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Reading for keywords—though I doubt that research studies can say anything definitive about it—may have the effect of confirming in a reader the associations that those keywords already hold. So a reader who sees the words “immigration” or “abortion” on screen may end up with stronger feelings about them, not with the potentially different ideas, originating from a different person, that someone might get when reading an argument about the same words on paper. The implications of this effect on recent political life—the furies aroused, for example, by Donald Trump’s Twitter feed—will not escape anyone’s notice. Anger feeds on itself to produce greater anger; polarities of opinion become intensified; individual voters coalesce into baiting crowds; virtual enmities erupt into physical ones.

In The Filter Bubble (2011), Eli Pariser attributed this narrowing effect to technologies used by Google, Amazon, Apple, and others to feed search results, or suggestions of books and music that might “also interest” you, that match and confirm information that you searched for earlier, and that others who have been associated with you by algorithms also searched for. Left- or right-wing users are nudged by onscreen links to books and sites that endorse the views they already hold. Pariser’s argument, though much disputed, seems essentially unchallengeable, and a comparably narrowing effect may be produced not only by corporate machinations but also by new habits of online reading.

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