There are times where all I have to do is think of a certain object, of a certain location or subject, and they will appear through the ads on my Instagram feed. I can never decide which explanation for this is more unsettling: that my phone is listening to me, or the algorithm knows me so well that it can predict what I want, before I even think about wanting it. The latter is the truth, and TikTok has made me realise how dangerous it is.
The TikTok ‘For You’ page is addictive, made addictive by an algorithm which absorbs your interactions with posts, your preferences for music or hashtags, your location and language preferences, even the type of device you have. TikTok prides itself on its ability to create a ‘For You’ page which is unique for every single one of its over 500 million users—that is 500 million different versions of TikTok, and of truth. Let me explain.
The algorithm of TikTok creates a curated and personalised page of videos, a seemingly mild collage of interests until you stray into a hashtag which touts anti-masking or worse. And it’s happening all over the internet—beneath tweets of newspaper articles or in the comments of Facebook posts surveying opinions on immigration, there are gateways into corners of the internet that people rarely seek out.
The algorithm of sites like YouTube prioritise your attention, they trade on it. Oftentimes, the most radical, curiosity-catching, attention-grabbing videos will be suggested for you. You curate your YouTube suggestions in the same way you construct your Twitter feed into an echochamber to reflect the thoughts in your head. In the Democratic primary races, I was convinced we would see a Trump versus Sanders 2020 race. Convinced, against all odds, because that’s what I saw on Twitter.
I have started to understand ‘fake news’ and how to get stuck there. The Social Dilemma on Netflix, documenting addiction and privacy breaches as features of social media rather than accidents, made me want to throw my phone away – even more so when I realised my life is too bonded with my phone to be able to do anything about it. But maybe that’s just an easier thing than the truth: I can’t put my phone down.
There is no social media site which shows every user the same news, same people, or same opinions. Each is a self-affirming pit of what we have shown the algorithm to be true. What ‘truth’ is, matters much less than what grabs your attention and what grabs your attention, is rarely ever the truth.
It’s why we need balanced news and strong journalism now more than ever. Without it, we just end up talking to ourselves.