Author: George Kitsaras
Editor-in-chief / Psychologist / Doctoral Researcher
“(We) retreat into our own bubbles, …especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions… And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there” President B. Obama, Farewell speech, 10th of January 2017.
We live in a bubble, our bubble. It’s a bubble we were partially born into. It’s also a bubble we also formed over years. In that bubble we find everything from news, interesting facts, political views to other people with similar, even identical beliefs and ideologies. Out bubbles are reinforced day in and day out from a constant flow of heavily biased yet covert information channels. Those channels, unaware to us, have been filtered to reflect and echo our own beliefs in order to attract our “clicks”, “likes” and “shares”. Our daily information rarely varies in its content. Our bubble determines if we are reading about the people and causes that look and are appealing to us. Our bubble guides us to make fun, condemn and criticise those who fall outside, those who have opposing and challenging views. Our bubbles make us happy. They give us a sense of stability and comfort in an ever changing and increasingly volatile world. But our bubbles can be dangerous. They can keep shrinking and shrinking with more and more concentrated and heavily filtered information directed to us. They can start look more like lonely, dark cages than familiar and cosy bubbles.
However, our bubbles can also be manipulated and in return manipulate us too. A few years ago, a company received tens of millions of investment from a conservative billionaire from the US. Today, that company is called Cambridge Analytica (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018; Osborne, 2018). Cambridge Analytica, despite its name, operates from London in the UK and from the USA. It had a central role in harvesting millions of Facebook profiles, unaware to their users, in order to gain a better insight on their world, their preferences, their likes…essentially their bubbles. What followed was an unprecedented, covert, heavily filtered content campaign to influence and in cases manipulate voters during the 2016 Presidential Election in the USA (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018; Osborne, 2018; Rosenberg, Confensore & Cadwalladr, 2018). All Cambridge Analytica had to do was to target messages and material that would look appealing and interesting to each person depending on their bubbles. Once that information was inside the bubble, that person shared it with friends and family, in essence people who lived in similar bubbles. With little to no interaction with people and information channels of challenging and opposing views, the heavily filtered content flourished and reached maximum potential. The exact role and the legality of Cambridge Analytica’s actions is yet to be determined with ongoing investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite that, it’s clear that companies, organised groups and even individuals can take advantage of the bubbles we create in ways that erode our self-determination, marginalise societies, manipulate choices and threaten democratic values.
Let’s pause and think: How free are we really? How certain can we be about our decisions? Did we reach those decisions on our own or are they a mere exploitation of our bubbles? In the era of social media, is there a way out from our bubbles?
For more information on the revelations by the joint Guardian/Observer and The New York Times expose on Cambridge Analytica visit https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/cambridge-analytica
Cadwalladr C. & Graham-Harrison E. (2018, March). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election
Osborne H. (2018, March). What is Cambridge Analytica? The firm at the centre of Facebook’s data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/18/what-is-cambridge-analytica-firm-at-centre-of-facebook-data-breach
Rosenberg M., Confensore N. & Cadwalladr C. (2018, March). How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html