Filter Bubbles: A challenge for information literacy in the 21st century

The future is a strange beast. We’re always actively constructing it but we never know what the future will actually be. A seemingly insignificant occurrence in the present can emerge as the essential foundation of a future construct and, what’s more, the veracity of the originating source doesn’t always matter. A little tidbit of misinformation transmitted in the present can produce a future full of so many wrongs that they produce an enclosed self-supporting system of non-truths that can go unchallenged for years. As information flows are increasingly personalized through user tracking and other similar technologies, this has the potential of producing what Eli Pariser calls a “filter bubble”. A filter bubble occurs when the information provided to a user is filtered to the extent that the user is unaware of information that differs from a specific point of view. Filter bubbles and information manipulation in general has been identified as one of the top cyber threats for 2013 in Georgia Tech’s new Emerging Cyber Threats Report 2013.

Filter bubbles can be produced for a range of purposes (the notorious “santorum” Google bomb is an example of an intentional filter bubble) as well as being simply an undesirable and unintentional side-effect of technological development. However, there are those who rely on the contextual enclaves produced by filter bubbles to justify a discourse that has little, if any, relevance to the real world. Examples include today’s highly partisan political media, religious fanatics, and proponents of pseudosciences. For whatever reason, the leaders of these types of groups see a benefit in maintaining these questionable contexts and often resort to misinformation that originated long ago to justify their dubious claims. If we are truly to promote information societies, then the big task for educators today is to promote an awareness of the filter bubble phenomenon and information skills that will contribute to the construction of well-informed and reasonable future contexts.

One of the most blatant demonstrations of pseudoscience available to us today is the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens”. The show’s cast of questionably credentialed “experts” regularly deploys every conceivable pseudoscientific tactic in each episode to create an aura of truthfullness to the most absurd claims imaginable. The reason I’m harping on this now is that I was watching “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel’s rerun station a couple of days age when a particular claim caught my attention. The episode was about the presumed link between “bigfoots” and ancient aliens (absurdity to the power of obnoxious). One of the so-called experts stated, quite matter-of-factly, that the first documented claim of a bigfoot sighting was by Leif Erickson (or Leifur Eiríksson, to use the proper Icelandic) as if this was a firmly established truth. Now, I’m no expert on Leif Erickson but, being an Icelander, am aware of the history and have read the relevant “sagas” (required reading in Icelandic schools) and I know of nothing in those texts that hints at anything that could be remotely construed as documentation of a bigfoot sighting. So, I decided to investigate. (I missed the rest of the show as I was preoccupied with my research so don’t bother asking me about the supposed connection between bigfoot and ancient aliens.)

The “expert” claimed that Leif Erickson described having seen large, hairy creatures on his travels to the North American continent. My first task was to go to the original texts of the sagas that describe Leif Erickson’s travels (easily accessible on the web in the original Old Norse, modern Icelandic and English). I had a hunch about what was being referred to although the reference thoroughly obliterated anything that I remembered from the sagas. As per my hunch, there was nothing in the sagas about large hairy creatures. The text in the original Old Norse is “Þeir váru svartir menn ok illiligir ok höfðu illt hár á höfði.” There is nothing ambiguous about this statement. In fact, any speaker of modern Icelandic can read and understand this with no problem. It says “They were black menn and ill looking and with disorderly hair on their heads.” Nothing about big hairy creatures. So, I decided to see if I could figure out where this harebrained (pun intended) concoction came from. And was I surprised at what I found…

