All posts by Matous Jelinek

Google, the Big brother or The Saviour of 21st century?

Two days ago, the internet giant Google announced, they are going to improve the quality of its search, which made quite a buzz. The army of 10 000 Google’s quality raters are now trying to teach the search engines, how to flag content someone might find offensive or untrustworthy, and refine the search results. “With the change, content with racial slurs could now get flagged under a new category called “upsetting-offensive.” So could content that promotes hate or violence against a specific group of people based on gender, race or other criteria,” AP informed.

The result of the adjustment should be that the better quality content is ranked higher. Also, untrustworthy information will not appear in the top search results. “We’re explicitly avoiding the term ‘fake news,’ because we think it is too vague,” said Paul Haahr, one of Google’s senior engineers who is involved with search quality for Searchengineland. “Demonstrably inaccurate information, however, we want to target,” he explains. I had a look into quality rater’s guideline to find out, how they are going to evaluate the information quality. I found this:

3.1Page Quality Rating: Most Important Factors

Here are the most important factors to consider when selecting an overall Page Quality rating:

  • Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness: This is an important quality characteristic. Use your research on the additional factors below to inform your rating.
  • Main Content Quality and Amount: The rating should be based on the landing page of the task URL.
  • Website Information/information about who is responsible for the website: Links to help with website information research will be provided.
  • Website Reputation : Links to help with reputation research will be provided

Google also describes, what expertise in a certain field means, and provides quality raters with examples of high-quality pages. About news and other high-quality information pages, Google states this:

  • High quality news articles should contain factually accurate content presented in a way that helps users achieve a better understanding of events. Established editorial policies and review processes are typically held by high quality news sources.
  • High quality information pages on scientific topics should represent well­ established scientific consensus on issues where such consensus exists.

The idea to try to evict misleading information and stop its spreading is praiseworthy and I am strongly supporting it. But as a journalist, I had to ask myself, if this is not conflicting the freedom of speech. Isn’t that a censorship? The answer is very simple – not at all. Google is a private company and its primary goal is to generate money, not controversy. The company is providing very useful services to its users, but since they know basically everything from their digital traces, they can monetize it by selling an advertisement. They have been always showing us the search results they wanted us to see. Racist pages should be primarily subject to a police investigation, but Google also has a full right to remove it from the result. And it is pleasing, they are doing this.

What do you think? Please feel free to comment!

Social media HateFree revolution?

All of my previous posts were critical of social media and big multinational software companies. In some comments I got, I was criticized for being too negative and pessimistic and for not looking for a way out from this situation. That is why I have decided to devote my last post to the Czech campaign HateFree Culture. From my perspective, it is a good example of how social media could be used for a positive thing.  

The project was launched in 2014 as a reaction to increasing of hatred towards population groups with different ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or handicap. It is granted by The Agency for Social Integration of Czech Republic. The motto of the campaign is following:

“We are an initiative of people who strive for a life free of violence and hatred. Although we are aware of the complexity of coexistence, tolerance, and respect, we are convinced of the existence of a rational, creative and innovative ways to improve them. Living in fear and hatred does not bring anything positive. HateFree Culture offers the opportunity to look at things from different angles, to find solutions with others and above all create and share what matters.”

The project’s main communication tools are their Facebook page with over 55 thousands of fans. But it also has its website, where it is successfully fighting with hoax, hatred, and stereotypes. The campaign has also created HateFree Zones – places where hatred is not tolerated. Over 260 pubs, caffés and even offices became part of the project.

Although I think the group is doing very good job, HateFree became a target of wide criticism, especially because of its financing from governmental funds and support of immigration. Some of the HateFree Zones were also vandalized by neo-Nazis.

I think it is a prove, that even a simple campaign with a limited budget of about 750 000 euros for 3 years can do a good job. And especially their hoax fighting program was crucial for the Czech social media environment.

Socializing towards loneliness

Socializing towards loneliness

In my last week’s post I focused on the world of Facebook and the way data provided by its users can be misused for marketing activities. But it is not the only reason, why social networks are in the center of a controversy. The study which was published last week shows they might be causing a social isolation to their users.

