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We Need to De-Algorithmize Our Private Lives

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the past two elections, it is more clear than ever that the most important public sphere in American and international politics is now digital. It's social media. 


A 2019 Pew Research poll indicated that 55% of adults in the United States get their news from social media often or sometimes, a clear sign to global governments that we need to reconsider legislation on social media and the internet if we hope to protect journalistic institutions as we transition into the digital future. 


One area in dire need of focus is the use of algorithms that recommend content to users on major platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.


According to Sprout Social, social media recommendation algorithms track and predict each user’s behavior based on collected data and then use this data to lead the user to content that the algorithm thinks they will be engaged by.


The main purpose of these algorithms in the social media business is to keep the users continually engaged for as much time as possible by consistently recommending content based on collected user data, hence creating sheltered Internet bubbles or communities. 


This digital behavior transcends the boundaries of the Internet. As witnessed through recent socio-political movements and events, social media and their algorithms have impacted people’s cognitive behaviors, making them fall deep into the pit of a certain political party and denounce any other systems of belief that do not align with theirs, resulting in violence, misinformation and bigotry.


So what must be done? How can we mend these systems? Perhaps a new algorithmic recommendation system that examines the popularity of certain ideas within geographic communities would be more in line with our democratic values than a system based on the collection and use of people’s individual private information. This would render the internet the “Marketplace of Ideas” it was always intended to be.


The argument that is consistently made by social media companies when their algorithms are questioned is that they “are just giving users more of what they want.” However, this argument rides the assumption that a computer program is capable of understanding what a conscious human being wants to see on the internet and that a computer can understand how to balance the dynamics of a democratic community/society based on the data produced by our individual private lives. 


It's fair to point out that there's nothing social about receiving content recommendations from a program rather than another human being or seeing what ideas are popular within a community, making the whole system contradict the role that social media companies claim to have in society. 


The political path toward altering social media will undoubtedly be complex and arduous, if politically feasible at all. One has to ask if the fundamental issues raised in this article can be fixed by any amount of tweaking social media platforms. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a world where our population interprets society through what a computer program thinks will engage us based on data, or one where we can critically think and use the internet as a tool for the free spread of ideas.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Micky Braeger was a SE&T intern for ONC during the Fall 2021 semester. 


Sources:

Barnhart, Brent. “How to Rise above Social Media Algorithms.” Sprout Social, 13 Apr. 2022, sproutsocial.com/insights/social-media-algorithms/

Dans, Enrique. “Biased Algorithms: Does Anybody Believe Twitter Is Racist?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 3 Oct. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/enriquedans/2020/10/03/biased-algorithms-does-anybody-believe-twitter-isracist/?sh=1fbd99558466

Khalid, Amrita. “Americans Can't Stop Relying on Social Media for Their News.” Quartz, Quartz, 3 Oct. 2019, qz.com/1720695/pew-study-shows-more-americans-rely-on-social-media-for-news

Schultz, David.  (Updated June 2017 by David L. Hudson). “Marketplace of Ideas.” Marketplace of Ideas, www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/999/marketplace-of-ideas

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