Less than a third understand how Facebook’s algorithms work

‘Concerning’ digital literacy levels prove need for lifelong media education, event hears

Only 28% of Irish people understand how Facebook determines which news stories to show users. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Less than a third of Irish people understand how Facebook’s algorithms determine which news stories they see, research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism indicates.

An online survey of about 2,000 Irish people found only 28 per cent identified "computer analysis of what stories might interest you" as the answer to how most decisions about which news stories to show people on Facebook are made.

Some 15 per cent said it was decided by the editors and journalists who work for news outlets, and 14 per cent said it was Facebook-employed editors and journalists who determined what was shown. A further 10 per cent believed it was random, while 33 per cent said they didn’t know.

"It is very concerning that the majority of people do not have a digital literacy around algorithms," said Áine Kerr, cofounder of Neva Labs and a former manager of journalism partnerships at Facebook, who was speaking at an event in Dublin to launch the research.


Policy changes

The confusion around Facebook may be understandable, as the tech giant has made some policy changes over the past two years amid criticism that it helped spread “fake news”.

Understanding of algorithms was higher among younger age groups, with 40 per cent of 18-24-year-olds giving the right answer compared with 21 per cent of those aged 55 or more.

News literacy is "a lifelong learning journey", not "a set of skills that you can learn once", said expert Martina Chapman.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland funded Ireland’s participation in the Reuters Institute study of 74,000 people in 37 countries, while analysis of the Irish findings was provided by Dublin City University’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics