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“Not My Controversy”: Stepping out of the Filter Bubble

In my day-to-day life, I work on research that detects controversial topics in order to help search engine users make better informed decisions and be more civically minded. My advisor and I see our research as a partial antidote to the growing effects of the Filter Bubble, that algorithmically-generated phenomenon by which each of us increasingly only sees what we want to see. In the academic world and beyond it, there’s a growing interest in detecting and analyzing argumentsdisputesbiases, and controversies. I just spent the past few weeks traveling to Los Angeles, Amsterdam, and now Israel, and telling people about this research everywhere I go. In our own research, we hope (and hypothesize) that by challenging users with the option to read widely, we can at least offer them the opportunity to expose themselves to opinions other than their own. If you’re a conservative or liberal in the U.S., you can live out your online life without ever being exposed to anyone who thinks differently than you. If you’re an Israeli, you’ll never hear about the Palestinian side of the argument, and vice versa. We’d like to change that.

However, it’s easy to write cool academic tomes about critical literacy and encouraging people to take the opposite view, when the controversies aren’t personally meaningful to me. I barely blink when writing about gun control and abortion, topics that are hotly debated in the U.S., since I feel the answers are so obvious; they’re not my hot button topics. It’s convenient to feel morally superior when, as an academic familiar with the falsifiability theorem and the scientific process, I discuss the importance of reaching people who are misled to think vaccines cause autism, or that global warming is a hoax. Even easy, in the midst of a quiet political period, to calmly discuss the challenges of mapping out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in the past few days, I’ve been brought face to face with my own biases, my own pain points, my own troubling controversies. In this short timeframe, a few relevant issues that I care deeply about have occupied my thoughts and changed the way I see my own research.

A couple of weeks before our trip to Israel, my husband, who is often the one to pierce my own comfortable Filter Bubble with a dose of reality, felt the need to update me on current events. “You should know there’s trouble going on,” is the standard sentence I hear every couple of years. My Facebook feed had yet to inform me of the newest developments, three young yeshiva men who were abducted (later it was discovered that they were actually murdered on the spot). I know to dread these sentences; I had consciously stopped reading the news when I was 14, because I would simply get depressed every time I read it. But whenever my partner thinks it’s worth telling me what’s going on, it means things are getting heated up again (usually in Israel, my home country). It means I need to get worried about what’s going in.

On the flight from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, we were happy to pick up a free (physical!) copy of the (English!) Wall Street Journal. The front page had a small piece exposing the recent Facebook experiment that has since rocked the social media world. As we took turns holding our lap infant, we read about the research work that inflamed the media, users, and academic community: Facebook researchers performed an experiment, an A/B test that changed results for nearly 700K users based on emotional factors. (I could write a whole piece about that, but in the meantime, I’ll refer you to one thoughtful discussion that links to many others, the actual research paper including statements released following the controversy, and a statement from the former FB employee who was quoted out of context in the WSJ piece.) My husband has very strong opinions on Computer Science research in regards to IRBs and human subjects experiments, and we got into our own private debate over the ethics of the situation. Over the years, I’ve learned to argue with my husband respectfully; given our different backgrounds, it was natural that we wouldn’t have the same take. There was clearly a controversial issue at hand, which was simultaneously inflaming users and journalists, as well as the academic and industry communities — but also myself and my husband.

As we argued back and forth, I couldn’t help but think of the impact on my own research. After all, the Facebook study quoted represents the epitome of the Filter Bubble. Show people happy thoughts and they will post more, get more engaged, post happier thoughts themselves. Show them sad posts and they will be less engaged and post sad thoughts. Well, the conclusion to FB is obvious, isn’t it? One small step for social media, one giant leap for the Filter Bubble.

But I had barely stepped off the plane before I encountered a different kind of controversy. On the concourse towards border control, a security guard stopped a black passenger to ask him a few questions about why he came to Israel. “But you didn’t ask her anything,” the enraged traveler pointed at the young white lady he was chatting with up until a moment ago. No matter — the guard has ultimate control and the right to question any passenger he wishes. I couldn’t help staring, though my husband signaled me not to get involved. We kept walking, as did all the other passengers; while I was certain that the young gentleman would eventually make it out of the airport, I was struck by the casualness of it all. What would be seen as racial profiling in the U.S. is perceived as completely legitimate, justified even, given the heightened security risks in the explosive climate of current events. Once again, my husband and I realize that we live in two separate worlds, where the acceptable in one is unthinkable in the other.

Don’t be mistaken, by the way, to take my words to mean that the U.S. is always the “correct”, morally-superior, liberal one. We see plenty of social injustices there as well; one only needs to live in a socialized country once to perceive the outrageousness of some health and labor policies that are taken for granted in the states. Then again, don’t get me started, right? That’s the whole point. While my profile of controversial topics is very different than either Americans or Israelis, bring up my controversial topics and I will react just as much as the next person. Let me talk only with people who agree with me on these, and I’ll be the most polite, the most thoughtful, the most rational discussion partner; but show me something that doesn’t fit my worldview, and watch me go. So sure, it’s easy for me to write about detecting controversies I don’t care about, about exposing people to the full spectrum of opinions that I personally agree with. But what about when I care deeply? And when I disagree strongly?

At my in-laws’ house, the TV was on the news channel, as it often is in Israeli homes. They were displaying, on an endless loop, the rockets firing from Gaza over the southern part of the country, where my sister lives, but I was trying as hard as I could to tune it out (and move my 6-month old daughter out of hearing range). I cried after hearing about Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Arab youth that was burned alive. Then again, that’s the exact reason I stopped reading the news in the first place — I couldn’t stand it. So who am I to tell people they should step out of their Filter Bubble?

When it comes to my own hot button issues — and as I am now all too painfully aware, they absolutely exist — it becomes much harder to see what the right course of action is. Should search engines and social media really take an active role in informing the citizens of the world of current events? Of political strife? Of ethical issues, moral issues, of fact disputes? Even if it makes us less happy?

And yet. And yet.

I don’t want to live in a fragmented world where I only hear about the good things that happen.
Where bad things only matter if they happen to me or my loved ones.
Where I protect myself, and everyone else protects themselves, from hearing about the ugly, the sad, the challenging.

After all, without outrage, there is little meaningful change.

Without diversity of thought, there is only confirmation bias.

So yes, I will continue to work on detecting controversies and exposing the diverse opinions on them to regular users. Because the current system does everything to hide them, sweep them under the rug, display them only to those who seek them out (if even then). And that is not a system I want to encourage, not a system I want to be part of, not a system I think is healthy for our society, for our world, or even for myself.

As the sun rises over Haifa, the city I love more than any other in this world, I can’t help but wonder if I would be having these thoughts if I was sitting comfortably in Amherst, safely ensconced within my Filter Bubble.

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