The Power of Algorithms

Tufekci explains algorithmic gatekeeping thoroughly: “Algorithmic gatekeeping is the process by which such non-transparent algorithmic computational-tools dynamically filter, highlight, suppress, or otherwise play an editorial role–fully or partially–in determining: information flows through online platforms and similar media; human resources processes (such as hiring and firing); flag potential terrorists; and more” (Tufekci 208).

In terms of social media, I understand this as complicated computer algorithms working together to affect what you see. It can be to hide or to promote certain things. It works together with what Tufekci describes as “big data” or this large data profile created over time through all your interactions on the web. This could explain why when you go online shopping for shoes, you might later see a Facebook ad for shoes. Or, it could be used to create a sort of social bubble, where Facebook only shows you the posts from friends whose messages politically align with yours. It could be to promote different sources; someone who constantly reads Huffpost or Fox might get offered other politically-leaning sources.

I think the negatives of this are vast and quite scary in terms of how much information accumulates about you and how much the internet can know about you, like using Facebook “like” data to predict your traits (210). But I think there can be positives. If an internet source can know exactly what you’re interested in and looking for, it might be able to better present you with the information you’re looking for. Or, on a deeper level, if technology can understand so much about you, it could perhaps calculate how different governmental policies might affect your life. I think the potential is huge–both in a dangerous and positive way. The question becomes, then, is it ethical to create and manipulate information in a way that can be so powerful?

In our campaign, we are creating a website. Each piece created is being uploaded to this website. If we promote this on social media, algorithms might determine to whom our website or campaign pieces might be of interest. It might then put it somewhere in their news feed. If they like it, more work like ours could pop up. Or perhaps their Facebook friends might be alerted to it. Apparently, it could be placed with other posts with similar messages to try to influence moods, “likes,” and/or posts. On the other hand, the algorithms might deem our work irrelevant and keep it out of newsfeeds. Or, it could promote our work into newsfeeds where people might try to discredit our work. As Tufekci describes, these algorithms are complex, and it is not entirely clear what their prime focus is, or that they have one. It might depend on who/what is running the algorithms and those people/that corporations interest in using said algorithms.

Although Facebook is a huge collector of data, I don’t necessarily think that they intend to use this data malevolently, but instead perhaps for efficiency and/or economic gain: Facebook’s goal is to keep users scrolling through the page. The more scrolling means more posts and ads, clicking on or “liking” those posts or ads leads to more data collected about you. The more data Facebook has about you, the more they can tailor content toward you that you are interested in, and hopefully the more you scroll.



3 thoughts on “The Power of Algorithms

  1. This is probably where I am on most of this, as far as Facebook goes: they’re motivated by “efficiency and/or economic gain”, as you put it.

    There is so much stuff out there. It really isn’t possible to have chronological feeds if you have even a modest network of friends. So our feeds have to be curated somehow, no? As far as money goes, these are free services that depend on ad revenue. Without any regulation, they, understandably, will try to maximize profit. Targeted marketing is very lucrative, so why not attempt to push content to users that keep them on the page longer, so that they can see more ads?

    But these are very broad viewpoints. Are there more gritty details of policy to dig into that help make better ethical choices? One huge issue is that it does not matter how ethical or simply blindly profit-seeking Facebook may be. The reality that the data exists at all means that any security breach by outside actors can allow this data to be used for potentially nefarious purposes. Is there something that can be done to guard against that?

  2. I agree that algorithms can be used for good. However, it’s my firm belief that corporations, such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google, have yet to fully comprehend the dangers, making the situation much worse. The recent data breach into one of the companies Facebook was selling our information to demonstrates this point. The corporations are interested in profitability and dividends; if that means selling our information or creating algorithms that point to certain pages, they will do it. We have only had these algorithms for so long, increasing the potential for danger and misuse. Another example of corporate irresponsibility (or more probably, lack of economic interest) was the revelation that internet trolls were utilizing Facebook’s algorithms to place false ads and pages. Facebook paid no attention to it initially because there was no precedent for going after groups of this nature. Groups were using the algorithms the way they were intended. However, the malicious intent of these trolls became apparent following the election, and their disinformation campaign adversely affected those who weren’t adept at parsing through fake info on the internet, perhaps even influencing the election itself. This brings up another point, countries are now capable of weaponizing these algorithms against populations which is something that hasn’t been considered until now. There are just so many possible harmful uses to algorithms that I have a hard time believing in its benefits, especially not until companies get serious about self-regulating and learning more about these potential dangers.

  3. I agree with your statement “the potential is huge–both in a dangerous and positive way” for the power of algorithms. Companies like Facebook gather a tremendous amount of information on people. From the point of view of companies such as Facebook, this is a great idea because it lets them tailor what they show to your personal interests. It allows them to give you a more personal experience, and only show things that you might be interested in. It also allows companies looking to market their products to more easily target potential buyers.

    However, there are also a ton of downsides to this technology. As a casual user of Facebook and Google, I personally hate how much these sites seem to know about me. I actually try my best to avoid these sites, or try to limit the information that I share on them. I feel as though these sites and algorithms are not respecting my privacy.

    Overall, I think there needs to be more discussion about what information websites should legally be allowed to collect and store on users. There should be some defined limits on what information websites can and cannot use. Websites should also have to prove that they can protect private information.

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