Friday, June 17, 2011

Is Google “Protecting” You From Exposure to Opposing Views?

My latest post at Critical Thinking Applied:

From a recent article in the New York Times:
On the Web, we often see what we like, and like what we see. Whether we know it or not, the Internet creates personalized e-comfort zones for each one of us.

Give a thumbs up to a movie on Netflix or a thumbs down to a song on Pandora, de-friend a bore on Facebook or search for just about anything on Google: all of these actions feed into algorithms that then try to predict what we want or don't want online.

And what's wrong with that?

Plenty, according to Eli Pariser, the author of "The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You." Personalization on the Web, he says, is becoming so pervasive that we may not even know what we're missing: the views and voices that challenge our own thinking.
I found this very upsetting. I've never been a fan of online personalization—on multiple occasions I've turned off Google's personalized search result function, only to find that it has a Rasputin-esque way of mysteriously turning itself back on—but until now my reasons have been limited to my own curmudgeonly preferences.[1] This, however, is something that could actually have larger implications. More from the article:
With television, people can limit their exposure to dissenting opinions simply by flipping the channel, to, say, Fox from MSNBC. And, of course, viewers are aware they're actively choosing shows. The concern with personalization algorithms is that many consumers don't understand, or may not even be aware of, the filtering methodology.
My original plan for this post was to wrap it up somewhere around here—with the common sense observation that it's not a good thing for our search results to be aimed at reinforcing whatever biases can be gleaned from our search history, especially if the user has no idea this is going on—but then my natural skepticism took over. Wait a minute, I thought, I haven't actually seen any non-anecdotal evidence that personalization of search results extends to a user's political leanings—it's just kind of taken as a given that this is the sort of thing Google would do. This despite the fact that the Times quotes a Google spokesman saying they do no such thing:
"People value getting information from a wide variety of perspectives, so we have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page," said [Jake] Hubert, the Google spokesman. He added that the company looked forward to "carefully reviewing Mr. Pariser's analysis of this important issue."
After trying, and failing, to find an instance of someone else doing an experiment similar to what I had in mind,[2] I put this article on hold, went into my Google account and cleared my search history (I hadn't knowingly changed any settings since the previous time I cleared the search history and set it to not record my searches in the future, but, again—like freakin' Rasputin), and made sure to leave the record-keeping and personalization features turned on.

At that point there were any number of directions I could've gone, but I've been picking on conservatives for a while now, so I decided to switch it up. Over the next seven days I searched Google for information on topics like the failings of capitalism, racism in the Tea Party, healthcare as a human right, the economic benefits of amnesty, the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only education, and the disastrous consequences of the Bush tax cuts. I looked into whether I'm eligible for food stamps. I pretended to care about Alec Baldwin's opinions on things. I tried to determine who was America's greatest president—FDR, Kennedy, or Clinton. I took the opportunity to satisfy my genuine curiosity about Florida's recent "voter suppression" law.[3] Early in the process I did a few searches along the lines of "Republicans are evil" and "Republicans don't care about minorities", until I realized that manipulating Google's personalization algorithm probably requires a little more finesse than simply typing your views (note: those are not my views) into the search box as if you're having a one-sided conversation.

When I got tired of politics, I looked into hybrid cars, the ethics of eating meat, The West Wing DVD sets, the local time in France (there was an unrelated reason for that one, but I figured it fit the theme), post-graduate programs in English literature, Burning Man, John Lennon lyrics, the video for Aerosmith's "Eat the Rich", Portland, Oregon's locally-owned coffee shops, and on and on.

In all, I did more than 200 searches on more than 100 unique topics, and I visited about 250 sites from among the search results, being careful to only go to those that seemed likely to reinforce liberal views. Every search, and every decision to click on a particular result, was geared toward building a search history that (a) reflected a person whose politics, lifestyle, and hobbies were stereotypically liberal to an absurd extreme, and who had no interest whatsoever in challenging that worldview, and (b) was otherwise a somewhat realistic imitation of how people (people like me, at least) actually use search engines.[4]

