Browsing the internet has become part of everyday life. It may be for research, to look at the daily news or to watch funny cat videos. Over 3.5 billion searches per day take place on Google and over 1.3 billion people log into one of the largest social network, Facebook, at least once a month. These incredibly large numbers give a massive audience to be exploited. Companies, politicians and pressure groups can begin to wield a lot of power if they tap into this audience. But can people push their agenda online? Read on to find out more.
What is an Algorithm?
An algorithm is a code that sets out a set of ordered rules for a program, like Google search, to follow. They can vary from a simple few lines of code to alter data in a spreadsheet to the algorithm used in Google search which follows over 200 signals that guess what it is the user is looking for.
Google rank, the Google search algorithm aims to organise websites to make users easily find the most useful websites according to the keywords entered into the search bar. Websites are ranked according to the number of links from other sites and the number of times keywords are mentioned. Google also collects data on the user to pick the websites that the user is most likely to click on.
The Facebook Algorithm
The Facebook news feed was introduced in 2006 is run by an algorithm judging articles based its popularity and whether it is in line what the viewer has clicked on before. Facebook is constantly collecting data on its users to boost pages that may be of interest to them. It also judges how likely you are to like, read or share articles.
Are Algorithms Narrowing Our Minds?
The algorithms are constantly gathering data on what we are likely to click on. Similar articles will receive a boost. An example of the problem of this is a right wing leaning individual would only see right wing content which reinforces their view because that is what they would normally click on. Left wing articles and articles that would challenge their view would not be viewed as they are less likely to be clicked on. Therefore, people read news from one side of the political spectrum only in an online world that doesn’t revolve around what the major news stories of the day are, but instead revolves around the individual themselves. This leaves people entrenched in their individual beliefs, as the vast majority of news they read backs up what they already believe.
The amount of data that can be collected by Google, Facebook and other websites is astonishing. According to one Facebook study by David Stillwell at Cambridge university, of comparing a profile against a personality test, 9 liked articles tells you as much about the user as a co-worker is likely to know, 65 likes tells you as much as a friend is likely to know about your personality and 125 likes is enough to know your personality as well as a family member. However, on average people have 225 likes, which is almost enough to judge a person’s personality as well as a spouse. This means that Facebook is likely to know you as well as your husband or wife. At the moment, Facebook does not use this information, but other companies certainly are. Companies are using different keywords to aim at people with a different psychology. This will then be more likely to appear in the news feed of its target audience.
One car insurance company has attempted to use this system on Facebook to base how much they charge customers. Use of exclamation marks or excitable words means the person is more likely to be an extrovert, and is therefore slightly more likely to drive exuberantly and have an accident. Thankfully, Facebook blocked this move because of privacy concerns.
Politics and Algorithms
It is not just companies trying to tap into online algorithms. Politicians are also trying to gain an advantage using Facebook’s algorithm to gain access to data that its users have unwittingly provided, in order to gain an advantage. One company in America, Cambridge Analytica, claims to have altered the course of the USA presidential election by using psychological profiling to determine what message they should be sending to individuals. There have been claims that the data they used also came from Facebook, although this is unconfirmed. Over time, it is expected to become more effective. If the conservative party wanted to appeal to a traditional labour voter in the UK, it could use data on their psychology to determine one policy of theirs that the voter might actually agree with. The voter would see this, think that it is a good policy so head to the conservative party website to find out more. When entering the website, the voter would be followed by cookies which will recognise them. It could then only show the voter the information that the voter agrees with, and leave out all the other policies that they are less inclined to support.
The founder of the worldwide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has said that campaigning online needs more restrictions. It is believed that during the USA presidential election, 50,000 personalised adverts were sent each day, giving people a skewed view on what they were actually voting for. This gives some sense of the power that algorithms have over our day to day lives. They also control everything from assessing teachers, who gets interviewed for a job and if the bank will offer you a loan or credit card. Given the power of algorithms, it would be fair to say that we are becoming exposed to manipulation and, in turn, control.