What if one of the greatest innovations in media and content ended up being a lie? What if, despite hundreds of thousands of articles about AI and bots and the computational power to sort “relevancy”, it was just hype—a naked disguise to hide a profound laziness and incompetence?
In other words, what if algorithms were not a technological innovation at all—but instead a bold-faced lie by Facebook, Google, and others to destroy journalism, pass editorial responsibility onto their users, and absolve themselves of all legal responsibility in the process?
What is a social media algorithm?
As co-founder of a social network, currently in alpha, I have unique insight into how social media algorithms work. It’s all very simple. Everything generated by a computer is a result of an algorithm.
While the word “algorithm” sounds fancy (as does much of anything from computer science that seeps into pop culture buzzword lingo), an algorithm is simply this: any sequence of computer-implementable instructions that results in computation. If it computes, an algorithm is at work. Everything you see in your social media newsfeed is a result of an algorithm. How it’s sorted—is a result of an algorithm. Every social network uses algorithms because every social network requires computers.
How do social media algorithms work?
Companies like Facebook will have you believe they’ve weaved a sophisticated algorithm that determines relevancy. Just what is “relevancy”? It’s a fantastical, ethereal word to justify what bit of content deserves real estate in your newsfeed.
These companies churn out masses of PR content to convince media and lawmakers that super-brainy computer scientists (presumably in white lab coats) are hard at work solving the undefinable problem of relevancy through algorithms. However, in computer science terms, an algorithm cannot be unambiguous. Any algorithm must be well-defined in order to implement its predetermined function because “relevancy” is largely intangible, this is not a problem that any algorithm can easily solve.
So what problem are they actually trying to solve? Quite simply, what social media companies really mean by “relevancy” is “time spent on screen”.
For example, Facebook monitors how much time you spend on a specific piece of content—they do this by watching what parts of your newsfeed cause you to stop scrolling. This has a domino effect, as “time spent on screen” potentially tells their algorithm to share that content on your friends’ newsfeeds.
Thus, “relevancy” may not be relevant to you. However, it’s sure enough relevant to Facebook as “time spent on screen” affects their ad inventory. After all, the more time you spend on Facebook, the more ads they can sell.
The Naked Truth about Social Media Algorithms
Your newsfeed’s algorithmic sorting of “relevancy” isn’t meant to help you find relevant content, it’s to increase how much time you spend in a social network. What receives attention on social media is sensationalism, outrage, and shock value—as human beings, we naturally spend more time on the fantastic rather than the mundane. Naturally, fantastic stories tend to be fictional.
Social media algorithms don’t fact check. They don’t vet stories. They make no attempt to separate fact from fiction. A constant engine of propaganda is spewed out by political extremists who are keen to exploit social media algorithms. This becomes a global infodemic made plain by the fact that when it comes to these algorithms, “relevancy” doesn’t actually mean relevancy.
If something disastrous happens because of misinformation published on their platform, Facebook doesn’t want you to blame their lack of human moderators—they’d rather you blame trolls and hackers for infiltrating Facebook with misinformation—the exact type of content Facebook wants filling up your newsfeed because it maximizes time spent on screen.
For the past decade, social media algorithms have been fashionable, en vogue. Mark Zuckerberg has clothed them as his company’s greatest innovations.
As it turns out, Zuckerberg is wearing no clothes.