In his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, Eli Pariser wrote, “the rise of pervasive, embedded filtering is changing the way we experience the internet and ultimately the world.”
Far ahead of current growing concerns about fake news, disinformation, and an info-pandemic, he warned of “filter bubbles” – personalised information ecosystems or digital echo chambers – that insulate us from views of the world that do not accord with ours.
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically new about filter bubbles. Readers of The Sun newspaper in Great Britain were not likely to be readers of The Guardian. In the USA, aficionados of Fox News Channel are unlikely to tune in to PBS documentaries on social welfare or prison reform.
Pariser is an author, activist, and entrepreneur concerned to make communication technology and media serve democracy. He became executive director of MoveOn.org in 2004, where he helped pioneer the practice of online citizen engagement. He is the co-founder of Upworthy, a website for meaningful viral content, and Avaaz, a global citizen’s organization.
In an essay in Wired (13 October 2020), Pariser noted that today in place of outdoor space, “we spend much of our time living and conversing with others in a different location: digital space. But social media and messaging platforms weren’t designed to serve as public spaces. They were designed to monetize attention.” He went on to call for “truly public squares on the Internet”.
To some extent, this is what used to be called public service media, now morphing into public interest media. But it’s broader than that. Our common digital future must be built around the call for accessibility, affordability, diversity, and accountability.
Worldwide, people need to be able to access digital platforms in ways that they can afford. Diversity means that no one should be made invisible, censored or silenced. Accountable means that both platform users and providers take moral responsibility for content.
Pariser identifies three challenges. First, money. He advocates “taxing targeted advertising and using those funds to shore up democratic functions that the big tech platforms have eroded, such as local journalism.”
Second, talent and research. We need to identify a diverse, representative generation of tech builders who believe in the cause.
Third, public imagination. How to persuade people and communities of the direct benefits of an open and democratic digital communication infrastructure.
Truly public squares on the Internet is an ideal worth struggling for.
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