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How to Outsmart Algorithms and Take Control of Your Information Diet

Nick Douglas May 21, 2019. 1 comments

“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 Republican vs. Democrat (vs. leftist revolutionary vs. neoliberal centrist shill), 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 like Feedly.

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.

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 George Soros’s 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 dumbass algorithm that no, you didn’t want to see 100 more videos of CGI Spider-Man murdering Peppa Pig.

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.

Block algorithmic cruft

Social sites and media sites (including Lifehacker) are desperate for more of your time, so they (we) 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 like Freedom and uBlock Origin to hide “around the web” links, trending topics, and distracting ads. (Remember to whitelist sites that respect your time and your attention, or sites that you want to support financially.)

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 like Google.

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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