When the question “”Who here thinks they use their phone too much?” pops up, almost everyone agrees.

We spend a huge amount of time on our phones and on social media platforms but what some of us might not know (or try to ignore) is the enormous impact it has on us, consciously and subconsciously.
We’ve all might have heard about “filter bubbles” when it comes to news, but what about bubbles when it comes to the people we follow?
If someone were to ask you, how diverse is your instagram feed is, what would you say?

What we see online shapes the way we perceive the world

With 3.8 billion people using social media, the influence one person can attain has never been bigger. That can both be a good and a bad thing. An influencer can change the way their followers look at ourselves and at other cultures. Think of it this way, if your favorite youtuber or blogger posts about a restaurant, promotes it and makes it look like a good time, you're more likely to visit that place. Now imagine that scenario but think bigger, like on the level of a whole country or culture, that's the reason why some countries pay influencers to free travels and stay in luxury hotels.

What i'm trying to say is that the impact social media has on us is huge, it changes the way we perceive things – and it can even change the way we see ourselves: a study revealed that it might not be how we compare ourselves to others. It could be how we stack up against our own expectations. The number of likes our posts receive serve to define our self-worth. We realize we can’t be other people, but we agonize over not being a better version of ourselves.

A report done by the royal society for public health states that social media usage is associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, poor sleep quality, body image issues and cyber bullying.

“People ’ s perceptions of other people and social groups that they favor tend to be favorably biased” (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954 ).

How the algorithm puts certain minority groups at a disadvantage

Social media is directed by algorithms, so basically the algorithm decides what we see and what we do not see.

This causes problems on several levels. Let’s start with the one that is most easy to grasp. Algorithms are programmed by a human being, a human being, that is likely to inherit biases and discriminatory tendencies. Subconsciously (or consciously), these tendencies can affect the programming of an algorithm.

The algorithm will then continue to collect more data to become more accurate and, in the case of social media, become better at predicting what a user might like. It does that through a process called “machine learning”. This means it analyzes the data that is already there. And as a study shows, an algorithm that takes into account everything that is already on the internet, will produce prejudice against women and People of Colour – see this article on vox.com –, which translates directly into what is shown to the users of a platform.

Another aspect is the general way algorithms work. The goal is to show you the content that is most likely to be of interest, to provoke a reaction and/or keep the user “hooked” to the platform (because this means that more data can be collected - and your data is what’s profitable to the big companies).The interest is measured by how much time you spend with the content, how much you actively react to the content (liking, commenting, sharing and saving it for later) and if it’s a “type” of content you have interacted with in the past – see this article on later.com.
If you use the app frequently, the chances are higher that you will see every post by a creator you follow. If you check the app irregularly, the algorithm will filter out more “irrelevant” postings.
This leads to another problem: If the people you follow are mostly white, skinny, cis-normative, heterosexual and able-bodied, these will be the accounts you’ll interact with most. Which is why when you are scrolling down the explore page, these “types” of accounts and posts will be recommended to you and this makes it hard to break out of this bubble.
And even if you follow several accounts that differ from your “stem” content type, more diverse posts might be hidden or not shown as the algorithm finds them to be less relevant.

And then there is another problem: the content moderators. Content moderators delete content that violates the usage guidelines, but as human beings,they are likely to be biased. Most people do have racist, sexist or ableist tendencies, whether they are aware of that or not, which means that they might “moderate” content according to that and influence the diversity of content circulating the platform in a negative way.

In addition to that, content moderators receive instructions by other people, who are biased as well, or even have specific ambitions in moderating content. In 2019, the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that the Chinese video platform TikTok content moderators were told to delete or hide videos that mentioned Tianamen Square or Tibetan Independence, thus censoring content critical of the Chinese regime – see this article in the guardian.

Check your own bubble – and actively diversify it

While we might not be able to change the algorithms, we can actively work on changing how we feed the algorithms by following and interacting with accounts that promote diversity. Not only do we change the image we have of the world for ourselves, but also how the algorithms will show content to other people.
You can always start with yourself: How many…
· … Black, Indigenous or People of Color,
· … people of the LGBTIAQ+ community,
· … people with a disability,
· … people not complying to Western beauty standards
... do you follow?

Can you share your favorite accounts promoting diversity with friends or family and actively promote their work?

This list provides you with a start of social media content creators on Instagram that might get you out of your bubble:

  • Dana patterson (body image positivity)
  • YES Theory (seeking discomfort and saying yes more often)
  • Ev’Yan (Black, queer, sex-positive)
  • CountMyFollicles (body (hair) image positivity)
  • Neyon_Tree (Black sex worker)
  • Sheerah Ravindren (London based, Tamil and body hair positive)
  • Marissa “mariimals” (Latinx, body hair positvity)
  • Sharon Alexie “flammedepigalle” (shares her own experience being mixed and talks about racism as well as colorism)
  • Lady Skollie (South African artist)
  • Mia Marion (Black, queer, body positive writer)
  • Sapphic Art History (queer/lesbian art with an eye for diversity)
  • Youssef Nabil (Egyptian, gay, artist)

Written by: Coralie Schmidt and Sahar Ailabouni