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4. Global Platforms

A guide to reading (and sharing) news in the "post-truth" world.

The Web Dystopia

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In this 22 minute TEDTalk from September 2017, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci shows how major web company machine-learning algorithms (aka, AI) organize your access to political and social information. How might powerful people use AI to nudge beliefs and votes? And what can we do about it?


"Everyone in the tech industry is in denial. We think we’re making the world more open and connected, when in fact the game is just: How do I drive lots of engagement?"  --Tristan Harris, Google Design Ethicist

"The way AI is designed will have a huge impact on the type of content you see. For instance, if the AI favors engagement, like on Facebook and YouTube, it will incentivize divisive content, because divisive content is very efficient to keep people online." Guillame Chaslot, YouTube AI Researcher

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. This is not about Russians’ ads. This is a global problem." —Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of user growth at Facebook

YouTube Nudging to Extremes

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73% of Americans use YouTube.* According to several recent articles, the YouTube video recommendation algorithm nudges people towards extremes. For example, if you watch a video on vegetarianism, you might see several recommended videos on veganism. 

*Smith, A. & Anderson, A. Social media use in 2018. Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018. 

Facebook: Shady Ethics, but Improving?

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68% of Americans use Facebook*. Facebook has become well-known for harvesting more data about users than most users are aware of, and using this data to customize the Facebook feed and advertisements. It has also released unknown amounts of user data to 3rd-party app developers and data harvesting research firms such as Cambridge Analytica. Unlike Twitter, which makes its data open to researchers, Facebook is secretive both about its data and its algorithms. Wondering why particular ads or shares end up in your feed? It's anybody's guess.

*Smith, A. & Anderson, A. Social media use in 2018. Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018. 

Google: Glossy but Biased

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By unbundling news articles from their origins on news sites, Google minimizes contextual clues for credibility. Search results are determined by algorithms considered by many to be objective, but algorithms are made by humans, which means existing biases are baked in.

Twitter: Social Media Lab Rat

24% of Americans use Twitter.* Many studies about information networks on the web use Twitter as an experimental subject. Why? Because Twitter is one of the few social media tools that makes its data available to scholars for large-scale studies. It's also well-known for the presence of "bots": automated twitter accounts that do everything from finding and reposting rhyming tweets to boosting the media signal of political partisans.

*Smith, A. & Anderson, A. Social media use in 2018. Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018. 

Bad Actors Exploit the Giants: Computational Propaganda

It isn't just "the Russians." A network of loosely-knit extreme political groups and organizations have amplified partisan messages by exploiting features of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube that nudge people towards more extreme views.