Source criticism – Who decides what you see?
When you use social media and search services online, you usually get a personalized view or result list. The personalization is based on data about you and is delivered by complex algorithms. This can lead to that you may not be reached by information that contradicts your own opinions or that the search results may be quite alike. Algorithms also favour content that is liked or shared by people you are connected to, leading to questionable objectivity of your search results and social media feeds.
What are algorithms, and how do they affect you? An algorithm is a set of rules used to handle large amounts of information or data. Algorithms make the vast amount of information online manageable, and without them, there would be chaos.
But algorithms can also work in a way that limits your access to information. Keep in mind that the increasingly sophisticated algorithms are becoming more and more successful in providing us with what they think we want, but may in the same process also keep other types of information from us. Hence, your google search results may differ from your friend's, based on your online behaviour used by the algorithms. As we live our lives more online, the algorithms' impact on us gets more significant.
For the algorithm to be able to do its job, it needs information or data. You provide that data yourself, as your online behaviour is mapped. This is used for marketing purposes, with personalized ads for goods that the algorithms believe you are likely to be interested in buying. But it can also do the same with facts and opinions – guiding you to content similar to things you already know of and have liked before.
But are algorithms that problematic? Or do we put too much emphasis on them problematizing them like this? Some believe that algorithms are not always as smart as we think and that they work best for commercial purposes like: Have you bought this before? Then you should look at this page! When it comes to opinions, however, there are many other things that affect you. Even if the algorithms might lead you to certain sites, we must not forget that in the end, you are the one taking a stand regarding what ideas or opinions you make your own.
One way to collect information about users is through so-called cookies. Cookies send information about what a browser is used for. A cookie is a small application working in the background of your web browser, harvesting information about you and your browsing activity. Cookies come in different variants where some cookies are stored for a longer period, while others are stored only during the time someone is active on the website.
Cookies can be very practical, for example when they allow you to skip filling in your password every time you want to log in to a particular service or page. But they also save information about you, which can result in them keeping track of your behaviour pattern and providing targeted advertising and suggestions for pages to visit.
Filter bubbles have been a popular concept in the media for a long time. The concept means that you end up in a loop where you only get suggestions for posts/videos/websites about things you and your friends already like. Your feeds become limited, and you end up in a small bubble that confirms what you already know and think.
Today, research is more into the idea that filter bubbles have always existed, that we have always been drawn to people, areas of interest and opinions that lie close to things we already like. The internet will instead give us more opportunities to get exposed to new ideas that we would not encounter without the internet. This can then help make our understanding of the world more diverse, rather than keeping us trapped inside a bubble. The debate about whether filter bubbles are a thing or not continues.
The next post will be about the need to trust sources, despite the hopelessness you might feel with all the incorrect information that is available online.
In a series of posts, the library goes through some key parts of the concept of source criticism and provides tips on how you can review and evaluate information to assess whether it is relevant and credible.