How To Outsmart Algorithms And Take Control Of Your Information Diet

Photo: Josh Brasted/Getty Images

“Certain algorithms,” says Tim Cook, “pull you toward the things you already know, believe or like, and they push away everything else. Push back.”

In a commencement speech to Tulane University, the Apple CEO tells graduates to take charge of their information diet. And much as we want to sneer at the irony of a phone maker telling us to beware of algorithms, we have to admit that Apple’s Screen Time app is one good tool for improving your tech habits.

Here are the best posts we’ve already written on pushing back against the algorithms.

Break out of the echo chamber

News feed algorithms try to show you more of what you already like, which can lead you down a rabbit hole of increasingly radical content, or just block you from any information that might broaden your perspective. This isn’t just about Liberal vs Labor, but also about ending up only with the most popular, sensationalist or insipid feel-good stories from garbage sources.

Instead of getting your news from a Facebook or Twitter news feed, try less popularity-driven platforms such as Feedly.

EscapeYourBubble Shows You Stories From Outside Your Echo Chamber

Chrome: Before you get into another argument about politics, take a moment to see how the other side sees the world. EscapeYourBubble shows you what people on the other side of the aisle are seeing.

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It's Time To Eliminate Your Facebook News Feed

Ah 2017, the year fake news took over our timelines, and the attendant hand-wringing took over our lives. It's not as if we needed more things to disturb us on Facebook - we've been FOMO-gnashing our teeth to dust for a decade, after all. As this year comes to a close, I encourage you to gird yourself for the certain onslaught to come. Take two seconds and install News Feed Eradicator for Facebook, a Chrome extension that does exactly what it says, and in so doing, will preserve the teensy shred of sanity you have left.

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How Sites Like Google And Facebook Put You In Political Echo Chambers

News feeds like Facebook's shape how you see the world. Algorithms behind those sites determine what news is important enough for you to see. Their goal is to improve the relevance of the stories you read, but they have a nasty side effect: They control the flow of information, and you wind up in an echo chamber where you only hear ideas you agree with.

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Educate yourself on which news sources are reliable, fair and well-researched. Learn the signs of fake news, and how to fact-check. Don’t share news stories that seem suspicious, just because you want to be the first person in your feed to “scoop” something.

How To Spot And Debunk Fake News

It's easier than ever for someone to create a website and post completely made up stories that become international headlines. This makes it harder to tell truth from fiction or share news with others who may not be able to tell the difference either. Luckily, fake news isn't too difficult to spot. Here's how, and how to filter it out of your feeds.

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YouTube is one of the worst algorithmic offenders, chaining its recommendations until you end up with some middle-aged teenager ranting about how to see through those round-earth lies with the help of a brain supplement.

Hide the “related videos” section, or weed bad videos out of your viewing history to tell YouTube’s dumbarse algorithm that no, you didn’t want to see 100 more videos of CGI Spider-Man murdering Peppa Pig.

How To Hide YouTube's Related Videos

Every time you watch a video, YouTube shows you a dozen more in the sidebar, most of them weirder and worse than what you're watching. They're obnoxious and distracting, they can lead kids to inappropriate videos, and according to a Wall Street Journal test, they tend to get more extreme the more you click. Here's how to hide them.

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How To Protect Your Kids From Disturbing, Fake Peppa Pig Videos On YouTube

I'm cool with Peppa Pig. Peppa is a charmingly imperfect pig-child, and Daddy Pig, despite falling into the cliché befuddled father type, makes me giggle. And who can resist George's one-track obsession with Mr Dinosaur? I don't protest much when my four-year-old daughter asks to watch the British preschool cartoon, and the quickest way for me to find a string of episodes is to grab the iPad and type in "Peppa Pig" on YouTube.

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Check your phone less

Smartphone notifications were supposed to keep us updated on important things. But app makers easily hijacked these tools to buzz your phone for every like, comment, new friend, new follow, update, challenge, sale or free gem. The reason there’s no Tamagotchi app is that your phone is already a Tamagotchi, whining for attention and constantly dying.

Turn off notifications, hide or delete distracting apps, and encourage good habits that make your phone more than a time killer.

Ten Tricks For Checking Your Phone Less

The most frustrating thing about a phone addiction is that unlike actual substance abuse, the solution is not to stop using it completely. Instead, we have to find ways to use this technology responsibly, fighting apps overtly designed to steal our time.

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Apple's Screen Time Report Is Not Accurate For Tracking Your Habits

iOS 12 is out, and a lot of people are suddenly realising that they spend way too much time on their smartphones. Way. Too. Much. Time.

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Block algorithmic cruft

Social sites are desperate for more of your time, so they throw all kinds of recommendations at you, hoping you’ll click and read more. Sometimes you want those recommendations! It’s nice to discover an old article from a writer you love, or find the related how-to post that actually solves your problem.

But sometimes you want to block that all out. Use apps and extensions to hide trending topics. (Remember to whitelist sites that respect your time and your attention, or sites that you want to support financially.)

How To Hide 'Trending Topics' From Twitter And Facebook

'Trending topics' are bull, says Select All. These little modules on social media sites are swamps of banality and disinformation. This week, YouTube's trending page included a conspiracy-theory video, which claims that the Stoneman Douglas High School students fighting for gun control are actually paid actors. (Narrator voice: They're not.)

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Stop training the algorithms

If you don’t take drastic measures, you can’t keep all your personal information private. But you can cut down on your information sharing by opting out of certain programs and using high-quality alternatives to default services such as Google.

Keep Your Personal Data Out Of Google Search (Or Not)

Google's been making strides toward the creepy over the past few weeks. Last week the company figured out how to tie real-world credit card transactions to its own advertising network to further its ad platform effectiveness. This week, Google has started experimenting on some user's search pages: They will take your personal data and display it next to some traditional search data with the hopes that you'll eventually look for everything through their classic search box.

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How To Maximise Your Browsing Privacy Using DuckDuckGo

It feels like every day, I see another person realising how little privacy they have online and saying “enough.” Upset about the state of our relationship to tech companies, they’re quitting Facebook and Twitter, avoiding Amazon, and giving up Google.

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How To Keep Your Personal Data Out Of IRL Targeted Ads

Personalised ads — they aren’t just on your screens anymore. For the past few years, advertisers have been experimenting with ways to apply all that data they have about you to billboards and other IRL advertisements. Think about how creepy it is when Facebook knows too much about you.

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Don’t let the algorithms run your life. Take back your time, your attention and your thoughts. You’ll find a lot more advice on our tag pages for privacy, security, annoyances, social media, news, advertising and personal data.


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