Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The internet: algorithms, bias and the censorship of information

Today's post reflects my own confusions and indeed frustrations about the way that the internet is increasing telling me what it thinks I am interested in, preventing  me from finding what what I am actually interested in. It has become a form of censorship by algorithm.

Let me start with a few examples.

I have a particular interest in New Zealand. I used to go to the Google New Zealand site because its algorithms allowed me to pick up New Zealand pages that I might not otherwise find. That is no longer the case. When I go to tools to limit my search to New Zealand pages only, the site knows that I am from Australia; the only choice I am offered is Australian pages. And this on the New Zealand site. I can no longer find pages or items that I knew were there.

I follow BBC News among others to provide me with an alternative non-Australian view on events. I see a substantial number of Australian stories. I do not know whether or not my news is being tailored by my geographic location. I suspect so.

At the end of last year I spent some time looking at rental, house sales and AirBnb sites in Armidale. Within 48 hours, my Facebook feeds were running ads in all three areas. Are you still looking? I didn't actually object to this, but I was impressed by the speed with which my searches on other sites translated to Facebook.

I use Google image search all the time. That service has become less and less effective. There are fewer and fewer historical photos, more and more current crap, quite a bit of which has nothing to do with the topic. Part of the change is due to increased sensitivity about copyright, part to volume. The problem is compounded by the way in which other sites change and merge. Google closed Panoramio, a hugely valuable site. I downloaded some key photos before the site closed, but not all. Picture Australia, once a key photo site, was merged into Trove with consequent loss.

In a piece on his personal blog, paleoanthropologist John Hawks asked Is Facebook killing science news? I can see his point in that so many people seem to be getting their scientific views from Facebook feeds as opposed to more objective or analytical sources. However, I don't share it.

Facebook is not a news channel, rather a platform for personal opinion and personal sharing. This can create an echo chamber effect and disseminate the false, including some of the strangest conspiracy theories. However, in the end, it is up to people to decide what they read and don't read. They still have access to other sources.

In a way, John is caught on the horns of a dilemma of his own making. He is an effective user of social media, I really value his contribution here, but the platforms he uses so effectively can be used by others.

But that still leaves the problems I have identified, the way in which internet companies are increasingly tailoring their responses to what they think we are interested in compared to what we actually want, the way in which an increasingly crowded internet makes information search difficult, the way in which the combination of legal issues such as copyright interact with structural changes in content provision act to limit choice.

These are the issues we have to work around.

Postscript 4 April 2018

Gordon Smith kindly provided this answer to the conundrum how to access Good sites from other countries. It seems to work:
To find NZ content (for example): go to local Google search web page, click ”Settings” at foot of page (right hand side), select ”advanced search”, change ”region” to ”New Zealand” in drop-down menu. Add search terms at top of the same page. Click blue ”Advanced Search” button.
Alternatively, in the New Zealand case, this link also from Gordon should take you straight there. If you type in railways, for example, New Zealand railways should come up first.  

Postscript 2, 5 April 2018

Just to share with you a frustration from today that links to this discussion. I was writing my Armidale Express column. I wanted some stuff  on the dance summer schools held at UNE. These were quite important. I knew there was material previously available. I went to images first, and the only relevant image now available was on one of my earlier posts. This happens quite a bit.

Mmm. I went to that post because I knew it had some links. All those links were dead. The irony was that in the post I had refrained from copying material because I wanted people to read it in the original. Now I regret that.

I know that I have been blogging for twelve years, but I do struggle a bit with the idea that in a changing internet my blogs are becoming a source of record!. .


2 tanners said...

An interesting aspect to this is the research that is showing that user representation creates a self-feeding bias. "Worker" will pull up predominantly white male office workers. "Criminal" will pull up predominantly black (African American) male youths. And "face" will pull up white American faces, especially on machine-learning platforms trained in US universities.

Jim, on the news sites at least, you should be able to tweak your preferences. I get Australian news because I tell the Beeb I want it. I cancelled it experimentally and there was nothing. I imagine the site knew you were in Australia and tagged it for you by default, but untagging is in settings.

Google, and what it tracks and sells, is another matter entirely.

Anonymous said...

"unfriending" Facebook is the new #metoo movement. It's amazing just how short the half-life of these causes and concerns are :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi both.

That, user representation, is an interesting comment, 2t. As a matter of curiosity, I did a google image source on each word. The one area was criminal where most were white. I am not sure that I properly understand user representation, though. Interested in learning more there.

On the BBC, i haven't set preferences for any of the news sites.

kvd, that does seem to be the case on FB! And on the half life

Anonymous said...

