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CITP Luncheon Speaker Series: Erik J. Olsson – Does Google Read our Minds? Personalized Search, Filter Bubbles and Democracy

Tuesday, May 7, 2019
12:30 pm - 1:30 pm


Sherrerd Hall, 3rd floor open space
Princeton, NJ 08544 United States + Google Map

A popular belief is that the process whereby search engines tailor their search results to individual users, so-called personalization, leads to filter bubbles in the sense of ideologically segregated search results that would tend to reinforce the user’s prior view (filter bubble hypothesis). Since filter bubbles are thought to be detrimental to society, there have been calls for further legal regulation of search engines beyond the so-called Right to be Forgotten Act (EU, C-131/12, 2014). However, the scientific evidence for the filter bubble hypothesis is surprisingly limited. Previous studies of personalization in Google have focused on the extent to which different artificially created users get different result lists without taking the content of the webpages whose links are on the lists into account. This paper proposes a methodology that takes content differences between webpages into account drawing also on the activities of real (as opposed to artificial) users. In particular, the method involves studying the extent to which real users with strong opposing views on an issue receive search results that are correlated content-wise with their personal view. We illustrate our methodology at work, but also the non-trivial challenges it faces, by a pilot study of the extent to which Google Search leads to ideological segregation on the issue of man-made climate change. The second, more exploratory, part of the talk is devoted to a discussion of the extent to which filter bubbles if they exist, now or in the future, are detrimental to democracy.


Erik J. Olsson is a professor and chair in theoretical philosophy at Lund University, Sweden. His areas of research include epistemology, philosophical logic, pragmatism, and, more recently, epistemological aspects of social networks and search engines like Google. His books include Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification (Oxford University Press, 2005, paperback 2008), Knowledge and Inquiry: Essays on the Pragmatism of Isaac Levi (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Belief Revision Meets Philosophy of Science (Springer, 2011). Erik recently published a trilogy of journal articles (co-written with George Masterton) analyzing Google’s foundational PageRank algorithm from a wisdom-of-crowds perspective. He is presently leading a research project funded by The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences investigating Google from the perspective of personalized search, filter bubbles and polarization.

No RSVP required for current Princeton faculty, staff, and students. Open to members of the public by invitation only. Please contact Jean Butcher at  if you are interested in attending a particular lunch.

To request accommodations for a disability, please contact Jean Butcher, , 609-258-9658 at least one week prior to the event.