Technology is now invasive to the point that we always carry smart phones on our person that are almost always turned on. Algorithms that run these apps are always mining data about us, and throwing engineered feedback at us at all times. To maximize the time we might spend on a certain app on our phone, the algorithm excessively shows us things which we have previously liked on the app; a relevant example would be that of Instagram. Instagram’s explore feature will show you an endless scroll of media that is tailored to your personal taste, which it determines from the kind of ads you engage with, thus giving you an incentive to spend more time on the app, since it tailors and customizes it to your particular consumer or political interests.
The algorithms that run this process work through positive feedback; if we like something, we will receive more of it. They correlate our actions with that of millions of other users, which makes them effective in large numbers even if the algorithms don’t understand or know why this works. It does not make a difference how the statistics of this algorithm work, but it is important that they do, and that companies are always devising new ways to make them smarter.
This constant bombardment with content that plays into our interests has enormous cognitive consequences; if we are only receiving information that we like, then we do not get to see what we don’t, which radicalizes our opinions. ‘Echo Chamber’ is a term often used to describe this kind of self-affirmation that social media amplifies, and it perfectly encapsulates how easy it is for opinions to become radicalized if there is no one to actively critique them.
The results of the aforementioned ‘Echo Chamber’, where one’s biases are only confirmed and never questioned, has had a drastic impact on the current political climate. If we only hear the views of a political candidate we are already biased towards and only vitriol towards the ones that we were biased against, and if politicians themselves figure out how the algorithm can be adjusted to tip the scales in their favor, democracy becomes obsolete. We will no longer be able to compare any political candidates on objective terms, but only play along with whatever our biases had already supported; this could be a possible explanation for why both the political right and left have become more radicalized and hostile towards each other. Those political candidates who have figured out that people’s behavior can be modified by the algorithms that run social media apps will undoubtedly use it to ensure their own success. Politicians now use social media advertising and manipulate the algorithm to run smear campaigns against their opponents, and inspire a more loyal following amongst their supporters.
It is important to take a step back and properly examine our current relationship with technology- fake news, baseless conspiracy theories, and hateful ideologies are rampant on social media. Without a reevaluation of what we hope to accomplish with constant content engagement and communication, it is easy to get lost in a vortex of information that threatens the structure of our current social and political systems.