Democracy refers very roughly to a method of group decision making characterized by equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making (Christiano 2006). While some models of democracy emphasize the autonomy and individual preferences of those who take part in this collective decision making, others highlight the inclusion of free and equal citizens in the political community and the independence of a public sphere that operates as a middle layer between state and society (Habermas 1998). Some emphasize the need of an informed (online) debate and the epistemic quality of information before decisions are made (Hardin 2009). Others point out the need to increase the reach of minorities and other marginalized groups in the public debate (Young 2002).
While the filter bubble has been a concern for many, there are different answers to the question as to why filter bubbles are a problem for our democracy. The answer one gives to the question depends on one’s understanding of the nature and value of democracy, on one’s conception of democracy. Different democracy theories exist and they have different normative implications and informational requirements. A tool that implements one particular norm will be quite different in its form and goals than another tool which implements a different norm. Before we provide examples of different tools, we will provide a framework of some basic conceptions of democracy and the relevant norms for each model.
Liberal view of democracy
The classical liberal view of democracy attempts to uphold the values of freedom of choice, reason, and freedom from tyranny, absolutism and religious intolerance (Dunn 1979; Held 2006) Liberalism started as a way to challenge the powers of “despotic monarchies” and tried to define a political sphere independent of church and state. Once liberalism achieved victory over these old “absolute powers”, many liberal thinkers, began to express fear about the rising power of the “demos” (Madison 1787; Mill 1859; Held 2006). They were concerned by the new dangers to liberty posed by majority rule against minorities and the risk of the majority ‘tyrannizing over itself, leading to a need for people to ‘limit their power over themselves’.
Bentham (1780) argues that, since those who govern will not act the same way as the governed, the government must always be accountable to an electorate called upon frequently and this electorate should be able to decide whether their objectives have been met. Next to voting, ‘competition’ between potential political representatives, ‘separation of powers’, ‘freedom of the media, speech and public association’ should be ensured to sustain ‘the interest of the community in general’ (Bentham 1780). Individuals must be able to pursue their interests without the risk of arbitrary political interference, to participate freely in economic transactions, to exchange labor and goods on the market and to appropriate resources privately.
The liberal view of democracy is often criticized, because it construes democracy as an aggregation of individual preferences through a contest (in the form of voting), so that the preferences of the majority win the policy battle. However, this model has no way of distinguishing normatively legitimate outcomes from the preferences and the desires of the powerful, and makes no distinction between purely subjective preferences and legitimate and shared (quasi objective) judgments (Cohen 1997, 2009; Young 2002).
Filter bubbles are a problem according to the liberal view, because the non-transparent filters employed by online algorithms limit the freedom of choice. In addition, the liberal view states that citizens must be aware of different opinions and options, in order to make a reasonable decision. A filter imposed on users—unbeknownst to them—will violate their autonomy, as it will interfere with their ability to choose freely, and to be the judge of their own interests. Further, the principle of separation of powers and the freedom of the media can also be in danger, if the algorithms are designed in such a manner as to serve the interests of certain individuals or groups. Finally, filters might damage the “liberty of thought”. Liberty of thought, discussion and action are the necessary conditions for the development of independence of mind and autonomous judgment. Liberty of thought creates reason and rationality, and in turn the cultivation of reason stimulates and sustains liberty. If one is ‘coerced’ by the filters, reason will also diminish. While some thinkers such as Mill (1859) also emphasize the diversity of opinion, most liberal thinkers do not mention this as a requirement. Liberal citizens must be ‘potentially’ informed so that the elected act accountably, but deliberation according to the liberal view is not necessary. Loss of autonomy caused by filters seems to be the main issue, according to the liberal view, while diversity of opinions and perspectives is not a concern.
Elster (1997) characterizes deliberative democracy as “decision making by discussion among free and equal citizens”. Deliberative democrats propose that citizens address societal problems and matters of public concern by reasoning together about how to best solve them. This can be made possible by deliberative procedures, which help to reach a moral consensus that satisfies both rationality (defense of liberal rights) and legitimacy (as represented by popular sovereignty) (Gutmann and Thompson 2004). Individuals participating in the democratic process can change their minds and preferences as a result of reflection. According to Cohen (2009), deliberative democracy can be seen (1) as a matter of forming a public opinion through open public discussion and translating that opinion into legitimate law; (2) as a way to ensure elections are themselves infused with information and reasoning; (3) as a way to bring reasoning by citizens directly to bear on addressing regulatory issues. In all cases the goal is to use the common reason of equal citizens who are affected by decisions, policies or laws, instead of having them enter into bargaining processes or represent them by means of the aggregation of their individual preferences. Democracy, no matter how fair, no matter how informed, no matter how participatory, does not qualify as deliberative unless reasoning is central to the process of collective decision-making.
