Eli Pariser is an Author, Internet Activist, and Entrepreneur focused on making technology and media serve democracy and adhere to privacy laws. He is the Executive Director of MoveOn.org, where he helped pioneer online citizen engagement. He coined the term Filter Bubble and also wrote a book on the subject. He is known for questioning how tech platforms are reshaping public life.
Pariser’s prominence as a Political Activist began when he and his friend David H. Pickering decided to launch an online petition calling for a nonmilitary response to September 11, 2001. At the time, he was working as a Program Assistant at the National NonProfit, More Than Money. He received tremendous support, and in less than a month, half a million people had signed the petition.
The Founders of Moveon.org, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades were impressed by his petition and invited him to merge his efforts with theirs to make a difference which he readily accepted and joined the company in November 2001.
During the 2004 U.S. Presidential Campaign, he co-created Bush in 30 Seconds and raised over $30 million from small donors to run ads and back Democratic and progressive candidates that would serve the U.S. Democracy.
Pariser revealed in an interview, “After the election, I felt gratified that the idea that I had put out in the world was useful to people, but also worried that people were taking it a little too far. The filter bubble explains a lot about how liberals didn’t see Trump coming, but not very much about how he won the election. I think even if you’re talking about the conservative media ecosystem, my guess is that talk-radio, local news, and Fox are a much more important piece of that story than random conservative fake news.”
Journalist Geroge Packer wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2003 and referred to MoveOn as the ‘mainstream’ element of what ‘may be the fastest-growing protest movement in American history.’
Pariser later shifted his focus and became concerned with web personalization based on individuals. He noticed a pattern of different responses to search engine queries based on a user’s past Internet search history, likes and preferences. It differed to such an extent that a person with a liberal orientation might get an entirely different set of responses than a conservative if they used Google, Facebook, or Yahoo to search for a phrase or term on the Internet.
For example, a liberal typing ‘B.P.’ might get information about the Gulf of Mexico’s oil spill. In contrast, a conservative typing ‘B.P.’ might get investment information about the oil company.
He anticipated the dangers of a hyper-personalized Internet that led to him coining the term ‘filter bubble’ to the lexicon in his 2011 New York Times bestselling book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You.
Bill Gates, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and other internet panjandrums have also taken to the stage to express their concern about this phenomenon. His 2011 TED talk on the topic, Filter Bubbles, now has over 5 million views.
Speaking on the topic of Filter Bubbles, Pariser said, “It hadn’t really fully occurred to me when I first had this image of a bunch of media sources and then a membrane or filter that surrounds a person that those sources get through, that the whole system would become self-aware in a certain sense—that the media organizations would grow autotrophically toward those bubbles. I think certainly that has happened. You can target very particular niches or communities and reach a lot of those people, and do it by understanding how that algorithm works and what it lets in.”
With his inclination towards democracy and educating the masses, in 2012, he co-founded Upworthy with Peter Koechley. The Media Company showcases civically important ideas and makes them popular. Within two years, the company has grown exponentially and had over 80 million monthly visitors.
In 2018, he began work on Civic Signals with Professor Talia Stroud, a project of the National Conference on Citizenship, intending to create more ‘public-friendly’ online spaces, a concept described in his 2019 Ted Talk.
Speaking on a business model for healthier digital spaces, Pariser said, “I think we need both private platforms that are more public-friendly, but also platforms that are publicly owned where people feel like they have real ownership. Because people behave really differently when they own something. They take better care of it. Right now, nobody feels like they’re responsible for picking up the trash, so there’s a lot of trash around.”
He is currently an affiliate of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, a Langfield Visiting Resident at Princeton University, and an Omidyar Fellow at the New America. He is also one of the 25 leading figures on the Information and Democracy Commission launched by Reporters Without Borders. His agenda of building safe online spaces and protecting the people from the negative influence of the Internet has only just begun. He is on a mission to safeguard the interests of all the people.
In conclusion, Pariser says, “In a personalized world, important but complex or unpleasant issues are less likely to come to our attention at all.” That would leave us devastated viewing the stock market crash while in complete ignorance of the wars happening in Afghanistan or Syria for that matter. This is a fight we cannot afford to lose!