Are Social Media Algorithms Working? Respondents to a Pew Research Center Study Sound Off

74 percent believe the content people post is not reflective of society as a whole

What are algorithms dropping on users of social networking sites? ValeryBrozhinsky/iStock
Headshot of David Cohen

The algorithms used to populate the feeds of social networking sites serve up a mixed bag of content, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.

Pew wrote, “Algorithms shape the modern social media landscape in profound and ubiquitous ways. By determining the specific types of content that might be most appealing to any individual user based on his or her behaviors, they influence the media diets of millions of Americans. This has led to concerns that these sites are steering huge numbers of people toward content that is ‘engaging’ simply because it makes them angry, inflames their emotions or otherwise serves as intellectual junk food.”

The researcher found that 71 percent of social media users have encountered content that makes them angry, with 25 percent saying it happens frequently. In addition, 58 percent said they frequently see posts that are overly exaggerated and 59 percent come across people making accusations or sparking arguments without waiting until they have all of the facts.

On the flip side, 21 percent of respondents said they frequently encounter content that makes them feel connected to others, while 44 percent frequently find content that amuses them.

What about the online behavior of people who are encountered on social media sites largely due to algorithms?

A total of 54 percent of respondents said they see an equal mix of people being mean or bullying and people being kind and supportive, while 21 percent said they see more meanness and 24 percent found more kindness.

And 63 percent of respondents said they see an equal mix of people trying to be deceptive and those trying to point out inaccurate information, with 18 percent saying that they see more people spreading inaccuracies and 17 percent finding more people trying to correct that behavior.

Pew Research Center

Overall, Pew found that 74 percent of respondent believe the content people post on social media is not reflective of how society as a whole feels about those issues, while 25 percent believed social media paints an accurate portrait of society.

Pew also polled people about their opinions on the use of their data by social networks, writing, “The vast quantities of data that social media companies possess about their users—including behaviors, likes, clicks and other information users provide about themselves—is ultimately what allows these platforms to deliver individually targeted content in an automated fashion. And this survey finds that users’ comfort level with this behavior is heavily context-dependent. They are relatively accepting of their data being used for certain types of messages, but much less comfortable when it is used for other purposes.”

The researcher found that three-quarters of respondents were fine with social media platforms using data about them and their online behavior to recommend events in their area that might interest them, and 57 percent said it was acceptable if their data was used to recommend people they might want to be friends with.

However, only 52 percent believe it is acceptable for social networks to use their data to show them ads for products and services, while 47 percent find this practice unacceptable. 21 percent find it not at all acceptable, while 11 percent consider it very acceptable.

31 percent of respondents are against social networks using their data to serve them ads from political campaigns.

Pew wrote, “Beyond using their personal data in these specific ways, social media users express consistent and pronounced opposition to these platforms changing their sites in certain ways for some users but not others. Roughly eight-in-10 social media users think it is unacceptable for these platforms to do things like remind some users but not others to vote on election day (82 percent), or to show some users more of their friends’ happy posts and fewer of their sad posts (78 percent). And even the standard A/B testing that most platforms engage in on a continuous basis is viewed with much suspicion by users: 78 percent of users think it is unacceptable for social platforms to change the look and feel of their site for some users but not others.”

Pew Research Center

Other findings by Pew included:

  • 37 percent of African Americans and 35 percent of Hispanics believe social media paints an accurate picture of society, compared with just 20 percent of whites.
  • 35 percent of those aged 18 through 29 believe social media paints an accurate picture of society, while that is true of just 19 percent of those 65 and older.
  • 88 percent of respondents say they see content on social media sites that makes them feel amused.
  • 69 percent said they have encountered content that makes them feel inspired.
  • 31 percent have come across content that makes them feel lonely—15 percent of those 18 through 29, compared with 7 percent of people between 30 and 49 and just 4 percent of those over 50.
  • The anger Reaction was the most commonly used on posts by members of Congress.
  • 31 percent of conservative Republicans said they frequently feel angry due to things they see on social media, compared with 19 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans, 27 percent of liberal Democrats and 19 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats. David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.