Who is visible on social media? Laura Savolainen studies beliefs about algorithms and digital platforms’ content recommendations

The way in which social media platforms hide or recommend content undermines public debate on them. For example, the voices of marginalised groups are at greater risk of being suppressed by recommendation systems.

This article was originally published in Finnish in issue 2/2024 of Yliopisto magazine.

Sociologist Laura Savolainen has explored people’s beliefs about algorithms and the ways digital platforms recommend or hide content. 

“Platforms like TikTok and Facebook have no single algorithm,” she points out.

Instead, there are many levels of machine learning models continuously learning from a large amount of multidimensional data. 

“It’s possible that no one has a complete overview of why a system has made a certain decision.” 

Savolainen notes that although technical complexity and trade secrets make the platforms opaque, even if they operated openly the ideal logic of recommending content would remain a difficult issue. The line between curation for the benefit of users and questionable moderation is blurred.

“Users often claim that their posts are not getting as much visibility as they should. Yet, online visibility is not a natural phenomenon. There is no neutral baseline for how content should be distributed. What deserves our attention is always a question of design and values.”

More open discussion

Savolainen nevertheless stresses the need for more open discussion of the distribution of visibility. For example, it is disproportionately difficult for marginalised minorities to make their voices heard. In addition, the lack of clear rules creates confusion and distrust towards platforms among users.

“This threatens the possibility of genuine social debate on the platforms.”

On the other hand, it may be necessary to limit the visibility of certain content.

“However legal its existence as such, some content is nonetheless problematic.” 

For instance, a conspiracy theory that goes viral may cause harm. 

“How much visibility is enough for such ideas with outsized impact?”

Yliopisto is a scholarly magazine published by the University of Helsinki and committed to the journalistic guidelines of the Council for Mass Media in Finland.

Postdoctoral Researcher Laura Savolainen of the University of Helsinki’s Centre for Consumer Society Research contributed to a discussion on the power of digital conglomerates, held on 8 February at Think Corner. A recording of the discussion is available on Think Corner’s YouTube channel.

At the mercy of digital giants (video in Finnish)