Algorithms seem to be taking over our lives. Every time we hit the search button on Google, buy a train ticket online or use social media we are expanding the scope and range of algorithms. Instead of letting a string of computer code increasingly decide our preferences for us, how can we fight back and retain some element of control over our online experiences?
An ‘Algorithm’ is simply a set of instructions, and today it just describes the automated steps a computer follows in operating different functions. But, after repeated reference in the context of social media giants such as Facebook, and privacy scandals such as that of Cambridge Analytica, the concept has taken on very many negative connotations. ‘Algorithm’ has almost become a dirty word.
An algorithm in itself is not sinister, and they have some fantastic applications in our day-to-day lives, such as suggesting the quickest route home or saving us from having to type the full question into Google through suggestions.
However, algorithms need to be demystified. We need to understand how they gather and use data on us so that we can limit the control they have over us.
What’s so harmful about social media algorithms?
Social media algorithms are central to online advertising. To be cost-effective, companies want to ensure their advertisements are being shown to the right people. That’s where algorithms come in: by analysing the issues and subjects we interact with positively on social media they can determine what sort of products and services we may be interested in. Brands and businesses then pay social media platforms like Facebook to push their services to us, and suddenly we’re inundated with online advertisements tailored exactly to our interests.
Ultimately, an algorithm aims to override human thought and decision making process, telling and showing us what we want to see, before we may have even decided this ourselves. However, the problem is not that the algorithms exist, it’s that we’ve invested too much trust in them. We need to remember that what content we seek out and view should be up to us. You may love discovering new music through Spotify’s personalised suggestions, but you know that sometimes you’ll want to explore new genres: music that is not in any way similar to what you listen to now. Because this won’t be like any music you’ve listened to thus far, you probably value the freedom to seek this out yourself.
Are algorithms biased?
Yes, inevitably. An algorithm reviews the content we like and then pushes similar content towards us.
This is supposedly all to guarantee a positive user experience, but surrounding ourselves purely with things that we know you like and agree with is dangerous – that way echo chambers lie. And it limits imagination and caps our powers of exploration. The web is a vast jungle of information and opinions, but if we rely on algorithms too much, browsing the web will become a rather stagnant and passive experience, more like watching television than searching for and discovering things ourselves.
How can we limit algorithms’ power over us?
We need to be careful that we do not become puppets of algorithms and subsequently victims of sophisticated, big budget, online marketing.
Cut down the time you spend on social media
The less information you provide algorithms with, the less they will know about you. It’s as simple as that. Spend less time on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and become less reliant on social media sites for your news. The nature of an algorithm means it is inevitably biased: do you really want your news to be provided by a source with an agenda?
Confuse the algorithms
Anyone who doesn’t want social media algorithms gathering too much personal data needs to start disrupting them. That is, go against what they think you want. This means ‘liking’ and ‘following’ posts and communities that you really have no interest in (or even disagree with!) and resisting the urge to click on pages promoted to you. Consciously spend some time each day confusing the profile of information that’s been built up about you by behaving unpredictably online. A less certain algorithm will provide a greater diversity in the content pushed to you, reinstating the power of choice.
If this feels too counter-intuitive, Go Rando is a web browser extension that can do it for you!