“With Google personalized for everyone, the query ‘stem cells’ might produce diametrically opposed results for scientists who support stem cell research and activists who oppose it. “Proof of climate change” might turn up different results for an environmental activist and an oil company executive”
- Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble (2011)
Personalisation on the web – specifically personalised search – is not simply an effective method of filtering the mass of information available online to get “better” results that are more relevant to the individual user. Pariser, in The Filter Bubble, theorises that personalised news and information sources are leading to a narrowing of world-views; the public sphere now contains many individuals trapped in their own “information bubbles”. If you’re politically conservative, for example, over time you’ll get more conservative news and less liberal news sources served up to you as recommendation engines “learn” to give you what they think you want.
I’m especially interested in this area because my masters dissertation was on the area of personalised web search and its repercussions for accessing information on climate change science. I looked at the differences between search engine results returned for anonymous search and those signed into Google, which takes into account your search history as it serves results.
There is a worry that “information ghettos”, as described by Cass Sunstein, will develop online as people gravitate towards the web resources that confirm their own biases rather than read and experience a little of everything.
Rbutr is an interesting tool that aims to widen the debate online by allowing users to rebut opinions on a particular webpage by linking it to another source that disputes it. Rbutr is currently in existence as a Chrome plugin only. You join the community and when you come across e.g. a page on climate change science that you feel is biased, you can link to another webpage that you have judged to be more factually accurate. Accuracy and relevancy is judged by the community as rebuttals as voted up or down.
One possible application of Rbutr for the science communication community is to link to original scientific papers and data where possible when they come across science stories that are inaccurate, overly simplified or biased. In such a scenario, badly reported science can be counteracted, to an extent, by pointing the reader to a more accurate report. Thoughts?