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You Are What You Consume 

The scary world of cookies, algorithm, and bias 

Raluca-Mara Mare

Staff Writer 

Photo via LSU Faculty Websites 

The other day, I was scrolling through neverending websites to find an explanation for a physics concept. As I entered a page, it automatically asked if I accepted cookies. Of course, I accept. How could a cookie harm me? Yet, the more I reflected on it, the more my last statement sounded odd. What even is a cookie? Why is my online activity pre-determined? What is going on? 

An internet cookie is not a real cookie (in case you didn’t know). They are text files made out of data, such as login information, that identify a user’s computer through a network. Numerous cookies exist to help individualize user experience and induce a better display of interest. By accepting cookies, you permit the data storage of your online activity via the cookie system. Therefore, when you return to the website, the same cookie is exchanged between the user’s computer and the network server. The server then reads the data labelled with a unique ID and provides information specifically sorted to correspond to your interests. Cookies personalize ads and information by storing your data (interests, personal information such as the country you live in, language you speak, type of information you interact with the most, etc.). 

The intent of this mechanism is not inherently harmful. However, the idea of tracking interests amplifies diverse effects on society, notably through social media algorithms. These algorithms increase user engagement in order to generate income from advertising, which aggravates the biases already present in the human social learning processes. This results in polarization and false information. By continuously interacting with one type of information, the algorithm will keep displaying it, creating a never-ending loop.  

Algorithms are AI-generated programs that utilize user data to determine which posts and ads to display. Social media platforms use algorithms  EdgeRank on Facebook and Home Timeline on Twitter. They consider your interaction with posts, your preferred friends, the type of content you access, and predict which posts or tweets will interest you the most. However, these algorithms do not necessarily prioritize factual accuracy. These increased algorithm interactions cause filter bubbles, leading to the users being only exposed to content already confirming their existing beliefs and opinions. This psychological phenomenon is also referred to as “confirmation bias”  you are more likely to accept facts that align with your opinions. Confirmation bias tends to be emotionally comforting; having our emotions validated is a nice feeling. This gives rise to another phenomenon, group polarization, which occurs whenever a group of people sharing similar beliefs use their peer’s argument reinforcement to amplify their point of view, thus aggravating the dangerous spread of misinformation on social media.

During COVID-19, social media-induced mass confirmation bias and polarized viewpoints on the pandemic. Social media-induced polarization (SMIP) represented an issue worldwide through algorithms. Social media algorithms exacerbated the spread of one-sided information, creating echo chambers of pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine rhetoric. The power of social media during that time contributed to an infodemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an infodemic as “too much information or false and misleading information [that] causes confusion, risk-taking behaviours...and mistrust of health officials." Disinformation about vaccines that first appears offline can swiftly move to social media platforms, fueling both vaccine reluctance and refusal. This disinformation trade is bidirectional and is aggravated by group polarization, leading to extremes such as the “anti-vax” movement. 

When talking with a friend of mine who chose to stop using social media, she described it as a “return to freedom,” as she was no longer trapped in the constant circulation of information online. “By separating yourself from social media and the algorithm world, you get to decide your own media intake. You get to form your own interpretation without necessarily getting them validated by the comment sections. It’s a less toxic living,” she says. 

On the opposite side, when talking to a friend who spends a lot of time on social media, she did not deny the presence of bias and the danger of algorithms. She added, “Social media is what you want it to be. Algorithms can be used to your advantage. It is not always a bad thing unless you empower it to dictate your beliefs.” 

Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot you can do to fight echo chambers on social media. These interactive platforms permit the diffusion of diverse viewpoints and perspectives if the user’s behaviour tends to avoid confirmation bias. You can start by diversifying your sources of information  try reading newspaper-certified researched data rather than social media information that might have been distorted. Furthermore, you fact check the information you share with others, preventing the circulation of false data. Finally, be mindful of your biases and opinions, as they might affect how you perceive information. Recognizing your biases leads to a more objective evaluation of the information rather than a subjective opinion. 



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