The main purpose of social media algorithms is to encourage users to stay on their platform. To do so, algorithms pick up on the kind of content a user interacts with and provides them with more of that content.
In the past years, other countries appear to have taken advantage of these algorithms to effectively disseminate propaganda or misinformation that can threaten a country’s national security.
In America, Russia reportedly used algorithms to influence the 2016 presidential election. They took advantage of the echo chamber that algorithm produce to spread stories about Donald Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. There were also stories that Clinton suffered from Parkinson’s. There were stories that she killed a Democratic National Committee employee. A social media platform likely wouldn’t show a user information that counters such stories since, again, the algorithm is built on reinforcing preferences.
Russia’s manipulation of algorithms didn’t just pose a national security threat in that it helped advance their own interests. Russia posed a national security threat in that the false stories they spread lead to violence in America. One of the stories that Russia helped spread had Clinton and her associates running a pedophile ring in the basement of a Washington DC pizza place called Comet Ping Pong. Believing the rumors, one North Carolina man traveled to Comet Ping Pong and opened fire.
The above shows how social media algorithms can cultivate extremism. It can put people in a bubble—or “echo chamber”—in which they’re slowly groomed to undertake violent acts that threaten Americans.
Of course, American social media companies are aware of this. Some have taken steps to try to curb the threat that their algorithms can pose to national security. Twitter has begun to label or remove tweets that relay false or misleading information. Additionally, Facebook has been deploying tools that supposedly restrict the spread of stories that might be false or misleading.