An English-Language, Algorithmically-Personalized News Aggregator, Based In China — What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
from the no-social-graph-required dept
Techdirt has been exploring the important questions raised by so-called “fake news” for some time. A new player in the field of news aggregation brings with it some novel issues. It’s called TopBuzz, and it comes from the Chinese company Toutiao, whose rapid rise is placing it alongside the country’s more familiar “BAT” Internet giants — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. It’s currently expanding its portfolio in the West: recently it bought the popular social video app Musical.ly for about $800 million:
Toutiao aggregates news and videos from hundreds of media outlets and has become one of the world’s largest news services in the span of five years. Its parent company [Bytedance] was valued at more than $20 billion, according to a person familiar with the matter, on par with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Started by Zhang Yiming, it’s on track to pull in about $2.5 billion in revenue this year, largely from advertising.
An in-depth analysis of the company on Ycombinator’s site explains what makes this aggregator so successful, and why it’s unlike other social networks offering customized newsfeeds based on what your friends are reading:
Toutiao, one of the flagship products of Bytedance, may be the largest app you?ve never heard of — it’s like every news feed you read, YouTube, and TechMeme in one. Over 120M people in China use it each day. Yet what’s most interesting about Toutiao isn’t that people consume such varied content all in one place… it’s how Toutiao serves it up. Without any explicit user inputs, social graph, or product purchase history to rely on, Toutiao offers a personalized, high quality-content feed for each user that is powered by machine and deep learning algorithms.
However, as people are coming to appreciate, over-dependence on algorithmic personalization can lead to a rapid proliferation of “fake news” stories. A post about TopBuzz on the Technode site suggests this could be a problem for the Chinese service:
What’s been my experience? Well, simply put, it’s been a consistent and reliable multi-course meal of just about every variety of fake news.
The post goes on to list some of the choice stories that TopBuzz’s AI thought were worth serving up:
Roy Moore Sweeps Alabama Election to Win Senate Seat
Yoko Ono: “I Had An Affair With Hillary Clinton in the ’70s”
John McCain’s Legacy is DEMOLISHED Overnight As Alarming Scandals Leak
Julia Roberts Claims ‘Michelle Obama Isn’t Fit To Clean Melania’s Toilet’
The post notes that Bytedance is aware of the problem of blatantly false stories in its feeds, and the company claims to be using both its artificial intelligence tools as well as user reports to weed them out. It says that “when the system identifies any fake content that has been posted on its platform, it will notify all who have read it that they had read something fake.” But:
this is far from my experience with TopBuzz. Although I receive news that is verifiably fake on a near-daily basis, often in the form of push notifications, I have never once received a notification from the app informing me that Roy Moore is in fact not the new junior senator from Alabama, or that Hillary Clinton was actually not Yoko Ono’s sidepiece when she was married to John Lennon.
The use of highly-automated systems, running on server farms in China, represents new challenges beyond those encountered so far with Facebook and similar social media, where context and curation are being used to an increasing degree to mitigate the potential harm of algorithmic newsfeeds. The fact that a service like TopBuzz is provided by systems outside the control of the US or other Western jurisdictions poses additional problems. As deep-pocketed Chinese Internet companies seek to expand outside their home markets, bringing with them their own approaches and legal frameworks, we can expect these kind of issues to become increasingly thorny. We are also likely to see those same services begin to wrestle with some of the same problems currently being tackled in the West.