The Internet’s ‘filter bubble’, at its worst in the blogosphere, is furthering the deep politicization on climate change. Does sparring with those holding different opinions offer a way out?

It is an odd thing: Many of us choose to inhabit intellectually constricted worlds at a time when, thanks to the Internet, we have easy and instant access to a wide range of world views. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof addressed this paradox in 2009:

“When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.”

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This sort of cocooning balkanizes public debate, Kristof argued. In theory, we may believe in the clash of opinions, “but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber,” he wrote.

This tendency is most pronounced in the blogosphere. For example, climate skeptics and contrarians naturally gravitate to What’s Up With That and those passionately concerned about global warming seek sustenance at Climate Progress, to cite two popular climate sites that are on opposite ends of the debate.

But it seems that our Web habits — everything from our Google searches to our personalized Yahoo! news sites — may be sealing that cocoon even tighter. This is the thesis of Eli Pariser’s new book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. Pariser is the former Executive Director of the liberal site, Moveon.org. He believes in the connective power of the Internet as a force for social good. But he’s also worried that the creeping “personalization” of the Web, the online customization of our books, movies, and news preferences, threatens to permanently erode the civic commons of society.

“What was once an anonymous medium,” Pariser says, has now become a giant electronic trawler and sifter of consumer information. Today, “algorithmic observers” watch what you click and examine “the things you seem to like — the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like — and tries to extrapolate … Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us — what I’ve come to call a filter bubble — which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.” (Here is an excerpt from the book.)

The implications for the climate debate are obvious. If we’re content to remain marooned at our Web-enhanced islands of political and ideological affirmation, then there are no civic bridges to a shared understanding of climate change.

Traditional media, for all its imperfections, may offer the few places left for us to share a common space. Most mainstream newspapers, for example, try to keep their biases in check and provide an outlet for a variety of worldviews.

Social media, in contrast, seems to just fill up our private island with like-minded inhabitants. In his book, Pariser offers an interesting anecdote that unwittingly reveals how natural it is to ignore those who don’t share your politics or views. He writes:

“Politically, I lean to the left, but I like to hear what conservatives are thinking, and I’ve gone out of my way to befriend a few and add them as Facebook connections. I wanted to see what links they’d post, read their comments, and learn a bit from them. But their links never turned up in my Top News Feed. Facebook was apparently doing the math and noticing that I was still clicking my progressive friends’ links more than my conservative friends’ — and links to the latest Lady Gaga videos more than either. So no conservative links for me.”

Leaving aside that Pariser seemed to “befriend” just a few token conservatives, evidently more as a curiosity than out of a sincere desire to engage with them, it’s worth pointing out that, for all his high-minded talk (elsewhere in his book) about democracy requiring “citizens to see things from another’s point of view,” he obviously wasn’t very interested in the views of his conservative Facebook “friends.”

As Pariser readily observes, “we are turning media into a mirror that reflects our own prejudices back at us.”

Given how fully an unseen digital hand reinforces these prejudices, is there anything that can be done? In his 2009 Times column, Kristof offered a smart tip:

“So perhaps the only way forward is for each of us to struggle on our own to work out intellectually with sparring partners whose views we deplore. Think of it as a daily mental workout analogous to a trip to the gym; if you don’t work up a sweat, it doesn’t count.”

That seems like a prescription for a more constructive climate debate, as well.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.