Recommendation Algorithms on Social Media Platforms

Recommendation algorithms on social media and e-commerce platforms are designed keep users on the site, app, or platform as long as possible, often to promote sales of products. Advocates hail the convenience of personalized digital experiences while critics worry that users experience only a narrow range of suggestions and choices. In the following activities, you critically examine YouTube's recommendation algorithm and then ask you to design your own.

Recommendation algorithms, built into social media media platforms, Internet search tools, e-commerce sites, and other digital applications, influence people's behaviors and choices on a daily basis in widespread and often unnoticed ways.

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While algorithms are simply "instructions for solving a problem or completing a task" (Rainie & Anderson, 2017, para. 2), they are used to shape people's thinking and behavior by suggesting "products, services, and information to users based on analysis of data" (Voice Tech Podcast, Medium, June 25, 2019, para. 2).

Social media platforms (Amazon, Google, Netflix, Spotify, Goodreads)use recommendation algorithms to determine what viewers might like to see and buy on their sites (e.g., posts, sponsored ads, people) based on data about what you have viewed, bought, or done before. Of the shows people watch on Netflix, 80 percent follow from suggestions made by its recommendation system (Nice News, October 6, 2023).

Watch "How YouTube's Algorithms Are Fooling You" from Above the Noise to learn more.

Recommendation algorithms are different from search algorithms: "Search algorithms assist users in finding exactly what they want while recommendation algorithms help users find more of what they like" (Brooks, 2022, para. 4).

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From a civics and critical media literacy perspective, recommendation algorithms direct the flow of information and news to readers and viewers. Ideally, algorithms help us what we want and need online quickly and effectively, but they can also contribute to the spread of misinformation and disinformation online.

Data scientist Noah Giansiracusa has argued in his book How Algorithms Create and Prevent Fake News, this algorithm technology not only allows for the creating and disseminating of false and misleading content, but it has the potential to "save us from fake news by automatically detecting and labeling assertions as true or false" (2021, p. xi, para. 1).

Systems that have algorithms make people's everyday life decisions for them are being developed. Would you prefer having a life decision made for you by another person or a computer algorithm? How do you think most people would respond? The answer may surprise you...

In a survey, 4,000 people were asked whether they wanted a human or an algorithm to decide for them if they would win a coffee gift card, get a bank loan, join a clinical trial for a promising medical treatment, or face a sizable money fine in civil court. In just over half of the situations, people preferred an algorithm to a human - when they believed the decision would made quicker, was cheaper, and would be more accurate (Bambauer & Risch, "Worse Than Human?" Arizona State Law Review 2021).

How are recommendation algorithms influencing your attitudes and behaviors?

You can also learn more at Defining Fake News and Finding Reliable Information in our Building Democracy for All eBook.

Activity 1: Evaluate YouTube's Recommendation Algorithm 

Activity 2: Design a News Recommendation Algorithm

Additional Resources

Connecting to the Standards

  • Massachusetts Civics & Government Standards
    • Evaluate the benefits and challenges of digital news and social media to a democratic society. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T7.4]
  • ISTE Standards
    • Digital Citizen
      • 2d. Students manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online.
    • Knowledge Constructor
      • 3b: Students evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data, or other resources.
      • 3d: Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions.
    • Creative Communicator
      • 6a: Students choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication. 
      • 6b: Students create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations.
      • 6d: Students publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for the intended audiences.
  • DLCS Standards
    • Interpersonal and Societal Impact (CAS.c)
    • Digital Tools (DTC.a)
    • Collaboration and Communication (DTC.b)
    • Research (DTC.c)
    • Human and Computer Partnerships (CS.b)
  • English Language Arts > History/Social Studies Common Core Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.97

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