There are different versions of deliberative democracy. Rawls’ (1971, 1997) conception of deliberation is based on the idea of public reason, which is defined as “the basic moral and political values that are to determine a constitutional democratic government’s relation to its citizens and their relation to one another”. By means of public deliberation, people settle their disputes with respect and mutual recognition towards each other. Habermas (1998) provides similar conditions in his concept of the “ideal speech situation”. The Rawlsian approach aims at ‘accommodation’ of differences in a pluralistic society without criticizing people’s fundamental views of life, their so-called ‘comprehensive doctrines’ or ‘bringing them into deliberative discussion’. Habermas’ approach does the opposite, by also making moral or philosophical ideas and ideals part of the deliberative challenge. Both Rawls and Habermas advocate a ‘rational consensus’ rather than ‘mere agreement’ in political deliberation. For this purpose, Rawls uses the term ‘reasonable’, and Habermas introduces the notion of ‘communicative rationality’.
Deliberative democrats argue that deliberation (1) enlarges the pools of ideas and information (Cohen 2009), (2) helps us discover truths (Manin 1997; Talisse 2005), (3) can lead us to a better grasp of facts (Hardin 2009), (4) can lead us to discover diverse perspectives, practical stances towards the social world that are informed by experiences that agents have (Bohman 2006), (5) can help us discover the seriousness of our disagreements and discover that there is a disagreement after all (Cohen 1986), (6) can lead to a consensus on the “better or more “reasonable” solution (Landemore 2012), (7) promotes justice, as it requires full information and equal standing, (8) lead to better epistemic justification and legitimacy than simply voting (Hardin 2009). This is because political decisions based on deliberation are not simply a product of power and interest. It involves public reasons to justify decisions, policies or laws, (9) lead to better arguments, since citizens have to defend their proposals with reasons that are capable of being acknowledged as such by others (Cohen 2009), (10) allows citizens to reflect on their own arguments, that will lead to self-discovery and refined
arguments (Cohen 1986), (11) promotes respect, as it requires people to consider the opinions of others, despite fundamental differences of outlook (Hardin 2009).
Critics of deliberative democracy argue that full fledged deliberation is difficult to attain because (1) there is inequality in deliberative capabilities of citizens, which gives advantages to the rhetorically gifted and those who possess cultural capital and argumentative confidence in leading the discussions (Ahlström 2012), (2) there is widespread incompetence and political ignorance among the masses (Ahlström 2012), (3) voters are not interested in the common good, but only in self-interests (Caplan 2008), (4) people are biased and may hold beliefs without investigation. Majority rule will amplify these mistakes and make democratic decisions worse (Caplan 2008), (5) while participation of citizens is possible in small nations, vast numbers of people will inevitably entail deterioration of participation (Held 2006). Past a certain threshold, deliberation turns into a chaotic mess (Landemore 2012), (6) most citizens cannot spend the time to master the issues well enough to take meaningful stands on major issues. The information processing cost and transaction cost is too high (den Hoven 2005), (7) deliberation among like-minded users can cause polarization. When people deliberate on a relatively homogenous argument pool, they consolidate fairly easily, which is bad for outsiders. Evidence from social psychology suggests that it is the viewpoints of the majority, not of the informed minorities, that can be expected to drive the relevant group judgments (Ahlström 2012). The informed minorities may refrain from disclosing what they know due to social pressure and be reluctant to dissent, thus not submitting the information to deliberation (Sunstein 2007), (8) forcing participants to deliberation with limiting their arguments due to commonly shared rational premises, public reason or common good will prevent dissenting voices to share their perspectives and identities on their own terms (Young 2002).
