How Social Media Algorithms Manipulate What You Read

Imagine, if you still can, a newspaper. And now think of the rapidly fading genius of how it works, as a more powerful method of disseminating and retaining information, at least in part through the subtle, gentle power of serendipity.

A newspaper has been carefully laid out, it has been crafted – albeit quickly and usually in a single day – by a team of editors to offer information that not only you but millions of people love, and unlike you might find interesting. When you read it, you are, or have been, quite often caught, surprised, enlightened by a story you didn’t know you were interested in until you came across it.

The evening newscast, another declining format in our fast-paced, information-laden world, works much the same way.

Now think about how you ingested your news this morning, or yesterday, or last week.

According to last year’s ‘Digital News Report: Australia’, only 4% of respondents said they mainly get their news from print publications. The report also found that the number of Australians accessing print news had halved since 2016, with 80% of people saying they had not read a newspaper or news magazine in the past week.

The vast majority of people access information through a mobile phone, and even then they may not be getting it from traditional brands that put their newspapers online. According to Pew Research, about half of Americans get their news through social media.

If this is how you get your news, the stories you read are carefully curated for you, not by journalists and editors, but by algorithms.

These clever, ever-changing, and largely impenetrable strings of code are not so much about serendipity as about certainty. They know what you’ve read before – all of it and for how long – and what people like you liked, and what they liked most afterwards. And also, vitally and somewhat scarily, which of their paid advertisers might be best served by then offering you a particular story.

Dangers of Algorithmic News Curators

As Andrew Dodd, an associate professor working in media studies at the University of Melbourne, points out, you now live in a world where the media finds you, rather than the other way around.

When you think about it, the way we consume information has changed so drastically over the past two decades – since the advent of Facebook and the iPhone – that this period will undoubtedly be seen as a seismic shift in the world. human history.

“People build walls around themselves when it comes to information, they’re not just filter bubbles, they enclose themselves.”

“The changes in the way we deliver news have been just as huge as the arrival of television, and the changes in the media landscape have been, in many ways, as profound as the arrival of the printing press in the 1400s,” adds Dodd.

“We no longer search or pick up our favorite publications, but news providers of all kinds seek to find us on the many platforms to which we subscribe.

“It can lead to complacency, even laziness, because you think you’re reading news and you’re aware of the news of the day, but what you read is actually more selected, more refined and defined. , and one receives information that is more limited and narrow than ever.

“You are so much less likely to be exposed to different viewpoints when you get your news through social media than you would through mainstream media.

“We used to say you should be afraid of people getting all their news on TV, but think how outdated that is now. TV news is actually much more of a big-format approach in terms of respecting the idea of ​​at least hearing different voices, than the filter bubbles we live in through our social media feeds.

Dodd, the director of the Center for Advancing Journalism, is as alarmed as we all probably should be about the shrinking media landscape, the lack of trust in respected sources that social media has spawned, and the dangerous and damaging quagmire that hides at the bottom of the multitude of rabbit holes on the internet.

Indeed, he quickly retracts on the term filter bubble, because “it’s much worse than that, people build walls around them in terms of information, it’s not just filter bubbles, they are walled up”.

Misinformation is dictating society like never before

After a few years in which we’ve seen social media spouting anti-vax content during a pandemic, and the idea that President Joe Biden somehow stole a US election from social media superstar Donald Trump, and At a time when Elon Musk is undoubtedly poised to take Twitter further into the wild, it’s no surprise some people are calling for tighter controls.
Barack Obama recently called for more regulation to stop the spread of misinformation and misinformation online.

“Now is the time to choose a side… are we letting go of our democracy or improving it?” Obama asks.

“These decisions affect us all, and like all other industries that have a significant impact on our society, it means that these big platforms must be subject to some level of public oversight and regulation.”

“I think the algorithms know, not only what we’ve read before, but also what other people want to sell us.”

On the other side of this fight are the tech platforms themselves, and people like political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who argues that people in Silicon Valley shouldn’t take on the role of “social censors.”

Fukuyama says fake news, hate speech and conspiracy theories are not a major problem compared to political censorship, which he says silences conservative voices (by banning Donald Trump, for example).

“The power to mediate content is like a loaded gun that sits on the table and you trust the guy on the other end of the table not to pick up the gun and shoot you,” Fukuyama, the author of the book The End of History and the Last Man, Claims.

Facebook and Twitter have “neither the capacity, nor the judgment, nor the legitimacy to be the arbiters of what is appropriate political discourse in any modern democracy,” he adds.

Dodd points out that many voices that would never have had global reach before – the kind of people who shouted on street corners and handed out pamphlets – have been allowed to go global through social media.

“Before ideas were exposed to a contrary point of view, now online no one contradicts some of this bullshit, you don’t even have to justify your opinions, and online you will find many people who echo, and then the platforms will feed you more and more,” he says.

“I think algorithms know not only what we’ve read before, but also what other people want to sell us. So it’s not just what we want to read, it’s the algorithm thinking, “Here’s a potential connection I can make between a sponsor and a reader,” or a consumer.”

Get out of the echo chamber

So if you find yourself living in a world where you are breathing filter bubbles inside an echo chamber designed to reinforce your own beliefs and certainties, what should you do?

According to Dodd, the first thing to do is to get help from a young person.

“Ask them how to do it, how to set up your flows, because you can break free, and they will advise you – just accept that they will date you while they do it – but also in the process you can have an exchange of information with them about the value of traditional media approaches, of respecting different points of view, because some of these concepts are being lost,” he says.

If you’re going to get your news through a screen, your options are nearly limitless, but you’ll want to choose to have information delivered to you by reputable news sources. And, ideally, you’d choose some from both sides of the political spectrum – The Guardian and the Daily Mail, for example.

But how do you know if you are consulting a serious and respected source?

“You want a site that considers news from all relevant angles, a site that understands that completely discredited news has lost its right to be legitimate,” says Dodd.

“Climate change is happening, we’ve gone way beyond whether that’s the case. There really was a Holocaust during WWII and if any site still disputes that, so it’s not serious.

“And you want a platform that provides all relevant aspects of any debate, and many topics have more than just two aspects.

“The thing is, the internet is giving us all more reading material than ever before, but you have to know how to search for that information, you have to expose yourself to different sources.

“Facebook, on the other hand, is just a quagmire of shit.”

Or, of course, you can just start reading the newspapers again. The more of them, the better.

Read next: Screen addiction is the latest pandemic coming your way

Sharon D. Cole