THE BLOG

Breaking The Algorithm

21/03/2017 13:22
Danny Moloshok / Reuters

Search engines can seem like magic. You have a question; the Internet has the answer.

But not all search results are equal. Everything from your location to previous searches and your social media habits builds a little content bubble. A personalised corner of the World Wide Web has been curated just for you.

A travel writer from Edinburgh may get restaurants and must-visit sites when they type in "Venezuela," while a human rights lawyer from London will see news of the latest political crackdown.

Often, we don't see the search results that defy our online habits, which is convenient when it comes to restaurant recommendations but problematic for staying informed. When the majority of us get our information, we don't know what we're missing.

According to a 2016 Reuters Institute study, 72% of people in the UK get their news online, and over one third (35%) from social media. More than just news, the Internet is where we turn for entertainment, research and inspiration.

The Internet was meant to be this great contest of ideas. But instead of expanding our perspectives, the Internet shows us what it thinks we want to see. Is it also dividing us? In the age of Brexit, when the media divides people between city and country, remain and leave, young and old, we don't need more dividing us.

The newest generation of algorithms, pieces of code that function like behind-the-scenes instructions, are ranking our preferences and filtering content online.

These algorithms are the reason you know when Bastille or Adele are in town, when your favourite high street shop is having a sale - and why it seems like all of your Facebook friends share your political views. Facebook will prioritise posts to your feed that you're more likely to agree with based on your likes. Our feeds quickly turn into echo chambers instead of thought-provoking dialogue.

In the battle for clicks, these algorithms are everywhere on the web - search engines, mainstream news sites, your Netflix account. And this personalisation is pushing us even further apart at a time when fake news and polarising political debates already divide us. Politics, race and gender all appear differently through the lens of our bubbles.

Eli Pariser, author of the bestseller The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think, recently underscored the issue while speaking with The Guardian: "Some of these problems that our fellow citizens are having kind of disappear from view without our really even realizing."

Opening your online experience to more voices could make you more engaged, informed and, ultimately, empathetic towards perspectives different from your own.

Privacy settings offer a first line of defence. But why not challenge yourself to break the algorithm by shifting your online habits?

The algorithms respond to our clicks. So, click away.

Click on ideas and stories you disagree with. Find voices on social media from different communities. Watch films and visit websites that challenge your assumptions. We all have to be active participants, curating our own diverse media by seeking out different voices to become more informed.

Information is at our fingertips - but a well-rounded, informed perspective on the issues of our time is harder to come by these days.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE Movement, including the year-long educational programme WE Schools and the youth empowerment event WE Day. Watch the WE Day UK live stream on 22 March at WE.org/watchweday

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