The internet has been one of the most transformative human innovations in the last hundred years. It has drastically affected many aspects of our society such as education, commerce, agriculture, business, logistics, and communication. We are now able to search through vast amounts of information in a matter of seconds, allowing for significant ease in research and knowledge acquisition. Clearly the internet is beneficial; however, I believe it also has some underlying tendencies that can lead to our ignorance.
The ease of access to the enormous amounts of information that the internet provides amplifies an inherent human trait known as selective exposure or confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a “tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true” (“Confirmation Bias”). To give an example: if we were to see two articles, one from a conservative and one from a liberal viewpoint, we would tend to click on and read the article which agrees with our views. Because of our ability to personalize information we view on the internet, it is easy for us to surround ourselves with content that supports our beliefs and overlook information that is contrary to those beliefs.
The internet amplifies our selection bias by creating what is known as a filter bubble. Many websites on the internet eventually show us only information we agree with, thus isolating us in a “bubble” from conflicting viewpoints (Corey Jannsen). For example, in a recent TED Talk, Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser spoke about how websites track our thinking to feed us more information that confirms our beliefs. He gave an example of how at first his Facebook newsfeed consisted of both conservative and liberal posts, but after seeing he only clicked on liberal links and liked liberal statuses, his newsfeed (created by Facebook) only consisted of liberal posts, thus blocking out the conservative ones. Facebook is not the only website that caters to our confirmation bias: Google, Yahoo, and most news sites such as The New York Times, all provide content which satisfies the reader. Even if somebody is not logged into a website such as Google, the website is able to use data they acquire about us to create a filter bubble. In the battle for clicks that is taking place today on the internet, it is in the interest of tech companies to show us content we agree with, and thus we are more likely to click on due to our confirmation bias. This is because websites gain vital revenue from clicks. Websites can charge more for advertising the more clicks they receive. Although we enjoy the benefits of this internet model, such as free content, it can also have detrimental effects.
We tend to think that the internet does a great job connecting us, but in many ways it actually isolates us and can lead to a narrow perspective which becomes difficult to combat. Paul Resnick, Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, stated that “collectively, these filters will isolate people in information bubbles only partly of their own choosing, and the inaccurate beliefs they form as a result may be difficult to correct” (“Bursting Your (filter) Bubble”). In order to change inaccurate beliefs, people must see conflicting viewpoints, but when they are in an “information bubble,” they will never be exposed to other perspectives. Being exposed to contrary beliefs has been found to be beneficial and leads to “greater awareness of rationales for one’s own viewpoints, greater awareness of rationales for oppositional viewpoints, and greater tolerance” (Diana C. Mutz). Thus, by being increasingly presented with information that supports our beliefs and not seeing conflicting information, the internet tends to make us more ignorant than informed.
The information bubble created by the internet may be affecting other aspects of our society. In the last few years, there has been criticism of university students’ desire to only hear viewpoints with which they agree. For example, this past spring, Condoleezza Rice was forced to withdraw from speaking at a commencement ceremony at Rutgers University due to protests (Kristina Sguelglia). In an article that appeared in Spectator, Brendan O’Neill writes that university students feel their “right to be comfortable” trumps freedom of speech, and that students feel they have the “right never to be challenged by disturbing ideas or mind-battered by offensiveness at precisely the time they should be leaping brain-first into the rough and tumble of grown-up, testy discussion” (Brendan O’Neill). Additionally, a study of over 24,000 college students and 9,000 staff found that only 35.6% of students and 18.5% of faculty felt it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus” (Eric L. Dey). It is particularly sad that there seems to be this limiting of sharing perspectives on college campuses. Colleges should be an arena for combating the ignorance that the internet can create by offering an opportunity to mix with others, stimulate thoughts, and inspire ideas and discussion.