The Internet News Effect: Turning Voters Into Political Parrots

The Internet News Effect: Turning Voters Into Political Parrots

Eli Pariser and his colleague argue that the search filters for our news are protecting our ideological comfort zone.

There’s no question that we’re experiencing a spike in political and social division in this country, and that as we come closer to the Presidential election, the arguments across the chasm are likely to become louder and more inflammatory. There have also been plenty of claims as to why the national conversation has become to partisan and ideologically charged. Some point to fear over the economy and joblessness, others to government policies under Barack Obama or a new, radical, Republican center. Illegal immigration, reproductive rights, federal spending, and a host of other issues have all served to polarize the political discussion. Eli Pariser, former president of MoveOn.org, and University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, point to another possible culprit: the internet.

When we use a search engine like Google, or log on to a social networking site like Facebook, we are accessing a kind of personalized vault of consumer information. Facebook makes money showing ad banners that have been tailored to our interests based on previous online searches. Similarly, the Google search algorithms attempt to tailor our “hits” to what we’re most likely looking for based on previous activity. For things like car loans, tablecloths, and music downloads, this may be a perfectly harmless way of going about our consumer “research”. However, what happens when you apply the same filters and screening processes to searches for more complex things, like your news?

Pariser says that, because search engines make advertising money by delivering tailored content to user queries, it’s in their best interest not to challenge a user’s bias. The result is that internet users are being hand-fed safe and comfortable information, further insulating them from dissenting points of view; creating ideologically isolated groups of information consumers. As Katy Waldman writes in Slate.com, the internet has changed from a noisy commons to a handful of islands with no bridges; “an archipelago of eerily concordant online communities.”

However, all of media has followed this “data-tailoring” trend. Fox News was one of the most notorious examples, wrapping their program around a the conservative political vantage point in such a baldfaced away as to make their former slogan, “Fair and Balanced” laughable. However, MSNBC seems to have noticed the success of the Fox business model and has taken up the flag of that left-leaning viewership. Entertainment media has recognized the profitability in providing “politically palatable” consumer fare for decades, but the information age is catching up in a big way. The truth to Pariser’s allegations that the internet is gradually narrowing our minds isn’t certain, but it’s likely that the tenor of the national political discourse would suffer should we continue this kind of a la cart information consumption.