Kimberley Vella

Does the media make us free?

The Internet as we know it is under serious attack.

The basic egalitarian principles of what makes the Internet great and good are in serious jeopardy. We are fighting a losing battle against the preservation of our right to make decisions freely without the influence of external factors. Social media algorithms, artificial intelligence, and our genetics are just some of the factors that influence our decisions beyond even our own awareness.

We’ve all watched a video on Youtube or, worse off, Facebook because it was recommended to us by the platform. This leads us to ask the question: do we have control over what we consume? And, if our decision-making process is based on what’s recommended to us by these algorithms, ​​what impact does this have on our ability to make autonomous decisions?

According to Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, Boston, “If you want to know when social media companies are trying to manipulate you into disclosing information or engaging more, the answer is always.”(Mitchell, 2020).

All we see on our social media is specifically targeted for us. An algorithm is something of a digital recipe, a list of rules to abide by for achieving a common outcome using a set of ingredients. For many big corporate tech companies, their common goal is to make money by convincing potential customers to buy their products or keep scrolling to get their attention through advertisements. These so-called ‘ingredients’ are provided to these big companies through our own actions, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Every like, purchase and watched video is all data used to make predictions about you (Bogle, 2018).

Companies like Google, Twitter and Instagram, make most of their money from advertising. Hence, more actions from users are equal to more data, meaning a better understanding of you. These companies want you to feel safe; they want you to be engaged constantly. For example, Facebook’s algorithm organises content to keep its users engaged and on the platform. If you see a post you like, you’ll keep scrolling, it’s a basic human instinct (Bogle, 2018).

So, what are algorithms?

Social media algorithms refer to the feed algorithms which decide what posts show up on your timeline by predicting what posts you’ll like. In order to organise posts into those you may take an interest in and those that wouldn’t necessarily be to your liking, social media platforms take data from posts you’ve interacted with previously, current trending posts and sponsored posts. The list is never-ending, collecting data from posts your friends likes your search history and even how long you look at each post. The culmination of all this data results in a prediction of what posts you are most likely to interact with (JEWISS, 2021).

Being aware of these algorithms and acting consciously about them is the only way to navigate the social media world in the most autonomous way possible.