“I disapprove of what you say, and I have a backend algorithm that will fix that!” Voltaire/2016
OK, so Voltaire actually said something ever-so-slightly different, but he might have put it this way in the 21st Century, right?
Times change. Somebody has to put an end to the internet free-for-all and return the world to the way the media barons of the 20th Century understood it.
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” the journalist A.J. Liebling observed in The New Yorker in May of 1960. Little could he know that within 50 years the internet would be everywhere and every chattering squirrel would be screaming to be heard.
One could almost go deaf from the cacophony, and some of those squirrels aren’t very damn nice.
Alaska’s largest news organization — the Alaska Dispatch News — today announced it has a fix. It’s going to try to bring peace by employing some version of HAL 9000 to censor out the trolls, the goons, the buffoons, the demented squirrels, the Theresa Obermeyers, the other children, and whoever or whatever Hal and his algorithm and Hal’s “community” decide isn’t right and proper.
Or something like that.
Don’t read this to mean I’m some Luddite skeptical of computer solutions to human problems. I’m not, although, admittedly, I’m no computer geek either. My future as a scientist sort of came to an end in Calc IV when it finally become clear I was more a word guy than a numbers guy.
But I love technology. Technology is our friend when it works.
The “when it works” part can present problems. There remain a few things that good, old-fashioned humans can do better than computers. Thus the reference to the HAL 9000 made famous in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey:
Or, as the new Hal, “Christa from Civil,” the entity in the tubes claiming to be the designer of the new comment-filtering software at ADN.com, put it in comments appearing there:
“…Christa from Civil here. This is a common concern when people first hear about our system! But we’ve built our it (sic) to facilitate real, spirited debate, and to avoid echo chambers.
“We designed the user-facing side of the application to encourage fairness, and the algorithms on the backend to prevent the kind of bias you’re talking about.”
“The algorithms on the backend….” It sounds almost pornographic, doesn’t it?
Think how much cooler it would be if ADN had simply said “Christa2016 is in the tubes poised to kill bad comments, so be warned.” And then rigged the system so the authors of bad comments got a voice response (preferably using Hal’s voice) that said “Tom, Dick, Harry, Susie, or whoever, your comment can serve no purpose here. Goodbye.”
Or better yet, what if ADN could somehow find software that electrically shocked the keyboard of anyone registering what editor David Hulen considers an uncivil comment?
I do sympathize with ADN’s comment problem. The trash talking in the comments has been going on for a long, long time. I worked at the old ADN before it became the new ADN and remember Debra McKinney, a wonderful and sensitive features writer, fretting about the problem forever in the years before her departure.
This was back when comments were anonymous, and the New York Times and many other news sites were pushing to make people identify themselves in the belief they would then act more civil. Many, maybe most, media eventually began requiring people to post using Facebook accounts that identified them. If there was a change in manners, it didn’t last long.
McKinney was a writer with soft spot for down-and-out Alaskans and often worried about how they might be savaged in the newspaper’s online comments section if she wrote about them. She might even have spiked a few stories for fear of the beat-down that might be put on the subjects.
Nobody, strangely enough, ever seemed to share this concern for people accused of crimes, though some of them might actually have been innocent. Can you say “Fairbanks Four?”
Personally, as someone trashed in the comments section of the ADN more than most, I learned to let the vitriol roll off and took to heart the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
Or an authoritarian news organization.
What we’ve got here today in response to comments are really just varying degrees of spin on what Liebling observed 56 years ago. You could almost sum it this way: “Freedom of the web is guaranteed only to those who own a website.”
Some news organizations have turned off comments and gone fully back to the newspaper position of Liebling’s day. Others, like the ADN, are trying to find a way to control the discussion because they want the “traffic.” They need viewer numbers to try to solicit advertising to keep themselves alive. If it were me, I’d tell the reporters to moderate the comments on their stories, but that scares the bejesus out of the people in charge because they don’t think reporters are objective enough to do that.
Chew on that idea for a while.
It’s probably a little unfair to talk about trying to “control” the discussion, too. It’s not quite like that. As Hulen described it in a column, it’s about an algorithm analyzing reviews from the collective in order to identify and reject troublesome individuals. Those of you who grew up in dysfunctional small towns can panic right now. The collective doesn’t always turn out to be the nirvana it’s promised to be as the residents of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics learned all too well.
Don’t get me wrong. I think we should all try to keep our discussions civil and respectful whether they happen around the dinner table, in a bar, or on the internet. But I came of age in the Vietnam War era when debate was sometimes of necessity neither civil nor decent.
We might still be mired in Southeast Asia if Americans had followed the lead of those who wanted everyone to listen to the people in charge and play nice.
“Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind,” Gen. William Westmoreland, the chief U.S. commander in Vietnam observed at the time.
They most certainly can. Sadly, democracy is fragile and seems to survive best somewhere near the edge of chaos. Better to have a good idea expressed badly (even in a less than civil manner) than to have lots of bad ideas repeated over and over in the nicest of ways. And despite the claims about “real, spirited debate,” the rating system the ADN is employing seems basically aimed at killing outliers.
Outliers, unfortunately, are the strength of democracy. As a much better military commander than Westmoreland — Gen. George S. Patton — once observed:
“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
I used to work at the now-extinct Anchorage Daily News. Over the years, it became the most godawful “group-think” operation you could imagine. As another reporter there observed in the midst of a diversity drive sponsored by The McClatchy Company, which then owned the newspaper, “yeah, what they want are some people of color who think just like they do.”
Being an agnostic leaning toward being an atheist, I suggested to one editor that if the newspaper really wanted diversity maybe it should hire a reporter who was a fundamentalist Christian. The suggestion was not well received.
