Algorithm bias and why we’re all angry about it

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Kevin Slavin: How algorithms shape our world

It’s not just #OccupyWallStreet-ers who are angry about algorithms. In any business that has been online for any amount of time there exists at least one person who frets about algorithms, surmises new ways to make those algorithms work in their company’s favor, and inevitably gives up knowing that jumping feet first into the world of algorithms is like entering a black hole. And, with no end in sight, we give up, angry and frustrated.

It’s just that the Occupy-ers are the only group of folks to complain about it and receive news coverage for having done so. The NPR story linked here does a solid job of uncovering what most of us already knew about algorithms (that they favor topics trending locally, at a given moment in time) and that anyone actually trying to get their name known through a chance appearance on Twitter’s most famous list is really just wasting their time and money on a frivolous pursuit. Like the article says, it’s more likely that #thingsthirstypeopledo will find its way to the top ten long before any advertising campaign messages do. And, they’ll inspire greater interaction.

The more intriguing part of this story, as is often the case with most NPR pieces, is the final section, titled “Getting Used to an Algorithmic Editor.” Quoting Cornell University communication professor Tarleton Gillespie, the article paints an algorithm as nothing more than your local newspaper editor.

Or, better yet, think of an algorithm as yourself while you edit that term paper you’ve been working on for months. “This doesn’t belong there,” you say, and you scratch it out. “This would work perfectly over here,” and you add it. You are the filter, the gatekeeper over your work. What you let through is made public. What you don’t is not. And, the reason you let some things through while others are left behind is because you’ve likely received years of training in this particular discipline. You know intuitively what ought to belong, what may merit the highest grade, what sounds best, how many sources you should have, how many block quotes you shouldn’t, and so on and so on.

But, your intuitive knowledge is loaded with subjectivity as well. Though you were taught how to write essays in junior high school, everything from your style and voice to your research techniques to the number of times you’ve written anything before this point all serve to form in you a particular way of writing that  is all together different from your professor or fellow classmates. And you still have to consider your particular ideological positions that inform the way you think about your topic.

Algorithms had to be written and edited. They are still being edited. The NPR article indicates that even just a few years ago, Amazon had an algorithm snaffoo that allowed adult-themed titles onto their best-seller list – something they decided should not happen. There are people trained in the science of algorithm writing and they, just like you writing your paper, are biased.

“The important point is that one can never generalize beyond known data without making at least some assumptions,” Martin Sewell wrote for Futures Magazine. The point of the algorithm is to represent information that has not happened based on a mixture of the known data and the assumptions that can be drawn from that data.

Our problem as consumers is that we have been trained to think about anything electronic as inherently unbiased, objective. You can buy something on Amazon without ever interacting with a human being. You do this because there is little fuss, no salesmanship and it can easily be done from in front of the television or as a distraction from work. You do it without thinking. Without engaging. What you do not think about is the host of work happening just on the other side of your computer screen as you clicked the “purchase” button. Every search term, click, and scroll you made while on that site has been recorded in a way that can be marketed back to you. Every second you stayed on one  page longer than another and every source you used to get to that particular place are now part of your online DNA.

But, we ignore this. We get angry when the algorithms don’t work in our favor and we fight about online privacy when we’re the ones exposed. It certainly seems like until we purposely get a hold of our habits online, this is one fight mankind will not win.

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So you think you’re a pro

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It’s 2011. Somehow we found ourselves in the middle of a social media revolution.

A recent article in the Journal of Sports Media1 spurred me to begin thinking more carefully about the connection of social media and the process of “professionalizing” journalism. Journalists and writers, it’s no secret, enjoy talking about journalism and writing. And, what they say about journalism as a concept is not altogether good: “clearly, at the start of the 21st century, many experienced journalists fear for the future of journalism” (p. 1).2

Generally speaking, popular effects research on the media tend to behave in a manner that posits the media as a negative entity that causes heavy users to behave differently and contrary to normal expectations. Think of Putnam’s Bowling Alone or Postman’s Technolpoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death. At the most basic level, these books argue that something is wrong and that the cause of these social ills is the mass media.

