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Journalism and algorithmic accountability


A collective effort is needed to retrieve the information space

For the last couple of years, Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, has been speaking about the dangers in the flawed assumption that numbers are neutral and objective. She explains how algorithms choose the information we see online, and talks about their role in defining our credit worthiness, academic proficiency, and general station in life. “It goes without saying that when computers are making decisions, a lot can go wrong,” she warns. I have drawn from her work to explain some of the crisis created by Silicon Valley companies in the information ecology.

Case of the missing handle

What used to be a distant and academic concern hit home last week when Alt News, a fact-checking website, stumbled upon a startling discovery: tweets from The Hindu were not appearing in Twitter’s search results. It said that although the @the_hindu handle was active on Twitter, search results for its tweets drew a blank. The Internet editorial team, which was equally startled by this, responded: “The Hindu’s main Twitter handle is verified with over 4.5 million followers, and it focuses on current news and analysis. There is no apparent reason that it should be eliminated from search results. We have reached out to Twitter on this issue.”

After publicly raising the issue, @the_hindu handle started appearing again in Twitter’s search results. Alt News also raised the question of “shadow banning” by platform companies, which refers to the act of blocking a user or his/her content online. In such cases, the user is not aware that he or she has been blocked. This is a software-driven, algorithm-led editing feature and lacks editorial judgment. For instance, a systematic troll army can derail sane arguments and block them from public knowledge, while giving a push to fake news, doctored videos, and audio files on these platforms.

Twitter admitted to the digital team that @the_hindu handle got “inadvertently” caught in its spam filter. The term inadvertent is inadequate to explain how the algorithm works. Algorithms give weightage to some terms, tags, and traffic, and they are neither neutral nor objective. They are not immune from undesirable manipulations.

My internal inquiry revealed that The Hindu has been adhering to Twitter’s community standards and has not misused any of the provisions made available to publishers. So it would be apt to consider Twitter filtering as a form of censorship by algorithms. Sometimes, all sorts of articles are tagged to my Twitter handle, including those that celebrate trolls. What is missing in this narrative is the ability to distinguish opinions that lack evidence from those that are based on a rigorous examination of facts.

Expunging plural views

Looking at the transformation of the Internet in the last decade, Emily Bell, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said: “For more than a decade, 1,000 flowers bloomed on the open web, and 1,000 tabs opened on each desktop. This diversity is threatened with the commercialised, mobile social web. Smartphones and social media, which work in lock-step to focus our attention on the smaller screen, have been a great rebundling of news services — and a great rebundling of all services.” She explained how narrow casting by algorithms expunges plural views. “The ubiquity of social media and the way its business model works, targeting us with more of what we like, is an open invitation to stay in our lane — in our interests, our geographies, our views, our media and our lives,” she said. “The really efficient thing about social media is we don’t have to even try to do that ourselves anymore. The mysterious algorithmic underpinnings of Google and Facebook do it for us, and we don’t even notice. Until we miss something that happened in someone else’s lane. For liberal America, Trump happened in someone else’s lane.”

Algorithmic accountability is not an easy task. Technology giants, with their focus on market valuation and profitability, are not going to focus on this crucial aspect of our digital life. This will have to be a collective effort, like any struggle for egalitarian values, to retrieve the credible information space.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 4:55:44 PM |

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