A healthy democracy requires its citizens to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. This promotes shared experiences and makes it easier to govern a heterogeneous society, and reduces the likelihood of people resorting towards extremism. This represents the positive side of free speech – the diversity of views among citizens, that leads not only to individual cognitive expansion but also a well-functioning society and democracy. However, democracy is becoming more and more endangered with personalization of news in the name of consumer choice.

Today, the public sphere is not as serendipitous anymore, and one major influence of this phenomenon can be attributed to the overwhelming quantity of information. Norwegian anthropologist Dr. Eriksen in his book “Overheating”, quotes Levi-Strauss to describe the current state of the world, who said “Le Monde est trop plein”. There has been a rapid acceleration in almost all fields, including information. There is an overflow of information, which is growing faster than our ability to give it a shape. Inevitably, this requires a selection of some information over the other.

Out of the countless possibilities every single day, the media has to determine which events will be covered and which will not be. This often results in a great unevenness in the coverage of news. For example, out of the total news coverage in the US, the death of Anna Nicole Smith eclipsed the coverages of several important international news, such as the IPCC report. She goes on to describe the reason as the fact that the news networks have reduced the number of their foreign bureaus by half. Moreover, covering entertainment news is cheaper than covering complex international issues, and probably more profitable.

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The age of Internet and Social media has amplified this selection even more through customized searches and personalized feeds. In the newspaper era, the information was selected but you were still exposed to a wide range of fields and perspectives. But today to provide one with customized individual experience, algorithms only show what is relevant for one’s individual perspective. This creates a sort of filter bubble. Republicans only get Republican news and Democrats only get democrat news.

Another consequence of this inevitable selection is simplification and fragmentation of information into smaller and incomplete pieces. The problem with this process isn’t that the information is not true, but that it only tells one perspective. This partial information may sway our decision making to a particular way without having the complete reality of situation. A striking example of this is recent new coverage in India post demonetization, which led to slowing down of economic growth. Most of the news describes the economic growth under the Modi government as more than that under the previous UPA government, despite the little recession caused by demonetization. What they fail to describe is the fact that the same government recently changed the base year to calculate such growth which leads to a distortion of numbers. Such misleading information leads us to make biased decisions.

These selection tools that were initially created to cope up with the overload of information now are endangering democracy, by reinforcing our biased views through personalized feeds that results in a distorted perception of reality. These create little ideological cocoons around us where we are surrounded by like-minded information, that militates against any challenging intellectual work that leads to acceptance and compromise of heterogeneous views in a society. The ease of such technology keeps reinforcing our tendency to consume such tailored information, regardless of the consequences. Even if the awareness of such a phenomenon is increasing, are we willing to give up this effortless ease given by technology for the greater good of the society and democracy?

References:

Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. London: Penguin, 2011.

Sunstein, Cass R. #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.


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