Photo: LearningLark via Wikipedia

Algorithmic Curation: A New Information Autocracy

As the print media industry deals with a seismic shift towards digital technology, we may not realise we’re entering a new information autocracy.

The decline of the printed Newspaper is such a widely recognised phenomenon that it has its own Wikipedia page. Readers don’t need to buy printed news anymore when they can just get it online for free. And we’re seeing a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional media machine.

Print journalism earned itself a reputation as the prime source for trustworthy, accurate information on issues of great social importance. Its inception stimulated a new wave of intelligent discourse. People started coming together to talk about the stories they’d read in the newspapers.

The news editor was once accountable to the public interest and the high standards of the journalism profession. We trusted them to bring us the stories that mattered, and not bother us with trivialities. They were our curators and gatekeepers of news — if major news outlets were reporting on a story, you knew it was worth reading about; it was ‘newsworthy’.

“A magazine is an iPad that doesn’t work.” — TheAtlantic

In today’s world of dwindling circulation and haemorrhaging bottom lines, major news publishers have become accountable to their shareholders, advertisers and politicians. In desperation they’re pulling out all the stops to try and sell a paper, with UK tabloids among the worst. But can we really blame the mass media? Maybe, as they argue in their own defence, they’re just giving people what they want.

This idea was predicted, to some extent, in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which presents a dystopia where all books are burned and then outlawed. Not, as you might expect, by an oppressive state (although they later enforced it), but because the American people just stopped reading. Bradbury was outspoken in his concern for an illiterate population infatuated by mass media. Maybe it really is our fault.

There are the practical considerations, though. Digital news is more portable, cheaper to distribute and consume (at least in countries where everyone has access to the technology). The rise of blogging and self-publishing has seen an explosion in the amount of content going online. Digital news be more easily indexed, searched and interrogated, bringing obvious benefits to analysis and research.

People used to read newspapers. Photo: @HistoricalPics

In fact, we’re creating so much content that traditional search has spawned a niche industry devoted to wrangling all this ‘news’ into something meaningful and digestible, and which also satisfies our interests. Today’s reader has to contend with ‘new media’ publishers who don’t really create any news, but just repackage reporting from other sources into condensed and bite-sized formats geared towards our cyber-attention spans.

At its worst, this ‘new media’ appears as glossy, hyper-produced listicles, advertorials and opinion pieces, not written to inform us, but instead screaming out for our ‘engagement’ like a spoiled child begging for attention.Click me! Have your say! Share me!

So how do we even know what’s news anymore? Well, our machines tell us, of course! Google News even states this at the bottom of its page:

The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.

News aggregators such as BuzzFeed, Reddit and Google (which has been examined for bias), are our new editors; our new algorithmic overlords. They tell us what to read, and we read it. The potential for escalation into an insidious Digital Dystopia of censorship and mass brainwashing is captured perfectly in Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction classic, Dune:

Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.

It’s not science fiction. In 2014, Facebook sparked worldwide outrage when it was revealed to be experimenting with the emotions of its users by varying the sentiment of items appearing in their news feeds — all under the guise of ‘research’. Another study claims Facebook may have potentially influenced voter turnout in the 2012 US election:

… in the three months prior to Election Day in 2012, Facebook increased the amount of hard news stories at the top of the feeds of 1.9 million users. According to one Facebook data scientist, that change … measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout.

Experiments like these become a naïve, ignorant abuse of power when we consider that Facebook is the main source of ‘news’ for many people. We don’t just need proper journalism, we desperately need a re-education in the fundamentals of assessing information for truth and value. We should be able to tell the difference between hard news, and the viral defamation spread by internet lynch mobs during breaking events. We should want to know the difference, but instead we just regurgitate whatever feeds the outrage economy.

But don’t take my word for it, ask The Machines. They’re your new religion — they’re your new oracles of truth in the Digital Dystopia.

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