Bob Blaskiewicz at SkepticalHumanities.com researched the origins of this myth and the story that I’ve come up with is pretty much the same as his. It seems that the idea that Leif Erickson reported seeing large hairy creatures originated in a book published in the mid 1970s by Peter Byrne, titled “The Search for Big Foot: Monster, Myth or Man?” It is there that the original text is distorted into something having to do with large hairy creatures (see Blaskiewicz’s article for a detailed discussion of how Byrne arrives at the “large hairy creatures” statement). However, Byrne only toys with these ideas, acknowledging that what was probably being referred to were simply Native Americans (which is the case, BTW). One of the things that Blaskiewicz doesn’t mention and is relevant to the myth is Byrne’s claims about the meaning and origin of the word “skrælingjar”, which is the word used to refer to the Native Americans and the Inuits of Greenland in the original sagas. Byrne claims that the word is a “term of contempt” that basically means “barbarian”. On this basis, it would seem, Byrne allows himself to interpret “skrælingjar” (or “skellring” as it becomes in his inexplicable distortion) as possibly referring to some sort of barbaric creature that is not necessarily human. There is no basis for this interpretation whatsoever and Byrne’s claims about the meaning of the word are simply wrong. The word “skrælingjar” has been a bit of a mystery because it never appeared anywhere before its use in the sagas where Leif Erickson’s travels are chronicled. In contemporary language, the term does suggest a hint of contempt and reference to barbarism, but that is a result of its use in the sagas and since. There is nothing to suggest that that is what it meant to the writers of the sagas or, much less, Leif Erickson and his contemporaries. In fact it has been suggested that the word refers to the Native American’s and Inuit’s use of skins for their clothing and boats.

After Byrne launches the myth in his book, it takes on a life of its own and is embellished and further embellished over almost a 40 year period, seemingly to lend it an air of credibility. At some point, it is claimed that the myth is documented in contemporary journals written by Leif Erickson, himself; i.e. it is a first-hand account. This we know is not true. The sagas in which Leif Erickson’s travels are chronicled were written at least a century after he died, having been preserved through oral tradition. Blaskiewicz (see link above) even found one book where the author goes so far as to include an almost proper APA-formatted citation for the non-existent “original source”; complete with Erickson as author and even a year. Blaskiewicz also discusses the matter of that year, i.e. the year 986. I, too, came across this year several times and it seems another attempt at embellishing myth with a semblance of truth that has no actual factual foundation. In fact, the year makes no sense at all since Leif Erickson would have been, at most, a young teen at the time and hardly captaining his own fleet of longships around the open sea (his birth year is estimated to be somewhere between 970-980).

It’s been claimed that saying something over and over again doesn’t make it so. Perfectly true, unless what’s being said is directed at a confined, close-knit group, happy in their self-imposed filter bubble, who want it to be so. Then, in the context of that group, it can easily become so. The myth of the Leif Erickson bigfoot sighting has been repeated so often within bigfoot-believer circles that it has become accepted as established fact and is repeated as such and it seems that no one asks for, or expects, any verification that it is so. Thus, I think we can say that strictly within that context, it is so.

So, what would happen if a young learner decided to go online to study up on the history of bigfoot sightings. It wouldn’t take much for her to become trapped in the filter bubble that I’ve described where she would “learn” that the first documented sighting of bigfoot is Leif Erickson’s and that that “fact” is backed up by contemporary first-hand sources that are precisely (CurrentYear)-986 years old. What’s more, she would find website after website that would reinforce that claim. In fact, a simple search for “Leif Erickson bigfoot sighting” is likely to deliver more results supporting the claim than refuting it depending on a user’s behavior prior to initiating the search (there’s no such thing as a “standard” result on Google anymore so results will vary from user to user – which is precisely the reason for the filter bubble).

So, what to do in this situation? What information literacy skills are required here, how will they be taught, and who will teach them? One of the recommendations in the Georgia Tech report is that users be educated about the filter bubble phenomenon and be shown the information that they tend to miss because of increasing personalization. That makes perfect sense. However, I think that in addition it would be wise to educate users about how information flows contribute to the creation of future contexts emphasizing that filter bubbles are not only a result of increasing technological personalization but, also, a result of information usage and construction, i.e. that users are not just innocent victims in this regard, they are active contributors.

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