In a recent article, I shared how social media sites are not designed to serve the user but instead to exploit them for profit through advertising and data. To do this, social media and other sites use algorithms to make the vast offerings of the internet more palatable and attractive.

The algorithm is essentially a learning tool for the internet that gathers user information to curate and recommend content for their feeds.

Algorithms exist across many platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Amazon (shopping and video) and many others. Algorithms are proprietary to each company and are continually adapted to better serve the company’s goals.

Algorithms in and of themselves are not a bad thing. They act as librarians, helping to streamline the content of the internet.

One of the internet’s great successes is the democratization of information, which has resulted in a lower threshold for people to share their knowledge and experiences. This is especially pertinent for local and neighborhood connections and immediate updates on dangerous or developing situations.

However, without an algorithm, many aspects of the internet that are currently helpful and enjoyable would be unusable because the information would be uncategorized and difficult for the average user to sort through.

Like any tool, algorithms can be used for malicious purposes and can confirm and deepen biases if the user is unaware of their presence and function.

When using a search engine, users interact with an algorithm. The search results that appear are not sorted by credibility, recency or relevancy alone. Instead, each of these metrics, as well as many others known and unknown to users, is used to rank the results the algorithm deems best suited to this particular search.

Websites can also pay search engines to boost their content in the search results. Each website wants the user to click and use the results, so it will serve options that resonate with the user. Therefore, the site often provides results that confirm what the user already believes, either consciously or unconsciously. 

As a tool of the site, the algorithm works to keep users using that site as long as possible. This goal is separate from educating or promoting a particular idea or position. 

Therefore, utilizing the information gathered about a user based on their demographic information, site usage and many other known and unknown metrics, algorithms curate a feed and reveal results that are deemed desirable by the user. 

This is the first danger of algorithms. When using a search engine or a social media site, people can believe they are receiving unbiased information, but the very act of engaging these sites begins with tools that create and curate biases.

Without realizing it, users are funneled deeper into their own bias as they may also believe they are “doing their own research.” This issue is worsened by the ongoing tech monopolies that do not allow users a fair chance to choose how they interact with the internet.

The second danger of algorithms is that users and other entities may use them to boost their own content, either for revenue or other means. Through the 2016 election season and beyond, studies showed state and non-state entities using tactics to manipulate social media algorithms to promote and disperse propaganda that spread false information and worked to achieve certain aims. 

Companies also employ teams of people to learn and manipulate algorithms to promote their content and products over others. This is even worse when the company that controls the algorithm has products on the platforms that compete with other businesses.

Again, the internet, social media, and algorithms are not necessarily bad. They are helpful tools, but they have sharp edges. Users who are unaware of what they engage with can be unexpectedly harmed and controlled.

You have a right to know the tools you are using to learn and connect. With this knowledge, you can begin to carve your own path forward.

Rev. Harrison Litzell is on staff at the Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership at Mercer University.


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