The internet and self-confirming bias

With the rise of the search engine and the proliferation of internet connected devices, there has been a lot of interest in how this affects the dissemination of information. Some have criticized the selective nature of the internet (we can specifically choose the news sources we obtain information from), suggesting that it promotes a confirmation bias, as people selectively consume only information that matches their opinions. Clearly, it is important to be exposed to conflicting viewpoints, as this often reduces prejudicial thinking and has been linked to an increase in capacity for creative thinking. Given the powerful role of the internet in our everyday lives, it is incredibly important to get a sense of how search engine culture affects the way we interact with knowledge and information. This begs the question, is the internet destroying our ability to think critically, to consider information from a variety of sources, and to come to a reasoned conclusion? Is the internet making people more close-minded?

There is some concerning evidence, some of which is discussed in Noble’s article, “Missed Connections: What Search Engines Say about Women”, as searches are unnecessarily sexualized. In conclusion, Noble urges the reader to “read more for knowledge and understanding and search less for decontextualized snippets of information.” But it can seem that the internet is antithetical to this pursuit as click-bait articles fill every nook and cranny of the internet to generate ad revenue. Although the internet is not making a positive impact in these areas, is it actually making things worse?

Gentzkow and Shapiro (link here) analyzed ideological segregation online and offline, finding that ideological segregation in online news consumption was relatively low. Although ideological segregation was higher online than from offline news sources, face-to-face interactions with other persons were significantly higher in terms of ideological segregation. Furthermore, they found no evidence to support the claim that the Internet is becoming increasingly segregated. So it may be the actually people with whom people surround themselves that are the primary source of prejudiced worldviews. Perhaps the internet plays a less significant role in shaping our worldview than many people suggest.

Although the internet — and large corporations which have a monopoly on internet traffic (Google) — should do all that they can to promote equality, these entities can only do so much. When it comes down to it, ideals are heavily shaped by the social environment in which a person is embedded, so maybe before we can expect change, we need to create opportunities for face-to-face conversations with people who espouse different worldviews.

Add yours Comments – 1

  • This is a great reflection, Jeff. I am still wondering about the extent to which our internet-based social networks have created new opportunities to be ‘surrounded’ by people that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to associate face to face. For example I am thinking here about socially progressive supportive networks on the one hand, and destructive socially regressive movements (like white supremacist social networks) on the other hand which may be exacerbating ideological segregation online. I absolutely agree that face-to-face communications are crucial.

Leave me a Comment