Don’t believe everything you read (online)

August 10, 2017

It was Abraham Lincoln who warned “don’t believe everything you read on the internet”. Really? No, of course not. This ironic joke wins a quick laugh but behind the fun is an apt warning. Too many people take information they find online as factual and forget that the web is no longer the open and objective arena it was once envisaged as.

Part of the challenge is the increasing use of algorithms to personalise each users’ online experience based on their previous searches. This approach has powerful benefits: it’s an effective marketing tool and can be helpful for time-poor users looking for a short-cut to the information they seek. However, it also provides a sort of digital tunnel vision, restricting an internet user’s views of the world and limiting their access to information that doesn’t conform to their existing beliefs.

This phenomenon is called ‘the filter bubble’, earning its name and vast public attention in 2011 with the publication of Eli Pariser’s prescient book. US activist Pariser warned that an algorithmically personalised web could narrow our world view, potentially to the detriment of our own personal development and democracy as we know it. By presenting us with only the news and information that reinforces existing views, the web can support our human tendency for confirmation bias, limiting our access to opposing opinions that might challenge our views.

We have become very aware of the repercussions of the filter bubble in recent times as various democratic vote results have prompted surprise. Those who didn’t expect Trump to win the presidential election in the US may have been algorithmically shielded from any news or comment that spoke to those who supported him, or hinted at the likelihood of his success.

While being screened from objectivity is one major concern in the development of the web, there is a newer and more alarming breed of online tunnel vision on the rise: fake news. These are ‘news’ stories written to deliberately mislead through blatant untruths or fact distortion, presenting stories out of context to provoke an emotional reaction. Fake news takes its roots in propaganda, albeit in the online space, and has gained momentum as the internet is a powerful vehicle with a vast global audience. There are lucrative opportunities online for those looking to distort.

Social media is the ideal platform for fake news as its very nature and construct lends itself to sharing information far and wide without need for authenticity or confirmation of source. With a potential audience of 1.8 billion on Facebook, it is easy to see why the site has been a main source of damaging stories in the past few years. Indeed, the issue has inspired so much furore that Facebook is now employing third-party fact checkers and running a publicity campaign to educate users on how to spot fake news.

As with the filter bubble effect, fake news is being demonised as a threat to democracy. There is no doubt that the two phenomena work together to shelter internet users from a more objective world view, but it’s hard to jump to conclusions about the nature of democracy when we live in such complicated, multi-faceted societies with many influences on our decisions. For example, recent research has suggested that the most polarised members of society in the US is the demographic who use the internet least. The indication is that this demographic is more heavily influenced by TV coverage than anything that happens online.

That isn’t to dismiss the impact of the internet on our lives and, mercifully, for every negative of connectivity there is a positive that will help ensure the internet is a power for good. We may have to deal with filter bubbles and fake news, but we are close to having driverless cars and AI, healthcare apps that will diagnose us and robotic assistants to hoover our homes. Smart Cities will help us meet environmental, social and financial challenges and a connected world will transform communities and countries, from tackling social exclusion to safeguarding sustainability by intelligent use of energy. Our lives will be transformed by the advancements in digital technology in the coming years and the web is fundamental in ushering in this brave new world.

This journey is something we have been charting in our interactive site, the Story of the Web, which was originally created in 2015 to mark the 25th anniversary of the web’s inception. Today’s updated version underlines how quickly the internet zeitgeist shifts, and with it the terminology used to address the issues society faces as we increase our reliance on technology. As it progresses, the web continues to dance a fine line between enhancing and complicating our lives, but the potential is exciting. If we maintain a healthy balance of scepticism and hope – and repeat the mantra ‘don’t believe everything you read’ – we can manage the ills and maximise the benefits of the world wide web for generations to come.