Filter bubbles are a problem for deliberative democrats, mainly because of the low quality of information and the diminishing of information diversity. If bubbles exist, the pool of available information and ideas will be less diverse and discovering new perspectives, ideas or facts will be more difficult. If we only get to see the things we already agree with on the Internet, discovering disagreement and the unknown will be quite difficult, considering the increasing popularity of the Internet and social media as a source of political information and news (Mitchell et al. 2014). Our arguments will not be refined, as they are not challenged by opposing viewpoints. We will not contest our own ideas and viewpoints and as a result, only receive confirming information. This will lead us not to be aware of disagreements. As a consequence, the quality of arguments and information and respect toward one other will suffer.
Republicanism and contestatory democracy
In contemporary political theory and philosophy, republicanism focuses on political liberty, understood as non-domination or independence from arbitrary power. The republican conception of political liberty defines freedom as a sort of structural independence—as the condition of not being subject to arbitrary or uncontrolled power. Pettit (1999) argues that people are free to the extent that no other group has “the capacity to interfere in their affairs on an arbitrary basis”. To ensure that, according to Pettit (1999), there must be an “active, concerned citizenry who invigilate the exercise of government power, challenge its abuses and seek office where necessary”. In this theory, freedom as non-domination supports a conception of democracy where contestability takes the place usually given to consent. The most important implication is not that the government does what the people want, but that people can always contest whatever decision the government has taken. While the republican tradition does not overlook the importance of democratic participation, the primary focus is clearly on avoiding the evils associated with interference and oppression.
Pettit (1999) argues that the media has a major role in forming the public opinion, ensuring non-domination and the possibility of effective contestation. However, Pettit argues, the media often fail badly in performing these roles. According to Pettit, at every site of decision-making (legislative, administrative and judicial), there must be procedures in place to identify and display the considerations relevant to the decision. The citizens should be able to contest these decisions if they find that the considerations did not actually determine the outcome. The decisions must be made under transparency, under threat of scrutiny, and under freedom of information. A group, even if they are a minority, should be able to voice contestation and must be able to speak out in a way that is liable to affect the proposed legislation. They must be able to contest in an effective manner, and they must be able to make themselves heard in decision-making quarters. To provide this, there must be reliable channels of publicity and information in place, so that the performance of the governing parties is systematically brought to attention.
If we apply these norms to the design of online platforms, we can argue that online information platforms (1) must make the right information available to the citizens and should allow them to track when something important or relevant happens. In this way, citizens can become aware of possible oppression and can become active when they feel there is a need to. This can for instance be achieved by human curation that aims at including important events that might affect the whole of society, in the information diet of everyone. It can also be achieved by means of personalization, so that, an event that is particularly important for a user can be highlighted for that user, (2) provide effective methods of contestation, so that citizens can make themselves heard with their contestations and affect the proposed legislation or policy. This means that people should not only be able to contest, but also that the contestation should reach a large public so that it can result in an effective and inclusive discussion.
Filter bubbles are a problem for advocates of contestatory democracy, because they interfere with realization of both conditions mentioned above. Bubbles both block the incoming and outgoing information channels. In order to raise critical questions, one must be aware of something that is a candidate for contestation. Someone cannot protest if they do not know that things relevant to them are happening. A filter bubble can block the reliable channels of publicity and information and may increase the risk that citizens are unaware of important news. Filter bubbles prevent awareness of both the items that people could disagree with and the information on the basis of which they could justify their reasons for disagreeing. Furthermore it may turn out to be much more difficult to communicate and share ideas with potentially like minded others outside your filter bubble. For not every post or comment on Facebook will reach your followers and a website with key information might never make it to the top of one’s Google’s search results.
Agonism/inclusive political communication
While most deliberative democracy models aim for consensus concerning a ‘common interest’, agonists see politics as a realm of conflict and competition and argue that disagreement is inevitable even in a well-structured deliberative democratic setting, and even if the ideal of consensus regulates meaningful dialogues (Mouffe 2009). According to these critics, different and irreconcilable views will coexist and an overlapping final consensus can never be achieved. Having consensus as the main goal and the refusal of a vibrant clash of democratic but opposing political positions will lead to “apathy and disaffection with political participation” (Mouffe 1999; Young 2002). According to Mouffe (2009), the aim of democratic politics according to advocates of this agonistic conception of democracy should not be seen as overcoming conflict and reaching consensus, because such a consensus would actually be a consensus of the hegemony.
The aim of ‘agonistic pluralism’ then, is to construct the ‘them’ (opposing viewpoint) in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an ‘adversary’. Thus, conflict must be in center stage in politics and it must only be contained by democratic limits.
