistently it is done and how prominently the corrections are made. We’ve all noted how corrections to newspaper stories are usually formatted as almost hidden afterthoughts. After-the-fact “regret” over an error can’t possibly complete with the erroneous information it is meant to correct. This has changed a bit in the digital age, as we now see online stories being edited and corrected in real time, but still the corrections are not particularly highlighted, and are usually only noted in small print after the final paragraph.

Professor Moon wrote “Spin or distortion or even lying is now an expected part of politics,” and I agree. But politics is not the beginning and end of our days, despite the ubiquity of 24-hour news channels, talk radio, and endless partisan tweeting. Do we have to accept distortion or lies in our own wider conversations? There is, I think, something unacceptably passive and hand-washing about an over-arching focus on spin-doctors and bad journalism when we talk about our world – not just our politics, but our social movements, our legal challenges, even our personal failings. Do we not have a personal responsibility to recognize spin when it is right there in front of us, to resolutely look past it, to ask challenging questions of ourselves and others, to never stop seeking the actual truth even when – maybe even especially when – it’s a truth we might not really want to see?

Much has been written about the internet’s tendency to group us into blinkered little communities of common interest and opinion – what is known as the filter bubble, a design feature of social media that leads to a seemingly unstoppable confirmation bias. Pair the filter bubble with the new ubiquity of highly-slanted and even flat-out fake “news” platforms and – at best – you get an all-out war of untrustworthy information used to bludgeon any appearance of opposition or nuanced argument on the web. At worst, you get… nothing. No debate. No argument. Only the endlessly reassuring and reiterating agreement of the bubble.

When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was challenged on the point of fake news infecting his platform during the US election he responded initially with incredulity, suggesting inherent bias has always existed in news (true) and that Facebook’s fake news problem was just more of the same (not so much). Zuckerberg has since allowed there might indeed be a problem with how false information spreads through social media, and that Facebook has a role in fixing that problem. What that role may be remains undefined, but there are plenty of good ideas out there, and the best of them don’t involve outright censorship of the offending content. Instead, they ask us to take more personal responsibility for our own online biases.

Fakery’s influence on the US election is an important moment in our consideration of free expression and what social media does to it. False news is, after all, a form of free expression. Would anyone deny the necessity of such parody outlets as The Daily Show or The Beaverton? They are much beloved, and all they do is fake stuff.

We are all responsible for applying our own common sense filtering to what we read, but is there not a larger issue here? What is the difference between news and opinion? What is the difference between a fact and propaganda, between parody and pernicious lying? Do we want to live in a world where these distinctions blur to nothing, and we help with the blurring by blocking, muting and unfollowing?

The filter bubble is real, and it should not be dismissed lightly. I believe bias is quantitatively and qualitatively different in today’s hyper-connected world. It’s sneakier, and can have the effect of embedding itself in our own individual social media communication so subtly, we are not even aware of it. In other words, we can be duped into freely expressing something we might not actually believe. Because of that we no longer have the individual luxury of letting our own biases and bubbles go unchallenged. If we are truly concerned about our own expressive rights, we need to root out, identify and disengage from the mechanisms that seek to influence and maybe even control our online speech. I recommend starting with a social media vacation.