Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 19, 2016

again with the algorithms

The tragically naïve idea that algorithms are neutral and unbiased and other-than-human is a long-term concern of mine, so of course I am very pleased to see this essay by Zeynep Tufecki:

Software giants would like us to believe their algorithms are objective and neutral, so they can avoid responsibility for their enormous power as gatekeepers while maintaining as large an audience as possible. Of course, traditional media organizations face similar pressures to grow audiences and host ads. At least, though, consumers know that the news media is not produced in some “neutral” way or above criticism, and a whole network — from media watchdogs to public editors — tries to hold those institutions accountable.

The first step forward is for Facebook, and anyone who uses algorithms in subjective decision making, to drop the pretense that they are neutral. Even Google, whose powerful ranking algorithm can decide the fate of companies, or politicians, by changing search results, defines its search algorithms as “computer programs that look for clues to give you back exactly what you want.”

But this is not just about what we want. What we are shown is shaped by these algorithms, which are shaped by what the companies want from us, and there is nothing neutral about that.

One other great point Tufecki makes: the key bias at Facebook is not towards political liberalism, but rather towards whatever will keep you on Facebook rather than turning your attention elsewhere.


  • I was very happy to see that this point is recognized in this report: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/2016_0504_data_discrimination.pdf

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