Persuasive computing

In the aftermath of the US election, the power of social media filter bubbles and echo chambers has again evoked discussion and concern. How much can algorithms influence our behaviour?

Why is this important?

Data is a key part of the functioning of any platform, and analysis and filtering of data streams allows, for example, tailoring of the platform’s offering based on user data. This is evident in content platforms such as Facebook or Youtube, which learn from your behaviour and customise the user view and suggested contents accordingly. This filtering for personalised experience is valuable and helps the user navigate in their areas of interests, but there are also various drawbacks.  Filtering and especially its invisibility can cause ‘filter bubbles’, where the user experience is threatened to limit to information that reinforces existing beliefs. This leads to polarization. What is even more troubling is that the algorithms can be tweaked to manipulate the feelings of users, according to a 2014 study done by Facebook without the users knowing.

Things to keep an eye on

The debate is now on-going as to how much algorithms can affect our actions. Some claim that the analysis and manipulation of social media feeds was instrumental in the US elections, while some say that the claims are overrated and the hype mostly benefits the analytics companies. In any case, the filtering of data is not inconsequential and there are increasing calls for more transparency to the filtering algorithms as well as for the ownership of the behavioural data collected through platforms. In part this issue becomes more and more topical with the advances in artificial intelligence, which makes data analysis more sophisticated and accessible. There are also interesting experiments – often with artistic goals – in confusing the algorithms in order to make the data they collect unusable by the platform owner.

Selected articles and websites

Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?
The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine
The Truth About The Trump Data Team That People Are Freaking Out About
Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media
How to hide your true feelings from Facebook
Persuading Algorithms with an AI Nudge

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd