How Not to Escape Your ‘Filter Bubble’

Still from 'The Truman Show'

After Donald Trump's election, political types underwent a few days of soul-searching to figure out how they had missed a series of major populist victories. To recap: Benjamin Netanyahu was not supposed to win reelection in Israel, yet he did; Leave was not supposed to prevail in the Brexit referendum, yet it did; Donald Trump was most certainly not supposed to win the presidency, yet he did.

This introspective period did not last long, and there is reason to question how seriously it was taken by a political class that remains as status-hungry and herd-minded as ever. Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti has written persuasively about this almost every week since the election.

Nevertheless, people did agree on a few problems that needed to be addressed, including "filter bubbles." These are the personalized search engines and newsfeeds that reinforce rather than challenge users' beliefs. Say a user follows news outlets from across the ideological spectrum on social media, but usually clicks on articles from outlets that share his views; over time, the god in the machine will learn his tastes and show him fewer articles that conflict with his worldview. This learning phenomenon, intended to make users happier, tends to enable intellectual laziness and intolerance toward the political Other.

How can we burst our filter bubbles? On an individual level, the answer is quite simple, although it involves self-discipline: We have to seek out, regularly, the views of intelligent people who disagree with us. When we read or listen to them, we have to assume they have something to teach us, and that their motivations are not rotten when they make arguments we disagree with. I said earlier this requires self-discipline, but what this really calls for is humility.

Unfortunately, humility is something humans have struggled with historically, so the temptation is to take shortcuts that preserve our filter bubbles and pride intact. I've now read a number of articles in elite publications that encourage readers to take just such a shortcut, under the guise of bursting their filter bubbles.

"[A] new crop of online media offerings comes equipped with like-minded guides who travel to the other side and present their findings," the New York Times‘s Amanda Hess wrote in a mostly useful article on filter bubbles. Who are these "like-minded guides"? Hess mentions a few: Slate‘s roundup of "the biggest [not, it should be noted, the best] stories in right-wing media"; a podcast where liberal pundit Ana Marie Cox has interviewed two whole conservatives; and the newsletter "Right Richter" by editor Will Sommer, which is "a media digest for people who don't usually consume right-wing news," according to a credulous profile in the Columbia Journalism Review. None of these offerings are serious attempts to puncture readers' filter bubbles.

I will single out Right Richter for criticism because it best illustrates my point and because Sommer just got in a Twitter beef with a Free Beacon writer (I am not above the thrill of skull-bashing tribal politics). According to Quartz, the newsletter collates "the best of the week in GOP news," a descriptor that leads me to believe the author had never read the newsletter. Right Richter is not a good-faith effort to help its liberal audience understand conservatives. Rather, it is an opposition research memo that highlights the worst characters and impulses on the right, from popular figures with wide followings like Milo Yiannopoulos to fringe movements like The Proud Boys. When Sommer mentions "mainstream" conservatives, it is to bring attention to their peccadillos, bad motives, and face plants.

As low comedy or an intelligence report on the alt-right, the newsletter is perhaps a success. As a way for partisans to stretch themselves intellectually and discover thoughtful views contrary to their own, it is an obvious failure. Liberals who subscribe to the newsletter can only come away feeling pleased with themselves, because it presents their opponents as a band of cranks and carnival freaks.

And that is the problem with trying to burst a filter bubble through second-hand accounts from "like-minded guides." The effectiveness of the method depends wholly on the reliability of the guide. If your guide doesn't think views outside of the bubble are worth your serious attention, his account of the wider world will reflect that. And so your bubble will thicken. And you'll start to miss things.

Maybe just read trusted news sources like The Washington Free Beacon instead?