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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Social media can be polarizing. A new type of algorithm aims to change that.

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Good morning and welcome to The Technology 202. I’m tech analysis writer Will Oremus, guest writing today for your usual host Cristiano Lima. 

Below: TikTok’s chief executive meets with European officials, and Facebook parent Meta announces advertising changes for its teen users. First:

Social media can be polarizing. A new type of algorithm aims to change that.

Researcher Aviv Ovadya views social media algorithms as fueling extremism around the world, and he has an idea to fix that — not by getting rid of the algorithms but by changing how they work. 

“Social media doesn’t have to divide us,” said Ovadya, an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “It doesn’t have to incentivize outrage and hate.”

In a new working paper, shared with The Technology 202 ahead of its publication today, Ovadya and co-author Luke Thorburn of King’s College London make the case for what they call “bridging systems” — algorithms designed to elevate posts that resonate with diverse audiences. They see the approach as an antidote to today’s toxic Twitter and Facebook feeds, which tend to highlight the most attention-grabbing content, even if it’s polarizing.

Social media that reward pure engagement — likes, shares, angry comments — have an inherent “bias toward division,” Ovadya argues. The headlines, pictures and videos that thrive tend to be those that immediately appeal to a specific audience, whether that’s vaccine skeptics on Instagram, conspiracy theorists on YouTube or teens with eating disorders on TikTok. And if that content also repels or alienates another group, that negative engagement can amplify it further.

The problem of what’s sometimes called “algorithmic amplification” was a main focus of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, whose testimony spurred a bevy of regulatory proposals in the United States and abroad. Those included bills aimed at holding tech companies liable for speech that their recommendation systems promote, or even requiring them to give users an option to “turn off” their algorithms. 

Ovadya argues those fixes are misguided. On social media, he says, “there’s always an algorithm” deciding what people see, and it’s never value-neutral. Even a strictly chronological feed prioritizes recency and directs our attention toward the users who post most frequently, at the expense of those who take more time to craft their thoughts.

Rather than fighting algorithms, Ovadya proposes putting them to work toward a more productive goal. Specifically, he proposes that social media platforms find ways to boost posts that “bridge” different audiences, whether that’s left and right, young and old, or cat lovers and dog lovers. 

For example, a recommendation system could be programmed to look not only at how many likes or dislikes a given post receives, but whether it’s getting likes from people of different political leanings. The “bridging” doesn’t necessarily have to be along political lines, Ovadya adds. You could imagine a transportation policy forum that prioritizes content that appeals to both cyclists and motorists, for instance.

Ovadya and Thorburn aren’t the only social media theorists to suggest this. Chris Bail, director of Duke’s Polarization Lab, advanced similar ideas in his 2021 book “Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing.” 

Bringing together Democrats and Republicans, or Palestinians and Israelis, via bridging algorithms might sound “pie in the sky,” Bail says via email. But they needn’t solve all of our thorniest political problems to be useful. 

“A lot of what bridging algorithms promote is more mundane — think Charles E. Schumer posting about sports, or Marco Rubio posting something about pets,” Bail said. “Though this type of content may seem frivolous to high-minded political junkies, new research suggests these types of mundane connections may be extremely important,” especially in a social media world that seems geared to “dehumanize and humiliate people.”

A bridging algorithm is at the heart of Twitter’s crowdsourced fact-checking tool, called Community Notes (formerly Birdwatch). It ensures that user-written fact-checks get published on Twitter only when they’ve been rated “helpful” by a diverse set of reviewers. 

“It’s easy to see how this approach could apply to other things on social media as well,” Twitter Vice President Keith Coleman told reporters in September. 

Bridging algorithms could also come with blind spots and biases of their own. Evan Greer, deputy director of the tech advocacy group Fight for the Future, notes that just because a given idea holds bipartisan appeal doesn’t make it worthy.

“Some of the worst ideas and actions in human history, such as enslavement and colonization, enjoyed overwhelming popular support,” Greer said. By the same token, “Many good ideas are often controversial at first,” such as LGBTQ rights.

Ovadya agrees bridging algorithms would need to be implemented with care to avoid suppressing marginalized viewpoints. Ultimately, he said, the goal should be not to sweep disagreements under the rug, but to tip the scales of online discourse toward “productive conflict” built on respect for people’s differences. 

Our top tabs

TikTok’s chief executive meets with E.U. officials

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s meeting with officials in Brussels comes as the app faces political pressure in the United States, where it has been banned on federal devices and on some state devices and networks, Politico Europe’s Clothilde Goujard reports. Ireland’s data protection regulator is also investigating the app over children’s privacy and data transfers to China.

“I count on TikTok to fully execute its commitments to go the extra mile in respecting E.U. law and regaining [the] trust of European regulators,” European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová said in a statement. Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said the talks focused on getting ready for E.U. laws on content and competition. Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said, per a readout, that “the rules are clear and must be complied with fully.”

Facebook and Instagram advertisers won’t be allowed to target teenagers by gender

The changes, which will occur next month, will restrict advertisers from selecting a gender to target teens, and teens’ engagement on some content on Facebook and Instagram won’t be used to target ads to them, the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph De Avila reports.

“The changes to teen-targeted advertising are part of Meta’s efforts to keep Instagram and Facebook age-appropriate for young people,” De Avila wrote, citing a Meta spokeswoman. “Meta made the changes related to gender to reflect feedback from parents and child-developmental experts and comply with regulations in different countries, the spokeswoman said.”

Parler’s parent company lays off most staffers

Parler parent Parlement Technologies laid off most of its executives as well, the Verge’s Makena Kelly reports. The report comes around a month after Parler said Kanye West, who legally changed his name to Ye, “mutually agreed” with Parler to end a deal to buy the app.

“Parlement Technologies began laying off workers in late November, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter,” Kelly writes. “These layoffs continued through at least the end of December, when around 75 percent of staffers were let go in total, leaving approximately 20 employees left working at both Parler and the parent-company’s cloud services venture. A majority of the company’s executives, including its chief technology, operations, and marketing officers, have also been laid off, according to a source familiar with the matter.”

Competition watch

Google warns Android growth in India will stall due to antitrust order (Reuters)

Workforce report

Netflix revokes some staff’s access to other people’s salary information (Wall Street Journal)

Coinbase lays off another 20 percent of its employees (New York Times)

Inside the industry

Lawmakers call on ESPN to drop TikTok sponsorships (The Hill)

EU wants details of Big Tech, telcos investment plans (Reuters)

Twitter temporarily bans account for D.C.-area bus system without explanation (Justin George and Faiz Siddiqui)


Crowdfunded technology gives Ukraine an edge on front lines (Wall Street Journal)


  • Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) speaks at a Heritage Foundation event on Big Tech today at noon.

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