Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Search engines and the 'filter bubble' effect

There has been a lot of discussion over the last few days about social media filter bubbles and even search engines tailoring your search results to the kind of things you have previously clicked on, and therefore never showing you articles about the opposite point of view.

Particularly this excellent article by Helen Beetham, Ed Tech and the Circus of Unreason:
If we want to live in a liberal democracy, it’s not enough that some of us are media literate, or have an understanding of how statistics work, or can use our shared resources of historical, political and economic thought to think critically about the modern world. It’s not enough that some of us feel a stake in the future of our society and its institutions. Above all, it’s not enough that some of us have been exposed to the opinions and experiences of people very different to ourselves – in a supportive, developmental, educational setting that helps us to deal with the challenges of difference and emerge with deeper understanding rather than entrenched prejudice. For liberal democracy to work, that number needs to be closer to 100%.
Among the tools that filter what information you see (and the same applies to people in the other filter bubble) is Google search. Wikipedia explains:
filter bubble is a result of a personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behavior and search history)[1][2][3] and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.[4] The choices made by the algorithms are not transparent. Prime examples are Google Personalized Search results and Facebook's personalized news stream
There are four search engines which claim that they avoid the filter bubble: DuckDuckGo, Ixquick, MetaGer, and Startpage.

I have now been using StartPage for a couple of days, and one thing that I have noticed is that it doesn't suggest search terms as you type.

Start typing any term into Google, and it suggests completions of the phrase based on what other people have typed. That can be innocuous... and sometimes it is downright scary. It is meant to be a helpful tool, but sometimes it may be shaping people's search habits.