Digital voices through an algorithm

By Monica Huynh

The accessible and largely unregulated nature of digital content has made it easier for global citizens to project their opinions and voices onto a world stage. Over the past twenty years, digital mediums have progressively broken down barriers to international communication. Yet, digital content has been overrun by a multitude of perspectives, and algorithms such as those on Facebook and Instagram are designed to provide content that matches your online history, meaning that whilst there is greater accessibility to voice alternative opinions, online algorithms often only show you the content you want to see. 

Content reaches your newsfeed through the interaction of algorithmic decision-making (ADM) processes. This mechanism determines the relevance of online content for the individual and acts as a content filter for the user. Facebook analyses the content you like, and customises your news feed to create a personalised online experience, creating an echochamber for your own pre-existing thoughts and opinions. These content algorithms mean that your opinions, beliefs and understandings of the world around you may often go unchallenged and limits your exposure to other sides of debate. Popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have implemented and advanced their algorithms in response to feedback from their users calling for more customised online feeds rather than content from businesses and media. These new and revised algorithms are intended to create feeds with content that respective users care about to increase engagement and interaction with the social media service.

Facebook’s algorithm is designed to identify whether people interact more or less with a page, and will therefore display more or less of its content. This algorithm revision is also to encourage more of its people to actively converse as part of their online experience rather than to passively engage with the online community. Instagram’s first algorithm revision was to display online content by predicting what the user cares about the most rather than in chronological order. This algorithm measures a post’s user engagement data such as likes, saves and comments, and will then show this post to more or less online Insta-users accordingly. There are many ways to hack this algorithm, one being carefully selecting hashtags to further increase online reach and ensuring followers never miss another post. Another way is to post at primetime - a time where most users are active - so your post quickly receives more likes and comments and consequently moves up a user’s feed.

These complex algorithms have further widespread implications for activists as well as wider society. As the algorithms act as an online content filter for users, it will therefore only show posts that are in line with their preferences and limits seeing content that is likely to decrease their online engagement. The algorithms results in users being connected to others with similar views to them and effectively makes it more difficult for different-thinking individuals to express a perspective that does not align with popular opinion - silencing debate. A clear example was the strong polarisation in the 2016 US Presidential Election between the Democrats and the Republicans. This deep divide on social media from its algorithms further diminishes diversity of opinion as users are encouraged to identify with a popular side of debate rather than voicing their own unique and individual perspective. Humans are psychologically programmed to seek social approval, using digital cues and quantitative measures such as the number of likes, saves and shares as popularity indicators which furthers the divide.

Essentially, online communities are now experiencing a decreasing presence of democracy indirectly caused by such algorithms, instead catalysing political participation rather than political deliberation. The complex algorithms work both ways, with politicians having to work with its mechanics to increase their popularity amongst voters and in end, ensuring their campaign messages are catering for the majority of voters’ needs.

The use of hashtags was an integral element for people all over the world to participate in candidates’ campaigning within the 2016 US Presidential Election with the two frontrunners being Donald J. Trump, who was victorious, and Hillary Clinton. A notably popular hashtag was #ImWithHer, a hashtag used by Democrats voters to show their political preference for Clinton to become the next US president at the time. Another popular hashtag was #notmypresident, where voters wanted to protest against the election of Trump on Twitter. The tweaked social media algorithms allowed posts associated with the respective hashtags to receive significant online attention, contributing to the increasing polarisation and drowned out opinion regarding other candidates including Bernie Sanders.

Social media users and creators now face the challenge of working alongside algorithmic decision-making processes to re-introduce diversity of opinion, conversation and debate. Encouraging a variety of divergent voices is paramount for democracy, where online users are not hesitant in expressing their unique thoughts and perspectives. 


Special thanks to Ishmam Siddique for his unconditional support.


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Monica is a first year student at the University of New South Wales. When she's not studying, she's either crying over Jane the Virgin or fangirling over Cole Sprouse.