Just last week, I finished watching “The Social Dilemma,” a Netflix documentary that explores the algorithms and intricacies that constitute our social media platforms. I will admit, it was a little more dramatic than I was expecting, but I believe that the message it was trying to convey was a very necessary one for us to hear: while social media may be an entertaining way to interact with our friends, we must consider the fact that these applications rely on business models designed to maximize profits.
Because their products are free to users, social media companies are forced to find different sources of income. It just so happens that the most practical alternative is to collect data from their users and use that to develop an algorithm that optimizes user engagement. Which, in turn, encourages large companies to buy out advertising space on the platforms.
These systems exploit the vulnerability of their users by appealing to individual preferences and biases. YouTube, for instance, recommends videos based on watch history and search history. This, of course, can be very convenient, but it also entices users to stick with a particular type of content rather than develop variety.
Social media’s growing popularity has incentivized developers to design improved artificial intelligence (AI) systems that increase user engagement. An enhanced algorithm would be better equipped to compute data and provide us with information that matches our interests. While one could argue this to be beneficial in certain disciplines, I believe that improved AI will have a negative impact on our political climate.
We, as people, are inclined to devote our faith to what is presented to us. Reality is what our senses make it out to be, despite what actually might be happening in the world. Naive realism is this tendency to assume we’re being objective when we base our opinions around experience. What we often fail to consider is how many of our experiences actually make up a true reality.
Social media, unfortunately, has led to the blurring of some of these lines. Algorithms designed to keep us engaged have unintentionally created a propaganda in which our characteristics and interests influence the type of information we see.
Facebook, for instance, will suggest you join groups based on your interaction with certain posts, pages and groups you’re already a part of. As a result, people who believe one thing may be inclined to manifest a broader range of beliefs due to certain ideas being considered “related.”
Through many instances of repetition and confirmation, these ideas eventually become a part of our own reality. Social media provides closed networks for communication, which results in an amplification of ideas, regardless of how objective the idea may be. These echo chambers allow people to feed off of each others’ words and fortify their perception of the world, while simultaneously fueling contention and partisan debate across the country.
A 2017 MIT study found that “it took the truth approximately six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.” As far as the algorithms are aware, the validity of information is directly correlated to its popularity. If an article is being frequently shared, the algorithm will help promote it, regardless of the content. All that matters is that the source is increasing traffic to their platform and getting more users engaged.
With the election nearing, it’s important that NC State students exercise their right to vote. I would argue that it’s important for students to scrutinize their own views to ensure they’re voting on the basis of what’s actually happening in the world. Oftentimes, we fall victim to these algorithmic “rabbit holes” without actually realizing it and develop views that aren’t truly our own.
In order to effectively initiate this change, we need to pave the path for a more open conversation between individuals. Social media encourages us to develop a blind faith in reality, which often prompts criticism of those who don’t align themselves with our views.
In a world of instant gratification, it is our responsibility to take a step back and educate ourselves. We shouldn’t always take information at face value, especially when it comes to issues that affect us on a daily basis. It’s imperative that we do our research and empower ourselves with the objective truth before fabricating a reality that only contributes to polarization in an already divided nation.