Algorithms and Us
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our social lives and has forced people to seek comfort, affection, and freedom from boredom via social media. Is this true or is it something that Facebook would like us to believe? Actually, the truth is a lot more complicated.
There’s a proverb, attributed to the Cherokee, that often appears on memes. It tells of two wolves who are always fighting. One is darkness and despair, the other is light and hope. Which wolf wins? The one you feed. It helps people understand how you can influence your own approach to life.
This is, however, also a very good explanation of how social media algorithms work. People saying that ‘Facebook doesn’t allow you to see most of your friends’ posts’ haven’t figured this out yet. What we see on our news feed is based on what we have interacted with in the past. If we comment on, share, or even ‘like’ a certain topic frequently, we will see more of it in our newsfeed. Those topics that we ignore tend to gradually disappear. Our news feed is tailor-made to give us what it thinks we want to see, based on what we interact with.
And the algorithms are quite sophisticated. I was typing a post saying, “It’s high time for a big shout out to all those people in medical professions who are working day and night […],” and I hadn’t even gotten through my sentence before Facebook popped up saying, ‘Do you want to include a Donate Now button?’ By analysing the content I was typing, the algorithm had decided I might want to.
So here’s the thing: if we consistently interact with posts that make us angry, despairing, or afraid, we are going to see more of the same thing. And our outlook on the world is going to be affected by this, because we’re only getting bad news. (Other news media aren’t going to counteract that with good news because, as we know, good news is ‘no news’ for news media.)
Occasionally someone who has figured this out, provides an antidote. I started following a page called Positive News Algorithm, dedicated to sharing positive, fact-checked bits of optimism. And sure enough, the more I ‘like’ one of their posts, the more I see of them. Another type of post that I follow diligently are those offering information, facts, and analyses (provided they are from trustworthy, fact-checked sources). A supporting app like News Guard helps check the veracity of the source.
So getting back to those people seeking comfort, affection, and freedom from boredom? This seems to have triggered a landslide of chain posts (‘Please respond below and then copy paste (don’t share) to your own timeline’), 10-day challenges, and ‘To cheer me up, please post the xx photo on your mobile phone’ posts. (I actually will respond to that last one if the xx photo on my phone happens to be a cute kitten pic.) All much more innocent than playing games like Nametests, etc. where your personal data can be mined. So what harm can it do?
But stop to think what this means to the algorithms. We respond to people saying they’re feeling bored and despondent. Therefore, we start seeing more and more posts born out of ‘boredom and despondency’. We even actively pass it on. Are we really feeling bored and despondent? Is spreading this through Facebook going to make us feel less so? If social media fills up with this sort of idle thinking, it won’t be a source of comfort, affection, and freedom of boredom. It will only perpetuate the misery.
We can respond to people in a genuine and authentic way, without simply passing something on that we read somewhere. We’re better off feeding ‘wolves of light and hope.’ Let’s not be sheep.