Having accumulated what seemed like enough data for Google to mess around with, and having done so over what seemed like a long enough period of time for the data to be incorporated into their system, I did some tests. For this part I wanted to use search terms dealing with topics that were (a) not specifically covered in the search history, (b) controversial enough that a non-personalized search would likely yield results supporting multiple points of view, and (c) recent enough that most of the available commentary would be opinion-based (but not so recent that search results would be changing almost in real time). I came up with the following:
  1. "Vaughn Walker"
  2. NPR funding
  3. oil companies "price gouging"
  4. "Rick Scott" "high speed rail"
  5. "budget cuts" entitlements
  6. "debt ceiling"
I logged out of my Google account and searched for each of the above terms—first as a standard web search, then a Google News search—and saved a screenshot of the first page of results. Then I logged back in and repeated the process. I compared the results, and…


I got nothing. I mean, not literally nothing, but I didn't get much. The Google News results were identical for all six searches. The web searches had some differences, but in each case the "personalized" results reflected the same variety of viewpoints as the "neutral" results. The first ten results for searches #4 and #5 were identical. The results for searches #1 and #3 were the same ten sites, but in a slightly different order. The results for search #6 ("debt ceiling") were in a slightly different order, and also differed in one wholly unspectacular way:
  • The 5th "personalized" result was this CNN Money article from May 17, while the 6th "neutral" result was this CNN Money article originally dated January 11, but republished on May 18. The two articles are almost identical.
The results for search #2 (NPR funding) were in a slightly different order, and also differed in two wholly unspectacular ways:
  • The 10th "personalized" result was this US News and World Report article, while the 10th "neutral" result was this Columbia Journalism Review article. When I saw this I re-did the searches and, sure enough, in both cases the other article was among the top two links on the second page of results.
  • The 6th "personalized" result was this Huffington Post article from March 17, while the 8th "neutral" result was this Huffington Post article from April 13.
I saved that one for last because it's the only difference with even a modicum of substance, though we're still talking about two articles from the same website about basically the same topic. Why the personalized results included the article from March 17 and not the one from April 13 is beyond me, though I note that only the former contains a quote by Representative-at-the-time Anthony Weiner, whose name appears in the search history because I wanted to know what Dan Savage had to say about the mess Weiner got himself into.[5]

And that's about it. My smoking gun is an article that referenced Anthony Weiner vs. another from the same site that didn't. What's to be learned from all this? Nothing, really, but here are some theories, in order of the odds I'd place on a given theory turning out to be the correct one:
  • 1 to 1 – Google's algorithm really is designed to encourage varied results, and does so effectively.
  • 3 to 1 – I didn't generate a search history with the right kind of data. I realized about halfway through, for example, that a fairly straightforward way to personalize search results would be to keep track of a user's favorite websites, so maybe if I had focused a little more on that.
  • 6 to 1 – I didn't generate a search history with enough data to produce meaningful results.
  • 9 to 1 – The field (i.e. the ever-present possibility that my findings are flawed for some reason I haven't thought of).
  • 200 to 1 – Google has developed an ingenious mechanism—based on suspicious activity such as doing the same searches from the same computer while logging on and off—to distinguish regular users from smartass bloggers, and in the latter case to ensure that nothing incriminating is discovered.
In closing, a tangential thought. I wouldn't have started this project if I didn't think there was a good chance I'd come away with some damning evidence that personalization of search results stifles exposure to opposing viewpoints. When that didn't happen, I was discouraged, and almost couldn't motivate myself to finish the article. But isn't that how science—or whatever you call it when your goal is essentially to reverse-engineer a large corporation's proprietary software—is supposed to work? I formed a hypothesis, tested it, and here are the results. They may be underwhelming, but at least whoever comes across this article will have something to build on.

1. What's especially maddening is that I've made a number of Google searches along the lines of "how to turn off personalization" and "stop tracking search history". The idea is to personalize my online experience, right? And I've made it abundantly clear that I don't want my online experience personalized. So why are my search results not personally tailored to my preference for search results that aren't personally tailored? WHAT ELSE DO I HAVE TO DO?
2. I found a few studies that sort of address the issue, but not really. In this 2010 study, volunteers provided (a) information about their browser settings, Google account settings, and other details that might affect personalized search results, and (b) the results they got for various search terms involving antique lamps. In this 2011 study, researchers set up Google accounts for three dead philosophers—Foucault, Nietzsche, and Kant—and built search histories based on terms from the indices of the philosophers' books. They're worth looking at, if you're into this sort of thing, but in both studies the search terms used to test the effects of personalization were chosen for their neutrality, so the findings don't really tell us anything about why different people might get different results.
3. Really, ACLU? It's a civil rights violation to shorten the early voting period from 14 days to eight (while expanding the permissible daily voting hours)? Florida didn't even have early voting until 2004.
4. For the occasional search that didn't support that narrative, I switched over to Bing, which, at 27, might make me the all-time youngest Bing user.
5. Answer: He's adamantly pro-Weiner. He also supports the Congressman.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Exclusive: Sarah Palin Admits Mistake