However, in none of these accounts specifically, and in the larger world of research generally, do journalists, news-makers, or the news media (aside from complaints of bias against FOX News) act as a primary culprit in turning well mannered folk into norm-upsetting hippies. It’s always entertainment media or the overuse of new technology, etc. Yet, journalists are the most forward-thinking group of media-makers discussing the process of “becoming more professional.” This is, of course, an entirely separate conversation.

The question facing all journalists is no longer “should I engage with social media,” but “how should I engage with social media.” The “revolution” of social media has forced anyone with a voice needing to be heard to adopt technologies they do not necessarily understand and adapt their message these technologies, which do not necessarily fit the journalist’s method of communication.

Engaging with social media is a casual enterprise. The first thing I did when I logged on to Facebook was accept an invitation to be in a relationship with the girl I’d been in a relationship with for a couple of months. Without knowing it, my online destiny was sealed. My relationship became a “news” item.  In the world of the “news feed” professional news outlets now compete for attention among the myriad of content posted by individual users each day. In so doing, producers of content enter a realm outside of their control. At least when you print a paper or direct a television show or air a radio broadcast, you are in control of how your content looks, feels, and sounds. Publishing a website gives you a large amount of control over your users’ experiences, provided users can actually find and use your site. But Facebook, for example, renders each user, brand, news outlet, and log-on-once-a-month Larry as equals.

To become relevant in the social world, one must somehow become similar to the social world, but in a way that does not sacrifice one’s professionalism. This is no small feat. Consider how quickly you post status updates. Do you use as much effort source-, fact-, and spell-checking these updates before they go live? Have you ever had to delete a post or offer a correction to something you posted earlier? Has something you’ve posted ever split hairs within your organization while being well accepted by your audience? Does your organization have a “best practices” guide to social media?

And, questions of professionalism extend much further than merely what to post, what not to post. What I love about the Sports Media article is its focus on sourcing. Do you pull athlete quotes from Twitter and what’s the professionalism of that? Shouldn’t you be interviewing your sources for solid stories, not picking up stories from Twitter? The answer here is unclear. In fact, everything with respect to the relationship between professionalism and social media is unclear. As Reed suggests, when things begin to clear up, ” it will be up to journalists and the organizations for which they work to decide how to preserve credibility in this environment that arguably demands more of them” (p. 58).

Good luck. It’s been a difficult road to “professionalize” journalism until now. Social media is not making it any easier. But, if journalists can do what they have always done well and get ahead of the trends, they may soon be able to use the social movement to help shape what it means to be professionally social.

Notes

1 Reed, S. (2011). “Sports Journalists’ Use of Social Media and Its Effects on Professionalism.” Journal of Sports Media 6(2), pp. 43-64.

2 Ornebring, H. (2008). “The Two Professionalisms of Journalism: Updating Journalism Research for the 21st Century.” Proceedings from the 2008 International Communications Association Annual Meeting, Quebec, Canada.

Journalism in freefall? Maybe not

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An April 13 article in The Atlantic’s business section online (Do Journalists ‘Grieve’ the Decline of Journalism?) recently put a few things in perspective for me.

Most of us like to talk about things, and the things we talk about are, most likely, considered news by the parties talking about them. For those of us who actually pay attention to nation- and world-wide current events, we like to say we keep up with the news and enjoy staying informed. However, when news is removed from its context, which is what happens when it’s reported (according to Neil Postman), it sometimes takes on new meaning.

Take the decline of journalism for example. Everyone likes to talk about how journalism is beginning to fail, and that technology will eventually render the profession obsolete. People can get/make their own news through Twitter and Facebook, and the need for traditional reporters and news gatherers is no longer a societal priority. The problem with this rumor, however, is that the people perpetuating it aren’t the people who care about journalism in the first place.

For those of us who actually value the kind of news we receive about overseas conflicts, the goings-on in Congress, and the state of our nation’s educational systems, the fate of journalism couldn’t be more clear – it’s not destined for a fatal doom, at least not any time soon. Have a look at this quote from The Atlantic article:

It’s not just the new media gurus who think there is value in simple aggregation, or complex interactive graphs, or blogging public policy twenty times a day (Harold Pollack called the health care reform story “the best-covered news story, ever.”) There are Web sites that exist primarily to chronicle and lead the transformation because they find it interesting and important. Executives at newspaper and magazines companies consistently hail the challenges of new media as unprecedented opportunities to provide richer stories to the widest audience in history (the ones not named Rupert Murdoch, anyway).

