May 31, 2011

Bachmann in my bubble?! Nooo

May 31, 2011, by Diane V. McLoughlin

In his new book, 'The Filter Bubble', Eli Pariser lays it out that the internet has undergone
profound change. It filters what we see based on computerized assumptions modelled on our
browsing history. He worries that each of us may become stuck in little information bubbles
because it is impossible to know what is being excluded.

One of my favorite examples Pariser gives is Facebook. Facebook filters out FB friends' activity
if we interact with them less often than with other peeps. This frustratingly cements the loop -
you never wind up getting to share cross-posts at all. Thus, the range of ideas and interests we
are exposed to that our friends are talking about is restricted by outside forces beyond our
control. (This drives me and my other politically-aware friends nuts, frankly.)

Filtering impedes what the internet, at its best, is all about - the free flow and exchange of ideas
and information. In a recent speech, Eli also demonstrated that search engines return different
results for different people even if they are searching the exact same things. This is a deeply
worrying trend. It holds the potential to interfere with the democratic process. We cannot
consider ideas and opinions that we are rarely, if ever, exposed to. And it is difficult to see how
new ideas could surface that might benefit society, as argued so elegantly here:

            'If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one
             person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more
             justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power,
             would be justified in silencing mankind...the peculiar evil of
             silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race;
             posterity as well as the existing generation...'

- John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): 'On Liberty: Chapter Two - Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion'

What happens now when the odd-man-out is right? Are we more likely to continue blissfully
unaware toward some collective abyss because we were prevented by internet filters from
considering what he or she had to say?

So that covers filtering of social networks and search engines. But, as is so usually the case with
coincidence, within days of having viewed the clip of Mr. Pariser's talk, somebody e-mailed me
wondering what the deal was with the Google ad on the top of my home page. My puzzled friend
included for helpful measure a screen shot of what he saw. And what he saw was not what I
ever saw. What he saw was different.

My site is dedicated to writing about things such as resource wars and political corruption;
American Empire and erosion of civil rights; human rights; and last but certainly not least, the
oppression and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people by the apartheid State of Israel.

Definition of apartheid is a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.
Some insist on Israel being exclusively the national home of the world's Jewish people, when
almost 25% of the citizens of Israel proper are Palestinian. That figure doesn't include millions of
Palestinians either languishing under military siege in Gaza or occupation in the West Bank. Nor
does it take into account the Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.

When I look at my home page, typically I will see in the Google-generated ad box at the top an
ad about BDS - boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel - a peaceful form of protest until that
state decides to abide by international law and stops discriminating against, and oppressing, the
Palestinian people. It worked in South Africa to end apartheid there. There is no reason why it
could not help bring about peaceful change in Israel-Palestine. 

(Text continues after the jump, below.)

I always assumed that the BDS ad above was just that - an ad about BDS. But I googled it just
now and in fact it is a site dedicated to attacking the BDS movement as, 'blacklisting, demonizing, slandering' Israel - putting what appears to be a lot of time and effort into discrediting a movement it labels a failure. .

Getting back to the point at hand, what my vexed friend Joe saw at the top of my page was a
different ad paid for by a group calling itself, 'Bachmann For Congress'. The ad attacks
President Barack Obama's recent affirmation of America's long-standing policy (which remains
in place, on paper): that Israel should withdraw to pre-1967 borders, end the occupation, and
make peace with the Palestinian people. As can be seen from the screen shot below, the ad
categorizes Obama's position as a betrayal of Israel.

There may be some unintended truth in rejecting 1967 borders. The fact of the matter is that
the peace process itself has been betrayed. The two-state solution may be moot through
decades of foot-dragging, during which hundreds of thousands of violent religious Jewish
extremists - backed by the Israeli military - moved in and squatted on Palestinian property.
Because this is so, the chorus is growing louder for one secular, bi-national democratic state of
all Israel's citizens.

For the record I am no fan of Michele Bachmann, who, last election cycle, insinuated that
left-leaning members of Congress might be, quote: "anti-American". I have to say that few
things can be counted as being less American than that. Honestly. Such tactics are used to
intimidate voters - that they themselves might be labeled with the worst accusation imaginable
should they do the most revolutionary thing possible - that is, to think for themselves. To that,
I can only say - la, la, la, look at me, thinking!

More soberly, thinking is what the founders of America did a great deal of, and though they
themselves pointed out that they did not get everything right off the bat (they didn't abolish
slavery, e.g.), what we can say by their example is that thinking and questioning the status quo
is as American as apple pie.

So this is by way of explaining what some of these ads have been doing on my site and how
they got there. Ads randomly trawled for content were displayed at different times for different
visitors, presumably depending on each person's browsing history.

Meanwhile, do a search for something on the web and there is less likelihood that a full range of
results will appear, because systems 'know' what you would be interested in from tracking your
internet movements. When does this tayloring cross the line into manipulation - letting you
know some things, preventing you from knowing others? I can't say if this poses a threat to
liberty (not to mention privacy) - but it doesn't smell too good.

Michele Bachmann invading my bubble? That just plain stinks.


  1. Hi Diane, thank you for the link. I think this is scary. I sit at a long table with my wife and two computers and we can perform the same searched and find different results.

  2. Hi dakota1955, thanks. It is troubling, particularly because how likely are we as a society to realize how insidious it is?