Random Isn't Always Fair: Candidate Set Imbalance and Exposure Inequality in Recommender Systems

12 Sep 2022  ·  Amanda Bower, Kristian Lum, Tomo Lazovich, Kyra Yee, Luca Belli ·

Traditionally, recommender systems operate by returning a user a set of items, ranked in order of estimated relevance to that user. In recent years, methods relying on stochastic ordering have been developed to create "fairer" rankings that reduce inequality in who or what is shown to users. Complete randomization -- ordering candidate items randomly, independent of estimated relevance -- is largely considered a baseline procedure that results in the most equal distribution of exposure. In industry settings, recommender systems often operate via a two-step process in which candidate items are first produced using computationally inexpensive methods and then a full ranking model is applied only to those candidates. In this paper, we consider the effects of inequality at the first step and show that, paradoxically, complete randomization at the second step can result in a higher degree of inequality relative to deterministic ordering of items by estimated relevance scores. In light of this observation, we then propose a simple post-processing algorithm in pursuit of reducing exposure inequality that works both when candidate sets have a high level of imbalance and when they do not. The efficacy of our method is illustrated on both simulated data and a common benchmark data set used in studying fairness in recommender systems.

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