Fed up with political propaganda bots and discriminatory online ads? You may think the answer is to delete your Facebook and Twitter profiles and head offline, but there might be a better way: build your own networks.
“These systems are affecting billions of people around the world,” said Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, in a presentation today at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference. “We have a responsibility to figure out how to make these systems significantly better.”
Karrie Karahalios, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made a similar point in her own EmTech presentation. “We need to help control what we see [on social media] and do it collectively,” she said.
One of the main problems is that many people don’t understand how algorithmic systems affect what they see online. In the pre-Internet era, newspaper publishers produced and disseminated their own news articles. Meanwhile, TV studios produced shows and broadcast networks distributed them. Today, many people discover news stories and videos via Facebook and Google, which enables anyone on social media to “amplify” content by sharing or linking to it. This amplification cycle creates a number of problems: the production of extremist content, the spread of conspiracy theories, online shaming by anonymous mobs, and issues related to algorithmic biases and content moderation, said Zuckerman.
Yet many people don’t realize to what extent they’re being manipulated online. Karahalios said 62 percent of the people she studied didn’t know that an algorithm determined what appeared on their Facebook news feed and were angry when they learned the truth. She also found that people tend to assume that the first result they see in an online query is the best or most accurate one.
The most radical suggestion is for people to simply create their own social-networking sites, although that is obviously easier said than done. Another solution is making user settings on social-media sites and search engines more transparent. Karahalios and Zuckerman are (separately) building user interfaces for Twitter as research projects. Both believe that control panels should be located on a site’s main page, perhaps in a sidebar that’s always visible.
Zuckerman also suggested creating tools that make it easy to export social-media content to another platform and view multiple social networks within the same browser window. “This would be hard to do commercially,” he conceded. “But it’s important to imagine how things could be rather than just say, ‘We have this thing and it’s broken.’”