There are dozens of social media channels being used today and the number of users is constantly growing. It is estimated there would be nearly 3 billions of people in this digital spider web by 2020.[1] “While still relatively young and certainly imperfect, our social media networks are beginning to form a new nervous system for our planet, capturing the pulse of our societies, and yes, crises, in real time.” describes Patrick Meier in the book Digital Humanitarians.

If his comparison is true, we should be prepared for a serious nervous breakdown of the virtual body. As American Journal of Preventive Medicine study shows, people who spent the most time on social media had twice the odds of having greater perceived social isolation.

The study of 1787 U.S. adults aged 19-32 assessed relation between social media use (SMU) and perceived social isolation (PSI). The researchers focused on users of 11 social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, and Reddit. “…social isolation, [is] a state in which an individual lacks a sense of social belonging, true engagement with others, and fulfilling relationships, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality.” the study states[2].  Social isolation could be also associated with obesity, unnatural increases in cortisol patterns, which can disrupt sleep, immune function, and cognition, vascular and mental health – researchers found out.

Researchers agree the social media are a great tool for connecting people and certain groups of the population can truly benefit from the usage. But for other groups (see the table below) there are more cons than pros, which can make people feel excluded from the society: “Instead of accurately representing reality, social media feeds are in fact highly curated by their owners. Exposure to such highly idealized representations of peers’ lives may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives, which may increase PSI,” the study explains. Researchers suggest the people who feel isolated by the social media should be identified and should be connected to in-person networks.

I am personally not a big supporter of any kind of such a big interventions, but I can imagine a situation when timely action can save life — or even lives. The way, how social media feed is constructed means, it is showing the user what the algorithm thinks they might like. And when users focus too much on this virtual construct, they can start feeling lonely and unsuccessful. What is the way out? I am afraid the problem is not on social networks, but in our society. And there is no simple solution. Maybe the social networks should be subject for the next communication for development activities.

References:

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/

[2] http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(17)30016-8/fulltext

Do you “like” your future?

Tell me, what you eat and I will tell you who you are – this famous quote by the French chef and artist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin came to my mind when I first heard about the company Cambridge Analytica. The company who claims they are able to evaluate one’s personality better than their friends – just based on the access to the person’s facebook page. This London-based company advised the Trump’s presidential campaign – and now states they were able to help him win the run, using their state of the art analysis. Welcome to the world of Big Data!

“Everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces. Every purchase we make with our cards, every search we type into Google, every movement we make when our mobile phone is in our pocket, every “like” is stored,” describes Hannes Grassegger in an article for web Motherboard.[1]

The story of Cambridge Analytica goes back to 2012 when psychologist Michal Kosinski developed something called  MyPersonality app. This platform enabled users to create their personality profile by means of filling out different psychometric questionnaires. Then Kosinski’s team compared the data with the “likes” people shared on their Facebook profile.

After many refinements of the modeling they came up with extraordinary results: “They were able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves,[2]” describes Grassegger.
We usually do not think about what we “like” on Facebook. But showing the musicians we prefer, books we read or media we follow, we are providing companies such as Cambridge Analytica with very useful material for evaluation. Then it is just a matter for them of using/having powerful algorithms to focus their campaign on a specific audience. Theoretically, in the presidential campaign, this would mean that the advertising agency could only focus on a small group of undecided voters with a potential to support their candidate, not spending any money outside of potential electorate.
But as Leonid Bershidsky shows – it is not that easy: “Huge data sets are often less helpful in understanding an electorate than one or two key data points — for instance, what issue is most important to a particular undecided voter.”[3] His small research shows that the level of analysis and targeting is not at all at the level as would suggest that the Cambridge Analytica strong statement claims.
At the moment, it does not look like that there is any company that powerful to win the presidential run. But the amount of data we are providing freely to the world is alarming. And no one can guarantee that at the time of the next US presidential run, there will not be a company able to win the elections just by means of precise targeting. That is something I am worried about. Big data might be powerful. By the way, have you heard that one of the biggest US e-commerce companies plan for the future is to have a drone with your order on the way to your house even before you placed the order? Guess how they know what you want…
[1] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win

[2]  https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win

[3]  https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-12-08/no-big-data-didn-t-win-the-u-s-election