January 1, 2021 Author: Matthew Renze

Are you stuck in an information bubble? How would you even know if you were? More importantly, what can you do to escape from them?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but if you use the internet, social media, or watch the news, then you exist inside an information bubble. The fact is, everyone is trapped in an information bubble of some kind — they are simply unavoidable. However, some information bubbles are much more dangerous than others.

In the first article in this two-part series, we’ll discuss what information bubbles are, how they work, and why they can be dangerous to both you and our society. In the next article, we’ll discuss the various types of information bubbles that exist, and how to identify, escape, and avoid them in the future.


What Is an Information Bubble?

An information bubble is the sphere of information that you currently have access to. This includes the information you can access via the internet, news sources, and your social network. It includes the news you read, the media you consume, and the people you interact with on a regular basis.

There are a variety of different types of information bubbles. These include technology-driven information bubbles, like search-engine filter bubbles, content-recommendation bubbles, and social-media bubbles. However, they also include news bubbles and social bubbles in the real world as well.


What’s the Problem with Them?

The problem with information bubbles is that they can distort your perception of reality. In addition, they are often filled with misinformation, political bias, and one-sided arguments. They can lead you to believe that the information in your bubble is representative of reality – when in fact, it is not.

In recent years, these technology-driven information bubbles have become a significant problem for our mental health and our political and social stability. Unfortunately, these problems appear to be getting worse – not better – as we integrate more technology into our day-to-day lives.


How Do We Get Stuck in Them?

Websites on the internet use a technology called machine learning to learn your preferences over time. This includes search engines, recommendation engines, news feeds, social media, and more.

For example, if you search for and consume liberal news topics, they will recommend more liberal news. If you search for and consume conservative news topics, they will recommend more conservative content. If you search for conspiracy theories – yup, you guessed it – you get more conspiracy theories.

The more you search for and engage with specific types of content, the more these machine-learning algorithms will provide you with more of the same content. The further down this rabbit hole that you go, the more they will pull you in even further. Over time, the content becomes progressively more extreme.

Eventually, it will appear as if everything you see on the internet totally agrees with you and your views. If anyone should happen to disagree with you, then you’ll think they must be crazy to be ignoring all of this “evidence” that you’re constantly seeing online.


How Do They Affect Us?

Because we end up seeing so much “evidence” online that agrees with our worldview, it reinforces our own confirmation biases. We end up accepting only information that agrees with us and we reject any evidence to the contrary. This makes it difficult for us to see things from an objective point of view.

Even worse, as this feedback loop grows, it reinforces our own selection biases. We begin to subconsciously choose friends, news sources, and other media that also agrees with our worldview. In addition, we begin to distance ourselves from sources that might disagree with our viewpoints.

Essentially, you end up in an echo chamber where it’s just a bunch of people that all agree with you, whether your views map to reality or not. You stop hearing views that actively disagree with your worldview — even if your current worldview is highly biased or factually incorrect.


Why Are They Dangerous?

One of the biggest dangers of information bubbles is that they can lead us down a path of conspiratorial thinking. We begin to reject information that disagrees with our worldview simply because it disagrees. We no longer critically evaluate information based on the reliability of the source or the strength of the evidence.

Once you’ve bought into a conspiratorial worldview, then any contradictory evidence can just be discounted as “being part of the conspiracy”. This is a very dangerous way of thinking. Once you’re locked into a conspiratorial mindset, there is little anyone can say or do that will cause you to change your mind.

This situation is leading to tremendous distrust of historically reliable sources of information. For example, unbiased news sources, industry experts, and intuitions that exist to serve the public good. It’s becoming increasingly clear that a large number of social issues today are being caused by information bubbles.


How Can We Avoid Them?

In general, there are four simple steps you can take to avoid information bubbles in your life.

First, you need to know that information bubbles exist and how they work — which you’ve already done today. Next, you need to be able to verify if/when you’re stuck in one. Then, you need to learn how to escape from them. Finally, you need to learn how to avoid getting stuck in them again in the future.

In my next article (COMING JAN 15), we’ll discuss each type of information bubble, and go through each of the steps to understand, identify, escape, and avoid them in the future.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the technologies behind information bubbles, please be sure to check out my online courses on AI and ML.

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