In Case You Missed It: The power of algorithms

Welcome toICYMI– a weekly snapshot of European news stories that have given me pause for thought. ICYMI is a chance for you to go beyond the front-page headlines and find out what other stories may be worthy of your attention.

Last week we focussed on how major events like the elections can impact the media – and media relations, as a result. You can’t possibly have missed it but the results from the UK are now in and there are a couple of pieces from The Stack and Wired that sum up the technology implications perfectly, including how ‘the new Labour government could bring about a renaissance in UK tech’.

The results are also in, but the situation far less clear, in France. Despite polls predicting an absolute majority for the far-right party, RN, it finished in third. An alliance of leftist parties from centre-left to far-left, Le Front Populaire, unexpectedly took the top spot, ahead of the President’s centrist party, Ensemble. This has resulted in a hung parliament, which is incredibly uncommon in France, meaning a high degree of uncertainty and intrigue is set to dominate the media until an agreement is reached.

The problem with private algorithms

The UK election was the focus of an investigation from The Guardian, which sought to better understand what type of election content worked best on TikTok given its growing popularity, particularly among younger audiences.

It identified four main groups of content creators, including traditional news outlets, native Tiktokers, creators inspired by the platform’s homegrown content, and the politicians and parties themselves. One of the more noteworthy findings was that while left-wing content performed well, it was outperformed in the Guardian’s metrics by right-wing or right-leaning content and creators.

But beyond the findings of the investigation itself, the most revealing aspect to me was how intricate and complex the investigation needed to be to gain these insights, which even then needed to be heavily caveated. This is because ‘no one outside TikTok knows how its algorithm works, and we do not know whether – and if so, how – it can be manipulated to boost certain content.’

Salvatore Romano, the head of research at the investigative non-profit organisation AI Forensics was quoted in the article, adding that “TikTok’s search engine shows personalised results, making it difficult to understand what is actually seen by users on their screens. Moreover, the recipe of the algorithm behind these search engines is kept secret”.

It underscores the challenge we as communicators have because understanding your audiences is not enough, you must also understand the platforms you are trying to reach them on. As this piece illustrates, this is not always a straightforward exercise.

Problems with public algorithms

Financieele Dagblad in the Netherlands highlights the growing importance and reliance upon algorithms in another walk of life, revealing ongoing issues with the Dutch government’s controversial use of algorithms in its services.

Several years ago, the Dutch personal data authority (AP) issued a report showing that the country’s tax authority used applicants’ dual nationality in fraud checks on childcare benefits when it was irrelevant. Despite a parliamentary inquiry following these allegations, the AP has again found evidence of discriminatory practices as recently as last year.

The article cites recent examples from two government agencies, responsible for benefits and student finance, with AP Chairman, Aleid Wolfsen, quoted as saying these are ‘most likely the tip of the iceberg’. A spokesperson from privacy organisation, Bits of Freedom, offers a suggestion as to how this situation could have arisen, arguing the fines for violating privacy laws do not do enough to deter these practices.

Ethics in AI and algorithms have been a big talking point over recent years, but this is another example of how we’ve moved on from theoretical or abstract discussions to the practical reality. As businesses and government agencies increasingly adopt and deploy these technologies, their comms advisors must stress the importance of transparency, accountability and ethical considerations to maintain the public’s trust.

Doing so doesn’t need to mean giving away trade secrets, but it does require opening up enough to reassure stakeholders and the wider public.