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How do algorithms work?

An algorithm is a set of steps taken to complete a task or solve a problem. An algorithm can be as simple as the steps needed to build some ikea furniture, or as complex as the steps needed to solve a difficult mathematical equation.

A good example of an algorithm is a set of directions. Directions are the steps you need to complete in order to get to a particular location. Each step contains instructions for what you need to do, like ‘walk 500 metres and turn right’. The steps also need to be in the right order so you don’t get lost.

Algorithms in our modern world

Algorithms are helpful in our digital world because they can achieve some things faster than a human can. Most of the time, you won’t even know an algorithm is running because they’re so quick, and it’s all happening in the background.

But algorithms power a lot of what we see on the internet. They decide what you see on social media feeds, how to get you to a location in the fastest time, and what suggestions you get when shopping online.

Algorithms on social media

Organisations use algorithms in the technology we use every day. A good example is how social media companies like Instagram and Twitter, decide what order people see posts in their feeds.

Social media companies know that most users like to see their best friends’ posts first. At the same time, companies who pay to post adverts on social media want their posts to appear first too, so that more people will buy their products.

Social media companies have to work out how to balance showing users their best friends’ posts, posts from the advertisers and everything else in between. So they ask their engineering teams to write an algorithm which sets rules for the order people’s post show up in their feed.

The problems with algorithms

Take a simple algorithm like 2 + 2. Another person might write 3 + 1 or 2 x 2. These all add up to the same number, and because the answer won’t change it doesn’t matter how you write it.

But when algorithms are used in more subjective areas, like how trustworthy a news article is or which social media posts to promote, it does matter how the algorithm is written. Because the way an algorithm is written can alter the outcome greatly.

Algorithms are not created by computers. They are written by people. And no person can write a perfect algorithm that takes into account all situations and treats everything equally. Algorithms will always suffer from biases.

The way algorithms run in the background mean people using the internet do not always connect the way something works with the fact that a human created the rules. So lies and fake news can travel fast around the internet if people know how to exploit the algorithms behind a system.

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