Since I'm pretty much the last person to weigh in on this, I won't dwell on the details, but about a week ago Sarah Palin brought her I-Don't-Need-to-Declare-My-Candidacy-to-Get-Attention Tour to Boston.[1] Asked a question about nothing in particular, she decided to talk about Paul Revere—and proceeded to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she had in no way prepared to do so. It would've been quickly forgotten, except that a few days later she appeared on Fox News and insisted that (a) she totally knew what she was talking about all along, and (b) the real villain was that pesky reporter with his "shout-out, gotcha type of question". To her detractors—myself included—this is further support for the perception that she is utterly incapable of taking responsibility for her mistakes and shortcomings.

Remember Palin's baffling response to Katie Couric's question about what newspapers she reads? "All of them, any of them that have been in front of me," she said awkwardly, as if the real answer was either "none" or something somehow even more embarrassing. She was also asked what Supreme Court decisions, other than Roe v. Wade, she disagreed with, to which she responded with more of her trademark rambling without ever actually naming one. A few days later she appeared on Fox News and insisted that (a) she totally knew what she was talking about all along, and…you get the idea:
My response to her, I guess it was kind of flippant. But, I was sort of taken aback, like, the suggestion was, "You're way up there in a faraway place in Alaska, do you know that there are publications in the rest of the world that are read by many?" And I was taken aback by that because, I don't know, the suggestion just was a little bit of perhaps we're not in tune with the rest of the world.

I shouldn't have been so flippant and just sort of brushed aside that because that was an important question, and I should have answered it, and yes, I can cite a lot of cases that I absolutely disagree with the Supreme Court on.
Moments like these, among many, many others,[2] make me wonder if, in her mind, she's even capable of screwing up. I mean, there's no denying she's garnered a ton of support by positioning herself as the victim of forces that, due to an ill-defined combination of dim-wittedness and anti-conservative bias, are intent on suppressing her views. For that narrative to make sense—which isn't to say it does, though a distressing number of people seem to be on board—the views in question have to be, you know, well-articulated and based in reality, because otherwise it's not so unreasonable to suppress them. And in the absence of actually having views that are well-articulated and based in reality, the least she can do is never concede that they aren't. Is there a chance, then, that Palin's pretense of infallibility is not fundamental to her personality, but is merely a (maddeningly effective) political strategy?

The recent release of thousands of emails generated during her time as governor of Alaska provides an interesting opportunity to look for an answer.[3] I didn't go through all of them, of course, but I searched for key words ("wrong", "incorrect", "sorry", etc.) to narrow it down. And yet, everything I read—just like everything I've seen reported elsewhere—pointed to the conclusion that Palin's obstinance is not an act. That she's no more likely to admit a mistake in a private conversation with her closest advisors than she is in front of an audience of millions.

But then I found it:
From: Palin, Sarah
Sent: Wednesday, February 13, 2008 10:14 AM
To: Irwin; Tom E (DNR); Lopez; Thomas M (GOV)
Subject: Fw: King air

Sent this to the wrong "Tom"", sorry.
On February 13, 2008, Sarah Palin sent an email to someone named Tom Irwin, but she meant to send it to Tom Lopez. Not only did she take responsibility for this mistake, but she did not blame either her political enemies or the "lamestream media", nor did she come up with a convoluted "I meant to do that" explanation. So it is possible. You heard it here first.

