Hacking the Algorithm and Its Use for News, Promotion and Activism

By Damita Menezes

The online world has been a saving grace for mankind during the Covid-19 pandemic. With economies shutting down and businesses moving online, there has been hope for folks who have the privilege to work/study in front of a screen. And social media has helped people connect with one another now more than ever.

Before the pandemic, it was common to be exposed to articles documenting the negative aspects of social media and how we must limit our online use to have social interactions IRL. When everything moved online, we relied heavily on Zoom, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Slack, Reddit, Discord, LinkedIn, etc to stay updated with one another personally and professionally.

Keeping up with all these platforms has been imperative and I couldn’t help but notice how different social media platforms are used differently to communicate different messages with different kinds of friends. The way one communicates and who they communicate with is different in every medium. But where do we draw the line between professional and personal content? How do we separate our styles of engagement and consumption? How do we express our personal beliefs and keep them separate from our professional? Do we need to do that? Also, in light of current situations going on with the Black Lives Matter movement and the involvement of social media activism, how does one find the balance between being “woke” and abstaining from performative activism?

Considering all these questions, this article will provide an idea on how we can manage and seize the power to control the media we consume and make the best use of it, if you are a media person or are an average user of social media.

A little background and Journalism before Twitter

I created a Facebook account when I turned twelve years old in 2012 because of peer pressure and because I didn’t want to miss out on what my friends were talking about every day in school. Facebook was “awesome” for my twelve-year-old self. I could share meme’s, comment on pictures, press the “like” button, tag people, type my thoughts out, etc. I was immediately addicted. My mind craved online validation and along with that came my anxiety and overthinking.

Over time, I have learned how to regulate my virtual being to some extent, but with a new social media platform popping up every 4 years or so, it gets overwhelming. And you will relate if you’re Gen Z.

I got Instagram 2 years later because it was getting popular among my peers and Facebook was deemed to be for older folks. Snapchat came about and was for the real connections; the close friends you want to keep in touch with on a day-to-day basis. I finally joined Twitter in 2016 and recently started using it regularly because it was encouraged by my professors as it is the perfect media to get the latest of the latest news. Having so many social media accounts get exhausting and it gets especially hard to keep up if you’re a journalist.

Social media is a great tool to stay updated with friends and family, but it is also great to stay updated with the news. Many folks rely on their social media feeds for their daily dose of the news. An Instagram poll I conducted involving around 50 participants with an average age of 23 showed that Twitter and Instagram were the leading platforms for their news consumption. A newspaper subscription, TV news and podcasts ranked in 3rd, 4rth and 5th place respectively.

For journalism, social media has enabled reporters and news agencies to promote their work and compete with one another with the latest scoops and commentary. “Journalists are under incredible pressure to not only do their stories for their publication or broadcasting station or network, but they are also under enormous pressure to report on social media,” said Chris Bury, a Peabody and Emmy-award winning reporter and a journalism instructor at DePaul. “My main concern is that it doesn’t give reporters enough time to do their jobs and the result sometimes is that the reports that they do are not as thorough and full as they might be because they’ve had to spend much of their day worrying about Twitter or Instagram.

Before Twitter, longer news cycles enabled thoroughly investigated work. With the advent of Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle has been trimmed to just a couple of hours or minutes and with this conundrum comes the question of journalists’ opinions on social media and the separation of personal from professional.

Keeping up with the Social Media posts and The News

For the common folk, the struggle to “keep up” comes about; The struggle of having different types of friends on different platforms.

“It is hard to keep up with everyone being on different platforms because some of my friends aren’t on Snapchat, some aren’t on Instagram. So, for some people, you don’t know what is going on in their life unless you reach out to them,” said Joey Cahue who studied PR, Advertising and Journalism at DePaul.

It gets even more complicated to keep up because all these platforms have different communication modes. Instagram only does pictures, graphics, and videos. Twitter does tweets, pictures, links, trends, news etc. Facebook is more closed with groups, private profiles, etc. This tempts people to have all platforms to keep up with different modes of communication.

Eight out of the 10 interviewees for this article confirmed with me that they are overwhelmed with keeping up. And with the current unprecedented events, social media hasn’t been too kind on the mind.

With the Black Lives Matter movement lifting off again, on June 2nd, Instagram was filled with black images with the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday to show solidarity and raise awareness. Following those posts were people accusing one another of performative activism.

The positive side of activism on social media is that people have been using their accounts to educate one another and learn more on how they can help the movement and put an end to systemic racism. Without the marriage of a camera phone and social media, the reaction of the injustice that George Floyd endured would not have been this passionate.

It is important now more than ever to keep up with the news and there are many resources out there. If you don’t have a news subscription, I recommend following a minimum of 3 news social media accounts: one for local news, one for national news and one for world news. Listen to news podcasts (BBC’s Global News Podcast and The Daily). Sign up for newsletters that summarize the news very easily.

Tip from an old school news junkie

If you’re a journalist and you’re finding it hard to keep up with the news online, I asked journalism professor Rick Brown who has no online presence whatsoever on how he keeps up with the news. “I read the New York Times cover to cover, and then I move on to the Washington Post. Then I will go through a whole series of websites like NBC, ABC, CNN and that’s giving me more stories that are more recent. Then I will head to local news like Chicago Tribune and Chicago Suns Times. I will then move on to Politico and the Sports Websites. I will also check the DePaul news media. I repeat the process all day long every 3 hours, for any updates.”

