You are what you like? The influence of online algorithms

Have you noticed that when you go online or login to social media you are presented with content, news, articles or ads that somehow know the things that you are interested in? It makes sense that you will see updates from people or organisations that you follow, but what may be less obvious are the algorithms (complex mathematical formulas) working in the background which determine what content is presented in your newsfeed or search results. 

2021-01-11 Irish Safer Internet Centre awareness advertising/commercialism, data privacy children and young people, parents and carers
Close-up of a smartphone screen showing a social media feed

Platforms such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok all have their own closely guarded algorithms which personalise the content they show to us – different users who use the exact same search terms or scroll through the same social media platform are likely to see different content. The results that we are presented with are likely to reflect the likes and interests that our browsing history and personal data suggests we would like to see more of – after all, online platforms want you to use their site and to stay for as long as possible. 

With so much content available on the internet, these algorithms are used to reduce the volume of information and to filter what is displayed to users. While there are benefits including as making sites we use regularly faster to access, or making it easier to find information that we are interested in, it is also important to understand how they can influence the type of content we are likely to see. For example, searching for exercise tips or liking a cute cat video will make it more likely that you will see content related to these topics in the future, or if you browse for a pair of trainers you may see advertisements for those shoes on other websites you visit. All this information is building up a picture of who you are online.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is important to be aware that the content being pushed to your newsfeed is filtered and tailored by what a social media network or online platform believes that you are interested in, or would like you to become interested in. One of the drawbacks is that we can very easily get caught in a feedback loop. What we see are variations of the same thing and alternative views or opinions are filtered out – this is sometimes called a filter bubble. Not seeing an alternative point of view can affect our ability to think critically about content, make us less open-minded, and can have a skewed influence on how the world is presented to us. If there is content or a theme that makes us feel bad or affects our self-esteem, being presented with more of the same is not going to make us feel better, in fact it may make us feel worse!

What can you do?

What is displayed on your newsfeed or in your search results is determined by the algorithm of the platform you are using, and while it is based on a number of things such as your personal interests and how engaging the content is, the exact details of why and how they work are largely unknown.

However, there are steps you can take to help improve perspective and broaden the variety of content you get.

  • Keep an open mind – Be aware that what you see online has been tailored to your preferences, and online algorithms filter what content you see, and what you don’t see, in order to try to hold your interest. If a piece of content is being highlighted by an online platform, why might that be? Is it because you are likely to be interested in it? 
  • Search for new perspectives – It can be a good idea to look for a new perspective or opinion on topics that you are interested in, that way you will start to see different points of view to what you are used to. 
  • Vary your sources of information – Find new trusted sources of news and information.
  • Seek out the positive – If you feel like a topic is bothering you, unfollow or hide it and find positive, healthier content to have in your newsfeed.
  • Refresh your settings – Regularly clear your browsing settings and consider turning off targeted ads. Find out how on the website of Webwise.  

With so much information online, it can be overwhelming and algorithms help filter down the volume of content, but it’s important to think critically about what we do see. Carl Miller, Research Director, Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, has suggested some useful tips for avoiding online manipulation.

Find out more about the work of the Irish Safer Internet Centre, including their awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

Related news