Cyber Search: Educated or Manipulated?
Within two seconds of hitting “send” on my Entourage email titled “Oh how I need a vacation!,” a new ad appeared on my Facebook page. Immediately eye-catching, the ad featured a lovely young woman with a lei in her hair and a smile on her face. If this young lady had ever had a care in the world, it was certain that the all-inclusive deluxe super duper extra sparkles Bahamas package (as advertised) had washed those cares away.
1. This is exactly what I need! I wonder what the prices are? Where do I sign up?
And 2. How in the heck did Facebook know I was hemming and hawing about
a vacation in Entourage?
My friends, Facebook knows you. And it’s in cahoots with Entourage.
In fact, it’s probably watching you read this article right now.
Technology has gotten smart, you see, and it’s willing to sell you anything and
everything you want. Including ideas.
In a recent article for The Guardian, writer Josh Halliday details how Facebook can identify a user’s race, IQ, sexual preferences, substance use and political views, strictly by analyzing their “Likes.” Using the data collected from those “Likes,” Facebook can then tailor its ad campaigns to the users’ preferences. All in a matter of seconds.
Using much the same “preferences” criteria, other smart internet apps – notably search engines – can likewise identify what it is you want to see, and then present it to you. Which is great when you’re planning an all-inclusive deluxe super duper extra sparkles vacation. Not so much when it comes to staying “fair and balanced” on the issues.
By nature, human beings are “cherry-pickers,” at least according to numerous articles including “On the Other Hand…Remove your blinders before picking a side” in Psychology Today magazine. Put simply, the “cherry-picking” mentality means people tend to gravitate toward, seek out, and best remember those sources that confirm previously-held preferences or beliefs.
If, for example, an individual has a “lean” toward a specific conservative or liberal media outlet and reads that outlet online daily, search engines will take this conservative or liberal preference into account when presenting “answers” to questions raised on a particular topic.
You’ve heard of “media bias”? Well, “cherry-picking” is the readership equivalent.
So what does this have to do with you? That answer is two-fold.
First, as leaders dealing with complex issues, you will personally be faced with citizens’ cherry-picking bias. As your constituency turns to the internet at increasing rates for its information, Google and Yahoo and Safari will continue kicking out that information with which your constituency is already most likely to identify. For better or for worse.
Second, you will be faced with your own cherry picking bias, and whether you choose to ignore or address this bias could influence how you approach pressing issues. If you are a fiscal conservative, you may have to “bite the bullet” and consider upping spending to get that new program off the ground. If you are a fiscal liberal, you may have to choke back on financial support of certain initiatives if there just isn’t space in the budget.
Congress provides an easy and seemingly endless example of the gridlock that occurs when neither side is willing to consider the other. And whether you agree with the Republicans’ plan to address X,Y, and Z or the Democrats’ plan to address the same, I think we can all attest that stalwart, unyielding support to one side or the other often yields zero results for the issue as a whole. (*Ahem, sequestration.)
If we want to find new solutions to old problems, we must be willing to put aside the personal cherry-picking long enough to at least consider alternative options. Perhaps in leading by example, one can influence constituencies to do likewise.
But we’re not going to get there by a Google search.
At least not if we don’t bother scrolling past the first “results” page.