Here’s why you can’t trust “the algorithm”

The word algorithm gets thrown around quite a bit these days but I don’t think many people know what an algorithm really is. An algorithm is just a set of instructions to solve a problem and they are created by humans. Humans are inherently biased.

Here’s an algorithm for solving the addition problem x + y = z.

  • Input the value of x
  • Input the value of y
  • Add the value of x to y
  • Output the value of z

Algorithms are used as the basis for writing computer code. The programming code then gets compiled into software that runs on a computer (PC, Mac, Phone, etc.)

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks and search engines use algorithms to write the code that gives you your search results and news feeds. The employees at all these companies are overwhelmingly biased towards the Democratic side of the political spectrum. Therefore, it can be assumed that their algorithms have an inherent bias towards those political views.

An assumption is all we can make regarding their algorithms because they don’t release that to the general public. I don’t pretend to have the skill to be able to make heads or tails from their algorithms but there are plenty of people out there in the world that do. Releasing that information for public scrutiny would go along way towards putting trust into the information we’re being fed online.

The political bias in Silicon Valley is well known but this simple graphic I saw in the Wall Street Journal really drives the point home.

This is why we can’t trust any algorithm that is designed to filter information. What you see largely depends on who writes the code. As consumers of news and users of social networks and search engines we all need to practice critical thinking. Question everything.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal

Algorithm definition from Wikipedia