How Algorithms Skew Your World View

Rob Caldwell Giving Me Double PistolsThink you're getting the whole picture when you're online? Think again. Algorithms–mathematical equations–help determine the ads, search results, and social media posts you see. And the ones you don't. 

This week I took to 207 again to discuss with Rob Caldwell the invisible algorithms that may be changing your world view…and you don't even know it.

Here are some notes from my research:

What is an algorithm?

  • A mathematical equation that follows a formula, often to help predict behavior or future activity
  • Frees up our time doing mundane or incredibly complex tasks

Can you give us some examples?

  • Algorithms are everywhere in modern society. 
    • When Netflix recommends a movie to you
    • When you’re matched with someone on a dating site
    • Some police forces use it to predict where criminal activity will take place
    • Roomba uses it to clean your house
    • Stocks are traded based on algorithms
  • But today, I wanted to talk about how algorithm skew the way we see the world, especially online

How are algorithms used online?

  • Ads: online services like Facebook and Google collect incredible amounts of data on us. 
  • Based on how old we are, our gender, where we live, how much money we make, when the last time we bought a house or a car or a pet, our political beliefs, our job title, what sites we visited, what searches we performed, it can serve up more targeted ads to us. 

Where else do algorithm impact us?

  • A lot of people think that all search results are the same, but they’re targeted to each of us.
  • Bill Belichick example.

This seems helpful and benign. Where’s the problem?

  • Think of how much information Facebook has on us. Your status updates, your likes, your comments, your shares, your searches, your friends, your interests, when you start typing something and delete it, and everywhere you log in with your Facebook login, and match you with offline data as well
  • Facebook is trying to keep you on the platform, that’s their job, so they feed you posts they think you like. Pro-Trump? You’ll see Pro-Trump posts from all your friends. Not a fan? All of your friends’ posts will be trashing him. You start to see a very skewed view of the world. An echo chamber. 

What can we do to avoid the algorithm effect?

  • Remember that algorithms aren’t inherently evil and they do serve an important purpose
  • Be aware that you are being impacted by the algorithm, so question what you see
  • Read the other side’s news sources.

Additional resources on algorithms: