While we are living in what historians call the information age, that does not necessarily mean that we are more knowledgeable or open minded.
In fact, it may be the case that despite the vast internet knowledge just a click away, you might just be interacting with various ideas or opinions within a very narrow spectrum at the expense of other viewpoints.
Here is why.
You see, there is an intricate information filtering system in the internet that is structured in such way that it reinforces your opinions and ideas while conflicting or competing narratives are actively ignored, avoided, and under-represented.
This according to experts is what is figuratively referred to as the Internet echo chamber.
It is a phenomenon where you only see and hear belief systems without ever having access to opposing point of views , and in fact we may even be hostile towards ideas different from our own.
There are two fundamental factors that explain this phenomenon namely, the selective partitioning of information and, the search engine algorithms.
How it all began
An internet echo chamber arises because web pages try to predict algorithmically what information the user wants to find based on the information available about the user for example; click activity, keyword searches, user location, and search history.
It means that as we are consciously seeking to validate and reinforce our preconceived ideas through the internet, on the other end of the scale, search engines are actively learning and predicting what you want to find.
You thus end up creating a feedback mechanism that bounces off and reflects the same ideas in the form of an insulated information bubble – essentially echoing your own voices
You are fundamentally trapped in a personalized ideological bubble in an endless cycle of self indoctrination by continuously amplifying our affinity for ideas that sound familiar therefore, resulting in isolation from information that does not match your viewpoints.
How this phenomenon affects society at large, particularly businesses and politics
By manipulating algorithms, a company can pay for sponsored searches thus portraying a false image of itself.
In 2010 for example, oil giant BP bought Google search terms such as “oil spill” and “volunteer efforts”, in an effort to manage the PR disaster which was occasioned by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster in the US. In a statement the company stated that;
“we have bought search terms on search engines like Google to make it easier for people to find out more about our efforts in the Gulf and make it easier for people to find key links to information on filing claims, reporting oil on the beach and signing up to volunteer”.
While it is understandable why BP would choose to manage the information flow surrounding the disaster, but at the same time we cannot ignore the fact that such kind of an action only prioritized positively a spinned news story, to what was, in reality, an ongoing environmental disaster of epic proportions.
Secondly, many experts noted that not many users were able to differentiate between sponsored and organic search results meaning that, there were some internet users who back then could not tell the difference between actual news and sponsored results pages.
This second aspect is especially scary in light of new revelations which showed that political discourse can be manipulated through sponsored internet results, which has the effect of endangering the democratic space.
This echo chamber has given internet users, the power to decide what counts as news by assigning truth value to any given content largely based on how well it gravitates to our partisan ideas.
It also means that the news and political adverts we get on our social media timelines is highly calibrated and highly distinct from one individual to another.
This is also helped by the fact that, thanks to ongoing research in the domain of psychometrics, you can successfully create and direct tailor made content based on different personality profiles gleaned from data arising from people’s social media activity.
Using psychometrics, psychologists can measure psychological traits and predictively assess people’s biggest fears and how likely they will behave.
When psychometrics are used in conjunction with the predictive power of search engine algorithms, it has led some to interrogate whether we are slowly becoming a more fractured society without knowing it.
Why do we say that society is becoming more polarized?
First of all, the gatekeepers of online truth are now simply mathematical formulas which many researchers have faulted as sometimes lacking in real world nuance.
For example, a keyword search for a trending political news event that is being covered by reputable news organizations, will be put in the same basket with parody articles, propaganda clickbait articles, satirical blogs and even downright fake news on your social media timeline.
Secondly, imagine a situation where we can no longer see eye to eye with people whom we disagree with.
While it would be naive to think that we must agree on everything, it does not mean that we cannot occasionally reach out across the ideological divide.
Yes it is true that even before the internet, we socialized with people who resembled us and even shared the same values with us – that is not going to change.
But what the internet echo chamber has done is go a step further by making us uncompromising and dogmatic with our ideas, which is corrosive since there is no room for vetting each others ideas solely on merit.
It is this kind of extreme political segregation that has led some to question whether it’s too late to put on the brakes to a situation that is seemingly out of control.
Eventually what will happen as we have seen in recent years, is the gradual adoption of emotionally manipulative tactics to gain political clout.
We have essentially resorted to the politics of us versus them, that can grind government business and policy to a halt even in the most mature democracies in the world.
This kind of polarization does not augur well for a democratic society given that even the most pressing questions of the day cannot be debated in a mature and a sober manner.
In just a matter of time, we end up creating a ready made political environment which is ideal for the rise of demagogues.
Written by Briana Anabtawi, Head of Service & Operations, LEXIGO: As Head of Service and Operations, Briana is responsible for quality, client satisfaction and efficiency in service delivery for LEXIGO Strategic Clients and Partners. Briana's professional background in the travel and tourism industry has provided her with a unique insight into culture, language and project management.