Social media seems innocent enough. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter give you the power to connect with your friends and the world in uniquely powerful ways. Whether it is a friend from school who lives on the other side of the world or a news event that could change the course of history, social media gives you the power to organise what you want to see and how you want to see it with no cost attached. Or does it?
You don’t have to be a tech genius to know that social media operates according to algorithms that calculate a variety of metrics to produce results such as new posts on your Facebook wall. These metrics include what you like, what you comment on, which websites you visit and even which friend profiles you return to more than others. The result is a streamlined experience whereby companies provide you results they believe will keep you on their platform and, hopefully, click on adverts that have been tailored to your interests. Sounds harmless – but this power is having a profound effect on the type of information we see on the internet.
When someone opens a newspaper or visits a library, items randomly catch the eye. This serendipity has always been vital to a well-balanced approach to information. While you might open the paper to see the result of the Manchester City football match, you could end up seeing an article about a new flu drug that is having great results in Sharjah. If our information stream is tailored solely to items that algorithmically make sense based on our previous serach history, chance is lost or placed solely in the hands of advertising companies.
Facebook has already been accused of supressing information about Donald Trump in favour of Hillary Clinton. Snapchat, the video sharing platform, is planning to make its own content, which presumably will be tailored to a narrow set of users. Underlying these changes to how we access information is the illusion that the user is in control and that social media companies open up a world of possibility. The opposite is true, as users give up their access to chance and accept what these advertising companies believe they want to see or read.