Maybe I know some of the players at the ADN too well not to worry about how a filter on comments could be used. History could have left me biased. Imagine that? A reporter contemplating the possibility of his own bias?
I left the Daily News, of course, and ended up at the little internet startup AlaskaDispatch.com where diversity of opinions was the order of the day. AlaskaDispatch.com later bought the Daily News, became the Alaska Dispatch News, and put some the people who’d been running the Daily News back in charge.
They have a different attitude than the folks who were at Dispatch, but let’s accept that their goal with CIVIL2016 is solely to screen out the trolls and the dicks. Maybe it will work. I hope it does. I can’t know that it won’t. No one can predict the future. We can only revisit the past.
The journalistic past in this country was pretty vile. In “Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism,” author Eric Burns describes the business as “partisan, fabricated, overheated, scandalous, sensationalistic and sometimes stirring, brilliant, and indispensable. Despite its flaws–even because of some of them–the participants hashed out publicly the issues that would lead America to declare its independence and, after the war, to determine what sort of nation it would be.”
The press at the time belonged to the masses much as the internet does today. It didn’t take much money to cobble together a printing press in Thomas Jefferson’s day. It would be a long time before offset printing was invented and the cost to print “news” on ever prettier newspapers began to price some of the scribblers out of the market.
Then, too, there came the Associated Press with a great marketing idea: objectivity!
The smartest newspaper publishers of the late 1800s were quick to grab onto objectivity as a business model. If they could convince people they owned the “objective” newspaper that was “fair and balanced,” why would anyone need to buy more than one?
The death of newspapers and the rise of one-newspaper towns was destined to follow. It is unclear what city became the first with a lone newspaper, but Anchorage joined the phenomenon in 1992 when The Anchorage Times, the city’s once dominant evening newspaper, closed its doors.
For more than a decade after, the McClatchy-owned Daily News had a license to print money by selling “fair and balanced” news (Apologies here to Fox News which once tried to trademark that phrase) that wasn’t always fair and balanced.
The observation is not meant as a criticism of the old ADN. Fair and balanced is a lofty goal, and a hard one to meet. The standard is subject to all sorts of interpretations. It is why the “news,” like the law, is imperfect, and why judgement of any sort is not easily replaced with an “algorithm on the backend.”
And make no doubt about this, every time that “algorithm on the backend” kills a comment, it is making a judgment. It might be a simple judgment on something about which we can all agree, say eliminating spam trying to bait someone into finding out how he can make $100 an hour working from home.
It might even be a judgment that spikes an internet troll. Wahoo!
Then again, it might take out a comment that exists in that grey area between troll and insight. Therein exists a bigger grey than most people might think.
During my now too many years in journalism, I’ve made it something of a practice to try to interact with people who attack me or my reporting online. A lot of them, as it turned out, were more reasonable than they sounded in type. Imagine that.
More than a few of them made good points about what might be wrong with what I’d written. Too many, it was clear, had over-reacted on the keyboard. They suffered from the now common problem of hitting the “send” key before thoroughly reading the words in the message.
Can the computer that allows one to so easily make that mistake somehow fix it? ADN apparently thinks so. I confess to a little skepticism. Maybe it’s tied to that ADN fixation on trying to make the world “civil and decent,” which sometimes seems to translates into “not exactly honest.”
Sort of like when a woman asks her husband, “does this dress make me look fat?” And he gives the civil and decent answer that “no, you look great” while actually thinking “please, please don’t wear that dress.”
Do I wish ADN luck with their plan? Yes. Am I uncomfortable with it? Yes. Could an “algorithm on the backend” be tweaked to achieve goals other than those stated by the ADN?
Ask the engineers at Volkswagen who tweaked the software in the company’s diesel engines to filer out bad CO2 numbers during emissions tests.
Let’s be real. This is the Photoshop Age. The Brave New World has arrived. The news can’t be trusted because it can’t be trusted. All of the news. This is not some ADN specific issue.
The majority of your news is generated by the modern-day prophets of propaganda — government spokespeople, public relations experts, marketing mavens, etc. And some of your news is written by people with agendas. And too much of your news is processed by people who know little, sometimes nothing, about the subject matter.
Media in some ways now needs comment because the reporting cataloged in the comments is sometimes better than the reporting in the story.
So it’s a good thing ADN is keeping the comments. And if they’re friendlier going forward, well, let’s all hug. Then we can get together to go watch the ADN’s other new computer product — WONDERFULUS2016 — churn out all the online comments about how incredible the new algorithm on the backend.
OK, that last line was satire. It was a joke. Don’t be firing off angry missives. I couldn’t help myself, because what the media needs today a lot more than a comment filter is a sense of humor.
This whole essay, for that matter, might have been a joke. The internet is something rapidly and constantly evolving. Some new forum designed solely for people to argue among themselves — say letsargue.com or foodfightAK.com — could pop up tomorrow to provide people a forum to go at it with all the vitriol they want.
Nobody knows what could happen, and I probably know less than others. I stopped reading ADN comments when I left the newspaper. They just weren’t very interesting. There was usually the same small group of people going at it with the same views all the time. They actually seemed to get their pleasure out of calling each other names.
Maybe the new policy will change that. Maybe it will just deny those people their pleasures. I probably won’t be reading either way. Because most likely, the new policy will be the old policy with the same small group of people going at it all the time with the same views expressed in a nicer manner.
The only tragic thing would be if the system eliminates the rare, visiting outlier who actually contributes something to the discussion because he or she is a visitor and not a “trusted” commenter.