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How Algorithms Can Impact Online Civil Rights Movements

Access to the internet enables billions of people worldwide to share their stories; whether those stories reach a widespread audience, however, depends on how platforms promote certain content over others. The decision of what to amplify can make or break a social movement taking place online, and the algorithms that determine which information to deliver can create a barrier to these digital social movements by reducing their ability to compel people’s attention.

In Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “13th”, it was noted that throughout history, slaves, activists, and grassroots movements have harnessed the media and emerging technology to tell their stories. Abolitionists in the 19th century widely circulated a jarring photograph of slave Gordon and writings containing personal accounts of slaves. African-Americans reporting for Black-owned publications covered investigations and condemnations of the practice of lynching in the American south. Emmet Till’s mother understood the power of shocking people into demanding social change, effectively galvanizing the Civil Rights Movement when she allowed the images of her brutalized son to appear in Jet magazine. These examples demonstrate how people throughout history have actively worked to shed light on their experiences and ensure that their basic humanity is recognized by others in society.

Social media services are no longer a neutral, timeline driven platform for people’s speech.

Just as televised evidence of the reality of segregation helped to spur social change in the 1950s and ‘60s, today people use mobile technology to document police brutality, such as the cell phone videos that recorded the murders of Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner. Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and has since sparked a national conversation about race and inequality in America. During the Arab Spring, thousands gathered in Egypt’s Tahrir Square connected by social media. The Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter show how social movements are shaped by the technology available to them.

But social media services are no longer a neutral, timeline driven platform for people’s speech. In the last few years, major social media sites have started to make crucial decisions about what information reaches which audiences. Social media sites and other aggregators use algorithms designed to deliver posts that will draw people in so that they will “like” and share the content with their networks. Typically, a person’s history on the service is a key driver of what is shown to them in the future. The downside of this model is its potential to create an echo chamber of information for its users. If users are placed into silos, it can limit people’s exposure to a wide variety of opinions that are counter to their own or just unknown.

This type of system has the potential to silence narratives that do not rank high on the engagement metrics that make a story trend in a news feed. If a Breitbart reader is only given information that reinforces conservative rhetoric, how can the next Occupy Wall Street movement expect to breakthrough these silos to help people understand their perspective on issues of social and economic inequality?

Luckily, we do have some sense of what motivates technical platforms to promote specific content over others: engagement. With an understanding that the content people engage with now plays a significant role in what they will see in the future, there should be more awareness of the things that are “liked” and “shared.” Everyone can shape the information on social media by deciding to share reputable, meaningful, or productively contrary information.

The national rift caused by our recent election reflects the need for vigilance in understanding the viewpoints of those outside of one’s digital network.

But trying to share only good information is a small piece of the puzzle, there are other questions that need to be addressed. What kind of tools can platforms create to help ensure people can share information responsibly? Is it possible to create a concrete definition for the term “fake news” and assist users to critically evaluate the information they come across? In this broader effort to foster credible journalism, it is important to engage journalists, platform operators, and app developers in discussions on how to integrate journalistic ethics into distribution algorithms.

The national rift caused by our recent election reflects the need for vigilance in understanding the viewpoints of those outside of one’s digital network. Although the courage, struggle, and plight of average Americans is not new, what is novel is that through technology and social media, the stories of citizens can be recognized and a conversation can be forced through the historical tradition of sharing stories. Under this model, digital news has moved to a distributive leadership model and is more like a “commons,” a resource belonging to and affecting the whole community. This should embolden consumers of news to use their power to shape the digital landscape, while advocating for a system that adequately portrays the diversity of the news and the variance amongst individual narratives.