Alternate echo chambers & political filters

Last week I came across two people who seemed to genuinely believe that Hillary Clinton was a terrible choice for U.S President and despite them not liking Trump they seemed to be supporting him. And this makes me think that the U.S election result will be much closer than anyone has predicted.

From this part of the world (New Zealand) this seemed to be inexplicable but I wondered if I just live too much in an internet filter bubble sometimes called an echo chamber.

For me personally I get most of my primary news from sources who are also on twitter and so I only see streams from people I have selected or retweets from them. I follow a number journalists and sources from around the world but some of that I miss due to timezone differences.

Naturally I tend to follow people and organisations that I have some affinity or connection with and so I generally don’t see a lot of support for causes or people that I don’t support unless I seek it out.

On Facebook the way news streams work is a bit different and appears to be more filtered but once again I am conscious that this is happening for the most part.

What most people don’t realise is that when we search on google we don’t necessarily see all the “news” that is there. According to Eli Pariser what we see is a filtered view that is partly determined by our previous google search history. The screenshot below shows two searches on the same date by two different people in different locations.

As Pariser notes – we all want to have watched Rashomon but our Netflix queue is more likely to show we watched Ace Ventura. When a machine is “learning” from our actual online propensities it may not reflect what we think.

“What they discovered was that in our Netflix queues there’s this epic struggle going on between our future aspirational selves and our more impulsive present selves.”


Ironically for Pariser his example of Rashomon might not have been the best one as there is something called the Rashomon effect which is very much focussed on subjective interpretation of the same events. I’m sure he didn’t intend to make that link but there it is.

I watched some of the Clinton / Trump debates live on twitter and despite it seeming to be a no contest what I don’t really get is the local “spin” on how those debates were received in the U.S. It does seem that even though some people watched the debates it is the ongoing discussions and news commentary afterwards that is remembered by many voters.

News organisations appear to have been hijacked by partisan interests and entertainment / reality style programming. In N.Z I just ignore TV and the local mass media almost entirely with the exception of some radio if I happen to be driving across town.

Returning to that earlier mention of reluctant Trump supporters – what they told me seemed to be almost the complete opposite of what I’ve read or heard about some of the political background information. The weird thing is some of what they said was apparently sourced from wikileaks and that wiki leaks has compromised itself by dumping content without any thought for the consequences.

In my experience whistle blowers are almost never supported by likes of government or status quo voters. Most of the time whistle blowers go against the status quo which would be at odds with say Republican voters.

Unless of course Wikileaks has its own different agenda. Which according to a number of journalist it does. In “What Julian Assange’s War on Hillary Clinton Says About WikiLeaks”

“Unfortunately, for believers in the WikiLeaks project, Assange has responded to criticism of his redaction-free document dumps by attacking even longtime supporters who have spoken out.”

Whatever the true situation is there is no doubt we are seeing a propaganda war of words where a weak mainstream media has very little influence. When it comes to politics we get people shouting against each other and even social media channels are not helping.

My experience of the U.S for the most part comes from people like me in the big cities with a skew towards arts/ creative around L.A and tech people based in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. That is not in anyway a representative sample as far as representing a range of political views. However most of the time I am conscious of the bias in my sources and U.S experiences either directly or via my twitter stream.

Returning to the idea of an internet filter bubble. The Pariser idea is 5 years old. I wondered what has changed since I know both Facebook and Google tweak their algorithms on a fairly regular basis.

For example most of the time when I’m searching on Google I am logged in because I use a fair number of google tools. I don’t use gmail. A few days ago I saw an article that noted

Google is the latest tech company to drop the longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names.


“The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.
The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous. In recent years, Facebook, offline data brokers and others have increasingly sought to combine their troves of web tracking data with people’s real names. But until this summer, Google held the line.”

of course there are other reasons why people / voters hold the views that they do. I would guess that most people are a product of their current social groups being their families, friends and workplace acquaintances. It takes a special person to actively seek out conflict and engage in a productive way and I don’t think many people do that.

Confirmation bias also feeds into the idea that we all interpret events in a way that generally support our views.

I wondered if anyone else has written about the Pariser bubble idea and I found this

Blindsided by the Brexit result? Blame the ‘filter bubble’ of social mediaBy Richard MacManus from June 30, 2016

Richard does a great job of summarising the potential effects and what we could change to rebalance things.

“The reason why many of us didn’t see Brexit coming is that we’ve turned a blind eye towards those 52%. We’d filtered out the warning signs.”

His kick off point was the Brexit result and there is every indication that the U.S election is going to see some surprises too. I personally can’t see how anyone can vote for Trump ever and the story by Matt Taibbi The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump

Whatever you think of Taibbi he gets this analysis correct. The U.S presidential electoral system is very broken and everyone is paying the price for this.

“The first symptom of a degraded aristocracy is a lack of capable candidates for the throne. After years of indulgence, ruling families become frail, inbred and isolated, with no one but mystics, impotents and children to put forward as kings. Think of Nikolai Romanov reading fortunes as his troops starved at the front. Weak princes lead to popular uprisings. Which brings us to this year’s Republican field.
There wasn’t one capable or inspiring person in the infamous “Clown Car” lineup. All 16 of the non-Trump entrants were dunces, religious zealots, wimps or tyrants, all equally out of touch with voters.”

I’m convinced there are some U.S voters who are so tired of their system that they just want to “burn it down” and voting for the weakest link might achieve that but at what cost to the U.S and the rest of the planet.

My personal meeting with an actual Trump voter made me more determined to reach out across the political divide to try and understand what other approaches might work to build understanding rather than to fracture society even further.

The internet was supposed to contribute to wider understanding but instead we have the same old divide and conquer tactics from the usual suspects. It is time to recognise that “the deck is marked” and see if we can re-balance information in a way that contributes to useful debate.

This long story about The white flight of Derek Black is an extreme one but maybe it is what we all need to start doing.