Talk about your timeline

How social media sites can change what we think

I remember when Facebook changed from the chronological timeline to an algorithm that was supposed to show users more of the information that they wanted to see.  At first users could choose which timeline to use, but then all users had to use the new system.  Then Twitter started mixing chronological order with a “while you were away” section of tweets they thought users would like.  Eventually Twitter and even Instagram also converted to completely tailored timeline.

Although the idea of this is to show users information that is most important to them by analyzing what tweets they interact with most, there becomes room for the social media site to influence the the information we consume.  Over time, this has the potential to change individuals thoughts and to shape society.

Millions of people use social media sites, and tailoring timelines requires decisions and rankings of importance.  Companies use algorithms, which are series of questions designed to rank what is most important.

“These are all human choices. Sometimes they’re made in the design of the algorithm, sometimes around it. The result we see, a changing list of topics, is not the output of “an algorithm” by itself, but rather of an effort that combined human activity and computational analysis, together, to produce it.” wrote Tarleton Gillespie in a NiemanLab article.

This gives social media companies a lot of area to push agenda’s, whether for money or a cause.  For example, Facebook generally leads liberally, and the one of their algorithm curator’s recently said that “his fellow curators often overlooked or suppressed conservative topics.” As a left leaning registered independent, I generally don’t mind not having many conservative posts on my timeline, but this can give false perceptions of reality. My Facebook and Twitter feeds made me under the impression that Donald Trump could never win the U.S. election, but based on election night, Trump won by a landslide.

Social media sites have as much power or more than the massive media corporations, and they have don’t have the same regulations of influence.  Media manipulation is what makes lots of money right now, and Forbes explained what this means:

“When the news is decided not by what is important but by what readers are clicking; when the cycle is so fast that the news cannot be anything else but consistently and regularly incomplete; when dubious scandals scuttle election bids or knock billions from the market caps of publicly traded companies; when the news frequently covers itself in stories about ‘how the story unfolded’—media manipulation is the status quo.”

In the case of the 2016 election, this manipulation led me and many others believe that the Democratic Party had it in the bag.  As a big Bernie Sanders supporter, I personally wish that Twitter could have decided the election, because that’s what my feed was full of, but I understand that’s not what the country, (or at least the DNC wanted).  Transparency and accuracy in trends are a necessary responsibility for social media companies with a conscious.

**Featured image is Public Domain