Freedom of speech vs freedom of reach and the rise of algorithms

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When I was younger, I got most of my information from traditional media sources – TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, and word of mouth. Once the gatekeepers of knowledge and news, traditional media have had to adapt and compete in a realm where digital media dominates. This shift has dramatically broadened access to information, democratizing access to knowledge in unprecedented ways. Yet, it has also introduced challenges in how information is filtered and shared, often making the digital space less democratic than it appears.

Make no mistake, I love the Internet and have been using it personally and professionally throughout my entire career. In the late 90s, I decided to learn web development, and that love for online communications directly led to the founding of my company 20 years ago. Yet, if I’m honest, the vast proliferation of information has necessitated necessary, but not necessarily ‘fair,’ ways of ensuring that information reaches people. This is an article I feel uniquely qualified to write, since it’s my business to figure out how to help organizations ‘get noticed’ online. It’s a complex topic. Let’s make a distinction between two key terms.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in many societies, allowing individuals to express their ideas and opinions without censorship or restraint. It’s a cornerstone of democracy, fostering a marketplace of diverse views. For the most part, in our country, there’s a wide latitude in what one can say, post, or publish.

Freedom of reach is a relatively new concept, particularly relevant in the digital era. It refers to the extent to which content is disseminated across digital platforms. In other words, while you can say (almost) anything you want, how far your message travels online is a different matter. Traditionally, reach was directly controlled by publishers of content (human beings). Nowadays, reach is most dictated by algorithms (computers).

The Role of Algorithms

Algorithms, the invisible architects of the digital world, play a pivotal role in dictating what we see and read online. These complex formulas are used to process data and generate specific outcomes. They determine which content appears in our social media feeds, search engine results, and even news recommendations. The primary goal of these algorithms is to maximize user engagement, which can lead to a skewed representation of information – highlighting sensational, divisive, or extreme content over more moderate, nuanced perspectives.

Here’s how algorithms control what’s seen online:

  • Personalization: Algorithms analyze user behavior — such as clicks, likes, shares, search history, and time spent on content — to learn preferences. This data helps platforms present content that aligns with individual tastes or interests.
  • Search Results: Search engines use algorithms to determine the relevance and ranking of web pages in search results. Factors like keywords, site authority, and user engagement influence these rankings.
  • Social Media Feeds: Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use algorithms to curate and prioritize posts in a user’s feed. They consider factors such as the user’s interactions, the popularity of a post, and the recency of content.
  • Content Moderation: Algorithms are used to monitor and filter out inappropriate content, such as hate speech or graphic violence, based on predefined criteria.
  • Advertising and Recommendations: Algorithms determine which advertisements and recommendations are most relevant to a user, based on their online behavior and demographic information.
  • Trending Topics: Algorithms identify and promote trending topics, news, and hashtags, often based on the frequency and recency of posts.

For businesses, these algorithms can create an uneven playing field, where viral content overshadows quality information. For individuals, they can lead to echo chambers, reinforcing existing beliefs and shielding us from diverse viewpoints.

Strategies to Tackle the Challenges

  • Promote Digital Literacy: Understanding how algorithms work is crucial. Businesses and individuals should educate themselves and their communities about digital literacy, fostering an environment where people critically evaluate the content they consume online.
  • Diversify Information Sources: Don’t rely on a single platform or source for information. Encourage exploration of various news outlets, blogs, and forums to get a more balanced view of current events and opinions.
  • Engage Responsibly: Be mindful of what you share and engage with online. Remember, every click, like, and share contributes to how algorithms prioritize content.
  • Support Algorithm Transparency: Advocate for more transparency from tech companies about how their algorithms work. Understanding these mechanisms better can help businesses and consumers make more informed decisions.
  • Utilize Alternative Platforms: Explore and support platforms that prioritize content diversity and ethical algorithms. This diversification can reduce the echo chamber effect.
  • Voice Concerns: If you notice biases or unfair practices in digital platforms, speak up. User feedback can be a powerful tool in prompting companies to revisit their algorithmic strategies.
  • Support Local Content: Although local content seen through a social media feed is still governed by algorithms, most local websites are not. Websites like this one feature hand-curated content, placing stories on the homepage that are likely of interest to the local audience.
  • Engage with Less Popular Social Media Accounts: It’s human nature to support what’s already popular. Doing so just reinforces the algorithm. Seek out accounts, particularly those of small businesses and non-profits, where you can like, follow, and share their content to help them be seen. Algorithms amplify what’s popular and make them more popular. You never know – perhaps that one extra ‘like’ you gave your dog sitter may help their post be seen by more people and help them get new business.

Conclusion

Possessing freedom of speech doesn’t automatically grant freedom of reach. In our modern digital era, the dissemination of information is predominantly driven by algorithms, often powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). While these algorithms can organize content and offer a more personalized experience, they also have the potential to limit and skew our exposure to a wide range of information. As we navigate this landscape, it’s crucial to find a balance between the advantages of algorithmic curation and the awareness of its limitations. Promoting digital literacy, diversifying our sources of information, supporting local content, and engaging online in a responsible manner are key steps in mitigating the effects of echo chambers and fostering a more democratic digital environment. As business leaders, marketers, and everyday consumers, we have the collective power to shape how algorithms influence our digital experiences. Embracing this responsibility, we can strive towards a digital ecosystem that upholds diversity, fairness, and transparency, contributing to a more informed and interconnected community.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. Sign up for the Country Fried Creative newsletter to get marketing and business articles directly in your inbox. ]

2 COMMENTS

  1. There’s a sense of irony when you consider the history of the internet and how it began as a project of military interest and then later the focus of research and academic institutions in the 60s and 70s. With a lot of interest from the “peace and love” generation that emerged in California and elsewhere, early internet culture reflected the kind of democratized, open-information lifestyle that we (historically) associated with the political left. When the world wide web was born as a social phenomenon in the 90s, we saw the influences of “hippie culture” in decentralized websites (think GeoCities) and open source software.

    Fast forward to the early 2000s, and there was a change, with a handful of large social media (and other) sites coming online. Eventually, these grew and grew, and eventually they began to dominate the internet landscape. I wouldn’t be surprised if today, despite the billions (trillions?) of web pages out there, that most people are exposed to only three or four websites or apps on a daily basis. The sites that command our attention are run by some of the most powerful corporations in the world, and they don’t always seem to be concerned with doing what is good or what is right. These companies often operate according to leftist ideology, but it’s a far cry from the brand of liberalism of generations before. This current brand is more powerful, more influential, more censorious, and more autocratic than anything the old hippie generation could imagine.

    This, of course, is a problem.