Arcane Algorithms

Welcome to the 21st Century. The world’s gone digital. 

As of 2020, Facebook has 2.6 billion users worldwide, of which majority are Indians, sitting at a proud 260 million. According to a report by Statista, the number of Instagram users in India is at a total of 140 million, while the number of Twitter users is 1.89 crores.

With the total population of India at 138 crores (as of 2020, according to worldometer) and the number of social media users totalling 35.14 crores, roughly 25.46% of the Indian population on social media platforms interact globally.

While this may not seem like a large number, it is important to note the demographics of the people that fall in this category. According to a recent market research report, “Millennials and Gen Z are the main contributors for social media usage in India. 52.3 % of social media results come from millennials. 28.4 % of social media conversations are from Gen Z and 15.1 % from those aged 35-44.” The youth of India spends a significant amount of time on social media platforms, sharing pictures and videos, chatting and sharing content with people from all parts of the world as well as sharing, many a time unknowingly, their personal information on the internet. Especially now, in the post-Covid world where people are still hesitant to step out, they depend heavily upon social media to connect with their friends and loved ones during trying times.

What are Algorithms?

“An algorithm is a mathematical set of rules specifying how a group of data behaves. In social media, algorithms help maintain order, and assists in ranking search results and advertisements. On Facebook, for example, there is an algorithm which directs pages and content to display in a certain order.” (Digital Marketing Institute)

What does this mean?

All social media websites use algorithms differently/in various degrees, mainly to generate ad-based revenues. A leading platform that has been subject to vast criticism in the public eye for its ethically questionable use of these is Facebook.

Facebook claims to use algorithms to generate ‘tailor-made results’ specific to the user. It does so by altering and curating the items/posts/advertisements that appear on the individual’s newsfeed bases on the following metrics:

• How often users interact with these types of posts

• How often users hide this type of post

• The level of engagement the page and post have received.

• The performance of each post among users that have already viewed it.

Instagram, another social media platform owned by Facebook, is the latest to change its ‘feed’ to an algorithm-based one. By doing so, users now see posts on their newsfeed based on their relevance, as opposed to other variables. Unlike Facebook, instead of hiding posts, all posts will continue to be visible – however, they shall follow the posts considered to be most relevant.

Why is this problematic?

Recent studies highlight the impact of online content, viewed on social media platforms, on individuals; especially on children and teenagers. Due to developing cognitive abilities, children and young adults tend to be at higher risk of manipulation by the content ‘curated’ for them by social media websites. According to an internal Facebook report from 2018, 64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there. A recent article in the New York Times claims that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns on social media has doubled in the past 2 years. 

Users are rarely aware of the digital footprint they leave behind and the ways in which this information is used to influence their decisions, manipulate their likes and dislikes, and often draw them to extremism. Personal information is shared online through the means of understanding user preferences, collecting sensitive data such as demographic details (age, name, phone number etc) and in extreme cases, bank details and sensitive information, as well as collecting non-sensitive personally identifiable information such as their gender, race, date of birth and zip code.  

The number of social media networks adopting algorithms to drive and promote selective content is only expected to increase in the near future. “As technology becomes more advanced, algorithm-based feeds will become more intelligent and engagement will be the only metric that matters.” (Forbes)

What Laws do we have in place for this? 

India does not have comprehensive data protection legislation. Thus, protection for users’ ‘personal information’ and ‘sensitive personal data or information’ is sought under the Information Technology Act (2000).

These laws are comprehensive in outlining the parameters under which the corporate bodies must function, including but not limited to:

  1. Transparency with privacy laws
  2. Prohibiting ‘the third party [from] disclosing the information or data [obtained from the user] any further.
  3. Preventing the publishing of obtained personal information and sensitive data or information.

While these laws work to prevent unlawful dissemination/distribution of personal information, their scope is vastly limited. There is a pressing need for the judiciary to introduce more holistic and comprehensive laws to protect the best interests of individuals physically, mentally, and emotionally. Efforts to understand behavioural implications of government policies and schemes are slowly being made by the Niti Aayog, through the setting up of a Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU). Soon, we hope to see the findings from the BIU and other behavioural research think tanks, expanding in breadth and applicability – fuelling the making of new laws to govern the fast-growing tech landscape to protect and preserve the users.

Where are we headed? 

There is a need now more than ever for more comprehensive, intelligent frameworks to regulate internet usage and social media platforms that take into account the behavioural and psychological impact of these technologies on users specific to their demographic. 

Behavioural scientists, data scientists and tech leaders alike have all made efforts to bring to light the negative impacts of unregulated exposure to social media technologies, especially for children and teenagers who tend to be at higher risk of manipulation by social media than other populations. 

Conclusion:

Social media tech giants have become more advanced in their utilization of algorithms to cater to their users. While these algorithms are designed to enhance the experience of the user, the devil in the details often lures the users into giving up information that they may not be aware of. The types of media that an individual engages with, as well as the social circles that that individual interacts with, are essentially up for grabs by these social media companies. While laws currently exist to help curb this technological terror, ultimately, policies tend to lag behind technology and innovation. It is important that governments whose populations are most affected by social media entities – such as India –  are proactive; creating safeguards to potential future issues, instead of reactive; acting only when a problem surfaces, to protect the privacy of as many of its constituents as possible. To that end, these governments must be vigilant of advancements in the information technology industry and should have dedicated bodies specializing in the monitoring of them.

Shreya Hasurkar is a Research Associate at the Centre for Social and Behavior Change. She recently completed her undergraduate degree in Political Science from Ashoka University.

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