How would you feel if the same people who formulated and developed social media algorithms talk about their fears and qualms about their present and future impact on our lives? In the Netflix film “The Social Dilemma,” some social media powerhouses—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram—revealed that their platforms bank on tracking user behaviors and selling them as products to advertisers. In a sense, social media platforms incite addiction to create a mill of users to sell to and profit from.
The Netflix film touched on social media’s effects on elections, violent acts, and even mental issues, such as depression and suicide. Tech experts know that all of these “social dilemmas” arise from the algorithms and how they are programmed. That said, let’s take a deeper dive into what social media algorithms really do.
Social Media Algorithms in a Nutshell
To the average social media user, these algorithms seem harmless and, at times, even useful. Social media algorithms help marketers “personalize” user experiences. Typical uses, in turn, benefit from more relevant content.
Social media algorithms use artificial intelligence (AI) to filter and sort posts in timelines based on user behaviors and relevance instead of when contents were actually published. Social networks prioritize inputs, depending on how much users want to see particular posts.
Before applying social media algorithms, most timelines show feeds in reverse chronological order—newer posts show up first. After implementing their algorithms, platforms now changed feeds based on user preferences reflected by past behaviors.
For example, Twitter and Facebook will most likely show feeds from users’ family members and colleagues because their algorithms say they communicate and interact with these people most often. It is also not unusual to see YouTube video recommendations based on what users watched before.
How Social Media Algorithms Work
Social media algorithms, in general, comprise a group of if-then statements whose main goal is to mimic and shorten users’ decision-making processes. The exact formula may differ from one social media platform to another, but all algorithms answer the primary question, “What posts would this particular person want to see?”
Facebook, for instance, has determined that its users mainly use the platform to stay connected with other people. As such, its algorithm is based on the users’ connections and activities within Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg had this to say back in 2018:
Although the Facebook algorithm has undergone several updates, connection is still its primary ranking factor. The first items that users would most likely see on their News Feeds are:
- Photos, videos, and status updates of friends they constantly engage with
- Posts from pages they follow
- Posts from pages they do not follow but have been shared, commented on, or liked by friends
The Facebook and Instagram algorithms work quite similarly. Both social media platforms prioritize posts from accounts that users constantly interact with, such as their closest friends, family members, or favorite brands.
Twitter’s algorithm, on the other hand, takes into account several ranking signals, including:
- Recency: The most recent tweets.
- Relevance: Topics users have searched for or engaged with in the past.
- Engagement: The number of retweets, impressions, and favorites a tweet garnered.
- Rich media: The type of media the user often engages with, which can be videos, GIFs, photos, or polls.
- Followers: The number of followers an account has.
- Location: Where account users are located.
All these factors are incorporated into a complex formula, allowing the Twitter algorithm to decide what users see in Top Tweets, Twitter Topics, Twitter Moments, In Case You Missed It (ICYMI), For You, and trending hashtags.
The Need for Social Media Algorithms
Since the Internet has become accessible to most, it is easier to post photos and videos. That has resulted in a social space with thousands, if not millions, of content people have to sift through. Failure to use social media algorithms means users will have to sift through troves of content per account. So just imagine if you have 2,000 Facebook friends. Without social media algorithms, you would have to go through their accounts one by one just to stay updated on their lives.
The Social Dilemma: The Call for Regulation
As you can see, social media algorithms are not all bad. But they do have flaws.
A massive part of the dilemma stems from the exploitation of users for profit. Social media algorithms take advantage of users’ need to stay abreast of the latest happenings worldwide without considering their privacy.
In the film “The Social Dilemma,” tech experts recommended that algorithms be regulated. That is not the first time the suggestion has been made. In July 2019, the Center for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) published a report about online targeting and biases in AI-backed decision making. The organization asked the government to regulate social media algorithms to ensure that user targeting remains safe and ethical. While targeting is necessary, it should be done acceptably. It should serve the users’ best interests, not only the people who pay for data to increase their profits. Giving the users the right to control the personal information advertisers can access is a step toward regulation.
That is especially useful now that coronavirus-related lockdowns increased digital activity, and platforms have much to gain from users. Personal data should be used responsibly. People should be able to trust platforms. As such, social media networks that provide transparency even without government regulation may be more trustworthy.
Social media algorithms are here to stay. In fact, they will continue to evolve and adapt to changes in the digital sphere. And if there are those unwilling to reveal too much about themselves, the only way to beat the system is to use social media sparingly or refrain from disclosing too much.