Walking down the street, on the way to work, in the gym, grocery shopping, pumping gas, getting a coffee, and eating at a restaurant… in every one of these places it is safe to say that at least one person will be scrolling through a social media platform of some kind, consuming whatever appears on their feed as they are mindlessly scrolling to kill time in their mundane weekly activity. What we usually do not worry about is why we are seeing what we are on our feeds. Why does that video of a dog eating ice cream or that brand of shampoo always appear at the top of your feed? Social media algorithms are the answer. These algorithms are one of the largest reasons we see what we do on our social media, yet very few people actually understand them or better yet know they exist.
What is a Social Media Algorithm and How do they Work?
The technical definition of a social media algorithm is a means of sorting posts based on relevancy rather than the time they were published, this prioritizes content that the algorithm believes is more likely to gain engagement and likes from users. Most algorithms are built by coders using machine learning. This helps ensure the flow of content and filtering of information and actions that would otherwise be tedious for humans to do.
In a nutshell, algorithms are used to deliver information that is more interesting and relevant to the user, rather than the user having to filter through everything published on social media presented in a timeline order. Most algorithms are content-based, meaning what they deem as “high-quality” for the user is based on what the user most regularly engages with and follows. While it is easy to forget, social media platforms are businesses interested in making money and using marketing to their advantage just like any other industry, this brings into question how certain content and media are pushed by algorithms more because of paid promotions and other similar means. Algorithms are not always only focused on content, either, some algorithms also push users to other users who seem to have shared interests.
The altruism of social media algorithms is called into question when “shadowbanning” and information gaps within the platform begin to rise. Shadow bans occur when a specific algorithm hides or neglects certain posts about a specific event, person, company, etc. This aspect of algorithms is what causes issues regarding transparency, this means of shadowbanning and promoting one-sided information and content is what is prioritized, in turn, causing a lack of understanding of a certain issue and/or topic. With this in mind, social media algorithms have been said to be deciding important information for us, as users, rather than letting us decide what is important and what is not for ourselves.
Transparency in Social Media Networks
Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Meta (formerly known as Facebook), amongst other prominent names in the industry, has openly admitted (see video below) that transparency in social media algorithms is especially important and critical to keeping social media a place of open expression and information sharing. He clearly states that no one would want to be using any platform owned by a private company that completely dictates all content on it for its own gain. While many CEOs have stated they want more transparency in regards to social media algorithms, many algorithms still remain a mystery to public users with little to no understanding (or even knowledge) of what algorithms are and how they operate.
Regulations for Social Media Algorithms
Much of the US Congress’ main concern in regards to social media algorithms is how they promote “harmful” content to users in an effort to push so-called “high-quality” content to users to produce more engagement. The US Congress, among much of the public and most social media users, believes that social media algorithms purposefully boost posts with big headlines and/or controversies and in turn cause chaos and confusion among users who are only getting the side of the story pushed to them by the algorithm. In a judicial hearing held in April of 2021 many US senators called on public policy executives of large social media platforms – Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter – to question the negative effects of their algorithms, the scope of their impact, and how they operate. Senators claimed that the algorithms ultimately harm people and society. With that being said executives still declined to give an insight into their algorithms and how they operate.
Senators were quick to explain that this meeting had no partisan or legislative agenda behind it but, that it was an urgent issue that demanded attention.
“[Social media] algorithms promote false information and force people into hyper-tailored idea echo-chambers.”Senator Chris Coons of Deleware
The hearing was ultimately an informational session that was, in hopes, going to be a source of knowledge for future legislation. Senators’ main goals seemed to be to have a greater understanding of algorithms while expressing their concerns about public misinformation and catering to the public view to one side or another.
There has been an act introduced to the legislature, specifically by the aforementioned Senator Coons, called the Algorithmic Fairness Act, this would give the Federal Trade Commission authority to evaluate the fairness of social media algorithms, specifically used for ad targeting and search results. Ultimately, the hearing in April of 2021 was in an effort to gain more transparency from social media executives regarding algorithms, their fairness, operations, and end goals.
Why No Transparency?
Youtube, a large video sharing platform, stated during the April 2021 hearing that there would be ultimately no way for them to share analytics and other data from their video recommendation algorithm, they did, however, state that they would like to work with the Senators on providing more transparency to the Congress and their own users. Facebook, Google, and Twitter seemed to be more on board with increasing transparency regarding social media algorithms and fighting misinformation and excitement caused by their algorithms. There, however, has been one bipartisan bill passed that requires quarterly transparency reports that would outline actions taken to enforce content moderation policies, all in hopes of increasing transparency and awareness of social media algorithms to the public.
TikTok and Other Platforms Opening Up About Algorithms
Amongst the backlash and questioning of social media algorithms and their lack of transparency, TikTok, in particular, has taken a stand to open up about its algorithms and reporting in an effort to “…inspire creativity and bring joy.” TikTok states that it regularly publishes Transparency Reports in an effort to show how it upholds its own community guidelines as well as follows law enforcement and government requests for removals of certain content.
Amid TikTok bringing more transparency to its algorithm, it seems Instagram may be doing the same. In April of 2022, Instagram announced that it would be changing its algorithm to promote more ‘original’ content, stating that users who put in the effort to make and post their own content within the app deserve more credit than those reposting others’ content from various platforms. In this announcement, Instagram chief, Adam Mosseri, was very transparent about what tags and posts would be valued higher than others and that there would be a [hopeful] decrease in accounts only resharing content from other platforms.
Thoughts on Social Media Algorithms
While algorithms have their good qualities, in many cases the bad may outweigh the good. The big issue with social media algorithms, specifically, is the widespread misinformation across platforms and lack of transparency. However, if platforms do start to be more open about algorithms, how they operate, and the type of content they push there may be a shift in social media content coming in the near future. Ultimately, the issue lies in the fear of misinformation and this seems to be what the US Congress, amongst other lawmakers in the US and various countries, are worried about. As long as there is a consistent effort across all platforms to increase transparency and allow for users to have more control of what they see on social media, algorithms can still be a good thing.