SOCIAL MEDIA ALGORITHMS & THE RISK OF MISINFORMATION
A benchmark of any democracy is the conduct of free and fair elections. One affording electorates wide access to surrounding facts and information to enable them to make informed choices. The Internet provides such platform and has been heralded as the great democratizing tool. But how true and healthy is the Internet to the course of democracy in the light of recent revelations of algorithmic manipulation. The scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytical have stirred more and more concerns on the inherent threat of social media to future elections, particularly in Nigeria. The ramifications of Russian exploitation of social media exceed its potential electoral impact. It even exceeds the involvement of the Russians. The broader ramifications are how social media algorithms divide us, how those divisions can be exploited, and whether there are solutions. This is bigger than the current discussion of political advertising rules for the Internet because the questionable political ads and postings are the result of the problem, not the cause of it.
Humans are vulnerable to manipulation by digital misinformation thanks to a complex set of social, cognitive, economic and political biases. We form opinions and make decisions generally by trusting cues and information from our social circles and rejecting those that contradict our convictions and experiences, at least that is what rational beings do. The internet has become the world’s hub of information and many of these packets of information get dished to us in tiny plates, the form of news feeds, by social media networks. Since we cannot pay attention to all the posts in our feeds, social media algorithms determine what we see and what we don’t.
To attract and then keep the user’s attention, the algorithms used by social media platforms today are designed to prioritize engaging posts and thus bring you information that you’re more likely to tap the “like” button on. Luckerson (2015). Although innovative, these algorithms have quite an insidious effect on our democracy, particularly as we draw closer to the 2019 Nigerian elections. First, by providing users only with the information which they either preselected or what the social media platform themselves wants users to receive, the online social community has put people in a “Filter Bubble.” Emily Taylor, Chief executive of Oxford Information Labs and editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy, expressing ominous concerns pointed out that “we now exist in these curated environments, where we never see anything outside our own bubble … and we don’t realize how curated they are.” These algorithmic peculiarities of widen information porosity as electorates may miss out totally on vital information on the polity.
Confirmation bias is another big challenge with social media algorithms. This is the tendency of people to hear or listen only to the things which conform to their existing beliefs. Being exposed to the same sets of information stretches beliefs of users further to extremes void of objective valuation. These homogenous self-reinforcing echo chambers hamper people’s ability to question information which is available in social media. What is even worse is that the gullibility of users has in recent times being exploited by mischievous politicians seeking to sway public opinion through targeted advertisement.
In today’s shrinking online community, social network connections have been fraught with false information and conspiracy theories since anyone can create and share fake news while they spread epidemically. Social media creates a news outlet without oversight – their algorithms have no way of totally filtering out false information, as the computers have no way of telling truth from fiction, and as more people view a false story, the higher it rises in search results. Before the Internet, false campaigns saw limited spread because the news was shared inside publications spearheaded by editors looking to avoid lawsuits and maintain a reputation. Grigonis (2018). Surfing through the Internet has thus become a double-edged sword. On the one hand it has aided democratic participation, but on the other hand, it is capable of becoming an anti-democratic force through the easy spread of misinformation and fake news, which can lead to anarchy.
One of the tools being used to spread the fake news is the use of bots, or automated accounts creating or sharing a large number of posts. Bots on Twitter have been used to suggest current events are hoaxes or to undermining politicians.”The Twittersphere especially has been deluged by bots — or robot accounts tweeting and retweeting stories — that generally are fake and often in the service of governments or extremist political groups trying to sway public opinion.” Grigonis (2018). Twitter has however launched changes to their API and even their own Tweeting tool in order to restrict mass-written tweets to reduce bot use on the platform. Russell (2018)
During the last US and UK elections, it was discovered that posts could be unpublished, or not viewable on a page, and yet boosted to a targeted set of demographics. This practice is known as dark advertising as it doesn’t allow voters to criticize political ads on social media like those on TV or in print. Both Facebook and Twitter have already launched transparency measures in response to the practice, including making the targeted demographics of political ads publicly available information. Kaser (2018)
As the debate on how social media influences democracy continues, users are pressing for more privacy and control over how the data on the network is used. It is important that users know exactly how social media companies are using the data they put online. These social media companies have to be put on check particularly as it involves the unauthorized sale of users personal data to third party companies. Although, in 2019, social media will be a major factor that would influence our political participation, specifically on voter turnout due to information social media provides for the citizen, it is however a fact that, by fracturing society into small groups, the social media algorithm has become the antithesis of the community necessary for democratic processes to succeed.
Until Social networks find a way to diversify the information you see, you are most likely to be prejudiced if you rely solely on these platforms for your news and information. Users should also pay attention to the biases inherent in their social media news feed. Receive all information with an open mind and strive to educate yourself with a wide range of political views even if they are against your sentiments.
Also, the rising specter of misinformation and fake news on social media is a cause for concern. There should be a concerted effort to fight the menace. To this end, social media users should take responsibility for what they post or share. A social media user must go through the pain of verification and vetting stories before clicking the share button.
A more veritable source of information is the conventional mass media; who in a bid to avoid lawsuits and maintain good reputation may not publish false information.