October 23, 2014

Curate or Be Curated: Why Our Information Environment is Crucial to a Flourishing Democracy, Civil Society

Category: Digital Citizenship
underwater ocean shot of shark and school of fish
If you’re anything like hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world, one of the first things you do in the morning is check your social media feeds. These are online spaces where we find out what’s happening in our friends’ lives, from engagements to baby photos. Increasingly, however, they’re the places where we first find out about the news of the day. It’s no secret that sales of daily newspapers have been declining rapidly. Apart from the free, tabloid, advertising-supported, “news-lite” papers picked up by commuters on their way to work, we rely upon the places we visit on our smartphones, tablets and work computers to keep us up-to-date. 
This is the world that young people are growing up into, a world where rumours on social media can spread quickly, without necessarily any basis in fact. On the flip side, it’s a world where the grip of those traditional gatekeepers of knowledge is loosening. In other words, we’re witnessing a sea change in our information environments that we need to help the next generation navigate. 
Events that happen in the world can be interpreted many ways, and we don’t approach them in a context-free way. There is what philosophers of science call a “theory-ladeness” to observation. Our human brains interpret what we see through the prism of prior experience. Does that photograph of a police officer show him helping someone up, or wrestling a protestor to the floor? Is the result of a referendum a failure for patriotism or a victory for democracy? Was that rocket strike on a less well-armed nation justified? The answer to these questions often aren’t clear-cut, yet we come to read about these situations with tendencies, biases and inclinations. 
Having opinions and using them to make decisions about our role in the world is part of what makes us human. We depend on this for the democratic process to work. While emotion plays an important role in decision-making, we expect and assume that people have reasons for their positions on important issues. For all but the public intellectuals in society, these come not through sitting in a darkened room thinking very hard, but through debate, discussion and exposure to different opinions. In short, democracy depends upon a flourishing, open information environment. 
There are people, including some members of my family, who are lifelong readers of a particular newspaper. The newspaper is their primary information environment, supplemented by television news programmes, and occasional discussions with family, friends, hairdressers, and people they meet out and about. Part of the reason they purchase that particular newspaper every day is because it fits with their view of the world. Apart from the occasional surprise — perhaps when the editor decides to back a different political party in an upcoming election — there is a predictable perspective from which the news is reported. At some level, the person who purchases the same newspaper every day has chosen to buy into a particular type of editorialising of the news. 
Boosters of social media often talk about how news hits social networks such as Twitter before it’s picked up by the mainstream press. They talk about social media being the “future” of news, with the implication that no one reads newspapers any more. From their point of view, the quicker we all “get with the program” and use social networks, the faster the coming “technological rapture” will arrive. Users can choose which people, brands, and organisations to follow, the reasoning goes, so we all get personalised, tailored news feeds free of bias and editorialising. 
The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content. 
It’s worth saying that it’s not just social networks that rely upon, and can be shaped by, advertising. Television and print media are often subject to the same constraints. However, there are two important differences. First, television and print media tend not to be interactive. This means that we receive the news in one context and discuss it in another. For example, I may watch the news while eating my breakfast, but then discuss it with my colleagues when I arrive at work. Second, when I turn on a TV news programme or pick up a newspaper, I’m being shown the same items as everyone else. These will have been editorialised, and I interpret them in my own way, but nothing is “hidden.”
On the other hand, when I visit Facebook, I’m interacting in the same space in which I may have found out about the news. Some updates may be hidden, depending on my “like” history. When I visit Google, I may have searched this topic before and the results I visited last time are returned at the top of the pile on this occasion. This is what Eli Parisier calls the filter bubble, a difficult-to-observe, but very real phenomenon where the algorithms powering social network feeds and search results foreground and background items based on your prior interactions. Our information environment becomes less of a safari and more of a silo. 
Algorithms are merely recipes that humans program into machines via software. Feedback loops mean that algorithms can “learn” from your interactions, altering their outputs depending on your inputs. This can be extremely useful. For example, Spotify radio allows me to click on a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button to say that I want “more like this” or “less like this” Netflix learns over time the things that I like watching and suggests related films and TV programmes. The result is a personalised stream of media that, in a small way, makes my life better. Algorithms such as these are jealously guarded, as they’re the ‘secret sauce’ upon which services depend.
There has been a lot of discussion (and anger) over Twitter’s proposals to turn what is currently a “raw” feed into an algorithmically-curated feed. In other words, they’re taking Facebook’s approach of showing only updates in which they decide you’re likely to be interested. For advertising-funded services with shareholders, attention conservation is an important thing. If they want to mix in advertising to make it seem more “natural” and “organic” they have to ensure that you don’t miss it as you follow and friend more and more people. The same goes with email, which is one of the reasons Google segmented the inboxes of users of its Gmail service last year. They’ve recently started selling advertising space in the ‘Promotions’ tab. Twitter has promoted tweets. Facebook holds updates at the top of your stream longer if they mention keywords being paid for by their advertisers.
It’s easy to be alarmist over all of this. Thankfully, the solution is easy: read more widely and don’t settle for the “free.” algorithmically-curated, filter bubble being created for you by advertising-funded services with shareholders. We should be encouraging learners to do likewise. Doing so may take money, it may take time, it may be less convenient, but our information environments are important. In the past few months, I’ve started buying a couple of newspapers per day — one on my Kindle, one from the local shop. I’ve also started using search engines like DuckDuckGo that don’t bubble track me. I’ve started looking for post-Twitter solutions that allow us to move past this (hopefully very temporary) “peak centralisation.”
Being aware of the way that tools shape the way we think and interact with the world is the first step on the way to changing behaviours. As learners, as teachers, as citizens, we have a duty to ourselves and to one another to be mindful of this.

Banner image credit: Rennett Stowe