As social media becomes increasingly central to how we interact with information, it’s important to understand how AI based algorithms and our psychology can influence what we see, share, and believe. Understanding the role of AI algorithms and how they work is critical to avoid the harmful side of social media.
Algorithms are not neutral, and their influence can have unintended consequences.
This has several implications when it comes to the spread of misinformation. First, it means that users are more likely to see stories confirming their beliefs and opinions, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Second, users are more likely to be exposed to extreme or sensationalized content, which can fuel group polarization and make it more challenging to separate fact from fiction.
Algorithms are AI computer programs that use data to make decisions, and social media platforms use them to decide which stories, posts, and ads are shown to which users. These algorithms are designed to keep users engaged for as long as possible, and they do this by showing us content that we’re most likely to be interested in.
Facebook, for example, uses an algorithm called EdgeRank to determine what content appears in users’ newsfeeds. EdgeRank considers factors like how often users interact with a particular friend or page, the post type (photo, video, status update), and how recent the post is.
Twitter uses a similar algorithm called Home Timeline. Home Timeline considers which tweets users have interacted with, the age of the tweet, and the popularity of the authors. Home Timeline aims to keep users engaged by showing them tweets that are most likely exciting and relevant to them rather than factually correct.
While these algorithms are designed to keep users engaged, they can also create filter bubbles where users are only exposed to content that confirms their existing beliefs and opinions — this is referred to as confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the tendency of individuals to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs and opinions. This can lead to the formation of echo chambers where false information is shared and reinforced. Social media platforms often exacerbate this phenomenon by using algorithms that prioritize showing users content they’re likely to be interested in or have an emotional reaction to.
There are several reasons why confirmation bias occurs. First, it’s efficient. It’s easier to process information that fits with what we already believe. Second, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us and consume media confirming our beliefs. Finally, confirmation bias can be emotionally comforting. We want to believe our emotional reactions, and finding information corroborating these opinions can be satisfying.
It’s essential to recognize confirmation bias is a natural human tendency. We all have biases, and it’s important to be aware of them when consuming media.
Group polarization is another factor that can further amplify the spread of misinformation on social media. Group polarization refers to the phenomenon where groups of people with similar opinions tend to become more extreme over time.
Group polarization happens when people discuss issues with like-minded individuals and hear arguments that support their own beliefs, reinforcing those beliefs and leading to more extreme views. In addition, people may feel social pressure to conform to the group's thoughts, which can also contribute to group polarization.
Social media can exacerbate group polarization because it allows people to easily connect with others with similar views leading to a herd-like illusion and mentality. One study found that people may be more likely to share articles supporting their opinions even if they did not read the full article. This can contribute to the spread of false information and further polarize groups.
While algorithms may be a part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution. Social media platforms can use algorithms to promote more diverse viewpoints and expose users to a wider range of perspectives. In addition, individuals can take steps to reduce the impact of algorithms on their behavior. This includes being aware of the influence of algorithms and actively seeking out diverse viewpoints. I explain more about this in last months blog here.
There are also some practical steps that individuals can take to avoid falling prey to confirmation bias and algorithms.
The spread of misinformation on social media is a complex issue influenced by various factors. While algorithms can amplify the reach of false information, it’s ultimately up to humans to be vigilant in their consumption and sharing of information online. Understanding how our emotions and brains play a role in understanding and accepting information is crucial.
I’d love to help you to learn more about how our brains and technology intersect and impact our mental health. By gaining a deeper understanding of how our brains work and how technology affects our mental health, we can better navigate the complex world of social media and work to prevent the spread of misinformation online. Visit my website to learn more about how we can work together.