When President Obama addressed the nation last week regarding policies in the Middle East, he said: “In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.”
If information is power, then it must be a good thing that these days it is not only reaching us faster, but it’s also reaching more of us. I assume that I am not alone when I say I learned of Osama bin Laden’s death via Facebook. If the Internet didn’t exist, I would’ve read about it in the newspaper the next day.
But a person who would never even consider picking up a newspaper still probably heard about bin Laden’s death when they logged on to Facebook, even if all they wanted to do was upload pictures from their weekend.
Bin Laden’s death sparked many discussions, not just about the future of Al-Qaida and Pakistan’s position in the international arena but also about the role social media and technology play in information dissemination. We discussed this topic in two of my classes, and it was addressed in news coverage on multiple platforms.
But is the 21st century creating a society of more “active and informed citizens?”
From one perspective, the plethora and availability of information from so many diverse sources is celebrated. More information to more people; its freeing and liberating. People who were once invisible can now have a voice.
But there is another side to the story. Technology has created an abundance of and increased accessibility to information, but some more advanced features are complicating the system. I started thinking about this when I realized almost every online news source I visit now has a little box in the corner that tells me what my Facebook friends “like” or have “recently shared” from that site. Even if I’m not currently on Facebook, it still knows.
So many aspects of our information consumption are now being pre-recommended to us. How many of these recommendations should we allow to influence our decisions of what to click, what to buy and what to read?
From the music in my iTunes Store to articles on The New York Times website, some machine or robotic coding is deciding what I should consume, based on past things I’ve clicked on or typed. And the people we are friends with on Facebook, now determine the information we find out first.
Eli Pariser is the author of “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You,” which is all about this phenomenon of information, advertisements and even search results in engines such as Google, being tailored to individuals.
“The filter bubble,” as Pariser calls it, is silently isolating us from learning, exploring and discovering new things, and Pariser says its dangerous.
For some people, like Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and avid blogger, his friend circle (which is apparently very diverse because of his work with many international organizations) provides him with quite the opposite: global updates and unique insight.
He wrote in his blog that he was actually able to write about the revolution in Tunisia early on, right as it was getting started, much sooner than any Western media outlets. He said he knew about the brewing revolution through the updates his Tunisian friends were posting.
But what if you don’t have Tunisian friends?
The information we are exposed to through the connections in our online social networks are likely to be within our similar worldviews or interests, whether those interests are based on geography or lifestyle. But if it’s an article that we like or care about, we will probably read, or at least skim it.
That must be better than not reading at all, but media corporations already get to decide what is important for us to know. And recently, most news organizations have decided that anything going on in Japan doesn’t matter anymore because they must dedicate all 24 hours of coverage to French politicians who are accused of sexual assault and tornadoes in Missouri. Not that these topics are unimportant, but the fact is that the news offered is already limiting and unless you seek out alternative sources of news, no individual mainstream media source is going to stray too far from those trends. Do we really want to limit ourselves more?
It’s something to think about the next time you choose to read an article “recommended to you” by a human or non-human source, or even the next time you go on Facebook. What information are you receiving, and more importantly, what information are you not receiving?