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:
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.

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  • identicon
    CrushU, 15 Aug 2014 @ 10:31am


    As I have always turned Facebook to 'Show me Recent' instead of whatever they call 'Top Stories', I didn't notice this.

    I agree that it's a reminder not to trust everything you read online and to verify sources. Also a VERY good argument to support Net Neutrality.

    As a weird aside, I think it also highlights the benefit of using more than one source of information/news. I wonder what Google+ looked like during the same time?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Michael, 15 Aug 2014 @ 10:35am

      Re: Interesting

      Facebook has recently announced a new feature in which time is actually controlled by their news feed, so the idea of something happening recently is relative to how interested you would be in reading about it.

      Right now it is still being tested, but you can turn it on in your settings before it goes live yesterday.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 18 Aug 2014 @ 3:13am

        Re: Re: Interesting

        While the article has a point given that many people rely on those networks for news and so on (FB, Twitter etc) I'd argue that the real discussion is why they are relying on those as single sources and not surfing the net and finding good blogs, independent journalist or news collectives that can provide such info without bias. Sure FB, Twitter can act as "news aggregates" but even without such filters you should always have multiple sources to check. Not that you must read everything but just by checking headlines you already have a clue of what's happening and are able to follow what actually catches your attention.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 15 Aug 2014 @ 10:32am

    Dear Google,

    My name is Missouri Ferguson. Recently, I have noticed a lot of links appearing relating to my name (well, my last name a comma and my first name) and these links appear to be very negative.

    Since I am an EU citizen, I would like to invoke my right to be forgotten and have you suppress all of these links from your search results.

    Thank you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Aug 2014 @ 10:35am

    Another angle to the pro net neutrality argument is that a non neutral network might have prioritized police "PR" of the situation in Ferguson over the work of citizen and professional journos as they pushed back

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Aug 2014 @ 5:25pm

    As a programmer, ranking algorithm are notoriously hard. There will always be bias and mistakes.
    There can't be a perfect algorithm.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 15 Aug 2014 @ 5:44pm

    Facebook is an interesting animal. One of it's real problems is that it generally requires someone to get the ball rolling. At the same time, Facebook has social standards that make it way less chatty than Twitter. Twitter is for "found a parking spot YO!" type things, and facebook is where you post pictures of your car parked later in a collage gallery.

    Facebook by it's nature isn't a breaking news site, where Twitter is. In old world terms, Twitter is radio and Facebook more like the hardcover book, the timing is similar.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Aug 2014 @ 8:58pm

    If California ever has a Ferguson moment, they can use their new 'cellphone killswitch' bill to make sure no one's recording police brutality with their cellphones.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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