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How social media algorithms are manipulating what you read

The way we source news and information to form our own opinions has changed, but not necessarily for the better of humankind, investigates Stephen Corby.

Social Media Algorithms

Picture, if you still can, a newspaper. And now think about the fast-fading genius of how it works, as a method of delivering, and more potently curating, information, at least partly through the subtle, soft-power of serendipity.

A newspaper has been carefully laid out, it has been designed – albeit rapidly and usually in a single day – by a team of editors to offer information that not only you but millions like, and unlike, you might find interesting. When you read it you are, or were, quite often grabbed, surprised, illuminated by a story you didn’t know you were interested in until you stumbled upon it.

The nightly television news, another fading format in our fast-paced and information-engorged world, works in much the same way.

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

According to last year’s ‘Digital News Report: Australia’, just four per cent of people surveyed said they primarily got their news from print publications. The report also revealed that the number of Australians accessing news in print had halved since 2016, with 80 per cent of people saying they had not read a newspaper or news magazine in the past week.

The vast majority of people are accessing news through a mobile phone, and even then they might not be getting it from the traditional brands that put their newspapers online. According to Pew Research, around half of all Americans get their news via social media.

If that’s how you’re getting your news, the stories you read are carefully curated for you, not by journalists and editors, but by algorithms.

These cunningly clever, constantly changing and largely impenetrable strings of code don’t dabble so much in serendipity as certainty. They know what you’ve read before – all of it, and for how long – and what people who resemble you have enjoyed, and what they enjoyed the most after that. And also, vitally, and a little scarily, which of their paying advertisers might best be served by serving you a particular story next.

Dangers of algorithmic news curators

As Andrew Dodd, an Associate Professor working in the field of 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 radically in the past two decades – since the advent of Facebook and the iPhone – that this period will undoubtedly be looked back upon as a seismic shift in human history.

“People are building walls around themselves when it comes to information, it’s not just filter bubbles, they’re walling themselves in.”

“The changes in the way we are delivered news have been every bit as enormous as the arrival of television was, and the changes to the media landscape have been, in many ways, as profound as the arrival of the printing press in the 1400s,” Dodd adds.

“We no longer seek out or pick up our favourite publications, instead purveyors of information, of all kinds, seek to find us on the numerous platforms we’re signed up to.

“That can engender a complacency, even laziness, because we think we’re reading information and we’re across the day’s news, but what we’re reading is actually more selected, more refined and defined, and we’re receiving information that’s more limited and narrow than ever before.

“You’re 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 fearful of people who get all their news from TV, but just think how out of date that is now. Television news is actually far more of a broadsheet approach in terms of respecting the idea of at least hearing from different voices, than the filter bubbles that we live in through our social media feeds.”

Dodd, the Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, is as alarmed as we probably all should be by the shrinking of the media landscape, the lack of trust in respected sources that social media has engendered and by the dangerous, damaging morass that lurks at the bottom of the multitude of rabbit holes on the internet.

Indeed, he quickly recants on the term filter bubble, because “it’s much worse than that, people are building walls around themselves when it comes to information, it’s not just filter bubbles, they’re walling themselves in.”

Misinformation dictating society like never before

After a couple of years in which we have seen social media spread anti-vax content during a pandemic, and the idea that President Joe Biden somehow stole an American election from social media superstar Donald Trump, and at a time when Elon Musk is no doubt about to take Twitter further into the wilds, it’s not surprising that some people are asking for tighter controls.
Barack Obama recently called for more regulation to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation online.

“Now’s the time to pick a side… do we allow our democracy to whither or do we make it better?” Obama asks.

“These decisions affect all of us, and just like every other industry that has a big impact in our society, that means these big platforms need to be subject to some level of public oversight and regulation.”

“I think the algorithms know, not just what we’ve read before, but what others want to sell to us.”

On the other side of that fight are the tech platforms themselves, and people like political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who argues that the denizens of Silicon Valley should not be taking on a role as “social censors”.

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

“The power to mediate content is like a loaded gun that’s sitting on the table and you’re trusting the guy at the other end of the table not to pick the gun up and to shoot you,” Fukuyama, the author of the book The End of History and the Last Man, claims.

Facebook and Twitter have “neither the capacity, judgment or legitimacy to be the arbiters of what is appropriate political speech in any modern democracy,” he adds.

Dodd points out that plenty of 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 by social media.

“Ideas used to be exposed to a countering view, now, online, nobody is countering some of this crap, you don’t even have to justify your views, and online you’ll find plenty of people echoing them, and then the platforms will feed you more and more of that,” he says.

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

Escaping the echo chamber

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

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

“Ask them how to do it, how to set up your feeds, because you can break free, and they’ll advise you – just accept that they’ll patronise you while they’re doing it – but also in the process you can have an information exchange with them about the value of the traditional approaches to media, of respect for different viewpoints, because some of these concepts are being lost,” he says.

If you are going to get your news through a screen, your options are almost limitless, but you’ll want to be choosing to have information pushed to you by serious 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 can you tell if you are looking at a serious, respected source?

“You want a site that considers information from all relevant perspectives, one that understands that information that is thoroughly discredited has lost its right to be legitimate,” Dodd explains.

“Climate change is happening, we’ve moved way beyond discussing whether it is. There really was a Holocaust in World War II and if a site is still disputing that, then it’s not serious.

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

“The fact is, the internet provides more for us all to read than ever before, but you have to be savvy about how to seek that information, you have to expose yourself to different sources.

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

Or, of course, you could just go back to reading newspapers. The more of them the better.

Read next: Screen addiction is the latest pandemic that’s coming for you

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