It was already back in 2004, long before the rise of social media, that Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein warned of echo chambers on the internet. The scholar said that in the digital environment, platforms and networks would resonate solely with users’ own preferences and persuasions.
A few years later, internet activist Eli Pariser claimed that the algorithms of the biggest IT companies even generate filter bubbles that keep the true variety of opinions on the internet – and in reality – away from individual screens.
It’s an effect that might very well mirror a human tendency. After all, in the real world we prefer to surround ourself with like-minded people.
But the more search engines assess hits for us in advance — and social media become our primary source of information — the more this echo effect grows into digital tunnel vision.
Meanwhile, research shows that opinions can be more strongly influenced on online platforms, and that undecided people are more easily convinced than ever. This makes the virtual intesification of mental isolation very dangerous – especially in times of political polarization and radical extremism.
Researchers estimate that Google ... could use distorted link ratings to influence 25 percent of national elections throughout the world.
The Washington Post impressively demonstrated the different silos of political belief in the U.S. presidential celection recently, by comparing posts from liberal and conservative Facebook feeds.
If a liberal Facebooker searched for abortion, for example, the news feed would include a report that Donald Trump’s vice presidential candidate, Mike Pence, lied about the issue.
Meanwhile, conservative feeds featured an advertisement from an organization with the slogan “Real Doctors Don’t Kill Babies.”
The world of the internet is monotonous. Professor Sunstein and his team provided further proof of this recently.
A study of Italian and American Facebook users showed that they shared only their preferred version of controversial issues. Users of different beliefs seldom networked with those of other persuasions. When false information was planted, it was considered credible as long as it reinforced the individual’s own opinions.
The results were in line with knowledge of social psychology. We tend to believe and seek out information that confirms our own worldview.
But why is this effect particularly worrisome on the internet? Because now in politically radicalized times, when the outcomes of elections are more uncertain than ever, this internet silo effect can actually decide who wins — and not only in the United States.
For example, two researchers from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT) found that distorted search-engine results significantly influenced electoral preferences in test subjects.
The study made use of typical search engine behavior, where around 90 percent of our clicks fall within the top 10 search results. The first two search entries receive about 50 percent of clicks. So highly ranked links receive a disproportionate amount of attention.
In a favored news entry about various candidates – with positive information appearing more often at the top –researchers were able to increase the share of support in campaigns from Australia to the United States. One candidate’s support increased by 20 percent, and the figure was even significantly higher in some target groups.
This doesn’t go so far as to say that search machines actually show favorable reports about the representatives of certain political parties. Researchers estimate that Google could influence 25 percent of national elections around the world using distorted link rankings.
Tech companies have acquired great power. While they say they don’t use it, who actually monitors their behavior?
In 2012, virtual election stickers started popping up on feeds every time a Facebook friend went to vote. As many as 340,000 users who had intended not to vote ended up casting ballots.
In the current presidential campaign, social networks and technology experts are also using new tools to prod young people to vote –and possibly assisting Hillary Clinton, for whom that particular group of voters could be crucial.
In an era when societies are split, there is a need for quieter dialogue and substantiated facts. But ideological silos, which mutate into the digital generation of false information, can enhance extremist propaganda.
Digital shouting matches could soon dominate the internet, instead of searches for political solutions. The digital echo bellows back louder than the person who is yelling.
This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: email@example.com