Filter Bubbles, Fake News and Distribution in the Age of Personalization

From creating TV formats and brands to tackling the issue of filter bubbles, Daniel Ravner has a unique view on the opportunities and challenges brought by the increased use of big data to personalize our web experience.

While Daniel Ravner sees many advantages to greater personalization for content creators, he’s also weary of the effect filter bubbles may have on our online news consumption and, ultimately, the course of history.

That’s what motivated him to launch in 2017 The Perspective, a website that focuses on presenting at least two sides to every story. His project recently won a WebAward for best news website.

We talked about this venture as well as potential solutions to reduce the effect of filter bubbles and how personalization can actually be beneficial for content creators and producers.

Q: Tell us more about The Perspective?

Daniel Ravner (DR): The mission set for The Perspective is to open minds and it does that by showing you what you’re missing mostly due to filter bubbles. The website is based on the notion that many of us have stopped looking at the many different sides of stories, as we’re more and more exposed to ideas found in our social feeds which tend to reflect our existing point of view.

What Are Filter Bubbles?

Many people don’t realize it, but platforms collect a wide range of data (including clicks, interactions, and geographical positions) and then use algorithms to present users with selected content. As a result, users are less and less exposed to content that doesn’t match their preferences or browsing history. The filter bubble is a “vicious circle” type of dynamic established between the behaviour of the user making choices and the algorithmic technologies using these choices to profile the user.

Source: Trends Report: 2017 Mid-Year Update

The online consumption of news makes it very easy for us to stay in our comfort zone. But the comfort zone is not comfortable anymore. A growing number of people around the world feel that things are not as they should be and that some discussion is no longer possible. To them we say this: see what you are missing.

Q: Filter bubbles are a consequence of personalization, yet personalization is an important tool to reach and retain users on the web. Can you reconcile the push toward personalization with greater exposure to contrasting views?

I think one of the reasons why most websites are so niche-oriented is because it makes financial sense. The more targeted they are, the easiest it is to get their audiences to come back and share. Internet is really based on the whole notion of personalization.

Filter bubbles are a side effect of that drive to personalization. I don't think it was an intended scheme by the architects of the web, but it became a meaningful phenomenon, all around the world, doing the exact opposite of what the web promised, which was to broaden our horizons.

When I began looking for investors to finance The Perspective, I had to explain what a filter bubble was. By the end of that process, I simply had to say “We’re an alternative to filter bubbles” and people understood. I think that acknowledging that there is a problem with the way we consume news is a major change to begin with.

Filter bubbles will really be tackled head on when people will demand change. For example, fake news was brought under the spotlight, and it’s really frowned upon. Google and Facebook are now working hard to get much of it away from the system.

Q: You’ve worked in TV and advertising and have now created a media site. How have the issues surrounding personalization and filter bubbles evolved over the years?

Filter bubbles and echo chambers existed before – it is in our human nature to surround ourselves with people similar to us. What has changed is that people now consume more content online than they do offline.

Right now, as far as filter bubbles are concerned, I think we’re still engaged in a downward spiral, but there are already enough people who are aware and uncomfortable with the current situation to do something about it. That’s the start of a change.

Q: If we move away from the ethical issue raised by filter bubbles, what has greater personalization changed in terms of content distribution on the web?

Our ability to reach the right audience is much greater now. Before, if I did a television commercial for women’s clothing, then by definition it wasn’t relevant for half of the people watching it.

Content producers have the ability to create a platform at very low coat and get to the right audience for much less money than what it used to cost before. You can directly reach the people who are interested in your content. For example, if you’re a Canadian filmmaker, you can use an ad manager system to reach Canadians living abroad in only five minutes. That was unheard of in the past.

I would say that personalization and online distribution at large gave content creators a huge boost. But with great power comes great responsibility: you need to know how to look at non-editorial things like big data. I started in theatre and film, so data doesn’t come to me naturally and I’m not a huge data fan. But you have to learn the ropes because it can drive you further along. The media industry’s language is metrics. It is how it measures and rewards itself.

You can’t just be an artist who doesn’t touch marketing. You have to be able to do everything. That’s the world we live in. It’s definitely more crowded than it used to be and there’s more competition, but the opportunities are much greater.

Q: What impact do creators and producers have on filter bubbles?

I think their content reinforces filter bubbles, but I don’t know if it’s up to creators to avoid doing so. Because content creators, artists, bloggers, etc. can’t be objective, it would be boring. I think the main responsibility here lies with the media bodies and media infrastructures that are supposed to regulate them.

Education is also a huge part of it. Schools should definitely take part in educating young minds to be more critical about how they view the world and what they read online. I think that teaching kids how to perform better searches on Google is of no lesser importance than classic subjects.

In order for things to start to change, I think it all begins by raising awareness of filter bubbles. And then offering accessible and intuitive ways for people to break out of it.

Gaëlle Engelberts
A former television journalist at Radio-Canada, Gaëlle Engelberts is the editorial coordinator for CMF Trends. In parallel to her research and editing work with the Canada Media Fund’s Industry and Market Trends team, she recently completed a master’s degree in communication at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) focused on new narrative forms in journalism and documentary, namely interactive webdocumentaries and serious games.
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