Designing Recommender Systems to Depolarize

Stray, Jonathan
arXiv:2107.04953 [cs]

Polarization is implicated in the erosion of democracy and the progression to violence, which makes the polarization properties of large algorithmic content selection systems (recommender systems) a matter of concern for peace and security. While algorithm-driven social media does not seem to be a primary driver of polarization at the country level, it could be a useful intervention point in polarized societies. This paper examines algorithmic depolarization interventions with the goal of conflict transformation: not suppressing or eliminating conflict but moving towards more constructive conflict. Algorithmic intervention is considered at three stages: which content is available (moderation), how content is selected and personalized (ranking), and content presentation and controls (user interface). Empirical studies of online conflict suggest that the exposure diversity intervention proposed as an antidote to "filter bubbles" can be improved and can even worsen polarization under some conditions. Using civility metrics in conjunction with diversity in content selection may be more effective. However, diversity-based interventions have not been tested at scale and may not work in the diverse and dynamic contexts of real platforms. Instead, intervening in platform polarization dynamics will likely require continuous monitoring of polarization metrics, such as the widely used "feeling thermometer." These metrics can be used to evaluate product features, and potentially engineered as algorithmic objectives. It may further prove necessary to include polarization measures in the objective functions of recommender algorithms to prevent optimization processes from creating conflict as a side effect.