Did you know that Facebook estimates your political leanings so it can better target its ads for you? You might have guessed that, and realized that kind of targeting is happening all over the Internet – with your search results, on websites, in your social networks.
Then you might ask yourself the bigger question: Should I care?
The level at which online publishers can target their ads is unprecedented. This hit the news again because Facebook released a new feature that gives all of us more control over what advertisements they show us, and this feature exposes how Facebook rates your political preferences.
This extraordinary power to target users is either cool if you are a techie, exciting if you are trying to make money online, or terrifying if you are a privacy advocate.
First let’s give kudos to Facebook for giving users more control and being more transparent about what they do. I suspect it also provides some business advantages – good PR and slightly reducing the number of ineffective ads, which is good, both for user experience and advertising effectiveness.
Whatever the reason, more transparency and control for users are good things.
But there is a potential problem.
Despite the opportunities the Internet gives us to know and connect more, the Internet can also train us to polarize and despise each other. Targeted political advertising, whether online or on TV, on the radio, or in print, is another case in point.
Is what Facebook doing a problem?
Perhaps no more than advertising on TV, on the radio, or in the mail. Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, tells Ben Rosen with the Monitor that television is a more powerful form of persuasion than the Internet.
So, does that mean it is OK?
Falling to a simple status-quo bias, you might not give it a second thought. But you should.
The alarming growth in division and polarization across the country is not merely the result of our political parties, elected officials, or election laws. It's not purely the result of historical cycles either. All of these things have a real impact, but they do not describe why similar division and polarization is happening at alarming rates across the country and across the world.
Modern technology, in particular the Internet in its current form, is the critical commonality and underlying driver to this worldwide phenomenon. With these advancements, we each find ourselves in very dense filter bubbles.
Why our opinions are rarely challenged
Today more than ever, we only get one side of the story and only relate with people just like us. With our online friends of friends along with neighborhoods that are increasingly homogeneous, most of us have very little authentic experience with people that are truly different.
With self-selection and ingenious algorithms operating behind the scenes to match our personal preferences, the information and opinions we get are homogeneous and one-sided, devoid of alternative opinions and data that goes against our individual beliefs.
Study after study demonstrates that when we continually see only one point of view, we tend to become more extreme in our beliefs. We also know that when we get a wider variety of information, and we know and have relationships with people different than us, that we become more open to each other and often moderate, find common ground, or find some way to more forward.
It doesn't mean we agree, but it does mean we can work together enough to get things done, to solve problems.
Providing everyone more ways to get outside of their filter bubbles so they can see different points of view and interact with people that are different - that is the solution. The Internet can provide ways for us to interact with each other better and more quickly than ever.
Organizations like AllSides.com, World Table and others offer alternatives designed to help our society and technology evolve to using the Internet in more productive ways that bring us together and solve problems.
You can also take steps on your own right now. One small way is to change your Facebook preferences so you aren't typecast into one political segment. See instructions here or follow the step-by-step images included here. You can even intentionally “like” pages of politicians or news organizations that you don’t agree with – that will definitely introduce you up to ideas and opinions that you don't agree with.
That is a small, simple step. With all great journeys, you have to start somewhere. Might as well be with Facebook.
John Gable is founder and CEO of AllSides, a media technology company that helps you see, understand and discuss multiple perspectives. The crowd-driven technologies at AllSides.com provide bias ratings, news, issues, search and civil dialogs that reveal a wide variety of perspectives and build bridges between conflicting ideas and people.