Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Anatomy of a Moral Panic

Maciej Cegłowski, reacting to the deluge of articles claiming that Amazon’s algorithms are suggesting “bomb-making supplies”:

The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama. This is particularly true for technical topics outside the reporter’s area of expertise.

And reporters have no choice but to chase clicks. Because Google and Facebook have a duopoly on online advertising, the only measure of success in publishing is whether a story goes viral on social media. Authors are evaluated by how individual stories perform online, and face constant pressure to make them more arresting. Highly technical pieces are farmed out to junior freelancers working under strict time limits. Corrections, if they happen at all, are inserted quietly through ‘ninja edits’ after the fact.

There are plenty of critical pieces that can be written about the dangers of machine learning and algorithmic biases. Thing is, though, those stories aren’t about Amazon.