Every time I read one of these posts about the intrusion of G/FB/Tw into the personal space - i.e. what is subsequently presented as "of interest to the user" - you read a bit deeper, and you find that the complainants (in this case, you, Jim) have engaged in "self-curation" for want of a better term.

I mean by that, if you habitually log into FB, and Google, and Twitter, because it helps you in other ways, you cannot then complain if those same information resources seek to turn your scattered interests into something economically worthwhile for their own interests.

There've been many articles (The Guardian is particularly un-self-aware on this) decrying the amount of info collected against one's various userids and location data. I just cannot imagine the "dismay" expressed by any normal thinking human who habitually leaves location services on, logs into his/her feeds (FB etc.) and then is astounded by just how much his/her primary sources of "information" is thereby gently curated.

Economics works best on the basis that both parties to a deal benefit (in best-case scenarios) but you are basically now complaining about your part in the bargain. So where are your thinking caps, your usual coldly analytical brains, deposited for the daily duration of your online life?


Jim Belshaw said...

Morning, kvd. I wasn't really complaining about FB ads or for that matter Twitter sponsored content, kvd. I was just impressed with the targeting speed! My primary concern lay in the way curation appeared to be affecting what I saw when I wanted to see it in ways that were unclear to me.

2 tanners said...

You're quite right, kvd. I was thinking of pulling out of FB because the value equation is not there for me - too many people posting untrue things to feed the outrage machine, plus kitten videos. Back to the extra effort of searching for at least what the media is reporting rather than bald faced lies. It's more amusing trying to tease the truth out of spin, than just the daily crapola of the FB "news" feed. Or talking here, where people say what they think and try to back it up with thought and research, not just "someone said". The only difference will be staying in touch with genuine friends for whom I normally use facebook.

Problem is, it keeps every bit of information about me that I didn't supply myself - photos, inferred likes and dislikes, the lot. Not to mention not having to go after what it's already sold to others. Probably the effort outweighs the return.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim - re tanners above: is it possible to 'pin' comments on your blog, like on twitter? Even just the first sentence would be okey dokey :)


Jim Belshaw said...

I think, 2t, that it depends on each platform, what the purpose is.I have three FB pages/groups each serving a different purpose. I am a member of several others. I don't watch FB for news but for other purposes. My friends and contacts may post crap or even kittens or corgis, but that just tells me what they are thinking or like. I don't get upset.

I don't object to the info kept, although I am much more sensitive now than when I first went onto the internet. Perhaps if I had known how big my footprint would become I would have been more cautious or at least more targeted.

kvd, I have no idea how to do what you ask or even if it is possible!

Anonymous said...

Totally off-topic, but I feel the need to record my intense pleasure at finding, earlier this morning, two long articles about the Australian author Gerald Murnane. I'll drop the links below, but for the moment I'd just record that one of his works "Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf" is one of the half dozen permanently open tabs on my browser. I find his writing fascinating.

Anyway, what prompts me to write the above is a single sentence from a speech he gave - link is below - which is "Every one of my books had to be written." I've not seen a more perfect self-assessment by any writer I have followed.

And why am I so enthused? It seems now there is speculation that this writer may, well, perhaps I should just leave the two links (long reads!) and you can see for yourselves:




2 tanners said...


I haven't read the links (long story, short of it bad news no patience for days to come) but I often think of Jim the same way. He HAS to write. I think, speak and write for a living and I hate the writing part. Keep Belshaw writing? To stop him cut off both electricity and oxygen :)

I love the way Jim writes even when he's wrong. He takes the initiative, puts figurative pen to paper and somewhat bares his soul.

2 tanners said...


Your comment re dead links. You need to trove (I just made that verb up). In other words, you need to set up an archive where things of value, even minor value, *to you* can be stored. Storage is dirt cheap. You write and write, but I doubt you've written and stored photos amounting to 10 terabytes in your entire life.

When/if the link goes dead, you substitute in a redirection by editing your original post.There should never again be a Library of Alexandria disaster where any knowledge is lost, because of the multiplicity of copies. Originals can be lost, sure, but knowledge is different.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, thank you for those links to Murnane. I have read very little fiction in recent years outside fantasy or certain favourite generally light - I read fiction for release - works and had not heard of Murnane. I read them (the links) in detail and have been talking about them since. I sometimes think of my commenters as my own personal university, one that takes me in many different directions!

