Automated Trouble: The Role of Algorithmic Selection in Harms on Social Media Platforms

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2439

Article | Open Access

Automated Trouble: The Role of Algorithmic Selection in Harms on Social Media Platforms


  • Florian Saurwein Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences, University of Klagenfurt, Austria
  • Charlotte Spencer-Smith Department of Communication Studies, Paris Lodron University of Salzburg, Austria


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Abstract:  Social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have become major objects of criticism for reasons such as privacy violations, anticompetitive practices, and interference in public elections. Some of these problems have been associated with algorithms, but the roles that algorithms play in the emergence of different harms have not yet been systematically explored. This article contributes to closing this research gap with an investigation of the link between algorithms and harms on social media platforms. Evidence of harms involving social media algorithms was collected from media reports and academic papers within a two-year timeframe from 2018 to 2019, covering Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. Harms with similar casual mechanisms were grouped together to inductively develop a typology of algorithmic harm based on the mechanisms involved in their emergence: (1) algorithmic errors, undesirable, or disturbing selections; (2) manipulation by users to achieve algorithmic outputs to harass other users or disrupt public discourse; (3) algorithmic reinforcement of pre-existing harms and inequalities in society; (4) enablement of harmful practices that are opaque and discriminatory; and (5) strengthening of platform power over users, markets, and society. Although the analysis emphasizes the role of algorithms as a cause of online harms, it also demonstrates that harms do not arise from the application of algorithms alone. Instead, harms can be best conceived of as socio-technical assemblages, composed of the use and design of algorithms, platform design, commercial interests, social practices, and context. The article concludes with reflections on possible governance interventions in response to identified socio-technical mechanisms of harm. Notably, while algorithmic errors may be fixed by platforms themselves, growing platform power calls for external oversight.

Keywords:  algorithmic content curation; algorithmic harm; algorithms; behavioural advertising; content moderation; internet; social media

Published:   18 November 2021


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v9i4.4062


© Florian Saurwein, Charlotte Spencer-Smith. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.