The biggest “algorithms in the news” story of the past couple months has been whether Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s ad-targeting algorithms facilitated, however inadvertently, Russian interference in the 2016 United States Presidential election. For those who have been sleeping under a rock, hundreds of thousands of targeted advertisements containing links to fake political “news” stories were delivered to users of the three behemoths’ social media and web services. Many of the ads were microtargeted–specifically aimed to reach specific voters in specific geographic regions.
This story–which has been bubbling under the surface for months–came to the forefront this past week as executives from the three companies were hauled in front of a Congressional committee and grilled about whether they were responsible for (or, at the very least, whether they did enough to stop) the spread of Russian misinformation. The Economist’s cover story this week is on “Social media’s threat to democracy,” complete with a cover image of a human hand wielding Facebook’s iconic “f” like a gun, complete with smoke drifting off the end of the “barrel” (see below).