Do you control the algorithm or does the algorithm control you?

By January 30, 2021 No Comments


(c) Hagar Vardimon (2018)


Why do we think the way we do? Would you still be a liberal if you weren’t surrounded by like-minded people? Would you look at the world the same way if you read news from the other side of the political spectrum? What prompts you to change your opinion? I find it pretty amusing to try and trace my thoughts back to their origin (if I can still remember the origin, that is). I may have heard reasonable arguments from a charismatic person, read a great book, criticized something mainly to boost my ego, or listened to someone smart talk about a subject I know little about. I easily internalize these thoughts, beliefs, and arguments as if they were my own. I could put a citation after everything I say, even this very sentence.

We may have different opinions on the existence of free will, but I’m convinced that we are guided by random circumstances. For example, if some of us hadn’t had that exceptional history teacher or grown up in a given political system, maybe we wouldn’t even be studying at Sciences Po. Psychology says that we are formed by nature and nurture simultaneously [Collins, 2001]: our genes and our environment both matter—although the extent to which they do is debated. Here, I would like to focus on how we can take control of our environments, and conversely: how our environments have already taken control of us.

Wait, your phone’s buzzing again. Stop reading this article: you must check your notifications.

We spend our days scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok. Information flows through us for 8 hours a day: information designed to make us laugh, think, compel us to react, press that like button, share, and, most importantly: watch more and more.

A post about QAnon comes up. How easily manipulated people can be! I repost something about how Amy Coney Barrett is a “religious extremist”. My followers instantly see the post, react and talk about it with others.

The domino of influence continues.

We scroll through influencers’ posts, that we don’t even care about—why are they followed by tens of millions of people again? That’s a popularity that any politician would envy. As Bandura, a well-known social psychologist notes: “struggles to legitimize and gain support for one’s values and causes and to discredit those of one’s opponents are now waged more and more through the electronic media.” The easiest way to convince is to fuel one’s confirmation biases. The aforementioned “struggles” to reassert one’s preexisting beliefs, and debunk the claims of “opponents,” are present in every political campaign.

It feels so good to say “I told you so,” doesn’t it?

Imagine if the internet didn’t exist. We would be restricted to the bubbles of our direct interactions and environment. In contrast, right now we can open any door we want, listen to whoever we want, and get lost in the world of ideas. But: we must watch out for the rabbitholes. After all, external systems are monitoring and analyzing us every minute. This may relieve some of the burdens of “freedom of choice”—we don’t have to spend hours reading book reviews, we can just choose what’s recommended. Nevertheless, I believe that the actual danger lies in the data’s ability to manipulate. Our confirmation bias is stronger than ever, and our heuristics may be based on what we experience and see online.

One of the main lessons we can draw from psychology is that if we pay the tiniest attention to something, it will still affect us. Even if we don’t pay attention at all, it enters our implicit memory, and we may develop new associations [Mulligan, 1998]. The advertising industry has known this for a long time, and even though subliminal advertising—slipping subliminal messages into content to alter behaviour (with debated effectiveness)—was banned in the UK and in the EU, behavioural advertising on social media platforms still tries to influence our behaviour, drawing from our characteristics as inferred from our data. Targeted online advertising is also a very attractive tool to reach political goals by manipulating public opinion [Crain and Nadler, 2019]. Now, social media monopolizes our attention for hours each day. The implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal still hold true, as social media and those in control of it have the power to directly form the source of political beliefs. Aside from misinformation, it is also about biased information, which we cannot—and should not—avoid if we want to preserve freedom of speech. We should however, be more conscious about the biases we consume daily, and how much information is based on facts and research. “The Gods of Silicon Valley” have significant power over what we believe, what we deem to be important, and what we dedicate our lives to. Harai says the only way to defeat them is to “know thyself” but knowing ourselves is also knowing what shapes us, knowing the influence of the information we absorb—even right now.

Online environments control us based on the data we provide. But what if we changed the data we hand over to the algorithm? If the internet didn’t exist, it would require more effort to establish friendships, move to another country, or get a new job. Now, it is possible to change your environment in just a few minutes. If you want to see the other side(s), maybe just ask someone with opposing views about what they read, and who they follow, thus broadening your worldview and bypassing the algorithm. Then, our beliefs may not be changed, but at least they will be backed up (or maybe torn down) by a dialogue instead of being strengthened by the monologue of confirmation bias and our ego. The way policy should address political manipulation and online advertising is still debated, since advertising in social media has “the most capability for abuse generally,” while regulation poses “the least free expression concerns” as a former Facebook chief security officer, Alex Samos put it. Thus it is our responsibility to consider why we think the way we do, and take back control from random circumstances or deliberate algorithms: right at their source.



Bandura, Albert. Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura2001.pdf

Collins, W. A., Maccoby, E. E., Steinberg, L., Hetherington, E. M., & Bornstein, M. H. (2001). Toward nature WITH nurture. American Psychologist, 56(2), 171–173. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.56.2.171b

Crain, Matthew, and Anthony Nadler. “Political Manipulation and Internet Advertising Infrastructure.” 2019. Journal of Information Policy, vol. 9, 2019, pp. 370–410. JSTOR,

Harari, Yuval Noah. “Yuval Noah Harari on big data, Google and the end of free will.” https://www.ft.com/content/50bb4830-6a4c-11e6-ae5b-a7cc5dd5a28c

Mulligan, Neil W. “The Role of Attention During Encoding in Implicit and Explicit Memory.” 1998. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ffd6/48a7cab96518628101d9ac8c859f14d8f2f6.pdf

Stamos, Alex. “The Products That Have the Most Capability for Abuse Generally Have the Least Free Expression Concerns, Which Is Convenient. The Top Two, Advertising and Recommendation Engines, Are Especially Concerning Because They Put Content in Front of People *Who Did Not Ask to See It*,” Tweet, @alexstamos (blog), February 2, 2019, https://twitter.com/alexstamos/status/1091711395991670784.

Wågström, Göran. “Why Behavioral Advertising Should Be Illegal.” 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2019/03/05/why-behavioral-advertising-should-be-illegal/?sh=72612bf05b89

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