1. According to a recent Gallup poll, 95% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are familiar with Sarah Palin—no other potential 2012 Republican candidate has a number higher than 85%, and most are below 60%—while the remaining 5% answered sarcastically and the poll worker failed to pick up on it.
2. This Media Matters article, for example, discusses multiple "falsehoods" in Palin's autobiography, many of which involve her attempts to address and clarify some of the dubious things she said or did during the campaign. (I've made it clear in the past that I don't trust Media Matters to be objective—in part because I'm not sure they even try to be objective—and I didn't take the time to double-check their work, but they probably got at least some of it right.)
    There was also the "refudiate" thing, in which Palin accidentally invented a word by combining two existing words with similar meanings. She defended this by comparing herself to Shakespeare, the celebrated playwright who on many occasions intentionally invented new words (or borrowed words from other languages) when he found the English lexicon inadequate. Of course, I'm pretty sure Palin sold more books last year, so maybe she's got a point.
3. There's something really unsavory, by the way, about the obvious glee with which these emails have been presented to the public, as if it's just assumed that there'll be some kind of career-ending revelation in there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Unwavering Commitment to Outrageousness

Don't worry, this blog isn't going anywhere, but a subtle shift in tone and focus may be in the works. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find new ways to gripe about conservatism and conservative rhetoric that aren't rooted in ideological disagreement (and thus not really about the rhetoric), or things that, in fairness, should be qualified with "of course, when the situation is reversed, liberals are just as bad" (and thus not really about conservatives).

So, in the interest of not becoming repetitive, I'll probably have to start relaxing at least one of those guidelines. But there's no time for that now, because Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut", giving conservative pundits the perfect excuse to get on their soapboxes and pretend there's a meaningful difference between conservative rhetoric and liberal rhetoric.[1]

Neal Boortz, to his credit, defended Schultz's character, avoiding the temptation to take the insult as evidence of some kind of latent misogyny. Instead, he took it as the inevitable consequence of a career spent trying to defend the indefensible:
Why does Ed say the things on his radio and television show that he does? It’s his act, folks. I think that Ed believes that the only way he can attract listeners and viewers is to give them what he things they are looking for --- outrageous statements. Tell them that Republicans want people to die! He’s not saying anything other Democrats aren’t saying. The trouble is when you think that your appeal lies in making outrageous statements rather than cogent political analysis or entertaining banter with callers, sooner or later you’re going to slip over the edge.
I completely agree, inasmuch as I agree that Ed Schultz attracts listeners and viewers to his radio and TV shows by saying outrageous things, and that cogent political analysis is probably not his primary concern. The question, though, is what does Boortz think he does every day?
As long as I’m on the air I’ll keep preaching against government education; and especially against teacher’s unions. I’ve said and I will repeat that there is no other entity in this country – or anywhere in the world, for that matter – that has done more damage to the fabric of America than teacher’s unions. The problems we face in this country would be greatly reduced if the people were just informed enough and bright enough to see through political rhetoric to the truth.
Whenever there is an excuse to push this phony global warming debate, the Obama Media will take the opportunity. Why? Do you really need to ask? Who are the people behind this phony global warming nonsense? It’s the left, in case you haven’t checked. It’s the people who believe in big governments who seize wealth and distribute it according to political considerations.
In discussions about our entitlement crisis, it has become increasingly apparent that Democrats have mounted their moral high-horses and are ready to battle for more government spending. They will do this under the guise of “security” or our “moral duty” to help those who can’t help themselves. However, the real purpose of their efforts is clear: power. That’s it. . . . The Democrats demonize the people who move up this income ladder, calling them greedy. The Democrats demonize their fellow colleagues in Washington when proposed with an option to give people more choices and freedom to make decisions in their lives: Ex. Healthcare. Democrats will back the teachers unions in order to keep their government schools in check. Democrats are insistent on raising taxes on the rich, to make productivity less desirable.
Let's see…teachers' unions are America's single greatest threat, "global warming" is actually a liberal wealth-redistribution scheme, and the Democrats are actively trying to destroy our productivity. And that's just from last week.

How the various loony things Boortz says are any different from the various loony things Schultz says—criticism of Obama's Libya policy is akin to supporting the terrorists, Newt Gingrich wants to "give tax breaks to old white millionaires," Republicans want to cut Medicare funds because they want people to die, to cite a few examples—is beyond me. Conservative, liberal, or miscellaneous, TV and radio pundits all use the same formula:
  1. Form a conclusion.
  2. Take a set of facts (or fact-like substances) and discard the ones that don't support your conclusion.
  3. Exaggerate the significance of the remaining facts to apocalyptic extremes.
  4. Maintain that yours is the only possible conclusion, because LOOK AT THE FACTS.
And this is where I can't help being impressed by Boortz's dedication to his craft. Anyone can be outrageous through simple hyperbole and distortion, but it takes an unwavering commitment to outrageousness to call others outrageous for doing the exact same thing.

1. Of course, when the situation is reversed, liberals are just as bad.