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How Much of Your Online Experience Is Determined by Algorithms?

By LIDA TUNESI

Our online experiences are highly curated, largely thanks to algorithms. Personalization algorithms pay attention to what websites we browse, what terms we search, what links we click, then feed back to us personally tailored ads, news feeds, and search results. Some have suggested this creates bubbles around each of us, or echo chambers.

Unfortunately, a new study showed inconsistent awareness of algorithms among undergraduate students. Educators should work to fix this by integrating algorithm awareness into media literacy curricula, the authors say. It’s important that people understand how their experiences are molded and that they know how to seek information outside their own bubble.

The study appears in Journal of Media Literacy Education, authored by Graduate Center Ph.D. students Jessica Brodsky and Dvora Zomberg, Professor Patricia Brooks (College of Staten Island, The Graduate Center), and Kasey Powers, an alumna of The Graduate Center and an adjunct professor at LaGuardia Community College.

The first part of the study revealed that only about half the students knew that Facebook does not show every post by all of their friends. Rather, the social media site prioritizes certain people’s posts using personalization algorithms. However, all the volunteers had good media literacy in general, which could mean they’ve had education on the topic but did not specifically learn about algorithms.

Interestingly, the second part of the study showed that most students were aware of algorithms’ role in online shopping, but not as many were aware of how they shape online search results. The reason for this difference is not entirely clear, but it might just be easier to spot targeted product advertisements than to realize your search results are personalized, the authors surmised.

Personalization algorithms seep into many parts of our lives, affecting what information we receive and what marketing we see. It’s been shown that algorithms can have built-in bias, and we know that they can contribute to polarization of views. But since the average person isn’t likely to stop using social media, quit shopping online, or revert to print encyclopedias rather than Google, it’s critical that people understand how algorithms work and the impact they have.