How social media algorithms control your online life

By Nick Smallman


Homophily is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others, as in the proverb “birds of a feather flock together.”

Like other primates, human beings are naturally tribal. We are loyal to those we identify with, and they become our ‘in-group’. Membership of your tribe could be determined by the football club you support, the country you come from, the political party you support, the struggles you face, your sexual orientation, your eye colour, or even your name. Humans feel good when they’re with their tribe.

Social media platforms know all about our tribal preferences which is why their algorithms (see below) encourage us to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ like-minded people who share the same viewpoint. But the downside to this is that when groups of people with similar opinions deliberate an issue, in the words of Professor Cass Sunstein, it appears to move them toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own pre-deliberation judgments. In other words, when people hear their own opinions reflected back at them, it reinforces and causes a belief in the universal acceptance of those opinions. The result is an echo chamber – and social media has become a battleground of echo chambers.

While social media succeeds in connecting us to like-minded people, it fails dismally when it comes to connecting us to people with a different viewpoint. The result is that social media acts as a polarising force and many beliefs and ideas created on its platforms go unchallenged. The world is a complicated place and if we are to survive as a race, we need to consider a wealth of different ideas and opinions to find our way to the best solutions.


Algorithms use machine learning and data science as a way of sorting posts in a user’s feed, based on their relevancy, rather than when they were posted.

Today, platforms prioritise the content the user will see first, based on the likelihood of how much they’ll want to see it. The algorithms determine the ‘how much’ from your platform behaviour. Put crudely, if the user is obviously an animal lover, they will see more posts related to animals. It’s very unlikely they will see an article on animal cruelty in their feed unless it is to encourage a negative response.

Social media algorithms do the legwork of sifting through millions of posts to display what the platform has calculated you’re hoping to find. They weed out the content that doesn’t conform to the user’s view of the world. And as noted above, that’s a problem. Complex issues cannot be solved by narrowing them down to two opposing opinions.

What you see on social media isn’t always real

Comparison is the death of joy – Mark Twain.

It certainly is for teenagers viewing endless images of people with perfect faces and bodies on their social media feeds. They say ironic things like ‘I’d die to have a body like that’ – and unfortunately, they sometimes do. On social media many people believe what they see, and the picture of the perfect body never carries a caption along the lines of: “the person in this picture has been using a personal trainer and been on a specially planned and supervised diet for 12 months” or “this photograph has been Photoshopped to perfection by an advertising agency”.  It’s rare for the photos we see in magazines and on social media not to have been digitally manipulated. And going on a dangerous crash diet will not suddenly turn you into a buff Love Island contestant and may cause you harm. The only diet most teenagers should be going on is one that persuades them to detect and let go of misinformation on social media.

If you’re worried about your child or teenager, please see my article: Are you worried about your children?  It’s viewable above and to the right of this one.

Sometimes what you see doesn’t even exist

As I documented in the Position Paper titled The effect of social media on mental health viewable in the Businesses section of the Workshops page, one of the major problems of the internet and online world is inauthenticity, and sometimes gross inauthenticity.

There are times when the profiles purporting to be of a genuine person are either a duplicate of someone else’s profile or a fantasy persona of someone who doesn’t even exist.

Social media pages should really carry a buyer beware warning.

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