The Algorithm of Antagonism
By Elise Minick
Social media is not good or bad, but we would do well to be wary of its effect on our outlook.
It’s another day on your social media feed. There are a handful of memes, some weird celebrity tweets, and a couple of blurbs from news articles. Some of the news accounts you see write exactly what you believe, others seem to spout utter nonsense. Or maybe they all agree. We tend to assume that the news posts displayed to us on social media are generally what everyone sees—which is partially correct, since popular news accounts have large audiences—but their content is not delivered to just anyone. Social media algorithms play a significant part in determining the posts we see. Given that surveys by the Pew Research Center and others show that over half of adults and teenagers in the US receive their news regularly from social media, the effect these algorithms have on our perception of the news is worth considering.
When determining what content each user receives, these algorithms consider two main factors: how you interact with posts and accounts, and information about the post, according to a June 2018 article in Scientific American. On almost every social media platform, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok, posts are recommended if you interact with similar content frequently, and if the post itself is popular with other users. This system seems innocuous enough—of course posts would be suggested to you if you like similar ones. For entertainment, this system makes sense. When applied to news, however, these algorithms have negative effects on what content we see.
One of the most significant effects is a positive feedback loop. We like and share posts we agree with, signaling the site to send more of the same content. Once the algorithms have adjusted to our personal tastes, it is easy to be isolated from posts that challenge the worldviews we hold. In tandem with this positive feedback loop, another effect of these algorithms takes place: sensationalization. When we go through our feeds, we are drawn to the most surprising or enraging stories we see. If we agree, we click like; if we disagree, we comment or send to friends. Either way, the social media site is now optimizing for the most unbelievable and eye-catching pieces. The collective action of every user on the platform pushes these stories to others’ feeds, furthering the problem.
The polarizing consequences of positive feedback loops and sensationalization are serious. When our feeds are full of similar posts, our views are neither challenged nor refined. Rather, our current political worldviews become stubbornly fixed by the positive feedback loop. When our opinions are so strongly held, we have a lower tolerance for the ideas of others, and we are more likely to block them out. The sensationalism of the content we see also twists our perception of the “other side,” as sensational news often focuses on extreme views for shock value, and seeing these stories so frequently makes us feel that these views represent many more people than they really do. Sensationalized stories also often oversimplify complex situations, which can lead to an inaccurate impression of the other side of a controversy. Essentially, social media makes us more certain of our own views, while distancing us from those of others. This contributes to the widening American ideological gap, something that can be seen in many studies, including a study by Pew which shows a trend of increasing division over fundamental issues since 2011.
While social media is certainly not the only factor furthering this divide, its impact is something that affects many of us personally, and we should be aware of its subtle influence on our ways of thinking. As we use social media to connect with others, we should keep in mind that the way social media represents the world is not always true to life and that we have more in common than we may think, even if we disagree. In a country as ideologically diverse as the United States, the willingness to hear each other out and civilly discuss controversy is critical to a better understanding, both of important topics and each other. Social media may bring us together, but we should be mindful that it does not also tear us apart.
Elise Minick is from San Diego, CA. She is interested in engineering and cybersecurity, and is considering a major in computer science; she also participates in the Oklahoma Christian University’s cybersecurity team. When she isn’t coding, Elise can usually be found reading, practicing classical guitar, or enjoying nature.
Every time we administer the CLT, the forty highest-scoring students from that test are invited to contribute an essay to the Journal. Congratulations to Miss Minick on her outstanding score! To read more from our top students, take a look at this essay on the value of studying languages, this one on struggle as an element in human growth, or this one on sibling relationships in Pride and Prejudice.