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The Accidental Amplification of Pro-Eating Disorder Content on Social Media

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Despite the rich history of social and computer science research about ‘pro-eating disorder’ communities on homepages, forums and early Web 2.0 spaces, far less is known about how this phenomenon plays out across newer social media platforms. The term ‘pro-eating disorder’ (or ‘pro-ED’) denotes an identity adopted by internet users who post content intended to promote the worsening of eating disorders (Dias, 2003; Bell, 2009; Ging and Garvey, 2017). One of the key and yet under-studied ways such content circulates on social media is through algorithmic recommendation systems; that is, when platforms mine users’ data to suggest other content and connections they might want to engage with (Gerrard, 2018). This talk explores the role such systems play in re-circulating pro-ED content to users, despite platforms’ recent attempts to reduce its availability and searchability, a process called social media content moderation (Roberts, 2016; Gillespie, 2018). It argues that platforms have not yet algorithmically reconciled their moral stances on eating disorders, meaning they simultaneously push and deny problematic content to their users: accidental algorithmic amplification (see also Tufekci, 2018).

What users are shown as they navigate social media – what other people have liked, the accounts they might want to follow, the posts they might want to see – perhaps represents the most acceptable content platforms have to offer. Yet it is precisely the seeming neutrality of recommendations which makes them so powerful and consequential. This talk centrally argues that researchers need to pay closer attention to the social costs of recommendation systems, particularly for vulnerable publics, and makes some suggestions for future research.

Bio Dr Ysabel Gerrard is a Lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. She is the current Book Reviews Editor of Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, the Vice Chair of the European Communication Research and Education Association’s (ECREA) Digital Culture and Communication Section, and a former Intern at the Social Media Collective, Microsoft Research New England. Ysabel is interested in the intersection between identity and technology and has published some of her research in New Media and Society, the Journal of Communication Inquiry and First Monday. She has also spoken on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and BBC World Service, and her research has been featured in outlets like WIRED and The Guardian.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Technology & New Media Research Cluster series.

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