By Sean McGrath.
Twentieth century newspapers and periodicals used to be a major source of "the truth" for many people. They all had biases to various degrees but there were only a handful of daily newspapers and handful of news-centered periodicals. If you skimmed 3/4 of them and you have the mainstream spectrum of biases/opinions covered.
Today, with social media, we all create our own news feeds which create different versions of "the truth" tailored for each of one of us. In other words, we each create our own biased online newspaper every day. Even the front page of the 20th century newspapers and periodicals that we view online, are now increasingly customized to the profiles of each individual visitor.
On top of this, the recommender algorithms, based on artifical intelligence, that increasingly drive online news and online commerce, reinforce our biases by constantly pointing us to new content that fits our existing biases. This results in a classic feedback loop. I.e. we can specify interests to the machines - either explicitly or implicitly. These interests are used by the machines to create recommendations that match the interests. This serves to reinforce the interests into more and more refined bands of topics. This creates yet more recommendations...and the cycle repeats, at exponential speeds.
We are doing this at a time when less and less of what is presented as news on digital media can be trusted to at least meet the standards of "old school" investigative journalism. In addition, evidence of events in the form of e-mails, pictures, video etc. can now be easily doctored to promote a bias or provoke a click to sell an advert.
The internet seems to be becoming an ever escalating news exaggeration/fabrication machine, driven by an insatiable need to attract attention, combined with the internet's capacity to deliver attention. The recent US Presidential election cycle is a case in point. I remember the brohuha in 1986, when an English tabloid "news"-paper reported a celebrity eating a hamster, on its front page. The tabloid press of old look very tame indeed now!
The great irony of all this is that it has never before been easier to access opinions that differ from our own. And yet, the tools we use to manage the information overload "fire hose" that is the internet, seem to have become, in practice, tools for narrowing our minds rather than expanding them.
We live in a pivotal time. Today's teenagers and young adults are digital natives. The formative years of these young people are playing out in this new online world that appears to be capable of radicalizing opinions in a way never seen before in the history of humanity. As these people become the new politicians and business leaders in the years ahead, we we will find out what the long term impacts of today's bias-magnifying internet really is.
It is an experiment we are conducting live, at planetary scale. There is no going back now. Fingers crossed!