Understanding Algorithms and The Hack

Overtime, these social media platforms have received updates and changed their designs and consumption styles. These changes have either attracted or pushed people away from their platforms, therefore changing user demographics. Examples: Instagram including Snapchat’s stories feature, Snapchat moving the celebrities feed with the friends feed, etc.

The New York Times Podcast Rabbit Hole is an “audio series about how the internet is changing, and how it’s changing us.” While listening to this podcast, I started thinking about algorithms, how we consume media and the ability to customize our media consumption. Algorithms have the ability to shape what we like and dislike. This kind of power can be pretty intimidating and therefore it is up to us to be able to think in retrospect and control our consumption.

I have come up with some changes you can implement on your social media accounts to serve you better without having to create separate accounts for different purposes. At least until Biz Stone and Mark Zuckerberg don’t give us the ability to fully customize our feeds. Also, Stone and Zuckerberg, if you’re reading this, hire me so we can work together to create the best algorithms for the best user experience.

For Twitter:

When it comes to personalizing your Twitter feed, you can really only switch your feed from receiving the “Latest tweets” or the “Top Tweets.” This is limiting when you follow so many people and follow different kinds of accounts. Twitter’s “lists” feature got me pondering over how we might be able to separate celebrities/influencers from close friends from politicians and news companies. When you create lists and pin them, they will appear as separate feeds in your Home feed. In these lists you can add people without having to follow them.

Have a look at my lists for example. And because I have created these lists, I only follow friends and fellow journalists. I have sorted everyone else into these lists. If you think these lists can be limiting to your main feed, there is the option to show the latest tweets from the lists to appear in your main feed.

For Instagram

Instagram doesn’t let you do much either when it comes to taking control of your feed. However depending on how you want your Home feed to look like, I recommend using the “close friends” and “muting” and “post notification” tools to your full advantage. If you want to share something with only close friends, share them in your story under the “close friends” option. If you don’t check Instagram regularly but want to be updated whenever friends post, enable “post notifications” on their profile.

Another important thing to remember is that you have the ability to follow who you want to follow. That person’s content is going to pop up in your feed. If you don’t want to unfollow, you have the option to completely mute them.

The Personal and the Professional for the media creator

It is often discouraged for journalists to voice out their opinions because of the perception that it might be interpreted as biased reporting. Bury mainly uses his social media platform for professional purposes and tries to comment mainly on the 2 topics he thoroughly knows: Journalism and politics. “I feel compelled to as a journalist to stand up for journalists and journalism when we are under attack. I have no problem standing up for journalists when the President of the United States calls them the enemy of the people,” said Bury. “But some journalists can’t stand up because of company policies and they have to be very very careful and I have certainly followed those policies when I was at ABC news.”

Late millennials and Gen Z journalists who also use social media for personal reasons, are often subjected to this dilemma of personal and professional. Student journalist Cam Rodriguez, has tackled this by creating different accounts for different purposes. “I had my first Twitter account when I turned 13 and that account is more for personal stuff and I found that as I got into college, it became harder and harder to maintain a professional outward facing appearance while I had personal interests and profanity and things that I wouldn’t necessarily want an employer to see.” Rodriguez made that account private and created a new public account for journalism only. On the public account, she is more careful with liking and retweeting and strays away from anything overtly political.

This tactic of creating separate accounts is employed by many social media users. On Instagram, this is known as the “finsta.” It is an Instagram account that is extra private to an individual. “Finsta for me almost falls along the lines of trolling,” said communication and media studies graduate John Cotter. “It’s people projecting their complaints and insecurities to a small percentage of people that are in their close friend group.”

Cotter doesn’t believe in the idea of a finsta. “You don’t know who you’re trusting. Anything you put on social media, it’s there and glued. Even if it is private. There are screenshots everywhere of anything controversial. As private as you want it to be, it is never private,” said Cotter.

For social media influencers or Youtubers, their lives are often the content. Finding a balance between personal and the professional can be tricky. Youtuber Reese Regan has close to 400k subscribers and portrays her life on social media as it really is. “I don’t really have any private or personal accounts. I don’t have anything to hide that is super private; I don’t have the most interesting life. What you see on social media is how my life is living.” Regan promotes her YouTube content on the same social media accounts she uses to stay updated with a few friends and family.

This minor issue between the personal and professional mainly only arises to folks that make media. For folks who work in other sectors and only consume media, finding the balance between personal and professional can be easily separated with websites and apps. LinkedIn is for the professional and Instagram, Snapchat etc. for the personal.

Final Words

The pandemic has pushed us all to stay connected online but it is important to take breaks from our online lives. I recommend listening to this episode “Dial D for Distracted” by The Happiness Lab which is a podcast based on Yale’s most popular course taught by Dr. Laurie Santos.

Make up what you want after considering all these ideas and conversations, but I implore you not to ignore the real news out there; the news that reports on the decisions that shape our lives.



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