2t, I blushed a little at your comment. My thanks. You may be right!

kvd, I should check that. A terabyte is an awful lot, 1000 gigs if my maths is correct. As a matter of curiosity I checked my present personal computer storage under my docs.That's 36 gigs. As of today, I have written 6022 posts. That's over 3.1 million words! There have also been 12,261 comments including my own responses. I have no idea what all that equates to storage with photos included. Much of it is ephemeral, but it is a resource I draw from all the time. The comments are of especial interest because some of the most interesting material is there.

I do try to update as I look back at previous posts subject to two constraints. One is time. A second is that posts reflect views and information at the time. Updating risks destroying context. Sometimes those views are embarrassing. Rewriting them risks destroying history!

Neil said...

I'm sure it is my fault not his, but every time I have tried to read Murnane I have given up! To me he is almost unreadable!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Neil. I will have to get some of the books and read them!

Anonymous said...


.... my father could never bet responsibly, to use that sanctimonious expression. He handed over to my mother every fortnight the modest salary cheque that he earned as a low-level public servant, and he lived frugally, neither drinking nor smoking.

When he bet, however, he seemed to forget the monetary scale that governed his everyday affairs. He seemed to think he was an owner or a trainer or one of his revered smart men. If someone he respected tipped him a horse, my father would bet on it, at the very least, a sum equal to half his weekly earnings. If he did not have such a sum at hand, he usually knew an illegal off-course bookmaker who would let him bet on credit.

In his bachelor years (he did not marry until he was thirty-four), he won many a time a sum that might have bought a block of land in an outer suburb or even a single-fronted cottage in a working-class inner suburb. And yet, his and my mother’s first home after their marriage was a room with a double bed in a boarding house in Brunswick. He wore a bespoke suit and a gold-plated Rolex Prince watch and one or another of a collection of grey felt hats with peacock feathers in their bands, but he died with no assets to speak of and owing many thousands of dollars in today’s currency to his brothers and to who knows how many bookmakers that he welshed on, to put it bluntly.


- Gerald Murnane - "Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf"

But - as you say Neil - almost unreadable :)


(I'll look up one of his passages about new and unrequited love as a new and unsure young man. Which again, is almost unreadable :)

Anonymous said...

This'll do - except for those who can't remember first tentative love:


So, now I had something novel to look at: a centre of attention in what had been an empty backyard. Now, there dangled in the breeze this cute little item of ladies’ underwear. As I recall, the colour of the item was steel grey or, perhaps, pale blue. There was not much substance to the item. I mean, they were a brief pair of pants, to put it plainly. They were not exactly opaque, either. In another context, they might have been described as revealing. Anyway, there they hung, somewhat to the mystification of the solitary young man who was staring at them from his bachelor’s lair. I’ve mentioned already in this book that I’ve always had the greatest difficulty understanding the behaviour of females, especially when it has to do with romantic or sexual matters. I could not even be sure whether Glenys’s hanging out a pair of pants on a Sunday morning was any sort of message. But supposing it was a message, what sort of message had she hoped to get from me in return? Not that I had the least intention of replying to her lingerie-bunting. I had been trying for months past to make it clear to Mrs Smith and to Glenys that I was not interested in the young woman. But this seemed an opportunity to improve my skills in dealing with young females. I felt obliged to consider what I might have done if I had been interested in Glenys and wanted to respond to her message.

What was I expected to do? Should I walk out to the clothesline and stare up at the things as though imagining them clinging to the hips and groin of their owner? Should I feel them? Should I steal them — lift them down from the line and carry them off to my room, there to wait for her to claim them and not to return them until she had paid the price of a kiss? Perhaps I should rinse out a clean pair of my own Jockey underpants and hang them on the nearest line and parallel to her undies, so that the breeze lifted each item towards the other in a series of airborne pelvic thrusts? It was all so crazy. I drew the curtains across my windows and went on with my reading or writing.


- and if don't find that at once funny and heart-rending real, then you didn't pass the exam of life :)


(even tho' it's quite unreadable :)

marcellous said...

It's the content which I've found unreadable when assayed before - possibly because I'm not brought up Catholic with an enthusiasm for the turf (not that I'm saying you were/are). Incidentally, what you read as early love looks to me like slightly creepy laundry-line stalking.

Anonymous said...

You may well be right, marcellous :) My intent was to illustrate what, to me, is perfectly readable prose, as queried by Winton.

I have found my absorption of what a writer intends to convey many times 'lost' in my struggles with faulty sentence construction, and slap-happy grammar/punctuation.

The above two clips are readable (quite able to be read aloud, in fact) without any impedance to the flow of the thought/reasoning involved in the particular subject - imo.

The subject? Was not the object(ion) I was attempting to address :)