Confirmation Bias and the Feedback Loop of Algorithms

Algorithms are bad for media (and society)

I read a post from Boston University this week on how data is transforming what we read and watch – and I assume listen – throughout media. The changing landscape of media isn’t anything new, but this does seem to be an unintended consequence of having terabytes of data at our fingertips.

In the early days of the internet, as revenue streams started to decrease in traditional media, newsrooms had to cut staff in order for organizations to remain profitable. Inevitably this meant that newsrooms were creating less content. But it wasn’t just that they were creating less content.

They had to make hard decisions around the content they did create. The content they created had to reach the largest audience possible in order to sell advertising and subscriptions.

When I got my first job at a newspaper in 2001 one of the long-time employees would frequently bemoan that we no longer covered family reunions. That kind of coverage went away, and in some way its loss likely played a role in the rise of social media.

Flash forward to today, as Google and Facebook continue to eat up most of the incremental digital advertising dollars, revenue losses are still impacting traditional media. But now, to make things more difficult, another threat has been identified.

Algorithms.

The backbone of search and social media, is changing what, and how content, is being created. And they change. A lot.

Already in 2019 Google has tweaked its algorithm seven times. That’s in addition to 15 times in 2018. Facebook has only made four changes so far in 2019.

No matter how much they claim it’s not true or insist they are immune to it, every newsroom is impacted by these changes. In order for a newsroom to survive in 2019 they have to be. Content is no longer created in a vacuum with the tools of distribution only belonging to a few.

The type of content written, the way it’s written, where it’s distributed – all of it is affected by an algorithm. Some newsrooms, as the Boston University article points out, are even using algorithms to write content.

Algorithms have become a necessary evil. The shear volume content created every day makes it so. Without them the chance of your content getting found on the internet is slim-to-none. With them newsrooms are reluctantly giving over more control to outside forces and, by extension, run the risk of allowing for more confirmation bias.

Personally, I think confirmation bias will have the most devastating long-term impact on media and society at large. When asked I know most news consumers will say they want a center-of-the-road, fact-based, well-sourced story. Unfortunately what users want and what they actually engage with are frequently two different things. It’s why your newsfeed is made up of stories from the political edges of news sites and not Associated Press and Reuters.

media bias chart - ad fontes media
Souce: Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart Vision 4.0

In all but the most rare cases, in order for a piece of content to get found it has to produce some kind of engagement. In media engagement is one of those terms that isn’t anything, but can refer to whatever you want it to in order prove your point of view.

Engagement can be page views, shares, likes, tweets, follows, time on page, anything. It’s whatever you want it to be so you can say, “Hey, someone interacted with this content is some way, which means it’s great!”

In turn, the more engagement you get, the more your content gets found. This creates a self-sustaining feedback loop.

The hard part is getting that feedback loop started. You have to find that initial engagement. Unfortunately, thanks to algorithms, the easiest way to get the feedback loop started is to push content away from the center to either extreme of the political landscape.

The algorithms reward this engagement by pushing the content higher up, even to those users who consider themselves moderate. All that we end up seeing is content from the edges, giving us the impression that the world must be this way, and pushing us away from the other side.

This week’s links

I’ve grown tired of hearing Silicon Valley tech/media CEOs talk about how there are changing the world, while at the same time insisting nothing is there fault, but this week on the Recode Decode podcast Kara Swisher spoke with Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, which is an interesting conversation. He discussed the idea around quarantining subreddits instead of banning them and Reddit as a social media/media/technology company.

You can listen here.

Remember when Mic was the next great media brand that would rule the world? Mashable has a good article on its fall that you can read here.

Finally, Vulture did a story around Apple’s podcast strategy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *