Sometimes, reading a New York Times book review can be better than reading the book. This past weekend, a review of the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You prompted me to think about how people can be trapped inside their own “information cocoons.” Google and other internet search engines, as well as Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, apparently spoon feed us information they think we would like to see, based upon our past searches and selections. Their algorithms personalize search results and rankings according to the searcher’s previous internet history. The book details how and why this is done, as well as exploring the political and social implications of search engine personalization. The book review raises the question of whether governmental regulation to achieve more “serendipitous discovery” is desirable.
This topic is important in understanding how people make decisions and why disputes and conflict arise. Perhaps this is one of the reasons many people perceive an increase polarization and hostility in recent public discourse. When the information you receive on the internet is tailored to complement your previous disposition, you are less able and likely to see the other side’s point of view.
In dispute and conflict resolution, it is sometimes necessary to pop a person’s “information cocoon” to help him or her understand the other side’s position and the risks of continuing the conflict. Mediators often must test a participant’s underlying presumptions by engaging in “reality checks.” Another way to think about this process is to pop the information cocoon. Where are the parties to the dispute getting their information? Are they familiar with the other side’s sources? If not, it may be worth their time to take a look.
Good litigators must know the other side’s case as well as their own. Good negotiators must be similarly prepared. If internet search engines and social media are making that more difficult, we must be aware of it and be prepared to deal with it. Removing the filters from our search engines would be a good start toward diversifying our information sources. Mediators should be prepared to point out this problem to parties in dispute in order to help pop their information cocoons.