The filter bubble and self-fulfilling prophecies

Most of the talk about filter bubbles seems directed at the consumers – the ones who read the news. But I think that modern technology also creates a similar environment for those who create the news. Maybe with even more dangerous consequences.

A couple months ago, I had an encounter with an American couple – both veterans of the US Armed Forces. During our conversation, we ended up talking about politics. As a matter of fact, it was the day after the US election. The two kept complaining about the corruption of the media and how media is controlled and directed by some unnamed force. It was not really a conspiracy theory, the way they are talking about it, but quite close. They could not really name the force or entity controlling the media.

I think the media controls itself. Here, I am not talking about positive tools and guidelines to control the ethics of the media – like a media watchdog -, but rather mechanisms that might, from the outside, look like the stuff the two Americans were complaining about.

Many news sites look as if someone is constantly finetuning their news outpour to reach as many potential readers as possible. That makes sense, since more readers mean more add revenue and at the same time the Internet makes this almost unavoidable. If I’d be really interested in it, I could easily track the viewers on my website. It almost takes some effort not to do this. But I think that this then creates a feedback loop. With everyone involved constantly able to check with story sells and which does not, it becomes too tempting for many to follow the path of least resistance. This is all too familiar and one might boil it down to “people like to get positive feedback”. People want to be loved, because quite frankly, this is easier than being hated.

So, I guess, both, the readers and the creators, envelope each other in a filter bubble. The readers read, what they want to hear and the news sites write what their readers expect to read. This isn’t a deliberate process, nor is it a fast one. I think it more comparable to a slow evolution. These effects might have existed long before the Internet, for instance a newspaper editor notices dwindling sales and finds out that the audience is more interested in one topic over the other. But this was always a slow and tedious process and one that was easily outpaced by other, more current events. Now on the other hand, one can track the attention of the audience almost in real time. This is why you see headlines change, articles being rewritten or disappear altogether.

This almost feels like there is no real need for journalists anymore. Just write something and let the feedback from the audience (clicks, links, messages, etc.) guide the article to where it is supposed to be. I know that this is not the way it works, but we are getting closer.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that on average, journalists are of the intelligent kind, but they are still human beings. And there are some very simple and very rudimentary effects that guide our behavior. And taken as a big group, no matter how intelligent, a bunch of journalists can behave quite indistinguishable from a bunch of cheerleaders. We are animals and we follow the path of least resistance. And looks as if this can be utilized against us.

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