5 content consumption strategies to beat the dreaded filter bubble

Photo by Marc Sendra Martorell on Unsplash

Lawrence has always been skeptical about the healthcare industry because he’s had a bad experience with prohibitively expensive drugs.

He’s skeptical about how the COVID-19 vaccines could have been produced at such scale in such a short time.

He thinks there’s not been enough time for the vaccine side effects to be studied.

Shortly after vaccination begins in his country, Lawrence reads a news article headline, “3 die after receiving COVID-19 vaccine!”

Lawrence is convinced that he should not take the vaccine and convinces his 80-year-old mother that she should not too.

DON’T be like Lawrence.

As humans, we are all prone to confirmation bias — we gravitate towards information and people that validate our opinions. I think I have a fairly scientific analytical mind, and I’d like to believe that my opinions are generally balanced and objective, rooted in science. So when I watched “The Social Dilemma,” what disturbed me the most was the idea that my opinions can be so easily shaped, but once formed, are so hard to break because of the filter-bubble or echo-chamber effect (where you receive personalized content recommendations based on your previous reading behavior). When I think about someone like Lawrence, I wonder how he could have come to the conclusion that the vaccine is unsafe, because the literature seems to be overwhelmingly in support of vaccine safety. The filter-bubble effect at play in Lawrence’s case may be very apparent to someone reading his story, but not to Lawrence himself.

Is the filter-bubble effect similarly working on me despite my best efforts to stay balanced and objective? Considering how easy it is for content to be created and shared today, and how polarized society has become in its views on several critical topics, I’d be best advised to take almost everything I read online with a large pinch of salt. In my fervent quest to not be like Lawrence, I began to wonder whether the filter bubble does in fact have to define what we stand for, or if there might be ways to bypass it or at least loosen its hold on us.

These are the five content consumption strategies I am trying to follow and would recommend to beat the filter bubble.

1. Proactively seek out; don’t just consume.

If it’s an alert in your inbox or the first thing in your Google news feed, it’s likely to come via your filter bubble and reinforce your preconceived notions. After reading the news clip on deaths after vaccine administration, if Lawrence had done a simple search for “COVID-19 vaccine-related deaths” or “is the COVID-19 vaccine safe,” he would have been offered a range of data-based articles explaining how the documented deaths are unrelated to vaccination, and why, even though vaccine production was expedited, the available vaccines still meet all the necessary safety requirements for large-scale administration.

2. Read beyond the headlines.

This one should be pretty obvious, but in our world of infinite scrolling and consuming whatever we can in the 5-second window for each scroll, it cannot be overstated. Any “Ultimate Guide” to getting content to rank high in search engines will tell you that headlines have to be eye-catching and scream out important keywords that elicit some emotion super quick. So headlines are and will always be sensationalist! But even an article headlined “3 die after receiving COVID-19 vaccine!” will probably say something like “it is possible that the deaths were coincidental, and this is still being investigated” later in the text. What an anticlimax to the headline! But what a powerful and important detail that can prevent alarm and misinformation!

3. Read from the right sources.

If you’re looking to form opinions based on science, don’t treat mainstream media stories as absolute truth. In fact, don’t treat any single story as truth! If you’re reading a mainstream media article, take the trouble to click through to the references and then to the references in the referenced articles. This is a rabbit hole you do want to go down. Stay away from “viral” social media videos where someone presents “expert” opinions in a passionate and convincing way, without any data or references. It might not be easy for lay people to find research-based articles for everything they read in mainstream media, but for a buzzword topic like COVID-19, you can be sure that pure science media outlets are covering relevant stories in depth and with adequate research-based references. A Google search for “vaccine-related deaths” actually throws up research-based “Fact Check” articles that dive into every single death reported in mainstream media and explain why those deaths cannot be linked to vaccination.

4. Consider that there might be two sides to every argument.

This one can be difficult, because you tend to believe what you believe so strongly that it feels alien and against the grain to even type keywords to the contrary. But most things the world is polarized about do have shades of grey, and even if the contrarian view seems ridiculous, understanding that view opens you to the possibility that you might just be wrong or that some aspects of the contrarian view have merit. For example, while the literature shows that Lawrence has no reason to worry about dying or developing any life-threatening side effects from the vaccine, it is true that scientists don’t yet know the duration of vaccine-induced immunity or whether the existing vaccines will work against newer viral mutations — these are fair points for Lawrence to be concerned about.

5. Be wary if what you read elicits extreme emotions.

As I said before, mainstream media need to sensationalize headlines in order to rank in search results and get enough clicks to meet their ad-based revenue targets. And sensational headlines are designed to elicit emotion. If you find the stories you’re reading are eliciting extreme emotions of anger, frustration, hatred, or even joy, relief, and vindication, they are probably helping form or reinforce a black-or-white opinion that may be irrational and fail to consider all possibilities. It’s unlikely that something you read in mainstream media will truly be that straightforward.

To conclude, COVID-19 vaccines are safe. Get vaccinated!

Just kidding. Read up; consult your doctor; if you’re brave enough, discuss with people who both agree and disagree with you. THEN get vaccinated.