Is there a link between algorithms and the spread of misinformation?

Is there a link between algorithms and the spread of misinformation?

You might have heard discourse around people linking algorithms to the spread of misinformation. But why exactly do people suggest this? We’re explaining below. 

Before we begin, it’s important to note that algorithms are incredibly complex to understand, and are often referred to as a ‘black box’ – the full picture on an algorithm is only known by the organisation, and even then, many organisations are not completely aware of how their algorithms work. On top of this, companies are often secretive about how their algorithms work. 

What is special about misinformation when it comes to algorithms? 

Simply put, misinformation is highly engaging. This notion has been backed up by a New York University study which concluded that misinformation on Facebook got six times more engagement than factual information. 

There are many reasons why misinformation can be considered highly engaging, however, one component is how misinformation can sometimes be politically motivated or emotionally charged, leading to individuals being more enticed to engage with the content. 

Big tech platforms (like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter) use algorithms that have a strong popularity bias. Those algorithms are used to rank and recommend content based on the level of engagement it receives. Because algorithms are designed to prioritise content that is getting significant engagement, misinformation often goes viral. 

But what does ‘engagement’ mean? 

Engagement can refer to when a user ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ or ‘saves’ or ‘shares’ or otherwise interacts with a post. The algorithm works to figure out the specific content that users enjoy, and in turn, maximise engagement from those users. Why does the algorithm want to maximise engagement? Because it means users will more than likely stay using the app longer if they are fed content they enjoy. And of course, social media platforms want their users to stay on their apps as long as possible. The longer users stay on those platforms, the more ads social media platforms can show the user.

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