Algorithms and Radicalisation

I’ve been busy recently—work, study, Christmas—and haven’t felt a huge urge to write anything here. So let’s round off the year with some old fashioned web-logging: the mere bookmarking a story on a subject that feels emblematic of the entire decade.

A discussion about a pre-publication research paper with some shoddy methodology leads me to a New York Times article by Kevin Roose, published in June this year, chronicling one young man’s journey into alt.right radicalisation. A key insight:

The radicalization of young men is driven by a complex stew of emotional, economic and political elements, many having nothing to do with social media. But critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.

The impact of algorithms on our psyche and society has become very apparent in the last few years. The power to determine who sees what and when can change moods and swing elections. But discussing the issue this week, Roose and other data journalists present some important caveats. The algorithm isn’t everything.

The only thing I’d add, coming at the issue (as I do) with an eye on freedom of expression concerns, is that the way the algos affect our interests is not in itself a bad thing.

We’ve all fallen down algorithm-induced ‘YouTube Rabbit Holes in our time, and when the subject is not political, the way that the system steers users away from mainstream content and into the back-catalogue the results can be delightful. Last night, for example, I watched a load of astonishing videos of ballet performances. I know nothing about ballet and cannot now remember how I happened upon them (perhaps I clicked on a link on someone’s blog?) but it’s possible this could be the start of a deep and consuming interest that we would usually applaud.y

Even political ‘radicalisation’ is not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine that ‘radicalising’ people to fight for racial or gender equality (say) or to become environmental activists, is actually desirable.

The issue, as ever, is not with ‘radicalisation’ per se but ‘violent radicalisation’ or (as the Commission for Counter Extremism recently suggested) with ‘hateful extremism.’ Algorithms that serve us relevant content are useful tools for many that can be misused by a few. Or, as Kevin Roose and Becca Lewis point out above, algorithms don’t radicalise people; people radicalise people.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t intervene to temper the algorithms. Just that the challenge for tech companies and governments is not one of banning, but of balance. This will be the task of the next decade. Let us hope that by 2030 we will have reached a fair settlement.

Rudimentary Creativity and the Nature of Intelligence

On Twitter, the author Tom Chatfield shares some charming photographs of the menu for his son’s new ‘restaurant’…

I just love the way that children misspell words. I think that the particular mistakes they make are actually very hard for adults to fake. Continue reading “Rudimentary Creativity and the Nature of Intelligence”

The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Last year I posted some notes about the famous free speech formulation “I hate what you say, but defend your right to say it” which is erroneously attributed to Voltaire. I think the fact that it was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall about Voltaire’s philosophy is now quite widely known, as evidenced by the extent of the gleeful crowing of ‘well actually’ every time some-one prominent (like education minister Sam Gimyah MP in The Times last year) gets the attribution wrong.

While writing my post about Hall (whose pen-name was S. G. Tallentyre) I naturally searched for a picture of her online. A Google image search for ‘Evelyn Beatrice Hall’ throws up dozens of versions of the image below: a young, determined looking woman with a sword. Many of the images that the search yields include the famous free speech quote, properly attributed to Hall. Continue reading “The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall”

For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does

Alps from Aiguille du Midi (SW) by Tony Fernandez. Creative Commons licenced photo on Flickr

The news that conspiracy theorist and inciter-to-violence Alex Jones had been simultaneously banned from several social media platforms sparked several days of debate and comment – on both mainstream and social media. At stake were questions about the wisdom and efficacy of such a ban, and the acceptable limits of free speech.

A common argument trotted out in several quarters, including by me, was the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It might seem acceptable to ban someone unpleasant like Alex Jones, but who might they ban next? First they came for Alex Jones, but I was not a dangerous snake-oil salesman, so I did not speak up… Continue reading “For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does”

Analogue Apps

I have recently been teaching myself to solve a Rubik’s Cube. This is mainly because my self-image as an intelligent, analytical geek suggests that it’s the sort of thing I should be able to do.

I also want to be able to show off, and in my warped world-view, being able to ‘do the cube’ is something that one can boast about.

Solving the Rubik’s Cube is the International Genius Symbol. Screenwriters use a character’s ability to solve the cube as a shorthand for high intelligence. But as this clip from one such film shows, there is actually a method to solving the cube that can be learnt. Continue reading “Analogue Apps”

Big Little Lies, Of Its Time In Three Different Ways

BIG LITTLE LIES (HBO)

Big Little Lies is an HBO TV show, based on the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name. It stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, and follows the woven lives of several families living in Monterrey, California.

It was first broadcast in the spring of 2017. Following huge recognition the Golden Globe Awards in January, I decided it was time for me to watch the box set.

Each family has a child attending the local Elementary School, and there’s a murder at a school fundraising gala. A death is announced in the very first scene of the very first episode, but neither the victim, the killer or their motive are revealed until the finale.

The show strikes me as being very much Of Its Time, an emblematic cultural artefact of Western culture at the end of the 2010s. I think it does this three different ways.

Continue reading “Big Little Lies, Of Its Time In Three Different Ways”

Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All

Buffalo Jump at Wind Cave National Park

Writing in the Guardian last week, Carole Cadwalladr lamented the way in which Twitter catalyses and facilitates global bullying. This prompted a short exchange between me David Heinemann from Index on Censorship. We noted the betrayed promise of free speech for all that social media offers, and what—or rather, who—might solve the problem.
Continue reading “Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All”

Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon

There’s a new social nework on the block: Mastodon.

Or rather, it’s a social media technology. When we funnel all our conversations through the servers of a big company like Facebook or Twitter, we grant them enormous power. They control the extent of our privacy and of our free speech, and that power can be abused in ways that are both legal and not. The companies can sell our data to third parties (a process made much easier by the US Congress last week); they can reveal our data to the security agencies of nefarious regimes; and they can throttle or shut down our free speech if they so desire, without going via a court.

Decentralising the way in which we converse online means we can reclaim some of that power. A few years ago I posted a link to a blog post on Dave Winter’s Scripting News which sets out the practical and political importance of this idea: by spreading out, we’re harder to stop.

Mastodon is an open source project, so anyone can install it on a server and run a Mastodon ‘instance’. The software uses a principle called ‘federation’ to allow users to see messages posted on other instances of the software. So people who signed up on (say) mastodon.social can view and respond to messages posted to octagon.social (which is the version I signed up to with the username @robertsharp).

Problem solved, then? Not really. Continue reading “Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon”

These Two Photos Show Eight Years of Change

Inauguration party, 2009. Chicago Tribune/MCT

New York Magazine has a long feature on the eight years of Obama’s America.

The first illustration in the piece is a compelling diptych of President Obama: two portraits taken eight years apart.  The difference is stark.  His hair has turned grey and his face is rumpled.

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President Barack Obama, by Dan Winters

However, the photograph that really brought home for me the changes of the past eight years was one taken on inauguration day in January 2009.  Its a version of an image that I’ve commented on before.

Inauguration party, 2009.  Chicago Tribune/MCT
Inauguration party, 2009. Chicago Tribune/MCT

At first glance, the image looks modern.  People mediating their own experience of the moment via a glowing rectangle.  Taking their very own version of a famous photograph.

But when you compare it to the photograph below, taken in 2016, the inauguration image suddenly looks horribly dated.

clinton-selfie
Hillary Clinton waves to a selfie-taking crowd at a recent campaign event in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Barbara Kinney