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Algorithms

DANIELA RIBITSCH

Lock Haven

‘Thanks to the internet — in particular social media –a lot of our communication now happens online. Numerous people also consume their news online, which, admittedly, is very convenient.

However, with an ever-growing quantity of digital information, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish reliable from unreliable news sources.

As Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other such services want to make money on us, they employ algorithms. An algorithm is a computer formula that has the ability to observe you, learn about you, and figure out what you like. Based on your preferences, it will offer you suggestions, be it articles, videos, songs, or merchandise. The more you click, the more money you will earn for Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on. Of course, algorithms make mistakes, but they learn from their mistakes and thus get increasingly better at guessing what kind of stuff you enjoy.

And this is exactly the problem: in order to get as many clicks from you as possible, algorithms tailor your Google, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube site to please you specifically by feeding you information that supports your views. This means that they create a manipulated reality for every single of us as they supply us with individualized content based on our likes. For example, if you believe that the Democratic leadership is full of socialists, you will be given plenty of evidence that confirms your view.

But if your neighbor, in contrast, believes that the Republican leadership consists of white supremacists who don’t want to lose their power, they will be shown lots of evidence that will make their view appear to be true.

Tragically, algorithms do NOT distinguish between true and fake news. This makes the texts, videos, audios, and pictures on the web so dangerous. Tirelessly, algorithms feed you information that again and again reinforces your view until it becomes your truth, even though it may be false. In this way, you are being manipulated without even noticing.*

What can you do to avoid being manipulated? Stop using Google. Personally, I use the French search engine Qwant that neither traces me, nor logs my search behavior, nor offers personalized suggestions. Drop out of social media and reestablish more personal contact through emails, letters, or phone calls. If this isn’t an option, go to your settings and see if you can claim some of your privacy back. Also, make sure to critically evaluate all videos and posts you see. How reliable of a source are they?

In today’s world, more than ever, digital literacy is essential. With algorithms perhaps knowing us better than we know ourselves, and with their ability to subconsciously manipulate us, it is of utmost importance that we critically evaluate the information we consume. News must never exist to serve our biases. Instead, it must only exist to tell us the truth about the world. This truth may be uncomfortable. But we can only make informed decisions — and thus a better world – if the information we receive is reliable and accurate.

To learn more about the manipulative power of algorithms employed by Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., I highly encourage you to watch the 2020 Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.”

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