The internet is an incredible tool that has transformed the way we live and work. It’s a good servant but a bad master. I believe that if we let it rule us, the same algorithms that help us find the perfect Christmas gift could drive us towards a polarised political view too.
To understand the potential political dangers, we first have to understand how search engines work.
Control your internet so it can’t control you
Search engines are money-making businesses and their aim is to give users what they want. For example, if you are planning a train journey from Surrey to Perth, the search engine can work out that you probably want to travel to Perth in Scotland, not Perth in Australia, and will show you results accordingly. It works this out by combining the information your online presence has already given it, its knowledge of your location and previous searches, inferring that you are based in the UK and knowing that there isn’t a train line across the Indian Ocean. If you’ve made the journey before, it might even remember your search from last time.
A search engine will also prioritise popular websites and those you have used before. If you want to buy some new shoes, for example, the search engine will place shoes from the most frequently-visited websites (like that one named after a South American river) on the front page for you to see. Why does it prioritise the most popular websites? Because if a lot of people buy from a particular place, the search engine will infer that that particular website is trustworthy, and therefore showing it to consumers is a way of offering the best standard of service.
These are ways in which a search engine builds your trust. And having built enough trust to become the top search engine, it can charge businesses for advertising. Ker-ching.
But an important thing to remember is that the internet isn’t just a shop, and everything that applies to looking online for train tickets and shoes also applies when we look online for information.
The internet is where we get our information from, where – especially during the pandemic – we socialise and share our views. By dealing in information, we all end up playing the search engine game whether we like it or not. It’s no secret that businesses are playing this game…but so are conspiracy theorists and purveyors of fake news. And there is no protection against mainstream news websites getting caught up in it too.
When we look up news items, the search engines, like the well-intentioned robots they are, show us the ones they believe we want to see. The more we look for one kind of information, the more of that kind of information we are shown. So if we’re interested in analysis of this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, for example, the analysis the search engine finds for us might be different depending on what political leanings we’ve shown it we have.
The danger here is that by viewing information from one political camp or another, we cease to receive a balanced view. And once we start receiving an imbalanced view, the scale is only going to tip further in one direction or another. Just as search engines show us the same brand of shoes as we bought last time, so will they show us news from the same political standpoint as we looked at last time. Once we have found one website that supports the views we already hold, it is easy to follow links to others. This process gives the internet more information about us, strengthening our existing standpoint and almost obliterating our access to alternative views. The search engine exists to help us find what we want but is incapable of prioritising what we need.
The result of this tipping is that our views become more polarised. I believe this polarity influenced recent UK votes and, over in the United States, has helped to whip up Republican supporters without encouraging them to take an objective view of their leader’s statements.
We live in divisive, divided times. The only way to heal the political breaches at home and abroad is to listen to each other, to understand each other’s hopes, dreams and even pain. But when we take our information from the internet, that becomes more difficult, because the internet isn’t programmed to show us the other side of the argument.
Fortunately, there is hope, and it doesn’t mean, never going online again. Go to the social media page of the party you don’t support and hit “follow.” Take your news from more than one source. Be responsible about the information you read and share online, and remember that even sharing a wild conspiracy theory for humour value still helps to validate it. The internet cannot think for itself – it can only use the information we give it. By showing a balanced interest in the world, we’ll receive balanced information in return.
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