Can Algorithmic Recommendation Systems Be Good For Democracy? (Yes! & Chronological Feeds May Be Bad)

Article by Aviv Ovadya: Algorithmic recommendation systems (also known as recommender systems and recommendation engines) are one of the primary ways that we navigate the deluge of information from products like YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, and TikTok. We only have a finite amount of time and attention, and recommendation systems help allocate our attention across the zettabytes of data (trillions of gigabytes!) now produced each year. 

The (simplistic) “evil recommendation system” story 

Recommendation systems in the prominent tech companies stereotypically use what has become referred to as “engagement-based ranking.” They aim to predict which content will lead a user to engage the most—e.g., by interacting with the content or spending more time in the product. This content is ranked higher and is the most likely to be shown to the user. The idea is that this will lead to more time using the company’s product, and thus ultimately more time viewing ads. 

While this may be good for business, and is relatively easy to implement, it is likely to be a rather harmful approach—it turns out that this leads people to produce more and more sensationalist and divisive content since that is what leads to the most engagement. This is potentially very dangerous for democratic stability—if things get too divisive, the social contract supporting a democracy can falter, potentially leading to internal warfare. (Caveat: for the sake of brevity, this is a heavily simplified account, and there may be evidence that in some countries this is less of a problem; and many non-ads based companies have similar incentives.) 

Is the chronological feed a fix?  

The perils of engagement-based ranking have led some advocates, policymakers, and even former tech employees to want to replace recommendation systems with chronological feeds: no more recommendations, just a list of posts in order by time. This appears to make sense at first glance. If recommendation systems place business interests over democratic stability, then it seems important to eliminate them before our democracy collapses! 

However, this is where the story gets a bit more complicated. Chronological feeds address some of the problems with engagement-based ranking systems, but they cause many more. To understand why, we need to consider what recommendations systems do to society…(More)”.