The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a Proof of Concept Grant to Stefania Milan, associate professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the UvA. Milan will receive €150,000 for her research on deciphering social media algorithms.
Personalisation algorithms, which filter content on the basis of someone's profile, increasingly mediate the web experience of users. By forging a specific reality for each individual, they determine which news, opinions and rumours users are exposed to. But these algorithms are kept a closely guarded secret by social media platform companies such as Facebook. The few experiments auditing these algorithms rely on data provided by platform companies themselves, are highly technical and fail to put social media users in the driver seat.
For her project, Stefania Milan will unmask the functioning of personalisation algorithms on social media platforms, taking Facebook as a test case. The project is a spin-off of the project DATACTIVE, for which Milan received an ERC Starting Grant in 2014. The latter analysed citizens’ engagement with datafication and massive data collection. Her new Proof of Concept project, also based at the University of Amsterdam, will show 'data activism' in practice, as it will use publicly available data for awareness raising and citizen empowerment. It will do so by further developing the functionalities of an open-source browser extension called facebook.tracking.exposed, originally designed by software developer Claudio Agosti with the collaboration of the DATACTIVE team and the open-source software community.
This browser extension analyses in a comparative fashion the outcomes of Facebook's News Feed algorithm, enabling researchers to investigate algorithmic biases, and allowing users to monitor their own social media consumption patterns. The project included the organisation, in collaboration with nongovernmental organisations, of data literacy modules on algorithmic personalisation. The Proof of Concept also envisages eventually testing this approach on other platforms such as Twitter and Google and launching a dedicated consultancy service.