Be cognizant of how search engines and social networks can reinforce your belief
As college students, especially during online school, we spend an exorbitant amount of time looking at screens. One member of the Editorial Board, for example, spent 14 hours on their laptop in one day during the past week — practically spending all time awake staring at a glowing blue box. While some of students’ time online is spent on tasks such as watching lectures and completing homework assignments, another significant part is spent on unproductive pastimes, including scrolling on social media.
In 2019, U.S. teens used screens more than seven hours a day on average, not including school work. And in that same year, the average time spent on social media in North America was two hours and six minutes per day, adding up to approximately 764.4 hours (or nearly 32 days) per year just on social media. And during the early stages of the pandemic, social media usage rose by 61%.
In addition to, perhaps unconsciously, spending a large portion of our lives on social networks, another concerning aspect of allocating this time to these sites is the fact that many use them as a source of information. Among U.S. adults, 68% say that they “get news at least sometimes” from news sites and 65% included search engines along with news sites. Slightly more than half, 53%, say they “get news from social media.”
Social media, as many are aware, can show users false information. In addition, its algorithms are designed to show users what they want to see, confirming what they already believe to be true. This only serves to make users’ views more polarized rather than challenging their preconceptions.
And while some may be cognizant of this fact, they may not consider the impact of the customizable nature of search algorithms on sites such as Google and even on the news sites they read and rely on. Everything we see when we look something up on Google is different from what anyone else sees with the same search. News articles that pop up on Google are based on previous searches.
To a certain extent, this can be a good thing. We want to see web pages and articles that are interesting and relevant to us; it makes our research easier and can make a search quicker. That being said, our views are not challenged or altered in any way if those pages and articles only serve to confirm our beliefs.
Furthermore, reliable news sites such as The New York Times have algorithms in place to personalize news for each reader. While this does not alter the text of news articles, it does change the organization of articles presented to each reader. This customization is clearly not to the same extent as search engines or social media, but it is still important to keep in mind. Many sites on the internet have algorithms in place to learn more about you, what you care about, what you want and what you might want to buy.
While we, in a sense, opt in to using these sites, the fact remains that the internet is not optional. As students, we use it to complete many assignments, communicate with professors and classmates and, during remote learning, watch lectures and attend meetings.
And although we have limited options for searching besides the sites designed to show us what we want to see, simply being conscious of how these programs work
can make a difference in how we interpret the information presented to us. Fact checking news on social media, looking at a variety of credible news sites or using different search engines can help us to avoid this filter bubble and challenge and broaden our world views.
Written by: The Editorial Board