Why we must stop pandering to the algorithm

Nature or nurture?

As human beings, we have always been hard-wired to form social groups. Part of it is a survival instinct. As Psychology Today puts it, “In a hunter-gatherer group, being ostracised or banished could have been a death sentence.”

Why we rely on algorithms

The term ‘algorithm’ dates back to the ninth Century — long before we needed Google for everything. It comes from Muhammad ibn Mūsā al’Khwārizmī, a mathematician whose Latin name was Algoritmi, or the “decimal number system”.

  • Ancient Greece, to power modern mechanics
  • The 19th Century Analytical Engine, with algorithmic input from Ada Lovelace
  • The Second World War, when Alan Turing played his part in cracking the Enigma Code, and paving the way for ‘general purpose’ computers.

The filter bubble

Beyond their uses for enterprise, algorithms may also influence how we think. Following Mark Zuckerberg’s historic hearing, Facebook made changes in 2018 that would prioritise “posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people”.

“Intellectual isolation”

Let’s say you’re not really sure of your stance on something. You log in to Facebook to see what the world has to say. The algorithm has prioritised these ‘conversations’ and as such, you’re confronted with hundreds of posts from one hard view. Before long, you’re in the rabbit hole, seeking out more information that aligns with these views.

The deleterious effects of algorithms

So, you like dogs; I like cats. So what? If the effects of these filter bubbles were limited to claims of hoax moon landings, we could breathe easy.

Patients are refusing ‘non-English’ vaccine

At the turn of the year, Dr Paul Williams, the Labour MP for Stockton South, and former GP, tweeted:

The 2020 A-level fiasco

In one of just many examples of AI bias, the 2020 A-level fiasco led to almost 40 per cent of students receiving grades lower than expected. Worse still, the UK government capped growth rates for universities. Even if universities had attempted to be lenient, they were not allowed to grow by more than 5 per cent.

  1. Historical grade distribution of schools during the years 2017–2019
  2. The individual student’s rank, based on teacher evaluations
  3. The student’s previous results for that particular subject.

Skills and employment bias

Algorithms are powered by data — or human input. As humans we may have inherent biases towards our own race or sex, which may affect outcomes on anything from crime prediction to job applications.

The power of Twitter

With all this evidence, we could be forgiven for claiming the algorithms have brainwashed us. Facebook has 1.82 billion users per day — all that data is bound to influence our thinking.

We must take responsibility

Whatever your opinions on JK Rowling, Rowan Atkinson, Donald Trump — you cannot ignore the facts. On January 6, Trump tweeted: “Get smart Republicans. FIGHT!” Twenty-four hours later, five people were dead.

The good news

The good news is that the onus is not on us alone. Social networks are facing up to their responsibilities and tightening their grip on ‘fake news’ culture. World leaders are not exempt from this. Take this excerpt from the Reuters report:

  • Focusing on quality content
  • Counteracting ‘malicious actors’ (those out to deceive)
  • Giving users more context with knowledge panels
  • Partnering with experts and championing quality journalism.

So, what can you do?

If you’re finding yourself locked in daily tussles, take it from someone with five siblings:

1. Ask if it’s worth your time

Is the vaccine an exercise in government control, or the first step to getting through this pandemic? Revised: can you change anything, either way? It’s best to focus your energy on things you control, like how you talk to others.

2. Curate your own feed

Seeing too much content from the same groups? Leave the group, change your cookie settings, untick the advertising tick boxes, unfollow the hashtags. If you want to broaden your horizons, follow both camps. Make your own conclusions.

3. Respect other people’s right to an opinion

Note that opinion is different from fact. If somebody is broadcasting an opinion as fact, it’s right to challenge them — particularly if it’s harmful. But if somebody is merely sharing an opinion, respect your rights to disagree, or even prompt healthy debate. You may have facts that they don’t, or vice versa.

4. Be careful what you share

It’s on you, dear reader. You have no idea how much influence that share button has. You can use fact-checking tools like Snopes to verify the claims. It’s quite eye-opening what you’ll find.

5. Question the algorithm

When the outcomes of an algorithm affect your life, by all means, challenge them. The A-level results are just one example, but AI may also hinder job interviews, loan applications and goodness knows what else. Remember that, even in 2021, we can fall back on human common sense.

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Katie Thompson

Katie Thompson

Freelance writer, NCTJ-trained journalist, marathon runner and unapologetic power ballad fan.