How the internet is censoring what we read

As Google and Facebook wield increasing power over our online news, Emma Barnett asks whether our horizons are narrowing...

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Do you ever think about the news you don’t read? Probably not. Well, why would you? What you decide to overlook is always your choice, right? Wrong. Increasingly, as everyone’s consumption of news and information moves online, algorithms are editing the world around us, without us even noticing. Based on our likes and dislikes, web giants such as Google and Facebook decide which stories to show us, but crucially which ones to censor.

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In 2012, Eli Pariser, a technology writer and entrepreneur, delivered a brilliant speech at the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, in which he warned against the dangers of this so-called “filter bubble” we are becoming imprisoned within.

In that clever, clever talk, which has now been watched more than three million times, he said: “Your filter bubble is your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in – and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.”

If you’re struggling to get your head around this, try this for size: Pariser discovered, via an anonymous Google engineer, there are some 57 signals that the world’s most popular search engine analyses – from your location to the device you use to browse the web – when deciding what information to serve you.

That was two years ago. I can only imagine how the number of those triggers must have increased exponentially. So to be clear – the Google search results I see differ from the ones you receive on the same topic. 


The bigger point is this: as we curate our own news feeds and stare at the likes of Facebook and Twitter all day long, we need to be aware of our worlds potentially getting smaller, not bigger. Just reading the article your sister or best pal has decided to share, or the occasional “suggested post” from Facebook, isn’t going to leave anyone with a fully rounded view of the world.

And yet the internet was meant to set information free and broaden all of our horizons.

This conundrum is especially on my mind at the moment as I embark upon a new radio show: The 5 Live Hit List. I’ll be counting down the top 40 stories of the week – based on how many times they’ve been shared and interacted with online in the UK. “Emma, aren’t you worried you’ll just be talking about cats on skateboards?” has been the refrain from a few pals. Well, I’m thrilled to report back, having looked at charts for the past couple of weeks, this isn’t the case.

Of course light-hearted tales feature (such as the latest battle of the Beliebers and One Directioners) but in last week’s chart stories such as the acid attacks on women in Iran and discrimination against people from Ebola hotspots ranked highly. Interestingly, the Occupy Democracy demonstration in Parliament Square, which enjoyed barely any mainstream media coverage, also featured prominently. The news agenda of a show being set by the people, for the people, is definitely going to throw up interesting curve balls.

But while I’ve been thoroughly heartened by what’s got the British public clicking, the ever-sneaky filter bubble is definitely something to keep in check.

I was at a dinner party where I can hand on heart say that no one knew anything about how the West is trying to tackle so-called Islamic State jihadists in Syria. Sure, they knew the headlines – but the detail was lacking. We are all skim-reading more than ever; our attention spans corrupted by the frenetic pace of the internet.

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, once tellingly said: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” But is that really the world we want to live in?

We owe it to ourselves to burst our filter bubble and not hand over power to invisible editors or our Facebook feeds. We need to discover the world on our terms – because what we think we want to know is not always what we need to know. 

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Emma Barnett is the Daily Telegraph’s women’s editor. She presents The 5 Live Hit List, Sunday Radio 5 Live