Filter bubbles describe how our online experiences are taking place in a tailor-made, personalised world that shows like-minded visions and hides views we might not agree with. In 2016, discussions about filter bubbles were on a rise, growing in force with Brexit, and exploding after the victory of President-elect Trump.
Filter bubbles have always existed due to our human tendency to search for confirmation and validation of the ideas that are wandering around in our minds. We buy newspapers that are relatively similar to the ideas we hold and we look at TV programmes that resonate with our positions and lifestyles. The Internet is no different in this regard: out of all the information that is available on the web, we cherry-pick our content to keep uncomfortable confrontations with the unknown or the disagreeable to a minimum.
Yet, the Internet has become increasingly more selective and personalised in what it shows us. Compiling an extensive amount of data about what we do, what we like, and what we read, Internet companies use algorithms that provide us with just what we think we are looking for, whether it concerns Google search results or Facebook advertisements. This is different from traditional media. Although a personal choice of newspaper, for example, may lead to the selection of some outlets and not others, no one is forcing this choice upon us and hiding other options out of sight.
The edges of these bubbles have grown thicker and thicker with the increasing sophistication of algorithms and other personalisation efforts. In a way, we have the events of 2016 to thank for laying bare the growing social challenge of a polarising Internet, reflected in divided societies.
This is incredibly important for public diplomacy, which is tasked with engaging with foreign publics to leave a positive perception of a country. For the past decade, social media has been celebrated as the new medium in public diplomacy, due to its presumed ability to connect with millions of people and communities that were heretofore out of reach. But we need to ask ourselves: Are we really reaching the unreachable? Are we really targeting those whose minds can be changed and whose hearts can be won?
Those who like a foreign ministry on Facebook or follow one on Twitter must have, at the very least, a predisposed interest, and at best a liking for that country or culture. In turn, those reached by Facebook posts and Tweets might be the people who do not need any convincing; they have already shown a sign of their support by their very act of liking or following. At the other end of the spectrum, those who might not have a very positive perception of a country might not be within immediate reach of a social media platform. As public diplomacy is about dialogue, listening, understanding, and engaging, one-way communication in filter bubbles fails to reach the full potential of public diplomacy activities.
Public diplomacy can have immense positive effects, creating empathy with other populations and promoting peaceful visions of a common future (for example public diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Yet, there is a growing realisation that filter bubbles might lead to a reduction in empathy, due to the lack of (digital) proximity between groups that might disagree. As social distance and a lack of interaction can more easily lead to the consolidation of dislike, disrespect, and stereotypes, social media could become a divisive, rather than a harmonising force, leading to mistrust and fenced-off social groups. And here, public diplomacy’s mission of creating a peace-prone public opinion could be at stake.
So how do we burst the bubble? There are various ways to mitigate this challenge, although none are easy. For example, a smart use of hashtags on Twitter might disseminate a message to a larger audience. Collaborating with important ‘nodes’ in the network, such as massively followed, non-political individuals, might let you enter communities that were previously out of reach.
On a more technical level, diplomatic institutions might benefit from knowledge of the algorithms and codes that are behind the construction of the bubbles. This not only helps diplomats to understand the forces that construct the bubble, but it might make them also more apt to engage in public debate on the utility and challenges of such algorithms, and to demand for increased transparency about them.
Although filter bubbles might prevent the Internet from being the enormously cohesive force that it has been claimed to be, we need to think about ways to connect through them and make the bubbles pop.
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