Opinions, Column

This Column is Recommended for You

Based on your browsing history, this article would be perfect for you! How many times have we seen this phrase flashing across our screen, prompting us to enjoy yet another blurb based on last week’s Internet surfing? Even if it isn’t explicitly stated, our Facebook feed and Google searches are often influenced by our online habits. Sometimes, Facebook gets it right, and we find ourselves on a never-ending binge of Harry Potter-related Buzzfeed quizzes. Other times, we wish the Internet would forget about that one time we accidentally searched for body chocolate, cringing each time it comes across our Amazon “For You” section.

For better or for worse, the way we experience the Internet is always influenced by our previous history on it. Facebook’s algorithm shows us posts that we’re more likely to click on, Google will present pages in our searches related to our browsing history, and ads all over the Internet will be reminiscent of our online habits. Our interests cause similarly related items to pop up and thus reinforce what we have already been attracted to, sending us in the same direction we were already headed. In a way, we corner off a little piece of the Internet as ours, and stay safe behind the walls of what’s known to us: columns, pages, videos, and sites related to our previous likes, shares, searches, and clicks.

There are certainly issues with advertisers tracking our every online movement and possibly grave consequences of governments harnessing this power, but the ramifications for the everyday college student are relatively benign. Sure, reminding us of that accidental body chocolate search on our family’s Amazon Prime account may result in some awkward dinner conversations, but recommendations on what to read or watch are extremely helpful in the infinitely expanding global network that is the Internet. These recommendations cut down the information overload into digestible portions and make the Internet a friendly place populated by things we are familiar with.

The implications change drastically, however, when the subject changes from embarrassing searches to politics. As has been widely documented, the Internet has severely altered the face of politics in innumerable ways. Many pundits have said it is at fault for many of the quirks of this year’s presidential election, such as the prevalence of outsiders and its fierce discourse. While I believe there are many other factors at stake, like the extreme erosion of the middle class, the violent rhetoric has been encouraged and intensified by how people are digesting their political news.

While traditional media still reign supreme, an increasing number of people solely receives political news from the Internet, especially in younger demographics. The traditional narrative has been that this revolution in media has given us access to every little bit of information about politics: every speech, policy proposal, bill, interview, and tweet. Thus, we are able to come to a more informed, nuanced view about the current political issues facing our country. Yet, despite the deluge of information at our disposal, our browsing habits and web sites’ algorithms often pave the way for us to enter an echo chamber of political views, an insulated safe zone in which differing opinions fall to the wayside. This reverberation of agreement strengthens our preconceived worldview and solidifies our entrenchment into what we think we know as truth.

Many people on the Internet, and on Facebook especially, are constantly inundated with evidence to support their worldview without recognizing that they are in a curated medium. Since Facebook will promote posts that we will be more likely engaged with, a Bernie bro will find abundant Sanders memes awaiting him aside ads for free-range yoga mats, while a Trump fan will see videos decrying the unfair media coverage of the Donald next to an ad for wall-building materials. Jokes aside, we often find ourselves cordoned off from dissenting opinions online without realizing the absence of an alternative worldview. Algorithms dictate what we see, ensuring we are complacent in remaining steadfast to our political ways.

The very form of online political discourse further exacerbates the cybernetic echo chamber. Rather than encouraging rational analysis about a candidate’s proposed policy, our blistering pace of online consumption paves the way for sound bites and quick jokes that leave no room for nuance. We converse in memes where you are either in on the joke or not. You either “like” something or ignore it. If you “like” it, you’ll see more of the same. If you don’t, that point of view will fade into the depths of your feed. The Internet’s digital skeleton is adopted by our mind’s framework, as our opinions become binary, our worldview turning into an algorithm sifting for supporting information and disregarding the adversarial rest.

Of course, the corporate media filtered content and established a political narrative long before the Internet ever existed, and it would be misleading to characterize the Internet as the only entity that moderates its content based on its consumers and advertisers. We want to believe in an unbiased Web, though. Our generation desperately wishes that our incessant Internet usage is a force for good, a way to free our minds from the confines of simple times in media, in which the only source of information lay in a syndicated columnist or radio host. Yet we fall victim to our arrogance and find ourselves within the digital echo chamber, knowingly or otherwise. In order to break free from our online political prisons, we need to challenge ourselves to game the algorithms driving our consumption. Click on something that makes you uncomfortable. Like something you disagree with. Recognize that whatever you do online will come back like a boomerang, so in order to have a diverse feed, you need to have diverse online consumption habits. Break the binary. Crack the algorithm. It’s really not that difficult to … oh, look! I gotta go watch this video of Bernie hitting the quan!

Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Archives

April 3, 2016