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The new media is powerless

People think of the media as the powerful behemoth that’s capable of swaying public perception.

On the contrary, I think public perception sways the media.

Companies like Facebook, Google and even Amazon, have gone all-in on the confirmation bias, the idea that people like and prefer information that confirms their existing ideas and biases. No one likes being told their wrong about religion, climate change or even smoke, you can a great Ted Talk by Eli Pariser here.

Google knows that the best search engine is the one that provides you the most ‘relevant’ results–but relevance is a subjective term that depends more on the user than it does the search term.

A PKR member searching from Anwar Ibrahim may not like to see a anti-Anwar blog exposing his homosexual behavior, to them this result is irrelevant, even inaccurate. But to a rabid UMNO supporter this post is the complete opposite, both relevant and accurate.

Two different users, one single search, two different outcomes.

Google isn’t interested in providing you the ‘correct’ answer, it’s interested in provided you the answer you’re looking for–two completely different things. To do this, Google evaluate 200 different signals or ‘clues’ that leak out of your browser onto Google, to differentiate search results it presents to you, they try to figure who you are before providing you an answer.

Think of it as a funnel, that sieves through all relevant search results, and presents to you what they think is the answer you’re looking for. Obviously, not everyone typing in Anwar Ibrahim into the search bar is looking for the same content, and Google expends equal effort to guess your intent as it does to search for relevant answers.

Google knows that when you do a search, click the first link and never return, that they’ve done their job well, that you’ve found what you were looking for. But do a search and come back a minute later, and that suggest the result wasn’t relevant, and you’ve returned to get a better hit.

With funky algorithms and a whole bunch of computing power, it then takes this feedback and tailors future search results specifically for you–your own Google, one made especially for your biases, beliefs, and misconceptions.

The driver for all of this is of course money!

The more relevant searches presented, the more you’ll use Google–and more searches means more money for Google.

The downside is that you’re unlikely to bump into content you’re disagreeable with that doesn’t confirm your bias, and you’re now living in an echo chamber where the Google results, Youtube videos, Twitter tweets and Facebook posts reflect your inner opinions and biases. Hopefully you’re never going to see something offensive or disagreeable to you ever again–at least not by accident.

You really have to go out of your way to look for disagreeable content online, which is why I subscribe to Helen Ang, Parpukari, Rocky Bru even Lim Sian See, just so I see content would churn my stomach–the filter bubble is real and dangerous, and unless you’re acutely aware of it, the consequences can be devastating.

Prior to the 2013 general elections, I was 100% certain the opposition would win–by a freaking landslide!! All but a handful of my friends were going to vote for pakatan, and all the Facebook post and Malaysiakini reports suggested this was going to be the first time Barisan would lose.

But they didn’t. Barisan won comfortably, how could I have been so wrong?

And then I realized, that my Facebook timeline and twitter feed wasn’t an accurate reflection of Malaysian society, and the filter bubble made the effect even more pronounced, and being unaware of such things, I wrongly assumed certain outcomes.

Facebook wants you to stay on Facebook, and thus provides you more content you like–which is content like you (bundled with all your biases and conceptions with it). You don’t see a different point of view unless you actively seek it, and most people don’t bother, so that friend you likes to post pro-government post may already be hidden from your timeline even though you’re close friends.

This is also why a Terrorist attack in France gets more media attention than a terrorist attack in Pakistan–because let’s face it, the latter is going to get more shares and likes, and media companies (that we so often blame for lack of coverage) are simply responding to this explicit signal and creating more content for the stories people read.

The Malay Mail report 6 month ago, that quoted your’s truly exposing the government’s purchase of surveillance software got 1,500 likes on Facebook. A report about ISMA denouncing feminism as the cause for “women forgetting their place in society” got 400% more engagement in just 2 days.

If you were a purely rational news editor of a media outlet, where would spend your journalistic resources? On covering a multi-million dollar mega-shrimp project that would affect thousands of poverty stricken farmers, or on a goat that looks like a human if viewed from a certain angle. It’s an easy decision if the latter get 1,900 Facebook likes, and the former gets 1 (yes, just one).

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In many ways, the media gives you what you want–and what you want is less Pakistani terrorism and more Kim Kardashian.

The media isn’t to blame–you are!

With modern analytic software and social media integration, determining which stories are read and which aren’t is now an exact science, and the vicious cycle continues to weed out content you’re less likely to enjoy, stripping down all alternative view-points till you end up with a single customized utopian feed that gives you (and only you) content you like.

We might be consuming a lot more media than we were 10 years ago, doing it from more diverse sources, but ironical the content is more homogeneous, less diverse, and dangerous!

‘The Media’ is still powerful, but the power has been diluted across hundreds of sources, so that each individual media company (whether it’s newspapers, digital or radio) has no power over it’s readership’s views , partly because it is already preaching to the choir and partly because viewers who don’t like the op-ed can click somewhere else instantly.

But in order to keep readership numbers up, media outlets churn out content that their already bias readership agrees to, just to keep ad revenue numbers stable–but confine us to a filter bubble and echo chamber of opinions.

A newspaper editor for a Malay Daily in Malaysia is not going to allow a pro-Israel op-ed not just because they’ll most likely get in trouble legally, they’re likely to get in trouble financially as well–but if an entire section of Malaysian society has never heard of an alternative viewpoint of Israel how can they ever gain insight into the matter?

And while some people think the filter bubble is OK, to me it’s like feeding an entire population with Big Macs and Chicken Nuggets. Sure we all know the thin bastard next door that gobbles fast food everyday and lives healthy and happy, but for most people that diet is going to have severe and irreversible consequences in the long run.

I fear we may end up a society that can’t handle disagreement and lose our ability to rationalize and debate ideas, simply because we only consume content we agree with–and what’s worse is that we blame the media for what is essentially our fault.

The internet was meant to be democratic, a marketplace of ideas. Apparently in a perfect marketplace, people only shop for what they want.

Isn’t that sad?

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