Algorithms: what are they? What can they do?

At its most basic, an algorithm is a procedure to solve a problem. A computer program can be a procedure to solve a problem expressed in a computer language.

On many social media and digital commerce sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and on and on), algorithms control how users experience the sites–what they see, the options they are offered, who they communicate with, etc. Algorithms can be developed to maximize revenue and/or spread misinformation or disinformation.

Corporations, advocacy groups, governments, criminal organizations, and others use algorithms in an attempt to control and influence the actions of individual users. It may be simply to entice people to make more purchases or spend more time on a site (thereby generating more advertising revenue). Or, the goal may be darker, to use individuals to influence the outcome of larger events–such as elections.

See: Algorithms increasingly control our lives; is that a good thing?

See: The Facebook whistleblower says its algorithms are dangerous. Here’s why. (Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review, October 5, 2021)

See: How and why does false information spread online?

See: How Disinformation Spreads (video)

See: Disinformation and Fear (video)

Even academic sites and databases use algorithms. While the motivation and consequences may be less driven by profit-seeking or disinformation, they can still be impacted by corporate rivalries.

While algorithms can have positive impacts, what we see most vividly today are their negative impacts.

Part of evaluating the content and source of information is to understand the context and motivations behind why information was produced and, as a result, how it is being displayed (words, graphics, colors, formatting, layout, options, etc.).

See: Evaluation (video)

See: Understand the context of information important to you; reduce the fear and anxiety

Take charge of the information in your life, especially when it is important to you.

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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