The Algorithm in the Room: Navigating Algorithmic Bias and Controversy-By-Association

Scroll through your social media timeline and chances are you’ll encounter a post that is unapologetic in its commentary.
The post in question may be false, true, or topped with a misleading headline to make it more enticing. Depending on your recent social media activity, it’s likely the post made its way into your news feed thanks to a complex set of algorithms designed to promote content that strikes a chord.
While algorithms were conceived to help maintain audience interest, the implications of feeding content that will arouse interest has drawn intense interest and scrutiny.

Algorithms are Driving Clicks – and Headlines

The dilemma of algorithms promoting hyper-partisan content took center stage this week in The Wall Street Journal. A report from the outlet revealed that one of the largest social media platforms in the world is aware of the impact of their algorithms on digital discord, but unsure how to address the issue, citing a need to avoid being “paternalistic” or liberally biased.

The same day the Wall Street Journal published its report, Twitter took the unprecedented move to fact-check potential falsehoods on President Donald Trump’s tweets. The move was met with outrage from the President, who stated he will “not allow it.”

The juxtaposition of these two approaches (or lack thereof) to aggressive ideological content brings to light an idea frequently discussed, but infrequently addressed: is it Silicon Valley’s job to redress the issues of political polarization?

The question of whether humans are driving an algorithm’s tendency to promote divisive content or algorithms are aggravating human discord will continue to become a major topic. However important the ethics of “stifling” or promoting specific voices, the issue is unlikely to be satisfactorily addressed in the near future.

Content will Only Become More Controversy-Charged This Year: It’s Important That Companies Pay Attention to Context

In a digital landscape where approximately 83% of Americans believe one-sided news on social media is a “very big to moderately big problem,” but 31% still click on news they “think may be made up,” companies must be aware of the context their content is being received in. Situational awareness is key to understanding the potential of future controversy by association reputation nightmares.

As the 2020 Presidential Elections grow nearer (and the threat of trolls and bots manipulating content algorithms looms) companies – especially those in highly scrutinized industries – should be keenly aware of where their brand exists in digital conversation.

If your company is to navigate the changing tides of algorithmic content recommendations, it must be diligent in at least three realms:

1. Understanding where a company appears in conversation, and how it be might be associated with other accounts
By levering data analytics, companies can easily identify where they exist in a conversation. As shown in figure one (a network map of a conversation on Twitter) individual accounts exist in larger conversation circles than they often realize. In understanding who and how accounts are participating in conversations adjacent to a company, it’s possible to predict the types of messaging that floats to the top of the feeds of key audiences. In doing this, a company can prepare a game plan for navigating potentially flagrant posts from third parties.

2. Ensuring employees understand how the content they post on social media may reflect on their organization (and checking to see how their own feeds are biased)
Reminding employees how their behavior – both on and offline – may be received is vitally important. People often underestimate the power of their behavior outside of the office. Hosting a simple training that teaches key principles of online behavior in a controversy-headline driven world is an effective way to mitigate the likelihood of unsavory narratives damaging the reputation of your company or your people.

3. Knowing when and how to use different digital strategies
Understanding what drives algorithms to promote content is key to make a splash. If a company is announcing a new product, leadership change or award, employing an appropriate digital strategy is vital. Knowing what content is likely to get “picked up” by algorithms and sent to the top of news feeds can help inform what tactics to leverage; whether it be an organized media toolkit for partners or a paid digital campaign.

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