Filter bubbles and “fake news” are not the same thing, but they both have an enormous impact on the news and information you consume, and therefore the opinions you are likely to form. If you want to remain open-minded and take a balanced view you need to be able spot fake news and burst your information filter bubble.

‘Fake news’ has been much in the headlines recently – mostly thanks to its hijack as a term by Donald Trump. While its purported influence in major historic events, such as the 2016 presidential election in America and Brexit referendum in the UK, is unnerving the attention it has generated has been useful. Because for the first time, many of us are beginning to appreciate how we digest the news and how it’s completely possible to exist in an information bubble of your own making.

How did we get here?

The personalisation of news has changed the way that we digest world events. 50 years or so ago we might have all watched the same news channels and read the same newspapers. Although there have always been accusations of bias against journalists and publishers, until now, we’ve never had a situation where individuals can totally filter out the news we don’t agree with. But today – mostly thanks to social media and Google algorithms – we do. The ‘Filter Bubble’ is a term for choices made for us by algorithms, for example in Google Personalised Search results and Facebook’s personalised news-stream. The bubble basically ensures that we see what we want to see based on past clicks or preferences. The result is that we effectively become isolated in our own cultural or ideological bubbles.

What’s the impact of the Filter Bubble?

Essentially, you only see and hear what you want to see and hear. As a result, you might start to believe that your view is the dominant view – which means that election results that don’t go your way, for example, can come as a big shock. You may also believe you’re right in everything you believe because the flow of news coming your way supports everything you think, with no challenge. This opens the door to “fake news,” which is basically a set of false facts presented as news to support a certain view. However, because what you’re seeing and reading is so tailored to your views – and not objective – fake news that is in line with your own beliefs (but still not true) is harder to spot.

How can you avoid the Filter Bubble?

  1. Delete your cookies. Cookies are data that is stored by your web browser as you’re browsing. If they’re enabled then they compromise your privacy and can be used by other sites to determine what to show you next. If they’re deleted regularly – or totally disabled – then your past interests and preferences can’t be tracked in this way. (see how to delete your cookies).
  1. Control your social profiles. Keep your data private, switch off Personalisation (on Facebook) and hide your birthday so you can’t be fed news based on assumptions about your digital profiles.
  1. Use an anonymous browser. Browsers like Tor don’t track what you do – at all. The software is free to download and means that you can digest a wide range of news, not just what an algorithm has picked for you. You can also choose to use Google Chrome in “incognito” mode & other browsers have equivalents.
  1. Step outside your comfort zone. Sign up for newsletters and read newspapers that you don’t necessarily agree with ideologically. The only way to get a true perspective on world events is to read as widely as you possibly can around the subject.
  1. Don’t immediately shout down opinions you don’t agree with. The issue of Trump or Brexit tends to generate heated debate – the consequences really matter for many people. However, shouting louder than someone who disagrees with you means you might miss out on an interesting perspective or idea.
  1. Go offline. Turn off your phone, shut down your laptop, go and speak to people in the real world.

information filter bubble

Top tips for spotting fake news

None of us wants to be taken in by the fake news phenomenon but how can you spot a piece of news that just isn’t real?

  • Who is the source? Investigate where this piece of news has come from – a party political think tank or an objective organisation? Do they have contact details and a real website?
  • Who is the author? Look into the background of the person, whether they are credible and whether they’re even real.
  • Reverse Google images. Check images that look suspect by doing a reverse Google image search. You might find that what you’re looking at attached to a current news story is actually five years old.
  • Don’t just read the headline. What does the story actually say?
  • Be wary of statistics. “9 out of 10 people” doesn’t mean 90% of everyone – it could just be 9 people out of a world population of 7.5 billion dressed up to sound like a majority.
  • What sources are provided? Where is the information coming from and are those sources credible?

Ultimately, the only way to get out of your bubble and away from fake news is to get out into the world and absorb as much of it as you can. From debating with other people, to reading all the papers, you’ll have a much more balanced perspective on life if you don’t just stick to your own views, feeds and websites.

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