Social media algorithms: how to pop your digital bubble

Algorithms are the powerful machines that run most of our digital lives.

Picture this scenario: you open Facebook to see your friends’ posts or read articles on your news feed, and you see a ‘sponsored’ story advertising the exact same pair of running shoes you were just checking out on Amazon. Have you ever wondered how that advertisement got there?

The simple answer is that algorithms run in the background of social media sites and track what you do.

Sandra Robinson, a Carleton professor and algorithm culture researcher, said that social media applications all pay attention to what users are doing.

“When a person comes onto their Facebook profile or on their Twitter account, everything they do, everything they search for, everything they post, everything they click, the sites they go to after they leave their social media, are all tracked,” she said.

According to Robinson, it doesn’t matter what social media platform you’re using because they all take into consideration the activities that you do, and the places you visit.

“They will also look at your profile information with the purpose of tracking you and finding all the relationships that you are linked to [in] the wider social network,” she said.  

How do algorithms use this information?

Apart from linking you with other people, algorithms pay attention to what you do and use that information to generated different kinds of advertisements that suit your interests.

“They can also pay attention to services or products you’ve been searching on things like Google so that they can narrow in on what kinds of preferences you have,” Robinson said.

For example, if you’re looking at a product on an online shop, there will often be a section on the web page that advertises other similar products.

On the more unsettling side, other companies can also use this information for surveillance.      

According to Robinson, this information could potentially be used by insurance companies to sell you advertisements or even to track people involved with insurance fraud. 

“Social media becomes not just an advertisement network where people are sold to advertisement companies to serve ads to, but it actually performs as a sort of surveillance network,” she said. “It becomes easy for the social media companies themselves to monitor you, as well as other kinds of third parties.”

Robinson added that social media algorithms today are a question of surveillance and individual privacy at the core of people’s everyday online experience.

Although it sounds like a nice idea to be surrounded by an online bubble of products and services related to your own unique interests, sometimes the algorithms don’t quite get it right.

“Ads are everywhere,” Amber Granger, a first-year Carleton student said. “At times they are for things you don’t really want to see, or you don’t even care about. They just keep popping up, and they are really creepy too.”

But not everyone is as bothered by these ads as Granger.

A 2017 Ipsos report commissioned on behalf of the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA), showed that 62 per cent of consumers expressed a “willingness to receive information through social network marketing.”

Algorithms and digital marketing

This acceptance of sponsored content onto the web enables digital marketers to leverage social media as a crucial part of today’s advertising industry.

With the availability of online user information, brands can easily target particular audiences a lot more, and a lot better than traditional marketing.

Nowadays, brands and businesses have access to things like Google Analytics and MailChimp that can measure the impact of their campaigns based on how many people click on their content. 

According to Jonathan Simon, a professor of digital marketing at the University of Ottawa, marketing today relies on data and analytics more than ever before.

“The greatest difference between traditional marketing and digital marketing is that digital marketing can be measured pretty accurately,” he said.

Simon added that algorithms are incredibly important for content providers like social media influencers and marketers, but they are often limited by their lack of knowledge about how they work.   

“For example, if I am an influencer, and I have a thousand followers, and I post a photo on Instagram and it starts to get some traction, and some people like, and comment, the algorithm is going to put that into the feed of other people on a more regular basis because it is more popular,” he said, “So the tactics and the type of content you put out would affect the algorithms.”

Skilled advertisers and marketers are already using their knowledge of algorithms to their company’s benefit.

The report by Ipsos also showed that in 2017, 80 per cent of marketers and 78 per cent of agencies were “very familiar” with social network marketing and 83 per cent use it ‘always,’ or ‘often.’

According to Simon, algorithms and marketing are symbiotic, they work together like a puzzle or a game, and it’s all about getting the most people as possible to like, comment or share a piece of content.

Algorithms were developed out of a competition for online views. So, Simon said that if you know how to play the algorithm game, you can easily become someone that is popular and respected on social media.

But knowing how to play the algorithm game doesn’t just relate to social media influencers and marketers, it also applies to your everyday social media user.

This is when it really counts to know how to manipulate the algorithm system.

Social media bubbles and echo chambers

Since many of our social media interactions are filtered by algorithms, and most of what we see is catered to us, it is no surprise that when it comes to news stories and articles, some people feel like they are not getting the full picture.

“Algorithms are individualized,” Merlyna Lim, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in digital media and global network society, said. 

According to Lim, algorithms revolve around individualization because they’re always getting the same information.

“The public sphere needs a lot of different ideas to circulate in it,” Robinson said. “You want to encourage people who think differently, both ordinary citizens and people engaged in organized civil society, as well as voices from government or business. You want everyone to be able to share ideas in the public sphere.”

Unfortunately, not everyone gets to see, hear or share the ideas of other people online because of the digital echo chamber effect—where the same information is recycled within someone’s social media bubble, so that no new opinions or views can be heard or read.

“When people are pulled into what becomes an echo chamber by the things that they click on, the algorithms begin to link them with like-minded ideas and like-minded people,” Robinson said.

Social media bubbles and echo chambers can be harmful to society by limiting people’s awareness of different opinions and perspectives.

How to prevent social media bubbles

If you think you are in an echo chamber, for example, if you keep seeing the same kinds of views and opinions on your news feed, don’t worry, there are always ways that you can pop the bubble.

According to Lim, it’s important to always be aware of certain views, to change your search behaviour, and try to get your information from a variety of sources to help prevent the formation of a filter bubble.

Participating in active consumption is another way Lim said people can prevent becoming stuck in the bubble.

This includes checking and identifying news sources, and changing the way you interact with others online—which yes, means keeping your Trump supporting friends on Facebook.

Despite the core issues tied up with social media and the digital world, at the end of the day, being constantly connected through digital media and technology, can make our lives easier, Robinson said.

“There is [a] convenience aspect to it,” she said. “It makes our lives in many ways much more simple.”

Stephanie Leblanc, a psychology and linguistics studies graduate, expressed a similar feeling about the growing digital world.

“Sometimes I think it’s a little weird, but then there’s times where you’re looking at your Facebook and you’re like ‘wow! I really needed to see that,’ ” she said. “I feel like it is a good thing because it’s pointing out stuff that maybe you weren’t directly looking for, but is related to something you were looking for.”

Although some people may feel algorithms violate privacy rights, Leblanc said she feels like the world has consented to this integration of social media into our lives.

“Part of me feels like maybe this is good—getting a little personal, but part of me also feels like we’ve kind of accepted this into our lives,” she said. “We use social media, we use Facebook, and we’re average users of it, so we’ve accepted this kind of technology listening into our lives.” 

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan