It’s getting increasingly personal

Journalists worry as algorithms take social media where there are no frontiers

We haven’t yet found a limit to the information we can share online, meaning we haven’t yet found a limit to the possibilities of personalisation, according to Vesselin Popov, Business Development Director at the Psychometrics Centre, Cambridge University.

“If you have over 300 Facebook likes, just slightly above average, computers can know more about you than your husband or wife,” he said. Hefty debates at the GEN Summit argued the effects and future of precise personalisation and platform growth on the public.

Vesselin Popov on the power of personalisation

The advent of social media has acted as a catalyst for the shrinkage of the public sphere due to the vast amount of data available. “Personality matched content is twice as profitable”, said Mr Popov. The days of collectively consuming the 10 ‘O’ clock news and the mass media agenda are fading and being replaced by hyper-personalised news based on your digital footprint; literally any information you dare to share online, he said.

Algorithms have become the new social media editors filling gaps in narratives that may have gone unexplored by traditional media. Using algorithms to connect consumers with sources previously unavailable to them due to lack of demand or importance in traditional news-set agendas. Algorthms could provide more colourful and contextualised content compared to today’s standard form of media output.

Panel debated the uses and abuses of platforms and personalisation

Anna Belkina, Director of Strategic Development, RT, said during a panel on platforms: “A condescending attitude has been disrupting trust in traditional media… often in situations it is not as black and white as we see in the mainstream media.”

However, deligates heard that a certain level of awareness is needed to utilise various platforms and algorithms. In many places personalisation is restricting the supply of information to the public, or more dangerously, creating echo chambers where people are fed the kind of information they want to believe. Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Director of Rappler said: “In emerging countries such as the Philippines where everyone has a mobile and Facebook is the only thing installed, 97 per cent of Filipinos are registered on Facebook but we are not intelligent enough to realise that we are getting an algorithmic version of reality.”

Maria Ressa spoke about the need for awareness when engaging with algorithms

When asked whether retreating and avoiding using platforms like Facebook Messenger which captures and uses personal data will be advantageous to journalists, Mr Popov said: “I think it is sad outcome if the only way to protect ourselves is to withdraw. I think Facebook is an amazing tool”.

Discussion about platforms and personalisation shows no sign of stopping. Regardless of the diminishing effect it has had on the public sphere and the fragmentation of audiences, speakers said personalisation can and must be used to engage audiences once again. Ms Belkina said: “Technology is moving forward one way or another, we can lament it but there is going to be the next Facebook and more platforms”.

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