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Obama’s Farewell Speech Frames Filter Bubbles as a Personal Responsibility

Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

‘For too many of us, it has become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook, never challenging our assumptions. Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there’.

Obama’s final presidential address in his adopted home of Chicago was an expectedly emotional affair that whilst touching upon both his success in restoring the economy and conversely his shortcomings on issues of race, found time to touch upon one of the most pressing matters in digital content: that of filter bubbles and fake news.

That final line, ‘whether true or untrue’, was a subtle and characteristically diplomatic take from the outgoing president. Fake news became think-piece fodder in the aftermath of Trump’s election and has now been acknowledged by Mark Zuckerberg as an issue that Facebook will need to address going forward as it transitions into a ‘non-conventional media company’, yet this excerpt from Obama’s speech did not seek to vilify a company or an individual. Though this recent change in information consumption is a marked shift away from the mass-media era of the 20th century, Obama’s take on filter bubbles frames the emergence of the curated news feed mirror in the wider context of the modern American experience. This includes but is not limited to the post-WW2 white flight to the middle class suburbs, the emergence of an exclusively liberal consensus on college campuses since the 1960s and the increasing wealth and cultural disparity exemplified by the major cities of each coast. These were all the filter-bubbles of their respective times, reflecting a natural human inclination to reject what is different or cognitively dissonant so as to preserve a pre-existing idea. Whether it is young people heading for the bright lights of the nearest metropolis or Detroit’s middle class fleeing in the wake of the auto-industry’s decline – the point remains the same. Obama’s speech therefore additionally reminds us of how algorithms become robbed of their phantasmal and pernicious power when we consider that social networks only act as an extension of our immediate circle. They inform us of what we already instinctively know: that we inhabit a world where through the rise of choice, we are increasingly consuming news and entertainment that fits with our pre-existing views, favouring the comfort and convenience of this frictionless world rather than the more difficult task of seeking out contrary evidence.

Whilst Trump has labeled the fake news moral panic a ‘political witch-hunt’, propagated by a liberal media establishment still in a state of shock over how their coverage and polls so spectacularly failed to accurately predict the election, Obama takes an alternative view. By contextualizing the issue outside of the digital sphere, the outgoing President’s parting message to the world suggests that it is not exclusively the algorithms to blame. Rather it reflects something deeper within ourselves.

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