You are king of web, then slave

Ranjan Yumnam *

The author cautions us against the traps of Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Fake News and argues for differentiating them by diversifying our news diet and being more open to opposing viewpoints on online platforms

Here’s a fun fact : In the cyber realm, you are the king. You shape the agendas, define the rules and draw the boundaries of your online territory. Your kingdom is the online space in which the algorithms written by Google, Facebook and allied services serve as your assistants to select what to read, see, spend and think about.

The algorithms track, store, and analyse patterns of your past engagement with online content, your mouse clicks, timestamp, location and other digital footprints across websites, apps, streaming services and social media platforms.

The moment you open a web address or an app, everything comes personalised on a platter. The news is customised for you, cooked and presented as you would like it, like a decaf coffee if it is your thing. Google News serves information you find interesting and relevant.

Facebook pulls and highlights friends’ posts you often interact and agree with, and pages you liked earlier, content from favourite sources while making invisible hundreds of other friends in the newsfeed. (Facebook doesn’t display all the posts from your friends unless you try to hunt them down by their names and manually pry them open).

Something is fishy, you think. Then, you open your Netflix app or switch it on the TV. The Homepage of Netflix is a land of candy; it instantly shows the choicest genre and actors you admire. They are prominently displayed with attractive graphics and cinematic grabs in motion while your cursor hovers over them. The same phenomenon happens when you open Instagram. Wherever you go online, you are buried in your likeness in an endless loop.

Breakdown of Common Agendas

It was not like this. Before the internet entered our lives, newspapers, books and magazines set the agendas of our conversations and social interactions. National dailies like The Times of India and The Telegraph were all we needed to read to understand the politics and culture, consume entertainment and make sense of the state of affairs of the world.

We used to memorise their headlines to regurgitate them in the job interviews in which the Interview Board was obliged to test our knowledge of current affairs. Editorials of the Hindu newspaper dealt with expected topics and were read for depth and critical analysis. In other words, we were on the same page.

Our information universe suddenly changed when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and its numerous offspring hijacked our PCs, tablets, TVs, smartphones and anything with a glass screen. Google at first organised the vast information and made it searchable to assist us in a purely instrumental manner. Then it became a profit behemoth that fed off our data and turned us into statistics for sale to the highest bidder among advertisers. Facebook and the other social media vultures soon swooped in and followed our every footstep, click and input in order to monetise our online behaviour.

In short, the old media crumbled, and the internet took over and became a primary source of our news and entertainment as well as the favoured channel of self-expression. Hitherto, the traditional media gave us a semblance of shared concerns that underlie the public discourse. The World Wide Web swept that commonality under the rug and privatised it to fit our tastes, orientations and little ideologies.

Secondly, content is no longer ranked for its importance but piped to us because of its popularity or virality. The fragmentation of the flow and consumption of information to satisfy our personal itch rather than to signal the gravity of certain issues has heightened with the expansion of broadband coverage and mobile data.

It doesn’t matter what weighty issues of the world like poverty, malnutrition, epidemics, or wars we should ponder on; the only metric worth any value is the degree of our emotional reactivity. Mark Zuckerberg once said, “The squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interest right now than people dying in Africa.”

The Trap of Filter Bubbles

The marking of our territory within the new media by the algorithm to structure our newsfeed and the intellectual isolation that results is known as the Filter Bubble. “By definition, it’s an appealing prospect— a return to the Ptolemaic uni- verse in which the sun and everything else revolves around us. But it comes at a cost: there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning”, wrote Eli Pariser, who coined the term in his eponymous book.

The joy of discovering random ideas while flipping the pages of a newspaper or listening to radio programmes is gone. Agreeing to disagree has become difficult with the democratisation of the internet. Deep group divisions, chasms and intolerance for differing perspectives have become the order of the day and poisoned public discourses. The web environment has trapped us in a self-reinforcing loop that polarises and stifles meaningful dialogue.

At the same time, human psychology is not helping either. Confirmation Bias, which is the psychological disposition to seek out evidence in support of our pre-existing beliefs, has plunged us further into our ideological black holes. Rather than reasoning with facts and statistics, we rely on selective anecdotes, freak incidents, allies’ opinions and one-sided arguments by politicised institutions to do our intellectual bidding.

The whole exercise of online discourse is reduced to selecting angles from the spectrum sea awash in all kinds of theories and narratives. We assume we took a stand objectively, but in reality, we often make up our minds with shortcuts by stereotypes and lazy thinking, which David Kahneman calls System 1, ignoring our more deliberative and harder System 2, as explained in his popular book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

One example of this reflexive thinking is the fear of air travel which is irrational given that it is far more dangerous to travel by road. Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Airline Industry have debunked the alarmism in air travel.

The third psychological culprit is our fascination with conspiracy theories. We always try to see hidden meanings and jump to conclusions from minor events when there are none. Conspiracy theories heighten our thrill of possessing insider knowledge unbe- knownst to others. That UFOs flew over Loktak Lake, kidnapped some fishermen and Govt covered it up!

