I hope we take time to digest the impact online algorithms are having on the division we see around us. For the past few years it has felt, at times, that I’ve been watching a kind of dystopia born before my eyes, unfolding and dividing in real-time. The way people are fed their preferences, how they become locked into them the more they consume. Wide-scale group-think occurring in divisive pockets. It feels like the scariest issue in the world right now, is that hyperbolic, I honestly don’t know. I do know it doesn’t feel like we’ve caught up to how insidious it is at scale.
Nothing is free which is confined, and today, people are becoming what they consume. To never be shown something based on a programmed expectation you would prefer to see something different is fucking dangerous, wildly radical, and historically, without precedent.
We already admit this may have swung an election, we understand how they can be weaponized, and yet, for the majority of us- myself included- we believe it isn’t happening to us. What the Facebook algorithm does, in particular, is create echo chambers. It creates a circular motion for information that overlaps and confers with one another.
It means, if and when you post something, the likelihood of that information reaching someone who doesn’t share your baseline beliefs is negligible. The newsfeed on Instagram is a prime and heinous example of this. To quote the Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein;
‘A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.’
We need to reconsider the rooms we lock ourselves in. We need to consider how these rooms perpetuate the evils seen in the world around us. We have been sold the notion that information is free to us, and it might’ve been, before you accessed any of it. But as you begin to consume, your room narrows, it becomes filled with information which confirms your thinking. Now, less than a decade into an experiment which stood to benefit only the platforms and advertisers, we find ourselves at an impasse, when things become violent, when business are being burned out of rebellion, do you think those with the most hate see the outpouring of love? do you think they see the unity and compassion which fills your room? is it even possible for them to find it?
The internet was supposed to be a treasure trove of information, and by volume, overall, it is. But that same volume is what satiates us. There is enough information of all persuasions to keep us locked into confirming our beliefs forever. These particular Algorithms do not challenge us to think, they do the opposite. The dictionary definition of an algorithm is;
‘a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.’
Algorithms are conditioned, they are at the mercy of their input, and over time this lack of nuance or responsiveness can become a major problem. Let’s take an example from outside of Social Media. During the stock market collapse in mid-March, ETFs or electronically traded funds, which operate algorithmically, responded catastrophically to a historically unprecedented spike in volatility. This meant they had no ability to effectively respond to the situation. They had no way to meet the moment within the confines of the conditioned set of rules, the market sold off 50% in less than five trading days. Many of these ETFs had no way of fulfilling their algorithmic conditions and therefore caused what essentially amounts to a large-scale glitch.
What the Coronavirus was to the ETFs, is what the protests this weekend are to the Instagram algorithm. As tensions rise, we are fed our own narrative, this creates massive divisions within society.
The Instagram algorithm amounts to a monologue, we hear voices that often sound much like our own, and anything which challenges our beliefs is left invisible to us. Society is losing the ability to have an effective dialogue as a direct result of these processes. The implications are horrifying. My feed is filled with hopeful messages about the future, people championing progressive causes, showing solidarity and support, it’s been a beautiful thing to witness. But America was on fire this weekend, buildings were looted, mostly it seems by radical left-wing groups completely unrelated to the uplifting solidarity shown surrounding the murder of George Floyd. Unfortunately, what do you think a right-wing nationalist saw this morning?
How did their feed reflect their views?
I’m sure the narrative was profoundly different than mine, in fact I know it was, just a couple of searches on Twitter can tell you what another group is thinking. The consequences of these systems go far beyond just how Ads are presented to you, they carve slowly into the fabric of our beliefs.
I recommend books frequently, not because I’m sentimental, but because a book will provide actual information. You can’t keyword a book, there is no basic headline to pull a fraction of information from to regurgitate as fact. A book can help you learn to pull rather than to push.
These are a handful worth reading if you’re curious about how algorithms function generally, the potential dangers, and how they often perpetuate racism and bigotry more broadly.
*originally posted on Instagram @bruinalexander