The Internet and Delusional Thinking: A Take on the Effect of the “Filter Bubble”

Some suggest that social media is full of illusions. Real life people creating an alternate reality through the web and social media is not unfamiliar. Sometimes the alternate reality becomes so infamous it creates real danger and harm, as in the case of Kiki Kannibal.

But there may be a greater collective societal harm in our use of social media and the individualized way we in which interact with the internet and other people. We’ve created a sort of “selective hearing” with the introduction of DVR, Facebook friending (and de-friending), RSS feeds, podcasts, and Twitter. Even if we are not creating a fake image of ourselves, we are living in a world designed around our own self-interests.

Long gone are people telling us things we don’t want to hear. We can tune them out and tune in messages from like-minded people. If I believed in life on Mars, I can “program” my inputs from various channels to be heavy on that topic by selectively following those with similar interests, searching for corroborating articles on the web, and highly rating similar topics on DVD.

The internet and our current technological advances do more than just encourage us to create illusions. For a much larger percentage of us, if not all of us, they help us create and maintain our own delusions (I am not referring to the actual medical term here). Delusions are technically defined as false beliefs, but in the tweeted words of Jan Henderson, there is “no one right conclusion that stands the test of time indefinitely.” So I would argue that we are delusional if we only look at the world from a singular or narrow perspective, being unwilling to accept or selectively avoiding other opinions/ realities.

As I was pondering the above in recent weeks, I come across a video that, quite frankly, sent slight chills up my spine. It was a video of a TED talk given by Eli Pariser, author of his new book, The Filter Bubble, which deals with the notion that the major players in the internet world (like Netflix, Google, and Facebook) are tailoring your searches based on your previous online behavior. They acquire data regarding your pattern of clicking, your location, etc., to personalize your results. “You actually start to have – without you really knowing it – your own views fed back to you,” Pariser said in a recent radio talkshow. Why? To increase the likelihood you will click on the links presented. “You can make more money if you can show people stuff that they’re going to like.”

He explains this more clearly in the video (well worth watching for the 8-min duration)…. By the way, after watching the video, you get the sense that you have inadvertently sold your soul by engaging in a technology that, without which you would be considered obsolete and nonfunctional.

What are the implications of “the filter bubble” for healthcare? Potentially huge. People are now “researching” online for their healthcare information. And this is only going to increase over time. If I have a tendency to click on naturopathic medicine links and I get diagnosed with breast cancer, the first two pages of my google search regarding treatment might be related to alternative approaches because “personalized media is showing you the things… it thinks you want to see.” This type of filtering may affect my decision on who I call first and thus my treatment plan. It doesn’t take into account that I may have changed my mind about which approach to treatment I would prefer.

It is concerning to think that internet companies “have a lot of power to shape what you see and don’t see.” The web will assume our preferences for us, feeding us the information that substantiates our underlying tendencies. Even outside of the specifics of healthcare, there is potential for our biases become more deeply entrenched with personalized media. And I suspect that would not be good for the evolution of human consciousness. I personally feel fairly reassured because I believe I have a critical way of searching on the web. But other people (with less formal experience researching information) may feel they are just as objective, but in actuality, have less discernment. (This is exemplified in the case of a sensational article circulated on the internet recently.)

As it is, to be open to new ideas and evolve into broad-minded human beings requires much attentiveness and deliberateness, which can easily get lost in our fast-paced lives. The internet is now making it that much harder.

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8 thoughts on “The Internet and Delusional Thinking: A Take on the Effect of the “Filter Bubble”

  1. Very interesting post. People think they can diagnose themselves online and decide on a treatment plan without even talking to doctors. Some people can discern the true from the false, but many people get hooked into bad advice and “delusional thinking” as you call it.

  2. I’m just catching up on a huge backlog of reading (including this article). Another article I just read that seems somewhat related – though based more on human nature than machine algorithms – is Jonah Lehrer’s WSJ column from a week ago, When We’re Cowed by the Crowd, in which he talked about a recent Swiss study demonstrating the “social influence effect” and how our hyperconnectivity can often lead to greater confidence (in less accurate results) and to greater narrowness of perspective.

  3. As I said just moments ago in response to another article, I will never understand why doctors think they are the only ones who can read, study, and learn. I don’t understand why they think they are the only ones who can discern good information from bad. I just don’t understand it.

    I think you ought to read this, also:

    I just read it, myself. And I lived it. Am living it. The “internet” and a peer-to-peer online group saved my life.

    • Thanks for allowing me to clarify. 

      I have absolutely no doubt that there are many patients, probably like yourself, who are able to discern good information from bad. Better than some physicians, even. In fact, I have had many patients in my practice who brought some information from which I learned. It’s great to see more “e-patients,” but they are still in the minority. Prior to my current practice, I worked in a much more diverse demographic and was surprised at the amount of bad information from the internet being brought to my attention. I spent a lot of time reviewing and explaining it those who brought it up to me (which I was happy to do for the sake of educating). You belong to a group that I am less worried about. When I am thinking about this topic, I am thinking of, say, my parents, who might be looking up arthritis treatments and have a computer, but are not savvy enough to understand how to refine their searches and critically evaluate what is being shown them. They may have a doctor as a daughter, but, to be frank, they don’t take my advice and they prefer to come up with their own solutions. They always humble me that way 🙂

      If we look outside of our own individual abilities to discern and take into account that the internet is available to everyone in the world with internet access, we would see the large variability in education level, socioeconomic status, etc, which affects the way people search for and interpret information. So when I wrote this post, I was looking at a much broader implication. Shouldn’t a high school student looking for health information get the same good quality results as an adult e-patient when searching a medical topic irrespective of her previous search behaviors? If only there were filters for quality. 

      My post is, of course, only one perspective on the issue. I did come across the article you shared, which is very good. In fact, after I wrote this post, Ian Eslick forwarded a link to an article that shows some of the reasons NOT to fear the filter bubble

      This was a blog post within a blog post, but thank you, Robin, for your comment.

  4. It’s a troubling tendency that I think needs to be deliberately fought by seeking out divergent views. I hadn’t thought much about it until I saw this TED talk by Ethan Zuckerman: I’ve found it quite easy to follow people on Twitter that I’d never run across in real life who give me different perspectives on the world than I’d come up with on my own.

  5. Steven Johnson discussed this very matter in his recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From. He discusses the argument that we’ve become so focused with our online listening that we may be at risk for one of the most important intellectual events…serendipity. Seeing and feeling new things outside of our comfort zone. I struggle with this because I like to see what I believe and what I know.

    Excellent post.

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