Algorithm’s Going to Get You: The Mysterious Rules of Social Media Lead to a Strange Place

MEDIA, 8 Oct 2018

Simon Rite – RT

© Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

2 Oct 2018 – The Algorithm is mysterious a phrase you hear a lot in the online world. I admit I don’t really understand what it is, or what it does, all I know is that I’ve heard brighter people than me use the term, so I started using it too.

I make my living online, where ‘The Algorithm’ is the essential tool that no one really knows how to use. In essence it’s the ever changing set of rules the big online companies like Google programme into their systems to decide who sees what in their search results and timelines. If ‘The Algorithm’ is with you, your cat video will be seen by 5 million people on social media and if all goes well someone will send you a check in the post. If ‘The Algorithm’ is against you, you could make a video outlining a proven cure for cancer, and still no one would see it pop up Facebook.

Read more: The people whose tweets you should not read: Twitter tests ‘unfollow’ suggestion feature

In my luddite professional experience, you spend your time second guessing what the rules may be, and it ends up being a waste of effort because it changes so often you may as well try to second guess an election result in the era of Trump and Corbyn.

Where The Algorithm has become essential is as a professional excuse. When an article doesn’t do well, or your latest social media content offering gets just 10 views, all from you admiring your own work, you can breezily tell your boss “Google/Facebook/Youtube must have changed The Algorithm” and think no more of it.  Boss is happy, you’re employed for one more week, and you can be absolutely certain that the next time the internet fails to take notice of your genius, The Algorithm will have changed again.

However in the course of my work in the last week or so I have noticed the dark(er) side of The Algorithm boxing me in and playing with my mind. My own personal home page on Youtube began to change. I’ve been writing a satirical piece on people falling foul of the unwritten rules of being ‘woke’ who find themselves sacked for not saying the “right” thing about gender, or are just generally confused about what they can or can’t say about, well anything really. Personally, I am a man with no convictions one way or the other, on any subject, but the student in Britain who was sacked from several publications for retweeting a claim that “women don’t have penises” certainly has my sympathy.

Some of my … erm … ‘research’, involved seeking out and watching Youtube videos of angry people failing to listen to anything anyone else says, the bright light of certainty blindingly shining off their halos, and I began to notice a strange thing happening. Youtube took notice, and whereas before my homepage was a comforting mixture of guitar lessons, film trailers, motivational workout videos (still waiting for those to work) and listicles of the 17 hottest dyslexic women in pre-1970s science fiction (65million views and counting), now a new type of video was taking over.

The Algorithm presented me with a video of a blonde woman called Lauren Southern talking about how fat the model Kelly Brook is. Other titles like “Socialism is evil: change my mind” popped up, presented by a guy who clearly didn’t want his mind changed at all, and then I was offered the chance to join a channel called Prager U. The U stood for university, but I’ll be honest I don’t think it’s a real university because one tutorial attempted to persuade women they should just let their husbands ogle other women.

All this happened within just a few days, The Algorithm had trapped me inside an angry bubble of people with extremely questionable views, left and right. Imagine if I spent next week researching the mainstream media, The Algorithm will take me down a truly terrifying rabbit hole. And imagine if people far less informed and intelligent than me (ahem!) get caught in The Algorithm trap. Won’t somebody think of the children?


Simon Rite is a writer based in London for RT, in charge of several projects including the political satire group #ICYMI.

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