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Confirmation Algorithms

Andrew Badham 2016-12-02 14:37:57

Like many people who have had to confront their old ways of thinking and find them wanting, I am consciously aware of the importance of indulging views that oppose my own. At the same time, I'm also aware that unconsciously I avoid contradiction like a virulent contagion. My confirmation bias, just like every other's, is adept at filtering that which makes me feel uncomfortable; it would far rather bolster my pre-held conceptions and suspicions. Nevertheless, on the odd occasion, I do take the initiative to force feed myself opposing views. In order to source those views, I often turn to social media, which is where a new obstacle to open-mindedness begins.    

I was watching an episode of The Rubin Report in which Milo Yiannopolous was being interviewed. I had been drawn to the video not knowing who Milo was and only beginning to familiarise myself with the Rubin Report. Initially, I enjoyed Milo's verbosity and edgy contrarianism; that was until I learned that he is an influential supporter of Trump. The revelation left me aghast and curious: why would an educated, homosexual man support a candidate who seems inconsistent with that demographic? So naturally, I pursued this dark rabbit hole.

After watching many videos of debates, talks and responses surrounding Milo, I began to notice a shift in my recommended content. Slowly, the content being suggested to me became more and more right wing. Subtly, more and more conspiracy theories proliferated my dashboard. The cause is obvious. Youtube wants to provide suggestions of videos I might like based on my viewing habits. The intent is noble, granted, but the effect is dire. If developers had tried to replicate human confirmation bias they could not have intentionally done better.      

Considering the accelerated increase of news consumption via social media, it's not surprising that people are becoming more entrenched in their views. Their viewing habits and the habits of their friends are helping to surround them with an impermeable wall of content; content which only affirms and never dissents. How could they not be lead to the inescapable conclusion that:

"Everyone else is a complete moron! Just look at the sheer volume of content which supports what I believe."       

In a time of unlimited access to information, this echo chamber phenomenon should be receding. Only, the very technology which has given us access to oceans of information is now filtering that information as efficiently as our own biased grey-matter. The net result is that open-mindedness requires an ever greater vigilance on the part of the individual; requires ever more energy to find the middle-ground in a rapidly polarising world.