Free Speech, Filters, Algorithms & Net Neutrality: How Big Company Nudging Can Influence Your World View
from the which-way-should-we-nudge dept
Zeynep Tufekci has a really great post talking about how much algorithmic filtering plays a role in how we view the world — with a specific focus on what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. As more than a few people have pointed out, much of the public discussion about the mess in Ferguson was happening on Twitter — while it seemed eerily absent from Facebook (and the mainstream media at first…):
And this is what happened to ?Ferguson? on Twitter:
— Patrick Ruffini (@PatrickRuffini) August 14, 2014
And then I switched to non net-neutral Internet to see what was up. I mostly have a similar a composition of friends on Facebook as I do on Twitter.
Nada, zip, nada.
No Ferguson on Facebook last night. I scrolled. Refreshed.
She notes that eventually the story did break through on Facebook, but not until the next morning when Facebook’s algorithm finally caught up to the idea that something important was happening.
This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn?t see them then. Overnight, ?edgerank? ?or whatever Facebook?s filtering algorithm is called now???seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.
But, as she notes, it’s entirely possible that Facebook’s algorithm wouldn’t have ever found it important if the story wasn’t gaining more and more attention on Twitter. And, of course, even as the story was being told on Twitter, there are questions about whether or not Twitter’s algorithms suppressed some of it as well. “#Ferguson” only very briefly trended nationally, though it did trend in certain local markets.
So, there were fewer chances for people not already following the news to see it on their ?trending? bar. Why? Almost certainly because there was already national, simmering discussion for many days and Twitter?s trending algorithm (said to be based on a method called ?term frequency inverse document frequency?) rewards spikes? So, as people in localities who had not been talking a lot about Ferguson started to mention it, it trended there though the national build-up in the last five days penalized Ferguson.
As she points out: Algorithms have consequences.
This is not unlike Eli Pariser’s idea of the “filter bubble” and the idea that companies may be effectively nudging you in ways that may not actually be that great. Frankly, that argument is a little strained, since it suggests that everyone only lives within these bubbles, and doesn’t do things that exposes them further, but there is a valid point at the core of it worth exploring.
Tufekci notes, however, that this is also why net neutrality is so important. Because without it, not only do you have to worry about internet services determining what’s important to you, but also the broadband infrastructure as well. And both will be focused on what enables them to profit the most. She points out the example of locals live-streaming what the police in Ferguson were doing — including when the police announced over loudspeakers to “turn off their cameras” (a fairly chilling request in its own right). And she ponders what happens to those live streams on a non-neutral network:
But I?m not quite sure that without the neutral side of the Internet?the livestreams whose ?packets? were fast as commercial, corporate and moneyed speech that travels on our networks, Twitter feeds which are not determined by an opaque corporate algorithms but my own choices,?we?d be having this conversation.
Obviously, there are lots of other issues at play in Ferguson that go well beyond the internet and things like net neutrality. But they are related. The discussion of those issues — race, police brutality, police militarization, free speech, etc. — are all enabled and enhanced by the issues of the internet and what it enables… and what it stifles. If the police could have kept this story from getting attention, it’s likely that (1) there would have been even more abuse and (2) that all of those other discussions wouldn’t be happening. Who knows if many of those discussions will be able to create real change, but you at least need to have that discussion to start the process of change. And if the technology is getting in the way of that, through non-neutral networks or algorithms that ignore important events like this, it seems like a problem worth solving, if only to speed up all those other important conversations as well.