Another dot in the blogosphere?

Not the wisdom of crowds 

Posted on: October 13, 2021

Photo by Keenan Constance on

This article tingled my spidey sense early on. The computer scientist who wrote that article said Facebook’s algorithms relied on the “wisdom of crowds” (WoC). 

To meet Surowiecki’s original idea of the WoC, the algorithms need to address four elements of that framework: Diversity of opinion, independence, decentralisation, and aggregation. 

However, the bubbles that people make and Facebook reinforces are not diverse or independent. The algorithms are therefore not examples of the WoC. The author himself undermined his thesis later in the article. He described how social media groups were echo chambers that were “built on the false assumption that the crowd is made up of diverse, independent sources”. 

Some of Facebook’s algorithms seem to focus on keeping visitors so that they stay longer, generate more data, and make Facebook more advertising money. There are probably predictive elements because Facebook (and its acquisition, Instagram) must offer what it thinks a visitor might like next. But this does not mean that it runs on a predictive WoC model.

What probably happens is some people create conspiracy theories suited for their bubble, other people like and share them, algorithms suggest what the bubblers would like more of, and the posts are propagated and amplified. Social media companies might call this engagement. This results in a different WoC — web of crap.

The original WoC was largely about using large numbers of diverse and independent people to predict events or results. The WoCrap relies on what effectively amounts to a monoculture to generate more of itself.

The author suggested that social media companies “adjusted their algorithms to rely less on engagement to determine the content”. They are unlikely to do this because they want to keep making money.

He also suggested that misinformation and disinformation could be “inhibited by CAPTCHA tests or fees”. These act like speed bumps on a road, but people will then drive elsewhere on parallel or alternative paths, e.g., Reddit.

Those remedies are too technologicially driven. They might be quick and help in the short term, but they will just as quickly be circumvented.

A longer term strategy is the education and re-education of people so that they possess modern information literacy skills. For example, they need to be able to verify sources, compare sources (read broadly or in parallel), and evaluate sources for their worth. That way we place more wise people in that crowd. People whose spidey sense tingles when danger lurks.

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