Division sign creates a digital divide

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Graphic by Anthony Paculan.

People rarely go viral by accident; most of the people that do have methods of manipulating the formula that social media sites use to determine the content they show. This formula is called the site’s algorithm, and it uses your content engagement history — e.g., what posts you view, react and comment on to determine what future content they’re going to show you.

In an article explaining their algorithm, Facebook stated that they “use thousands of different signals to make predictions about whether you’ll find something more or less valuable.” These signals include users’ views, likes and comments on various posts, with the posts being ranked by the amount of time viewers spend watching them and how many likes and comments they collect. 

Each website’s exact algorithm will value different factors with varying priority, but for the most part, they follow the same fundamentals Facebook listed. This means that social media platforms, in general, will incentivize users to create posts that receive more likes and comments.

This may seem obvious enough, but many creators have found ingenious ways to manipulate the algorithm to show more of their content. One common tactic is to generate comments by posting controversial content, which will lure people into speaking their mind and arguing with dissenters. “Controversial content” can mean a lot of things ranging from socio-political ideologies to… math problems.

You may have seen this before: engagement farmers love to post the same JPEG saying, “VIRAL MATH PROBLEM: 6÷2(1+2).” Even San Antonio’s Channel 4 News account posted it on Facebook to garner engagement, and it worked with flying colors. On an account that seems to peak around 270 likes and 40 comments on a post, the math post received 306 likes and over 2,200 comments, which is a substantial spike in engagement.

A quick look into the comments makes it clear to see what’s going on: nobody seems to be agreeing on the answer. One Facebook user comments “PEMDAS – 1+2=3, 2(3)= 6, 6÷6=1,” while another user argues, “everyone that says 9, you get a gold star. The rest of you didn’t pay close enough attention in school.” One user puts it best, saying, “I love how both the ones and the nines say their answer is correct because of PEMDAS.” 

If one follows Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication/Division, Addition/Subtraction (PEMDAS) accurately, they should get nine — which is the answer Google’s calculator also agrees upon. So why do so many people get one, even though they’re following the same exact process?

Contrary to popular belief, the issue here isn’t whether or not people are following PEMDAS; the division sign itself is at fault.

Many people read the division sign and interpret it as dividing the number to the left by all the numbers to the right. These people aren’t just plain wrong either; this interpretation of division was the standard until at least 1917. In a publication for The American Mathematical Monthly, mathematician N.J. Lennes explained, “When an indicated product follows the sign ÷ the whole product is… to be regarded as the divisor.” 

So even if their answers aren’t technically correct, their way of coming to that conclusion isn’t completely baseless; it was common practice before and is an equally intuitive interpretation. The real issue is the toxic engagement-manipulation tactics that can take precedence in our channels of media.

Many content creators post strong, controversial opinions and statements to lead users to praise or hate them in the comments, maximizing their engagement regardless of the reception they receive. All publicity is good publicity; it’s a painfully successful tactic.

Flagrant Internet personalities such as Donald Trump, Jordan Peterson, and Andrew Tate utilize this polarizing tactic; anytime one of them posts anything, their comments are flooded with lovers and haters arguing in all directions. By using arguments and rage to create discourse, they effectively create more divide amongst a nation that already seems so polarized. 

In a perfect world, the algorithm would incentivize unity and respect, but in reality, that’s not provocative enough. Maybe the next best thing would be to instill some social media literacy to identify these engagement traps before we step into them.

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