How Do Social Media Algorithms Work, And Are They Impartial?

Social media platforms stand as integral tools in shaping our modes of communication, information retrieval, and global interaction.

Operating behind the scenes of these platforms are algorithms, which play a pivotal role in shaping our content consumption and the timing of our content interactions.

But how exactly do social media algorithms work, and do they play any role in cultivating a fair and unbiased user experience?

Understanding Social Media Algorithms

Social media algorithms represent intricate systems of rules and computations that govern the content showcased in your news feed or search outcomes.

Just think about it – with so many users on the major social media platforms, there’s a need to create order and relevancy, and an algorithm does just that.

Their overarching purpose is to curate a personalised encounter by presenting content tailored to your interests and interactions. The core goals of social media algorithms include:

  1. Engagement: To keep users on the platform and encourage them to interact with content.
  2. Relevance: To show users content they are most likely to find interesting and engaging.
  3. User Retention: To keep users coming back to the platform regularly.

Today, it’s basic knowledge that any social media platform – including X/Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, Threads, you name it – operates by using algorithms to ensure users are kept engaged and participating in relevant content, to retain the interest of users.

This is a relatively unsurprising fact. These platforms are businesses after all, and algorithms can help ensure good business just keeps churning.

What Influences Social Media Algorithms

Social media algorithms are influenced by a multitude of factors, each contributing to the way they target users.

First and foremost, user behaviour takes centre stage. Social media platforms meticulously collect data on your interactions – likes, comments, shares, and the time spent on specific posts. This data serves as a window into your preferences, allowing the algorithms to finely curate your feed.

Moreover, different content formats, including text, images, and videos, receive varying levels of favour from these algorithms. Platforms often give precedence to content types that tend to generate higher levels of user engagement.

Social media algorithms also take into account the age of a post, ensuring that you’re presented with fresh and relevant content.

Your user connections, along with the strength of these connections, are also factored in. The algorithms may prioritise content from friends or accounts with which you have frequent interactions.

Lastly, social media algorithms are attentive to reported and blocked content, acting as gatekeepers to filter out material that contravenes platform guidelines or content you’ve indicated you do not wish to see.

Are Social Media Algorithms Impartial?

The question of whether social media algorithms are impartial is a contentious one.

From one perspective, it can be argued that social media algorithms do not necessarily deliver an impartial user experience but, rather, a highly personalised one.

Social media platforms often emphasise their use of algorithms to create a consistent, rather than impartial, user experience. In this approach, identical content shared by different users is treated uniformly.

Therefore, one could contend that algorithms primarily aim to provide a personalised experience, tailored to the user’s preferences rather than exhibiting inherent bias.

Moreover, social media platforms are proactive in allocating resources to ensure the fairness and accuracy of their algorithms, continually reviewing and updating them to enhance transparency and fairness.

On the other hand, while algorithms are designed with the intention of personalisation and user satisfaction, the potential for bias cannot be overlooked.

Algorithms, whether intentionally or inadvertently, have the capacity to construct filter bubbles. In these bubbles, users find themselves immersed solely in content that reinforces their existing beliefs and preferences, effectively fostering information isolation.

One could also argue that social media algorithms can be biased, displaying a preference for specific content types or viewpoints over others, as a result of the data that has been used to train them.

Social media platforms may also prioritise content that generates higher levels of user engagement, which may not always align with the user’s best interests. In pursuit of prolonged user engagement, platforms might favour controversial or sensational content.

So, are social media algorithms impartial?

We can’t deny that these algorithms play a significant role in shaping our online experiences and views and, as such, they offer the perfect, arguably unmissable, opportunity to spread biased information to the masses.

Of course, social media platforms will want to market themselves as being impartial – for obvious reasons – particularly in the democratic West. And, if they were asked, their answer to an appearance of bias would be that this is just a personalised user experience from what we look at, and from what we’re interested in.

After all, can we be sure that social media algorithms generate biased platforms? Or can we agree that they just mirror what we ourselves create?

It’s difficult to wholeheartedly conclude one answer. There are so many different social media platforms, from Instagram to LinkedIn to TikTok, and algorithms are changing all the time. Plus, they will differ depending on what country the platform is in, and what rules it must function under.

Ultimately, the debate surrounding algorithm impartiality underscores wider concerns about the importance of transparency, accountability, and having a balanced, fair and safe online environment.

Impartial or not, the most important thing is for users to be aware of how these algorithms work, and not trust everything they see online. Whether it’s from a biased platform or from your own engagement, content will appear in front of you for one reason or another. So, be careful, be aware, and don’t rely on social media as your exclusive fountain of knowledge!