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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does the Internet Filter Our Choices?

By Peter DeWitt — July 15, 2012 4 min read
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Beware of information junk food.

Every morning I get up and check Facebook to see what my friends have been up to; then I skip over to Twitter and catch up on some educational reading. While that is happening I’m listening to the local news on the television in the other room. It’s a lot of noise coming at me in the morning but it’s how I get energized before I leave for school. After all, I want to stay informed in case I get any really tough questions from my fifth graders. I enjoy being connected and learning new information.

Given how easy it is to connect you would think that we are always current in what is happening in the world. However, if you do not connect to national news every day (some of you conspiracy theorists may disagree with even that), and only focus on what you search on the internet, you may not be as connected and informed as you think. We have become victims of our own success.

The other day while looking at Alan November’s website, I came across a very interesting video by Eli Pariser. Eli was giving a talk for Ted (if you haven’t seen any Ted Talks, you have some serious work to do!). Eli was presenting on the concept of on-line filter bubbles. He said that there are algorithmic filters built into our searches that are based on the first choices we make while surfing the web. Every time we wake up and begin our Google searches, we experience filters that give us the information that the filter thinks we want to see. Therefore, everyone may have a different choice come up in their search even though they are searching for the same thing (i.e. Bahrain, Beirut or Berlin).

Over the years, technology has become so “advanced” that it is becoming specific to our own tastes. For decades we read what other people or organizations considered news, and in these days of the internet we have found that we can search for our own news. The only problem is that these filters do not allow us the variety of news that we want, and we are left looking at a very one-sided view of the world. If you spend more time searching for funny videos or shopping on EBay, the suggestions coming at you on-line are very different than if you were always searching for current events.

Pariser says, “Here’s the challenge: as more and more people discover news and content through Facebook-like personalized feeds, the stuff that really matters falls out of the picture. In the Darwinian environment of the hyper-relevant news feed, content about issues like homelessness or climate change can’t compete with goofy viral videos, celebrity news, and kittens. The public sphere falls out of view. And that matters, because while we can lose sight of our common problems, they don’t lose sight of us” (The Filter Bubble, March 2012).

In essence we are losing our balance by only reading about the same type of topics. Instead of reading about a relevant educational issue, we end up seeing news about things that are less relevant. In his informative and passionate Ted Talk, Pariser mentions that he is “friends” with both Republican and Democrats on Facebook but he may click on the links his democratic friends share more often, which means that the other republican view gets left behind and those views show up less on his page. Why is this a bad thing? It’s fairly simple; we should expose ourselves to news from all sides so that we get exposed to the full argument. Life should not be a one-sided debate, and we have the responsibility to teach that to our students.

Media Literacy for All of Us
This all has enormous ramifications for our students. When they do searches on their own, they may be looking for (as Pariser eloquently calls it) information junk food, like the latest dog that can skateboard. However, the more those searches happen, the less often students may be exposed to real-life situations that take place. Our students need to understand that we need to read and search for stories that make us uncomfortable. We need to see stories about homelessness, poverty and unemployment. Students need to get a better sense of what is going on in the world around them. Those stories that make them uncomfortable help them see the world through a more objective lens.

There are many reasons why these filters have taken place over the years. We have always wanted our stories streamlined so we did not have to be distracted by stories about celebrities (unless we like that!) or other nonsense so these filters have helped us achieve that goal. However, these gatekeepers to the internet do not give a good flow of information. It may prevent us from seeing our connection to being socially responsible which will help us (and our students) expand our horizons

As informed as we feel we may be, our searches limit us. In addition, just because searches come up that we enjoy does not always make them correct. We all, including our students, have to constantly improve our media literacy to make sure these stories we read are accurate. We also want students to understand that what they search for is not the only news they should be reading. They have a social responsibility to learn about the world around them, and not just learn about the latest singing cat.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.