The Reflection Bias
March 16, 2015
There were days when Google was simply a search tool -- you would type in a query, and Google would search the web for pages matching that term. But like cassette tapes and black and white TVs, those days are long behind us. Now I can use Google to search for my vacation photos last winter or the highest rated restaurant in the neighborhood according to my friends. But as these web tools know more about us and our lifestyles, that also reflects on less personal searches. If I search for the "best smartphone of 2015", for example, Google prioritizes results from the websites I frequently visit over websites I haven't read before. So Google, and other websites like YouTube to a lesser extent, know which sources I favor, and returns me to those same websites each time. This is great for finding the right information quickly, but it has also lead to some criticism over something I'd like to call the reflection bias.
Also called the self-selection bias, a reflection bias forms when the information that you find about a certain topic perpetuates your position, instead of offering a fair, broad, and diverse view of the subject matter. If I were, for example, a Flat-Earther (one who believes that the Earth is flat), I would spend an exorbitant amount of time lingering in Flat-Earth forums, Flat-Earth websites, and Flat-Earth theorists' blogs and YouTube channels*. Google, being the all-knowing omnipotent being it is, will then show me more and more results from these same websites that I visit, rather than websites of more variety like NASA and JAXA. In other words, my position ends up perpetuating my views in the information that I find through Google. And when Google's results are increasingly personalized, one of its criticisms center around the formation of this reflection bias. If your search results come from your most favorite sources, this also means that your search will lead you first and foremost to the people and voices with whom you already agree. And this leads you away from seeing a variety of opinions.
That seems to be a prominent argument, but my thoughts are to the contrary -- I think the fact that your information on the web is tailored to you is irrelevant to your reflection bias. In particular, whether or not a person experiences the reflection bias from the Internet depends almost exclusively on the person, and is almost irrelevant to the search algorithms used. This is because search engines are not explicit directions in navigating the web but instead a map. Google doesn't tell you what to believe; it merely accepts your query of what you believe and leads you to similar sources. In this metaphor, where a specific journey leads is not determined by the map but by the person looking to go places, and the fact that certain roads are shown more prominently on the map does not mean the person will be directed to a destination he did not intend to visit. Similarly, merely because Google's algorithms display sources that agree with your own beliefs is not a reason to become enclosed to them and oblivious to the world. And to blame a map for your inability to explore the entirety of an area is even more absurd. I stand that if the beliefs of a person is perpetuated by their using the Internet, it is not because the Internet is perpetuating their beliefs, but instead because they explicitly seek out sources they can agree with and consciously avoid those that disagree with them. As much as personalization may contribute to it, the Internet is not a personal bookshelf so much as a public library, filled with all varieties of opinions and information. And to trap oneself within a collection of voices in perfect agreement to you, even with the help of Google, would be nearly impossible to do without a conscious effort blocking out all else.
If the Internet is helping us continue to entrench ourselves in our biased views, our tools are not the culprit -- we are. And while our way of using the Internet becomes what eventually defines it as a medium, there is still an important distinction to be made between what is inherently the fault of our tool, the Internet, and what is inherently the fault of our misuse.
While how we use our tools determines what they become, our actions are not inherent to our tools so much as they are inherent to ourselves. And so the faults of our tools are not really the fault of our tools, but the faults in our own actions.
Internet comments and forums are another target for the harshest criticisms against the Internet, claiming that the Internet brings out the worst in people by allowing anonymity to let people do absurd things and say words that would not be said offline. But I think this argument is at a similar fault. The Internet is not the cause. While it may be a tool that allows this negativity to take place, it is the people behind those words that are ultimately at fault and the cause to blame.
Looking at it from a distance, this conclusion stands against many of the criticisms against any mode of communication in general. Too often, we try to judge a medium - cable TV, radio, the Internet, and social networks -- by how we use them, rather than what they are themselves. And while how we use them determines what they become, our actions are not inherent to our tools so much as they are inherent to us. Personalized searches are not perpetuating our reflection bias; our conscious avoidance of certain ideas are. Similarly, social networks are not inherently the bane of productivity; our ways of using them as a distraction make it so. At a time when people are using the potential of technology to achieve amazing and seemingly impossible things, I think it is both extremely unfair and unbelievably selfish to direct much of the blame away from ourselves and at the technologies when we talk about the misuse that happens as a result of them. Behind every word, behind every click, and behind every line of code in a piece of technology is a person making it possible. And if the technology is seemingly harming us, the people behind them should be where we turn to first.
* Not to judge or anything, but if you're a Flat-Earther, what are you doing with your life?