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Eli Pariser exposes what Google and Facebook are hiding


The world’s most illuminating “green” thinkers are unanimous on the subject of community, and that our survival as a species depends urgently upon cultivating unity among human beings. So it’s unsettling to learn that the internet is becoming, without our knowledge or consent, a wedge that divides and isolates us rather than a tool that brings us together as a better-functioning society.

In his investigative book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, social activist Eli Pariser demonstrates how algorithms used by Google and Facebook are editing what we see when we attempt to contact people or search for information on the internet.

If you and I, for example, sit down at our respective computers at the same time on the same day and enter the same term in a Google search, our results will be different based on how the gatekeeping algorithms have summed up who we are and what is relevant to us. During a March TED talk given in Long Beach, Pariser showed screen shots of Google search results for two different men who simultaneously and separately entered the term “Egypt.” The algorithmic gatekeepers determined information priorities differently for each; one got headlines of Egyptian social unrest, and the other got vacation sites. (What’s up with these incredible hotel deals in Cairo?)

Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether you’re searching for information or “friends.” Pariser says Facebook edited his contact with those whose political views differed from his; the conservatives were simply removed.

Facebook’s social networking controls seem not only intrusive but horrifying when paired with a quote Pariser attributes to 27-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, creator and president of Facebook, defending the importance of personalized news feeds: “A squirrel dying in front of your house might be more relevant to your interest right now than people dying in Africa.” No, Zuckerberg. Not.

Pariser notes that when programmed algorithms are acting as gatekeepers on the internet, they are not coded with responsibility, nor imbedded with values. Because these decisions are being made without our knowing and without our consent, we can’t know what or whom they are keeping us from seeing.

“What is getting edited out?” asks Pariser, who suggests that if this control of the internet does not change, the tool intended to unite us—essential for species survival—will ultimately leave each of us “isolated in a web of one.”

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