Curtin University Associate Professor of internet studies Michele Willson is the latest academic to question the impact of algorithms and recommender systems on our “everyday experience of the real world”.
In a study published by the journal Information, Communication & Society this week, Willson argues that web and social media giants have “considerable power to shape lives and outcomes” as a consequence of the way they tailor their offerings to users.
“Many of the algorithms we encounter daily are proprietary owned – and thus opaque and inaccessible to outside critique; and their parameters, intent and assumptions indiscernible,” Willson writes.
“And yet the working of algorithms has wide-ranging consequences for the shape and direction of our everyday.
“When organisations have the technical skills and the data resources readily at hand, the consequences of their algorithmic practices can be far-reaching.”
Algorithms have become central to the way information is “located, retrieved and presented online”, she argues. They govern Twitter follow recommendations, Facebook newsfeeds and suggested Google map directions.
“However, they are not objective instructions but assume certain parameters and values, and are in constant flux, with changes made by both humans and machines,” Willson said.
“Algorithms bring about particular ways of seeing the world, reproduce stereotypes, strengthen world views, restrict choices or open previously unidentified possibilities.”
One of the most recent examples of algorithmic impact came in May when allegations surfaced of Facebook hiding conservative news from its feeds.
“The filter bubble—the idea that online recommendation engines learn what we like and thus keep us only reading things we agree with—has evolved,” FastCoExist reported.
“Rather than pulling a user out of the rabbit hole [by showing them content that challenges their views or perceptions], the recommendation engine pushes them further in.
“We are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts.”
Psychologists have also questioned the extent to which social networks like Facebook distort our world view.
A Psychology Today blog in 2014 examined the compulsion of people to check Facebook and whether checking it frequently made users feel better or worse about themselves in relation to their friends.
For Associate Professor Willson, her concern is with the power that internet companies hold in shaping our world view.
The likes of Google had ever-increasing amounts of user data drawn from its systems “alongside the technical ability to aggregate, combine, manipulate and process these in ways that are not open to those outside of its corporate system - granting them considerable power to shape lives and outcomes as a consequence.”
Willson believed the effect of algorithms on our “broader social and ethical relations with one another … and our understanding of the everyday itself is a question worthy of further consideration.”