The Impact of Algorithms
The use of algorithms on social media websites negatively impact our understanding of the world. So says writer Kalev Leetaru of Forbes. In his February 14, 2016 article entitled, “The Zika Virus And How Algorithms And Media Effects Impact Our Understanding Of Global Issues,” Kalev argues that algorithms, particularly those on social media, do not give us the whole picture, but rather, only what media thinks we want to see.
The latest social media craze, the discussion of the Zika virus, provides ample evidence for the negative impact of algorithms. This topic of Zika has seen a rapidly increase in coverage in the past few weeks. This in itself is not bad–we should be concerned about the plight of others. However, from the frenzy this coverage is creating, one would think that the virus is a new phenomenon and not that it has been around for more than half a century. Why does this happen? Leetaru argues this occurs primarily through media filtering and algorithms. This is becoming more and more evident as time goes on. He gives the example of the bizarre difference that occurred back in 2014 of the difference of media coverage of on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, the ALS ice-bucket challenge was trending, but on Twitter all the main coverage was about Ferguson. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post discusses why this happened. She said that it is an example of our “awareness problem.” She notes that Facebook filtered our feeds and “decided” that the ice-bucket challenge was more enjoyable for use to view than the Ferguson coverage. Thus, Facebook all but eliminated the coverage of Ferguson. This is becoming an increasing problem–seeing what only the algorithm thinks we want to view and not what we need to see.
“In today’s information saturated world it is all too easy to assume that if something happens anywhere in the world we will instantly find out about it and that the intensity with which it appears in front of us corresponds to its global importance,” writes Leetaru. In fact, it is just the opposite–we do not see all the news. Who determines the importance of a story? It is not the global impact of of the story or the sheer number of the people the story affects globally, but instead, it is determined how interested we are in hearing the story. The News Distorts Our Worldview for a number of reasons, but often based on our interests. Thus, individuals in the United States only truly became interested in the Zika virus or even the Ebola epidemic when they thought they might be directed affected. According to Athavaley andFares of Reuters, more and more Americans are worried about the affects of the virus. However, they are not concerned about the victims of the virus, but are purely concerned about potentially cancelling their spring break. The Zika virus is not trending because of the global impact of the virus, but rather, it is only starting to trend online because it may affect us. Thus, if Facebook or other social media sites find that the information does not directly impact us, they simply eliminate it from our feed.
This algorithmic filtering is creating a more enjoyable, pleasant experience for the viewers of social media, but is that all that matters? On the contrary, these algorithms are dumbing us down by showing views and events that continue showing us our own views over and over again, never forcing us to expand our horizons. It negatively shows our understanding of how the world works and how we should operate within it.
Athavaley, A., & Fares, M. (2016, February 03). Zika virus a trending topic on social media platforms. Retrieved February 29, 2016, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-zika-socialmedia-idUSKCN0VC2I0
Leetaru, K. (2016, February 14). The Zika Virus And How Algorithms And Media Effects Impact Our Understanding Of Global Issues. Retrieved February 23, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2016/02/14/the-zika-virus-and-how-algorithms-and-media-effects-impact-our-understanding-of-global-issues/#73083fd56b0a
Miller, A. (2008, March). How the news distorts our worldview. Retrieved February 29, 2016, from https://www.ted.com/talks/alisa_miller_shares_the_news_about_the_news?language=en