The Role and Meaning of Algorithms

Algorithms are all around us, using stores of data and complex analytics to make decisions with often significant impacts on humans – from choosing the content people see on social media to judging whether a person is a good credit risk or job candidate. Here are some of the key findings from recent research by the Pew Research Center.

1. Algorithmically generated content platforms play a prominent role in Americans’ information diets. Sizable shares of U.S. adults now get news on sites like Facebook or YouTube that use algorithms to curate the content they show to their users. A study by the Center found that 81% of YouTube users say they at least occasionally watch the videos suggested by the platform’s recommendation algorithm and that these recommendations encourage users to watch progressively longer content as they click through the videos suggested by the site.

2. The inner workings of common algorithms can be confusing to users. Facebook is among the most popular social media platforms, but roughly half of Facebook users – including six-in-ten users ages 50 and older – say they do not understand how the site’s algorithmically generated news feed selects which posts to show them. And around three-quarters of Facebook users are not aware that the site automatically estimates their interests and preferences based on their online behaviors in order to deliver them targeted advertisements and other content.

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3. The public is wary of computer algorithms being used to make decisions with real-world consequences. The public expresses widespread concern about companies and other institutions using computer algorithms in situations with potential impacts on people’s lives. More than half (56%) of U.S. adults think it is unacceptable to use automated criminal risk scores when evaluating people who are up for parole.

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Sixty-eight percent of U.S. adults think it is unacceptable for companies to collect large quantities of data about individuals for the purposes of offering them deals or other financial incentives. When asked to elaborate about their worries, many feel that these programs violate people’s privacy, are unfair, or simply will not work as well as decisions made by humans.

4. People’s comfort level with algorithms often depends on how they are used. For instance, three-quarters of social media users say it is acceptable for social media platforms to use data about them and their online habits to recommend events they might like to attend. But a substantial majority of users think it is not acceptable for social media platforms to use their data to deliver messages from political campaigns.

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Why? My take is that it has to do with concerns over data misuse and the negative emotions triggered by or associated with negative political messaging.

5. Proponents of algorithms often argue that these systems can lead to fairer and more effective decision-making, but others worry that these processes will simply reinforce existing biases and disparities. When asked for their own views on this subject, nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) think computer programs will always reflect the biases of their designers, while 40% believe it is possible for computer programs to make decisions that are free from human bias.

6. Algorithm-driven social media platforms can produce feelings of anger in their users – and most Americans are skeptical that the content they see on social media reflects reality. Nearly all the content an individual user might see on social media is chosen by computer programs attempting to deliver content that they might find relevant or engaging. When asked about emotions they experience from the content they see on social media, the largest share of users (44%) say they frequently feel amused – but 25% say they frequently feel angry as a result of what they see on social media. More broadly, a majority of Americans (74%) think the content people post on social media does not provide an accurate picture of how society feels about important issues.

7. As algorithms become more advanced, technology experts predict that these systems will amplify human effectiveness – but also threaten human autonomy, agency, and capabilities. In a recent canvassing of 979 technology experts, these experts predicted that advances in algorithm-driven artificial intelligence will potentially revolutionize areas such as health care, education and broad aspects of the economy. Yet, most experts, regardless of whether they are optimistic or not, expressed concerns about the long-term impact of these new tools on the essential elements of being human.