“Gaming the System”: Platform Paternalism and the Politics of Algorithmic Visibility

Caitlin Petre, Brooke Erin Duffy, Emily Hund

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


As the logic of data-driven metrification reconfigures various realms of social and economic life, cultural workers—from journalists and musicians to photographers and social media content creators—are pursuing online visibility in earnest. Despite workers’ patterned deployment of search engine optimization, reciprocal linking, and automated engagement-boosting, tech companies routinely denigrate such practices as gaming the system. This article critically probes discourses and practices of so-called system-gaming by analyzing three key moments when platforms accused cultural producers of algorithmic manipulation. Empirically, we draw upon textual analyses of news articles (n = 105) and user guidelines published by Google, Facebook, and Instagram. Our findings suggest that the line between what platforms deem illegitimate algorithmic manipulation and legitimate strategy is nebulous and largely reflective of their material interests. However, the language used to invoke this distinction is strongly normative, condemning “system gamers” as morally bankrupt, while casting platform companies as neutral actors working to uphold the ideals of authenticity and integrity. We term this dynamic “platform paternalism” and conclude that gaming accusations constitute an important mechanism through which platforms legitimate their power and authority, to the detriment of less well-established cultural producers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalSocial Media and Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Communication
  • Computer Science Applications


  • algorithms
  • cultural production
  • platforms
  • system-gaming
  • visibility


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