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In Defence of Algorithms

April 3, 2018

It doesn’t take much for me to kick off at the news industry’s coverage of social media.

News media and social media like two different worlds – one old, fighting for its existence; the other new and shiny, trying to establish itself in a global culture. It’s probably no surprise to think that these two rivals for our attention aren’t kind to each other.

Old-school media outlets heckle with headlines such as “Facebook can’t hide behind algorithms” or “how YouTube’s algorithm distorts the truth”. Disasters expose the “continuing ills of Facebook’s algorithms” or Facebook is even being blamed for affecting American Democracy.

My younger and less grumpy self would just disregard these headlines as “old man yells at cloud”. New tech comes in, people don’t understand it, and it gets blamed for humanity’s ills. Meanwhile, a whole new generation is running away with figuring out how to use this technology in cool new ways.

But the algorithms. It keeps coming up. A sexed-up piece of algebra, which is designed to serve us up stuff few like, has become blamed for just about every problem with the world. So, I wanted to pick this apart a bit more.

Because to me, it doesn’t sound right that Big Media declares that Big Algorithms are destroying the world, that they’re the gateway to the devil.

Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail

That sub-heading is probably enough to turn some of you off right away. Left-leaning newspapers speculate whether or not the editor of the Daily Mail – a media machine – is the most dangerous man in Britain for his influence on popular opinion on subjects such as immigration, Brexit, the poor, as well as for having you scroll along the Mail’s sidebar of shame each morning. (Don’t pretend you haven’t seen it.)

What’s of interest to me, though, is an interview with Paul Dacre in 2002:

“And having a belief in what you write and the strength to eschew fashionable opinion and write for your readership – I think some newspapers and a lot of the radio and television media are now run by liberal, politically correct consensus who just talk to each other and forget that in the real world there are people who feel differently.”

It’s mentioned elsewhere, but editors of newspapers often divide opinion because they’re not writing for everyone. They’re writing for a niche – even if that niche is large.

They’re writing for readership. Their users, in the digital parlance.

Dacre is ensuring content for his newspapers is based on what the readership of his newspapers want – and that’s what builds his success.

Serving up content that people will want… Getting blamed for swinging elections. Sounds an awful lot like an algorithm, doesn’t it?

So in many ways, newspaper editors could be thought of as algorithms personified – especially when you consider the fact that they capture your attention through content and then try to sell advertising off the back of it.

A Gratuitous Chomsky Reference

In Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the renowned academic puts across in longer, more articulate terms that newspapers and corporate mass media end up serving the interests of elites – such as governments and powerful entities. That the “elite consensus” ends up defining the news that we consume.

Assuming this is the case, then maybe even ‘trustworthy’ newspapers (let’s park the fake news debate) aren’t as trustworthy as they make themselves out to be. It’s possible they have agendas of their own.

One of the biggest contributing factors -–so most people think – to previously unelectable Labour’s Tony Blair winning the 1997 General Election was when he whizzed on a jet plane to head to Rupert Murdoch’s pad in the tropics so that newspapers like The Sun would turn their allegiance to Labour.

In short, getting the media to influence opinion was essential. And newspapers influenced elections.

But was this merely giving people what they wanted, responding to some sense of the mood of the readership? Tony Blair’s victory was one of the most comprehensive ever achieved by a political leader, so would certain editors want to be seen to be on the winning side? An ‘algorithmic’ change, in a manner of speaking, to adjust to the changing needs of its readership.

Anyway, if we accept that editors have power over our election choices, what’s wrong with algorithms influencing elections too? Or is it the problem that it’s out there, in some mysterious digital land where it’s open to, say, Russian interference? (As opposed to an Australian media baron.)

Back in the day, the internet was heralded as the great democratiser – allowing people to make their own decisions away from Big Media. We were becoming free to make our own way online. We choose what we want to read.

So why all the bad press today?

An Even More Gratuitous Plato Reference (STAY WITH ME)

The problem with algorithms is, perhaps, that we’re dealing with the issue of simply giving people what they want. The media barons are, if we’re being kind, the same – they give people what they want too, to some extent, in an effort to maintain their readership and sales.

What’s wrong with giving people what they want? That hardly sounds like something that destroys society.

The famous philosopher Plato, in Republic, put forward the idea of The Ship of State – a metaphor for methods of government for the ancient city-states such as Athens. Plato, critical of democracy, advocated that the best people to navigate a ship were basically those who knew a thing or two about navigation, which makes sense. Navigators, in other words, should navigate, because if anyone could steer the ship, madness would ensue (more or less).

So what we have with both newspaper editors and algorithms are two different elites competing to influence our decision-making processes, consciously or otherwise. Two very different navigators steering us in two very different directions. But two captains creating the illusion that the crew is in control of the ship.

And that’s the important thing to remember – with newspapers and algorithms, our choices are illusions. We’re not in control. Instead, we’re stuck in some limbo where we are both being influenced by algorithms and newspapers, whilst at the same time influencing them – to give us what we want. More of the same. It’s a cycle perpetuated around power on one hand, and selling advertising on the other.

So is the problem actually this notion of us getting what we want? And how can I possibly say that we’re not in control?

Our Biases Confirmed

The internet is used not as a resource for us to draw upon with clear, independent minds, free of bias, but rather that we arrange facts to suit our own preferences. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s well documented. We surround ourselves with information that we already agree with. Our online experience is the same.

That’s what we do on social media – it’s what creates those social media bubbles.

That’s what we do with newspapers – online or offline, we read only media with which we already agree.

Our problem, then, is perversely… choice. We were told [words spoken as if narrated in an Adam Curtis documentary] that choice is good for us. That we were rational beings capable of navigating the world making logical decisions to reach some utopia.

On the contrary, the collapse of neoliberalism – which is to say, modern economic theory – has largely been attributed to the fact that we don’t, in fact, think in this way. We are strange, irrational beings, capable of ridiculous thoughts, who arrange ideas around what we already believe, and nothing will shift us into rational, calm decision making, no matter how we think. It’s nothing to do with algorithms manipulating us. The algorithm is benign, after all – that piece of maths helping to ultimately sell advertising.

No, it’s us who are arranging things to suit our own beliefs. Sure in the digital age our emotions are stoked, and information comes at us at a phenomenal rate compared to a few decades ago, but we’re still arranging things to suit our biases at a faster rate.

The uncomfortable truth is that Big Media or Big Algorithms are simply mirroring our own perversions, irrational natures. We’re the ones throwing down governments, sharing fake news articles and causing wider confusion, stoking fear about immigrants or Brexit, or putting Donald Trump in the White House, or disappearing down YouTube wormholes and being unconscious accomplices in this strange new digital world. Our biases are flaring up. Our inner prejudices on show for all to see.

In conclusion, neither Big Media nor Big Algorithms are anything to worry about. They have agendas, but they respond to us. Neither Big Media nor Big Algorithms are destroying society.

We’re doing a very good job of ruining things all on our own.




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