Upworthy's CEO explains how to break your online 'filter bubble.'

This year's election and its aftermath made one thing clear: There are multiple Americas and we're not listening to each other.

It's not necessarily our fault either. Search engines and social media platforms like Google and Facebook have been accused of creating "filter bubbles" for users, using algorithms to determine what we see based on what they think we want to see, often excluding information that might challenge our pre-existing beliefs or make us feel uncomfortable.

Since the presidential campaign kicked off last year, the filter bubble has been the subject of fierce discussion, credited with (or blamed for) everything from the surprise of Donald Trump's victory to the proliferation of fake news to the eroding of democracy.


Here at Upworthy, the "filter bubble" has long been kind of a big deal. Our co-founder and CEO Eli Pariser coined the term in his book "The Filter Bubble" way back in 2011, before anyone could imagine the events of 2016.

Photo by Jess Blank/Upworthy.

I sat down with Pariser (full disclosure: my boss' boss) to ask him how our online filters shape our lives and ideas — and how we as individuals can break through and reach out to the other side.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: What is the filter bubble?

Pariser: The filter bubble is the personalized universe of information that we increasingly live in online. Websites know who we are, and they tailor their content to what they think we want to see. And when you add all of that up, you get your own personal filter bubble.

We don’t always know or see that this filtering is being done for us, and we don’t see what’s being filtered out. And so, without knowing it, we can see a view of the world that we think is representative, but is actually just showing us what these websites think we want to see.

How do sites like Facebook and Google build these bubbles?

By algorithms that are collecting personal data about you, making some guesses about what you might be interested in, and showing you some stories and not others. And in some cases, sharing that information with other websites across the web.

"It’s always tempting to just write off people who disagree with you. I think it’s really important to at least understand how they could come to believe what they believe." — Eli Pariser

Some of it's very crude: I’m a man, not a woman. I’m white, I’m not Latino or black. So some of it is very basic demographic level. Some of it is much more sophisticated. It’s looking at the whole history of what I’ve clicked on over the course of my time online and trying to make some assumptions about what it means I will click on going forward.

Give me an example of how this works.

One of the craziest filter bubble experiences I’ve ever had was on a radio show, where the host was asking people to google "Barack Obama" and call in and tell him what they saw. And the first three people who called in all saw the exact same thing, which was the Wikipedia entry on Barack Obama and the White House. And I was thinking, "This is the worst radio interview ever because everyone’s seeing the same thing."

And then a guy called in and said, "My first result is about how Obama’s birth certificate is fake." And that’s the kind of thing that’s really unnerving because he didn’t know that his results were different from everyone else’s until he heard what their results were, and in fact, for some reason, Google thought he would be interested in this totally untrue story about Obama.

But why should I want to be bombarded with viewpoints I disagree with in my social media feed? I'd rather not deal with those people, to be honest.

It’s always tempting to just write off people who disagree with you. I think it’s really important to at least understand how they could come to believe what they believe. Because even if you don’t agree, understanding the framework in which they’re operating opens up the door to persuasion and to an actual conversation.

What can I do if I want to get outside my filter bubble?

I’d say there’s a few things you can do. The first is to seek out what Ethan Zuckerman calls “bridge figures,” people who kind of have a foot in several different communities. And they can act as a kind of interpreter and help people. It’s hard to plunge right into a group of people who you deeply disagree with, so finding the bridge people who can interpret and explain how that group of people is seeing the world is often really important.

The second piece is just seeking out more diverse sources of information, and actually, if it’s on Twitter or on Facebook, finding some people who you really disagree with to add to your feed and follow and engage with is a great way to get outside of your bubble.

"You can stay inside your bubble but that's your choice. But the thing is, just because you choose to believe certain things are true doesn’t mean that’s actually what’s true." — Eli Pariser

And then I think the third piece is to really understand which mediums are good for which things because Facebook is going to organize information in one way, and Twitter is going to organize information in another way, and we shouldn’t assume that all of them are great for the same kind of purposes. Twitter, generally, makes it easier to view content from people you might deeply disagree with than Facebook does. You can decide to spend more of your time on a platform like that.

We just had a really tense, brutal election. It seems like a lot of people are finding it hard to talk to the other side right now. What advice do you have for them?

The thing that Clinton and Trump supporters can do that’s actually important is engage in places where there are other identities that are the most important. So, sports, for example, is a place where people are willing to put aside their partisan identities because we’re all fans of this one team. And actually, what researchers have said is that those sports forums are some of the places where the best cross-partisan dialogue is actually happening because it’s all cool. Because we all love the Patriots best, and so we can argue about race, and we can argue about these other things, and it’s OK. And I think finding those spaces where there’s an identity that supersedes our partisan identity is one of the best ways to engage with people very unlike us.

What advice do you have for people who would just rather stay inside their comfort zone than deal with all that?

You can stay inside your bubble, but that's your choice. But the thing is, just because you choose to believe certain things are true doesn’t mean that’s actually what’s true. And we can lose sight of the real problems and the real challenges in the world, but they don’t lose sight of us. I think, at some point, reality comes to bare, and that’s what we are seeing in this election.

There are things that are real in the world that no amount of telling yourself they’re not true helps solve. You have to grapple with those actual issues.

How do you approach those difficult disagreements, either in real life or on social media?

I would say, have conversations in which you affirm the other person. Because research shows that when you can remind people what’s good about themselves, they’re much more open and they’re much more open to consider other ideas.

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."