An adversary is “somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question” (Mouffe 2009). Agonistic pluralism requires providing channels through which collective passions will be given ways to express themselves over issues which, while allowing enough possibility for identification, will not construct the opponent as the enemy. The difference with “deliberative democracy” is that ‘agonistic pluralism’ does not eliminate passions from the sphere of the public, in order to reach a consensus, but mobilizes those passions towards democratic designs. Democracy should then be designed so that conflict is accommodated and unequal power relations and hegemony in the society is revealed.
Mouffe (1999) argues that although the advocates of deliberative democracy claim to address pluralism and the complexity of the society, their reference to reason and rationality tends to exclude certain groups from the political arena; therefore, they are essentially not pluralistic.
Similarly, Young (2002) argues that if consensus becomes the ultimate goal, some difficult issues or issues that only concern a minority might be removed from discussion for the sake of agreement and preservation of the common good (Young 2002). The idea of a generalized and impartial public interest that transcends all difference, diversity and division is problematic, because the participants in a political discussion most likely differ in social position or culture. Our democracies contain structural inequalities (e.g., wealth, social and economic power, access to knowledge, status). Some groups have greater material privilege than others, or there might be socially or economically weak minorities. Therefore in such settings “the common good” is likely to express the interests and perspectives of the dominant groups (Young 2002). The perspectives and demands of the less privileged may be asked to be put aside for the sake of a common good whose definition is biased against them.
Young (2002) argues that when there are structural conflicts of interest which generate deep conflicts of interest, processes of political communication are more about struggle than about agreement. However, according to Young, the field of struggle is not equal; some groups and sectors are often at a disadvantage. Fair, open, and inclusive democratic processes should then attend to such disadvantages and institutionalize compensatory measures for exclusion. Democratic institutions and practices must take measures explicitly to include the representation of social groups, relatively small minorities, or socially or economically disadvantaged ones. Disorderly, disruptive, annoying, or distracting means of communication are often necessary or effective elements in such efforts to engage others in debate over issues and outcomes. Christiano (2006) argues that due to cultural differences in society, deep cognitive biases make individuals fallible in understanding their own and other’s interests and compare the importance of others’ interest with their own. By default, people will fail to realize equal advancement of interests in society. Thus, special measures must be taken to make sure that equality is satisfied.
Filter bubbles are a problem for agonists and supporters of inclusive political communication, because they hide or remove channels through which opposing viewpoints can clash vibrantly. Minorities, and those who are disadvantaged due to structural inequalities need special exposure to be able to reach out with their voice to larger publics. However, filters that show us what we already agree with usually do not include such minority voices. If filters only show us what they consider “relevant” for us, then, the only way to reach a large public will be through advertisements or by gaming the filters. This will violate the inclusion norm of modern democracies, as only the wealthy who can afford such advertisements, or technologically advanced minds who can use algorithms to their own advantage will be able to express themselves.
Table 1 summarizes the democracy models we have introduced, the benchmarks they require, the points of critique they imply concerning the phenomenon of filter bubble. Liberal democrats stress the importance of self-determination, awareness, being able to make choices and respect for individuals. Filter bubbles are a problem for the liberal democrats especially due to restrictions on individual liberty, restrictions on choice and the increase in unawareness. Deliberative democracy attempts to increase information quality, discover the truth, discover facts, discover perspectives and discover disagreements. This in the end leads to better epistemic justifications, better arguments and it increases legitimacy and respect towards one other. The filter bubble, according to deliberative democrats, hurts the civic discourse, mutual understanding and sensemaking. Contestatory democracy on the other hand focuses on channels that allow citizens to be able to contest effectively, if there is a need. It does not aim for deliberation, but it requires citizens to have key information on important issues, and be aware of the oppressors. In contestatory democracy, the media should thus provide reliable channels of publicity, so that the performance of the governing parties is systematically brought to attention and can be contested. The filter bubble is a problem for contestatory democracy, because it removes the reliable channels so that key information on both topics and grounds of contestation cannot be sent and received. Agonists criticize the consensus goal of deliberative democrats and argue that other norms such as inclusion should also be the goal of democracy. They argue that special attention must be paid to the voice of minorities and other disadvantaged members of society and by making sure that dissent is continuously present. The filter bubble is a problem for agonists, because it will silence radical voices, will only reflect the viewpoints and perspectives of the mainstream and it will change agonism to antagonism.