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.

They’re Talking. Are We Listening?

Development agencies and programs around the world are staffed with skilled Monitoring & Evaluation professionals, responsible for tracking a program’s progress against its goals through quantifiable results – think back to the days of creating SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, time-based) goals for your professional evaluations or science class hypotheses. The program I work on, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, measures our progress against twelve indicators, which include standard measurements such as number of people trained, number of transactions recorded to track tuna catch, and millions of dollars leveraged from the private sector. While all worthwhile measurements that seek to quantify the program’s impact, does this really capture the full program’s full accomplishments (or failures) in way that reflect beneficiaries personal gains and experiences?

With developments in technology, data collection, and increased use of social media in everyday life, the amount of data is ever increasing, along with professions to analyze and assess this data. How can development tap into this potential?

Development agencies and non-profits are increasingly pushing out information using social media. But, should we be spending more time listening?

In response to America’s current political landscape and reduced funding of government agencies, a recent article in the Boston Business Journal poses how urban social listening can help to determine the impact of aid and social programs. In the study, researchers, “…began by listening to the ‘digital crumbs’ generated by collective searches and postings to social media like Twitter.” Urban social listening offers a, “systematic, rigorous collection and analysis of [social media] ‘crumbs…’ offering useful insights into understanding the government’s role in addressing urban problems” (Hollander and Renski, The Boston Business Journal).

It has been shown that there is an evidenced correlation between positive sentiment and health indicators. In a 2015 study, Twitter sentiment was shown to be a better predictor of cardiovascular disease than any conventional indicator like smoking or socioeconomics. Hollander, author of the Journal article, applies urban listening techniques to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). While he wasn’t able to find significant improved sentiment in cities with CDBG funding, it seems that the community scale being analyzed is too large to yield highly correlated results.

In development, non-profits and government agencies alike are increasingly using social media to communicate with stakeholders and beneficiaries, but listening is a newer trend. Payal Arora and Nimmi Rangaswamy echo this in Digital Leisure for Development: Reframing New Media Practice in the Global South. “…Research is driven by development agendas with a strong historical bias towards towards the socio-economic focus. Data that does not directly address project-based outcomes is side-lined.”

Tracking sentiment through social media is not a new concept, used for years in consumer confidence and political opinion. While certainly more people are tweeting on popular political opinion topics, how can we the development world harness and tailor these listening practices to hear our beneficiaries, and through listening show that their voice counts.

References
Arora, Payal and Nimmi Rangaswamy. Digital Leisure for Development: Reframing New Media Practice in the Global South. Sage Journals. October 10, 2013.

Hollander, Justin. Viewpoint: As Ben Carson Hearings Get Under Way, Can Social Media Help Identify Hud Impact? The Boston Business Journal, 2 March 2017. http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2017/03/02/viewpoint-as-ben-carson-hearings-get-under-way-can.html

Eichstaedt, Johannes, et al. Psychological Language on Twitter Predicts County-Level Heart Disease Mortality. Sage Journals. Volume: 26 issue. Pages 159-169. Published January 20, 2015. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614557867

Data show an increase in hate crimes

When, now President, Donald J. Trump was elected in the United States’ elections in November 8, 2016, it ‘whipped’ up a storm of emotions, reactions, and actions. Some were positive, some were negative, and some outright worrisome. In my previous posts I have written about social media engagement through #resist and how social media was used to organize activists and supporters for the Women’s March. Something that I have yet to cover is that many hate crimes and hate speeches have emerged as well.

After the US elections in 2016, Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing tool, converted their USA Election Monitoring platform to start monitoring post election hate speech, harassment, violence, threats, and protests. By November 18, 2016, the crowdsourcing data collection had received over 800 reports (though some were duplicates). Ushahidi “was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election violence in 2008.” The tech organization, headquartered in Nairobi, has since then been used by thousands to raise their voice.

Another, US based organization, Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) project Hatewatch in collaboration with ProPublica had by February 7, 2017, registered 1,372 post-election bias incidents. The data was collected through their #ReportHate intake page and from news reports. SPLC has partnered with ProPublica in order to better document, verify, and investigate these incidents. The New York police reported that between 2015 to 2016 hate crimes had increased by 31.5%, up from 250 to 328. Hate crimes targeting Muslims are up from 12  to 25, and hate crimes targeting Jews are up from 102 to 111. Overall, according to SPLC’s data, anti-immigrant incidents remain the most reported. Below is a chart of the highest motivational factors for the hate incidents:

Snapshot of data of Southern Poverty Law Center and ProPublica data collection of Hate Incident Motivation post-election in the United States, 2016: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/02/10/post-election-bias-incidents-1372-new-collaboration-propublica   

The authors Read, Taithe, and Mac Ginty examines technological innovation, primarily digital technology, and the promise it shows for improving humanitarian responses (Read, Taithe, & Mac 2016: 7f). The data technologies used by the three forementioned organizations create awareness, and it could be argued that they are empowering. There have been multiple cases of where crowdsourcing of data on violence which have had somewhat different outcomes. For example, the Libya Crisis Map, has involved the coordination and vertical transmission of knowledge of urgent situations to national and international actors and audiences. In another example, in Kenya, the knowledge took a horizontal form, used by locals to alert each other of unfolding situations (Read, Taithe, & Mac 2016: 11).

So how does it work? Ushahidi collects data by using custom surveys as well as crowdsourcing tools. The organization’s tools are not only used for monitoring elections, but also for crisis response, as well as advocacy and human rights. The sources stem from surveys, and third party emails,Twitter, Twillio, Nexmo, and SMS connected with an SMS gateway or SMSsync, amongst others. If subscribed, organizations and users can receive important alerts and notifications while deployed. What is interesting with Ushahidi is that it is not an organization from the global North and thus challenging not only the norm of what a humanitarian tech organization looks like and where it comes from, but that they also become a stakeholder in the power of knowledge (Read, Taithe, & Mac 2016: 12f). Below, is an example from Ushahidi’s site: a Muslim NYC Transit worker who was pushed down flights of stairs and called terrorist.

Snapshot of Ushahidi’s platform to monitor USA post election hate crimes. https://usaelectionmonitor.ushahidi.io/views/map

However, Read, Taithe, and Mac suggests that while collecting data by and for domestic and international development may have several advantages, it also comes with responsibilities and risks. The authors write that the evidence thus far suggests that the information gathering capabilities of some humanitarian actors outstrip their capacity to deal with the information.

Ultimately we conclude that the new aspiration towards hubristic big data processing is just another step in the same modernist process of the production of statistical truth. Where it holds a particularly seductive power is in the promise that it may, somehow, become autonomous of human intervention, magnified in legitimacy and relevance by the new processing technologies (Read, Taithe, & Mac 2016: 13).

The unfolding situation in the United States hits home as my father is Muslim, and my father’s side of the family are too, yet the minority Muslim community is just one of many targeted minority groups in the country; the communities of African-Americans, LGBTQs, refugees, immigrants, and women all over the United States are targeted too. This hits home because I have Muslim friends, immigrant friends, African-American friends, LGBTQ friends, and jewish friends, many of whom are women, myself included. This hits home because the misconceptions, stereotypes, and convictions, of these minority groups are so strong that it will lead to violence, threats, and harassment.

References – imbedded in the text and:

Read, R., Taithe, B., and Mac Ginty, R. 2016: Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly, forthcoming.

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

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