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Thought Leadership | Jun 13th, 2011

Questioning the New Gatekeepers: Why Personalized, Filtered Online News Is Worrisome

Kent Lawson

Eli Pariser is a really bright guy, and he's also a political activist. He has been raising a very important and thought-provoking point about the nature of information and the future of the Internet.

Pariser noticed a pattern of differing responses to search engine queries, based on a user’s past Internet search history.

If two people both search on “Egypt” in Google, for example, they will get different results. Search on “BP,” and one person might get information about the oil spill, while another might receive a recent earnings report.

In an effort to be most “relevant” and “personalized,” Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and even Facebook are choosing what we see based on what they think we want to see.

When we are shopping online, for example, they save us time by delivering the most likely results first.

What Personalization Means

The real issue is around personalization when we are searching for information, not shopping for a product.

Do we really want our news and information filtered and ordered for us by some search engine algorithm?

Let’s step back a bit.

Before the Internet, news and information were delivered mostly in print or over the airwaves. CBS News and the major newspapers were the gatekeepers – news was what they said it was. Journalists were supposed to present the facts, without bias based on their political beliefs. (At least that was the theory.)

The sources of news greatly proliferated with the cable news networks. To differentiate themselves, they adopted different viewpoints, some conservative, some liberal. So, now you can choose your news, simply by tuning to Fox News or MSNBC. But at least we are controlling that choice ourselves, hopefully knowingly so.

When the Internet first came along, it presented a great vision: access to all the world’s information, without any editing.

But personalization is changing that. Now, the search engines are selecting our content based on what they think we want to hear. Liberals get more liberal news, and conservatives get more conservative news.

This is happening without our awareness or permission. Pariser asks how a democracy can function effectively if we are all presented with differing views of reality. I urge you to watch this Ted Talks video, or read his New York Times Op/Ed piece. Pariser has also written a book and was interviewed on Marketplace.

Ultimately, all of these important issues raise profound questions. What is news to you? What is information? Finally, how do we learn and expand our views if our existing biases are constantly being reinforced?

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