Further, we live smugly inside socially constructed Echo Chambers which is the mother of all bigotry. History is replete with leaders who meant well in the beginning but failed to reform because they were too entrenched in their cosy environment, surrounded by yes-men and acolytes. The tale of the emperor having no clothes is still as true as ever.

When a leader permits only like-minded people to approach her and consults them all the time, she will not mend ways or rethink until the last moment, from which there is no exit. She is shielded by the very support system that is supposed to alert her to the larger tapestry of views and options. Instead, a protected person becomes so tone-deaf and out of touch with reality.

Queen Marie Antoinette of France once yelled “Let them eat cake”, at the messenger who informed her that her peasant subjects were starving due to scarcity of bread. This is an extreme example that occurred before the internet era. Imagine how this elitist aloofness would have been further tightened by the Filter Bubble in the internet age.

What’s Up with WhatsApp?

Private messaging groups, such as those on WhatsApp, are not free from insulation and they are where our pet ideas are radicalised. Inside these groups, the extreme shade of our beliefs is hardened by the groupthink that develops without design. Mirroring the real world, WhatsApp groups succumb to group dynamics with their own hierarchical norms.

The members gradually took on roles of Admins, influencers, contrarians, timid observers and free riders. Admins wield significant power, setting the tone and rules for discussions. Influential participants make sweeping comments that oversimplify complex issues and throw their weight around.

Contrarians challenge the prevailing narratives, sometimes sparking necessary debate but often facing backlash; they recoil, waiting for another opportunity. Free riders passively consume content without contributing, and timid members remain quiet, afraid to speak out.

Within these groups, thought policing may occur, where dissenting opinions are swiftly challenged or silenced. The intimate nature of these platforms can amplify peer pressure, making it difficult for individuals to express divergent views. Moreover, as text is the medium of interaction, it often becomes its own obstacle in conveying the nuances of the thoughts, which are then misinterpreted and clarified endlessly.

WhatsApp Groups become echo chambers and platforms for sharing sensational Facebook posts, self-serving YouTube links, fake news, and panic alerts already tainted by the Filter Bubbles as discussed above.

Arguments are Useless

The medium of engagement in the digital space constricts threadbare dialogue. Communication on the web usually takes place in snippets. One sentence is pricey, and two paragraphs are too many words—a practical handicap that prevents all analytical comments. Marshall McLuhan said with remarkable foresight that “the medium is the message.” Because of the intrinsic shallowness and snappiness of social media and messaging apps, comments are not made for persuasion but for attention, provocation and shock value.

Second, the limitations in the scope of discussion in online communities tend to inflame exchanges that border on personal attacks. Ideas often devolve into one-upmanship and name-calling, targeting the individuals’ identities over the subject matter. Ad hominem attacks become the norm—attack the person instead of the idea.

Therefore, one is resigned to the conclusion that online discu- ssions do not shift anyone’s position but harden it, no matter what kind of spirited logic and evidence one employs. Scorecard : Reason- 03; Gut Feeling- 07 points.

And who has the time and focus to get into all the verbal fights ? Even if we have the will, the distractions are too many to earnestly battle for our ideas. The least we can do is leave some peace making emojis and exit in a huff. There are simply more pressing notifications to attend to. Moreover, people’s average attention span is getting shorter, and reading a lengthy article like this is a test of perseverance; forget mounting a well- arti- culated defence in tweets.

Renowned journalist Nicholas Carr argues that our brain is changing due to constant exposure to micro videos, hyperlinks and clickbaits making us incapable of doing any deep work. Taking advantage of our monkey minds or sheer indifference, fake news sways online debate disproportionately. The danger of fake news is that once it is out there, it is a chameleon hard to tell.

Even fact-checking websites bring more publicity to the original false news, and as we know, negative news, more than positive ones, gets our attention. Damage done, facts compromised and the truth is never the same again.

Busting Balls of Bubbles

The conclusion to make here is that due to
(i) filter bubbles due to personalisation technology,
(ii) pre-dispositions of human psychology
(iii) sanctuaries of echo chambers
(iv) the rise of influencers in niche domains,
(v) the decline of traditional media, and
(vi) the fragmentation of discourse in social media space and messaging apps along personal leanings,
our worldview has narrowed to a hyperreality version that aligns with our pocket dogma.

What we see is no longer what we get. And that’s why it’s not far-fetched to imagine a world in which Donald Trump is set to win the next Presidential Elections in the United States of America, from where all these Filter Bubbles originated in the first place.

On the face of it, we must assert ourselves for our right to receive news that is authentic, close to the real world, and shaped by human beings with shared values and interests. The best way to do that is to diversify our news sources and learn to listen to the opposing views, particularly the inconvenient ones.

We can still relate to the dynamism of the real world by developing awareness of our cognitive biases, underlying social psychology and, most importantly, the highly personalised stream of news and information that we consume due to Big Tech’s business model.

Traditional media, with all its can of worms like owner’s affiliation, political leaning and dependence on ad money, must also reclaim its gatekeeping role by focusing on verified facts and in-depth reporting, rather than prioritizing speed and sensationalism.

As individuals also, we must add variety to our news diet and check the sources. By losing the speed for the substance and sensationalism for depth, the snail media, responsible influencers and we all can win together.

* Ranjan Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 24 2024.

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