It seems strange that we would say new media threaten journalism while aiding the rest of society (which seems to be the popular buzz). But, why can’t new media help journalism? Is there some reason we perpetuate stories because they’re conflict-laden? I venture to believe that the people predicting journalism’s failure don’t  want to live in a world where journalism doesn’t exist.

Despite increased use, new media still baffling

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Perhaps I’m a bit late in making my decisions, but I’ve finally picked up a Sherlock Holmes novel after seeing the movie for fear of having missed out on a valuable piece of literature. And while my mind is in the mood for solving mysteries this month, one continues to allude me – why, after Tweeting for two, spending the bulk of my day in the corporate Facebook world, running two blogs, updating LinkedIn, and following an untold number of social media guru blogs (not to mention @DanSchawbel who recently posted, “You have to be as committed to your social media profile as you are to your husband or wife”), do I still find it a struggle to maintain my social self (while also struggling to take CNN’s Rick Sanchez seriously)?

Well, I guess you could call me the present-age do-it-yourself-er. Now I’m not comparing myself to those thousands of families who began new lives farming in America and subsequently paved the way for the American Dream as a do-it-yourself kind of enterprise, but I will say that none of this social media, citizen journalism stuff was ever taught to me. And it probably wasn’t taught to you either unless you received a link via your Twitter account that took you to some Youtube posting where some “guru” explained the world of Facebook.

However, recently I found an article via PoynterOnline explaining how a group in Ohio is funding an academy to train citizen journalists. One portion of the article reads:

Academy leaders “will equip citizens with the tools and training they need to tell their stories through videos, news reports, blogs and visual design projects,” the foundation said in a statement. “Students of all ages will learn to express themselves by producing relevant, local content using such new technologies as mobile media players, digital video cameras and editing software. Students also will learn basic journalism tenets and web-broadcasting skills.”

Oddly enough, this sounds similar to what I might expect university admissions counselors to use as a rough mission statement to attract prospective journalists to their struggling communications programs. On first read I was obviously concerned about the state of academia and the legitimacy of my degree program, but I soon began to realize that no one-time, six-figure donation could ever compete with the well endowed, not to mention accredited, universities.

If nothing else, this first-time shot at a citizen journalist academy could pave the way for an entirely new media literacy movement in our country, and with the increasing frequency with which media are becoming extensions of the human body (McLuhan on “the extension of man“), increased media literacy may not be that bad of a thing. And who knows, it may even be good for the local media outlets who publish citizen journalism.

Live updates from the Haitian front line

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My graduate program director forwarded us the link to a New York Times blog (The Lede), which is posting frequent video, picture, Twitter list, etc. updates about the goings-on in Haiti including a number of sources for individuals to donate to support rescue and medical crews and those who are seeking information about family.

Again, you can click here to go to the site. I assume they’ll continue updating for some time to come.

Faltering newspapers and such

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I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the current and future state of newspapers, magazines and general print media.  The May 16-22 edition of The Economist ran a brief and an extended article about the influx of online journalism especially the “online portals like Yahoo! and Google News” which provide a plethora of free news to users.

The article cites falling percentages of newspapers, television and radio broadcast digestion among Americans while contrasting them with the ever increasing numbers of Internet news access.  On another blog, I found that while Americans spend an average of 4.6 hours per week reading newspapers and magazines, we spend 15.3 hours online.

Certainly this seems unfortunate, especially for those of us whose passion for writing extends beyond the headlines most net users skim past on their way to more “interesting news” or the 140 characters allotted by Twitter.

Right now, I’m not so certain if this is an ethical dilemma or a trend threatening the foundation of free press and speech – that is, press and speech that is credible.  Will the academic practices of ethics simply vanish with the decreasing need for professional editors and fact-checkers?  How much easier will it be for a Stephen Glass to capture our imagination with faux truths and lyrical suave?