Self Selection by Algorithm

Algorithms rule the web but also the information you see.

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Every click you make, every article you read is monitored, tracked and analyzed.  As you select your preferences, the media companies and their algorithms take note. Given that the web’s media values are all based on page views and click-through rates, it’s vital that they keep you coming back to their sites.

You means all of us.

In order to keep you coming back and engaged in the site, media companies send you articles and posts that the algorithms indicate you like. Websites test and re-test headlines while writing and re-writing articles to maximize user engagement. Their business is not news. Its engagement on the site. Thinking this through, its easy to see the problem. If we only select articles and viewpoints that we like, it reinforces the world view that we already have.

I read a lot. I know that I don’t know much. It’s the reader’s dilemma; the more I read, the more I realize how little I know. Because of this, I always try and read books outside my area of expertise. But online,  my selections are tracked and the findings determine what is made available to me going forward. The articles I might have an interest in, or that challenge my beliefs, are not shown to be because the algorithms don’t think I will click on them.

Because of this, peoples’ world views get narrowed and reinforced by what they see. These hardened world views make it more difficult for people see the other side of the story. Look at how divided our country has become on so many issues. There seems to be no middle ground anywhere. Just mention the name “Trump,” and where you stand on his candidacy, and its enough to terminate a friendship.

Look at the following issues and you will see how polarizing some them have become:

  • Global Warming
  • Health Care
  • Abortion
  • Role of Government

If you are a climate change skeptic (i.e a “climate denier”) there are calls to treat you the same way holocaust deniers are treated…with contempt and rebuke! For most, the debate is over and the issue is where you stand on the topic.

When the Center for Medical Progress posed as buyers of aborted fetuses and documented their conversations with  Planned Parenthood, Federal Prosecutors rushed to prosecute the people who had made the videotapes not the people actually committing the crimes. The erroneous position seems to be that abortion is a right and, therefore, there is no way that people engaged in the procedure could be guilty of any crime.

At the heart of these issues is an inability to see the other person’s point of view. In days past, these issues were discussed and debated.  Even as recently as the 1960’s, one of the Left’s mantras on free speech was “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

The death that followed was that of the mantra and what it represented: free speech…which actually IS a right.

With the advance of political correctness, there are many things one is no longer allowed to say.  Add to that media stories that are scrubbed and served up to your liking, people can become self righteous and closed-minded regarding their beliefs.

It gets worse. Facebook, in many ways a media company, has been known to edit out Conservative view points so that their customers can’t even get the full depth and breadth of a news story

In my own professional life, doing consulting on Search Engine Optimization strategies, I have had many clients tell me that they don’t see the value in S.E.O. because their site always appears at the top of Google. For example I had a client who would type in “divorce lawyer” every day on his browser and was always happy to see that his website was at the top of the list. He would click on his web site and, from where he stood, he thought all web site searches resulted as did his. I had to explain to him that because he types in that term every day, and clicks on his site every day, the search engines are displaying the results of what they think he wants to see. In essence, his feedback loop was continually getting reinforced even though his site wasn’t even ranking at any significant level.

For many, as with my former client, its and eye-opening experience to see how much information is actually deliberately  pre-selected for us to view. In essence, our choices are being made for us which continued to reinforce our reality.These “results” become the reality for that each user; but.. they have no veracity in the real world.

This self-selection process is only increasing and accelerating. I feel it will lead people to even narrower viewpoints that already exist. In this regard, as in others, technology is isolating us while limiting our scope of knowledge and impeding the enrichment our lives.

The self selection process is an ailment from which we all suffer and for which we are all susceptible. Maybe a healthy dose of skepticism toward everything we see and read, plus a willingness to engage in ideas foreign to us, would go along way to making us less isolated and a less antagonistic society.

I speak Spanish fluently. As a result, I often process information in Spanish, which has words for which English has no easy or singular translation. Therefore, the language differential causes me to stretch my own mind to put the disparate words on equal footing. This process is healthy for my cognitive mind but also enriches me as an individual.

If someone or something did that thinking for me, and pre-selected what I thought the translations should be… oh right!!…that’s the definition of Artificial Intelligence… the mission Google and others in social media are racing to perfect.

Welcome to the latest virtual reality show…”America Got Algorithm.”

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com