Internet Filtering And Confirmation Bias: Some Quick Thoughts
posted by Ryan Calo
In Republic.com, Cass Sunstein develops his concern that Internet technologies will assist us to avoid facts and opinions with which we disagree, thereby undermining deliberative democracy. Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble argues that we may not even need to sign up for the “Daily Me” the way things are headed: Internet intermediaries silently filter out what they assume we do not want to see. For Sunstein, never seeing the other side of an argument fosters an ill-informed, partisan body politic. For Pariser, excessive personalization leads to an unhealthy distaste for the unfamiliar.
These are wonderful, well-argued books. But their common thesis begs the same question: what of the extensive evidence in support of confirmation bias in the offline world? Confirmation bias is a complex phenomenon but suffice it say that numerous studies suggest people will seek out confirmatory facts and opinions, ignore that with which they disagree, and construe ambiguous content to support their preconceptions. If it turns out people will skip or discount the other side of an argument anyway, then why are we worried about technologies that filter it out?
I do not recall a discussion of confirmation bias in Republic.com and a quick search of Republic.com 2.0 for “confirmation bias” and “confirmatory bias” yielded no results. Of course, this does not mean the discussion is missing, only that I missed it. Many of the threats to democracy Sunstein identifies—for instance, a dearth of shared experiences or the unchecked propagation of misleading facts—do not rely on the Internet filtering out dissent. And I can imagine other counterarguments: confirmation bias is merely a tendency, not a cognitive or technological fiat.
Pariser, whose book I really liked,* engages directly with confirmation bias. He sees the phenomenon as ultimately supporting his position. Internet filtering accelerates confirmation bias, rendering it more dangerous. Moreover, Pariser sees confirmation bias as an evil that Google and other Internet intermediaries are in a position to help users resist. This last point, if true, may shed new light on why today’s Internet filtering is a problem. Maybe it’s a story about opportunity cost.
Thoughts, corrections, “duh’s” welcome.