Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Taking Responsibility for Algorithms

Two great articles on the rash of bullshit — not inaccurate, not erroneous, but bullshit — stories that dominated the top of Google’s search results after Sunday night’s tragedy in Las Vegas and, indeed, after every major tragedy in recent years.

First, Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed:

Facebook hopes to become a top destination for breaking news, but in pivotal moments it often seems to betray that intention with an ill-conceived product design or a fraught strategic decision. In 2014, it struggled to highlight news about the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson protests. News coverage of the events went largely unnoticed on the network, while instead, News Feeds were jammed with algorithmically pleasing Ice Bucket Challenge videos. And during the 2016 US presidential election, it failed to moderate the fake news, propaganda, and Russian-purchased advertising for which it is now under congressional scrutiny. Meanwhile, it has made no substantive disclosures about the inner workings of its platform.

Google has had its fair share of stumbles around news curation as well, particularly in 2016. Shortly after the US presidential election, Google’s top news hits for the final 2016 election results included a fake news site claiming that Donald Trump won both the popular and electoral votes (he did not win the popular vote). Less than a month later, the company came under fire again for surfacing a Holocaust denier and white supremacist webpage as the top results for the query “The Holocaust.”

And William Turton, the Outline:

The only reasonable conclusion at this point is that tech companies like Google and Facebook do not care about fixing this. Based on Google’s statements it does not appear that the company plans to prevent 4chan from popping up in its top stories module in the future. Instead it defers to the vagaries of its algorithms, as if doing anything proactive would be interfering with their sacred work. “There are trillions of searches on Google every year. In fact, 15 percent of searches we see every day are new. Before the 4chan story broke, there wasn’t much surfacing about [geary danley], and so we weren’t showing a Top Stories section for this set of queries. So when the fresh 4chan story broke, it triggered Top Stories which unfortunately led to this inaccurate result,” the company said in an email. The wording from Google here is strange, as 4chan has no news stories, only threads populated with the images and musings of 4chan users.

As with advertising on their platforms, Google and Facebook are only too happy to take credit for the successes of the algorithms they built, but demur to take the blame when their code does something stupid. They will gladly own their code — do you think Google would ever make public their precise methodology behind search rankings? — but refuse to take responsibility for it.