Rage Against The Algorithm: The Rise And Rise Of Social Media


Social media should be held to the same editorial standards as traditional media, writes Joshua Dabelstein.

From your first click, from your first sign in, your Facebook account begins gathering data. As Facebook learns what makes you tick, or click, an algorithm streamlines your scrolling experience in accordance with whatever the algorithm has recognised to be media relevant to your interests.

This might be not so bad if your main interests are the size of someone’s fake buttocks, or who won The Bachelor. But during election time, this means of content dispersal is quite dangerous.

See, with entertainment news, it’s not as important to discern between fact and fiction as it is when you’re trying to elect a new leader of the free world.

If the choice had been between Tom Cruise and Whoopi Goldberg, then that might be different, but it wasn’t. It was between a skilled and eligible career politician (this by no means constitutes appraisal) and the world’s richest hospitality worker — Donald Trump — who is little more than bigotry wrapped in hotdog skin.

When it comes to political news, it is imperative that voters are aware of whether or not their president-elect really does intend to put Muslims on a register or ‘punish’ women who terminate a pregnancy.

Your own personal echo chamber is created around you, and before you know it your opinions and beliefs all seem to start corroborating each other. At no point would there be any economic utility in an algorithm telling you anything other than what you want to hear.

Given that once 2017 rocks up we’ll be sharing in a dystopic vision dredged from the sick imaginings of the creators of The Simpsons, and given that every man and their dog seems to know exactly how and why this happened, I’m not here to offer a new or exciting hot take on US politics.

I just want to spell out that, given how Facebook’s algorithm is designed to function, if any of your opinions were conceived with the help of your News Feed, you should probably just shut the fuck up for a while and spend 24 hours gazing into someone else’s black mirror.

How can a democracy function if the information people are using to elect leaders is not being held to the level of scrutiny that news providers are typically held to?

Republican US president-elect, Donald Trump.
Republican US president-elect, Donald Trump.

Was it the rejection of Sanders for Clinton 2.0 that elected Trump? Division in the left? Did the left finally get a taste of its own identity-politics flavoured medicine? Was it that Hillary is crooked (and Trump is not…)? Was it that the American education system has been neglected to the point that the entire population seems to be the victim of a global consensus denouncing its citizens as dunces incapable of discerning fact from fiction, incapable of critical thinking, etc… Some blame Wall St for Clinton 2.0’s defeat, some embrace Wall St for Trump’s victory.

I’ll spare you the obvious litany of privacy reasons for why this kind of data mining is an unnecessary and invasive practise; there are many out there far more adept at inviting that discussion. Instead, in the wake of successive US elections that snowball in divisive intensity and polarising ethical divides, it fascinates me that one of many immeasurable influences on voters has arisen from the rather depressing phenomenon that most people are now getting their information from social media.

This is not to say that websites like Facebook are not capable of being highly informative and important vehicles for rapid information dispersal. It’s just that, unlike a newspaper, writing a letter to the editor of your news feed — a series of ones and zeros — about a defamatory and/or untrue piece of damaging news or media, isn’t exactly as easy as contacting the Canberra Times about a problem with today’s Cryptic.

Fortunately for Zuckerbook, this unprecedented phenomenon has brought with it few regulations that speak to a news feed’s automated dispersal of ‘news’ that is designed to be clicked and shared, as opposed to being educational.

Most of the ‘news’ provided to you by your Facebook news feed simply is not held to the editorial standards that print media is. But it is consumed more, and shared more. An unregulated information machine is now in control of popular opinion.

The result of this phenomenon could not have better revealed itself this year. We literally begin picking our own poison without knowing that as we do it, with every curious click, the algorithm streamlines and streamlines your ‘browsing experience’.

The reason it is so hard to talk politics with people you don’t already know to agree with you is that we are all making different arguments held together by factless nonsense. We’re all unknowingly doing it (this obviously puts me in an awkward position…).

Machines elected Donald Trump, and they’ll re-elect him over Kanye West (opinion TBA) if social media fails to be held to the same editorial standards as print media.


Joshua Dabelstein is a writer's writer and a sporadic New Matilda contributor.