You might know the term “algorithm,” or you may not be familiar with it. For those who don’t know, algorithms are sets of computer-implemented instructions. Computers use them to perform computations or solve problems.

When you think about them this way, they sound innocuous. What some people don’t realize, though, is how many algorithms there are at work every time they go online for a computer browsing session. They also don’t necessarily know how much algorithms influence them.

There are certainly some valuable services that algorithms perform for us, but they can also harm us and work in startlingly insidious ways. Let’s get into both the good and bad that go along with these ubiquitous programs.

The Good

We’ll begin by going over the good things that algorithms can do for us. You might have a company like Pymetrics that uses an algorithm for talent matching purposes. They’ve developed one that asks potential job candidates questions. Then, it comes back with a detailed evaluation that shows whether that individual is suitable for the position or not.

Algorithms also come into play when you use your laptop, tablet, or desktop. For instance, maybe you have MSN as your homepage. You use it every morning when you check your email.

You’ll also notice that MSN has a news feed. You can actively customize it, but most people don’t bother doing that. Sometimes, though, you’ll see a story you think is interesting, so you’ll click on it and read it.

When you do that, you trigger MSN’s algorithm. It might notice that you like political stories, so it will start to show you more of them. Maybe you prefer stories about sports, or social justice, or celebrity gossip, or just about anything else.

The algorithm automatically feeds you more of the stories and articles that it thinks you will like. It’s AI trying to help you, or it’s doing what it perceives can help you. The same thing happens when you use social media platforms like YouTube.

This is good in the sense that if you genuinely want to see more of a particular story or topic, the algorithm helps you do that. However, ironically, what’s potentially helpful about it is also precisely what can harm you.

The Bad

Algorithms can harm you because, during the pandemic, many more individuals have isolated themselves than ever before. So many of us have had to, for health reasons.

That means more people have spent much more time online than they ever have before, and society was spending plenty of time online even before Covid-19 struck. The pandemic amplified the time everyone spent online over the past few months to a never-before-seen degree.

This means that many people were spending an inordinate amount of time using social media platforms like YouTube. There’s nothing wrong with that, in theory. However, the problem is that algorithms can radicalize a particular type of person.

Some of the individuals who broke into the US Capitol building on January 6th face criminal charges now. Their lawyers are arguing that essentially, the internet or social media platforms had an insidious effect on their thinking. Some of these individuals already had certain political leanings, and they started clicking on stories that supported what they already believed.

This happens on YouTube a lot, but also on Facebook and all of the other most popular social media platforms. All of them have algorithms that are supposed to help you because they utilize your behavior patterns to show you more of what they think you’ll like. The problem starts when the algorithm pushes you further and further down a rabbit hole that acts as an echo chamber.

If you keep reading story after story about what you think is a troubling political trend, or if you read enough articles that suggest that certain politicians are lizard people, it’s possible you can start believing it. It does not happen to everybody, but it does happen to some people. They are susceptible to it because this harmful mentality grows over time.

This is part of how the Q-Anon phenomenon occurred. Too many people allowed algorithms to feed them material that gradually grew more and more outlandish. Because it happened slowly, though, these individuals didn’t necessarily understand how unreasonable some of these notions were.

In short, algorithms can be a double-edged sword. It’s wise to be aware of them and what they do so you don’t allow them to influence you in ways you don’t anticipate.