Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Algorithms: the villains and heroes of the 'post-truth' era

In this video, Dr Dave Beer looks at how algorithms are impacting on economics, policy, and society.

Algorithms and algorithmic systems are all around us. In this video, Dr David Beer talks us through why they’re important, and why we need to be aware of their influence on our lives.

If we hear the word “algorithms”, there’s a chance we might be put off. It sounds like quite a technical thing: the preserve of computer scientists and mathematicians. Algorithms are decision-making rules written into computer code, and because we live in an environment that’s dominated by code and software, algorithms are a really important presence in our lives. They make decisions about us, and for us, all the time.

These decisions can make life easier for us, from offering recommendations on media to showing you relevant search results. Nobody has the time to look through the 6,290,000,000 that came up on Google when I just searched for ‘cat’. An algorithm is used to decide which pages show up in the first 10 results (the ones on the first page) and then which show up on the 39 other results pages Google offers me on this occasion. As I’m only seeing 400 results even if I look through each of these pages, how this decision-making process works is very important.

As well as looking for the word in question (in the case of search) or recent posts (in the case of social media), algorithms use a range of other factors to display content. Your search history, for example, is used by Google to assume which content you want to see this time.

In his 2011 TED Talk Beware online “filter bubbles”, Eli Pariser describes how different friends got very different results when searching for the word “Egypt”, with one of them not seeing any results relating to the protests happening at the time. Pariser also discusses Facebook, and the way its algorithms use the content you interact with to decide what to show you. This creates the ‘filter bubble’ effect, where people only see the kind of opinions they agree with because that’s the content they click on, creating in Pariser’s words “a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see”.

These algorithms are not neutral or objective. They bring with them human biases, are often tied up with marketing and profit, and their decisions can create feedback loops where assumptions and stereotypes become part of the system and inequality is perpetuated. Cathy O’Neil terms some algorithms “weapons of math destruction” after the damage that can be caused to society and democracy when algorithms reinforce inequality. In her book, O’Neil looks at how Facebook’s algorithms can influence whether people vote and which political messages they see.

Algorithms have a huge impact not only on the internet content we see, but on society, democracy, and culture. They are the decisions made for us, with positive or negative consequences.

When written with an awareness of civic consequences and used with transparency as to how these decisions are reached, algorithms can allow us to find and retrieve information, opening up the web for everyone. However, as we’ve seen, algorithms can also lead us away from discovery, creating filter bubbles that give certain views of the world, and can allow bias and discrimination to continue unquestioned.

Further reading:

  • Hannah Fry (2018). Hello World: How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine. London: Transworld.
  • Cathy O’Neil (2017). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. London: Penguin.
This article is from the free online

Digital Wellbeing

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now