Thursday, March 14, 2019

They Can See You

President Trump's idea of media bias is a simple one. "The ('mainstream') media" doesn't like him, and so it deliberately publishes slanted, hostile stories to defame him in the eyes of the public, yadda, yadda, yadda. It's a simple and tidy narrative, and one that plays into the victimization narrative that has been built up by the President and his most ardent supporters. Not to mention a fair number of his critics.

But as I understand the world to work, media bias in the United States is much more about identifying an audience and giving that audience information that buttresses their preexisting beliefs about the world. While this practice is often cast as something between "irresponsible" and nefarious, I will again quote On the Media's Brooke Gladstone:

Still, the [New York] Times positions itself as the paper that favors information over narrative; the "facts" over the readers' assumptions, emotions, and values.

It's journalism's first giant step towards and unreachable goal--because it's unprofitable to ignore your readers' emotions, assumptions, and values.

And it's impossible to ignore your own.
The Influencing Machine. p.98.
And when dealing with "free" (read: advertising supported) news and commentary media (the two are quite different, for all that they aren't always distinguished from one another) the problem is compounded. Firstly, by the fact that in an attention economy, attention must be attracted. Outlets are competing with one another for eyeballs, and if the cost of attention is catering to audiences' emotions, assumptions and values, then that's a price that outlets have to pay. Secondly, because people rarely turn to freely available sources such as this to make decisions that they understand have serious consequences for them. And so the relative cost of being mislead, and thus the incentive to avoid the outlet in the future, is low. This removes a source of evolutionary selection pressure that would push outlets in a more "factual" direction.

I mention all of this because I was reading a story on NBC News concerning the fact that IBM was using millions of photographs from Flickr as part of its training dataset for facial recognition software that the company is working on. The general gist of the story is as follows: IBM is using photographs of people without the permission of either the subjects or the photographers in work to train its facial recognition software to better recognize women and non-Whites. This is bad, because oppression.
Some experts and activists argue that this is not just an infringement on the privacy of the millions of people whose images have been swept up - it also raises broader concerns about the improvement of facial recognition technology, and the fear that it will be used by law enforcement agencies to disproportionately target minorities.
This "Oh, no! Big Brother!" theme is the central pillar of the article. And while I do have some questions about the facts as laid forth in the piece ("scraping" is not the same as receiving a published dataset), the piece's main draw appears to be the an appeal to a fear of the marriage of Jim Crow to a technologically driven surveillance state. The oppression-industrial complex at work.

The marrying of IBM's allegedly bad means of obtaining the photographs used in its dataset and the presumed bad ends to which government would put accurate and precise facial recognition struck me as playing directly into the emotions, assumptions and values of a generally left-leaning audience that is distrustful of both power in the hands of private entities and of government agencies insufficiently committed to the proper understandings of social, gender and racial justice. And it is in this sense that the piece struck me as biased. It doesn't come across as a hit-piece; there are no direct allegations that IBM is intentionally assisting a government that is up to nothing good. But the fueling of the creeping fear of a White male police state, instituted as a bulwark against progressive social change, can also be seen as bias, because the fears of "experts and activists" do not constitute facts.

Journalism, especially once one goes past the local scale, has always struck me as a generally left-leaning profession. It's often forward-looking, ostensibly public-serving and there's rarely any money in it. Not exactly a draw for the traditionalist crowd. But that left-leaning nature sets up an echo-chamber with left-leaning audiences, a symbiosis that rewards the parties for creating and being the audience for information that advances a particular set of preconceptions. And it works this way not because catering to to a particular set of emotions, opinion and values is bad, but because the constituency for emotion, opinion and value-neutral information is too small to drive the attention economy. I'm not sure I see that changing.

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