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There’s now a growing argument to be made that social media algorithms are one of the fundamental reasons why American society seems to be so divided and so polarized these days. Think about it – when is the last time that scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed didn’t trigger you? Or the last time that you read through your tweet timeline and didn’t have an overwhelming urge to send out a nasty tweet in response to someone? Well, you’re not alone, and many social media researchers think that social media algorithms are to blame.
Algorithms and business models
The reason, quite simply, is that the social media algorithm is now at the very heart of any good social media business model. If the path to success for social media companies requires lots of followers, lots of engagement, and lots of sharing, then social media algorithms need to be optimized for these factors. And that’s where things may have gone terribly, terribly wrong. If your goal at a company like Facebook is to maximize engagement, then it only makes sense that one type of content best suited to do this is content that is polarizing and divisive. Headlines need to be sensationalized, arguments need to be emotional, and everything needs to be done to “trigger” you to respond in some way.
Making matters worse, social media algorithms need to build in factors that make you, well, addicted, to the social media experience. You need to feel a deep-seated need to get your daily dopamine fix each and every day. And you need to feel like there is a huge tribe of people just like you, thinking and responding just like you. This helps to create the illusion that you are right, that you are on the right side of history, and that your arguments are perfectly correct and reasonable. That makes it so much easier to respond to any counter-argument (not matter how rational or cogent) with a sense of outrage.
Will Congress regulate social media algorithms?
One thing is clear by now: we can’t count on social media platforms to self-regulate. They’ve had years to fix these algorithms, and nothing seems to be working these days. Facebook promises to “down-rank” certain content that seems to be abusive and polarizing, but it only results in even worse consequences, such as shadow banning and downright censorship. Facebook promises to get rid of disinformation and conspiracy theories, but this is really a game of whack-a-mole. As soon as you shut down one source of disinformation, another one appears somewhere else.
Within this context, it’s getting easier and easier for politicians and legislators to push for the regulation of social media. In fact, a recent bipartisan Senate hearing invited social media researchers to share their thoughts on the current state of the social media algorithm. As these researchers pointed out, these algorithms can be useful, but overall, they tend to amplify harmful content. These algorithms send people into their own “rabbit holes of reality,” and lead to factors like social media addiction and content polarization. Moreover, these algorithms have made many people think of content creation as a sort of performance art, in which you need to be as outrageous, shocking and over-the-top in order to stand out in a sea of similar content. In other words, when millions of people are creating content every day, you need to be as shocking and sensational as possible to get your content appearing in newsfeeds.
How much regulation is needed?
The big question, of course, is how far Congress should go in regulating content. The light version of regulation would only include provisions such as a “public interest” version of a newsfeed that is only filled with factual (i.e. boring) content from authorized content providers (i.e. the mainstream media). But do you really want your newsfeed filled with content from the likes of CNN? If anything, this might actually make the censorship model much worse. Most likely, too much regulation will also fail. After all, Congressional legislators have already shown that they don’t really get how Facebook or Google operate. Do you think that they are suddenly up-to-speed on topics like memes and influencers?
That means the only way the social media algorithm will change is if the business model itself changes. Remember – the social media algorithm is at the heart of every business model. So to change the algorithm, you need to change the business model. Otherwise, it’s like asking a big oil and gas company to suddenly embrace green energy or climate change activism with no incentives thrown in. It’s just not going to happen.