The Ethical Flaws Of Algorithmic Content Curation

How I consumed content when I was a kid in the 90’s

One thing I discovered while growing up was how much I miss being a kid.

Perhaps it’s the sense of having just a few responsibilities. Perhaps it’s the fact I enjoyed my boyhood, but it’s common for me to daydream about those days.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was my lunch routine when I was in my teenage years.

Living close to school, in the suburbs of Lisbon, allowed me to walk to and from school every day. Both parents had busy work lives, so I knew once I left home in the morning, I’d only see them again late in the evening. That meant every teenager’s dream: free house for the afternoon. As most only children, I guess, I learned to appreciate solitude.

And lunch was just that. A blissful moment of self. My parents had struck a deal with a self-service restaurant nearby.

(my lunch place for a couple years)

This place was small, food was ok, and I never quite understood how they sustained themselves.

Most times, for the hour I’d spend there every day, I’d be the sole visitor of the establishment.

But my memories were not about the place, definitely not about its menu, not even about their staff. What I liked the most about my lunch experience was that I would read the newspaper, every day.

I could always trust two or three daily newspapers to be on the table. And I’d read them, front to cover, and it was amazing.

This was the late 90’s. For a suburban teenager, lucky enough to have a flip phone, this was what people did. Social wasn’t a thing, and I had limited hours (and especially data) to surf the web.

Looking back, what I enjoyed the most was the curation process I was privileged to take advantage of. While reading through the newspaper, it was clear to me that someone had carefully thought when and why each story was published.

At most, personalization was at the audience level for a whole newspaper. But once in print, all the consumers got the same piece of content.

Online vs Offline Reading

Today, the news consumption experience is different. I still buy the newspaper, and I still read it, front to back. Usually, I’m late for any important or breaking news, but I’m ok with that. Print newspapers often tell a story that’s different from what we get from digital outlets.

In 2017 we had severe fires in Portugal. Everywhere you looked, you’d get reports and live news about what was happening. Weeks later, the events were featured offline in my weekly newspaper. There was a three-page piece, sharing the story about the first respondent teams. How they had coped with finding tens of burnt bodies, how they felt about it, how their lives were impacted.

I never saw that story online. Never got to me ‘automagically’. Never received a newsletter featuring it. I doubt it got many clicks or shares. But it’s the one story that I remember from that dark period last year. Much more in-depth and personal.

Reading in the Digital Era

Social Media has changed the rules of news and media in general. With a large part of the population consuming news on social media, I can’t help to wonder whether that’s good or bad. I wouldn’t call myself an optimist when it comes to it.

When I read the newspaper, I’m trusting the thought process behind what I’m reading. I’m trusting in a team of professional journalists and editors to make my experience useful and informative. In return, they know that while I’m reading their stories, my attention is dedicated to them. I like to read the newspaper in a silent setup: no phone, music, distractions. It helps me to concentrate on the things I’m reading.

When we shift to digital, things get messy. All the outlets are battling for our attention. Competing for eyeballs that are receiving countless inputs from messages, tags, snaps, likes, you name it…

In such a blurred & short-lived setup, the battle for focus is key. Everything they serve must drive optimal engagement.

And social media networks excel at doing just that. There are no editors, no audience developers, no journalists curating your feeds. It would be impossible to do so. At any given moment, you’re likely to have more than 2,000 posts ready to show on your Facebook newsfeed.

New online editors: algorithms

That kind of amount of information on social media is impossible to curate manually, so Facebook (& other social media) do it for you. The news feed algorithms decide what’s best for you. They’re your new, improved editors, they hope.

They know, better than anyone, better than you, what content you want to see. What you’re most likely to engage with. Drop a like. Share with a group. React with “love”. And it’ll fine tune itself on every scroll you make, on every post you like, on every link you share.

It’ll understand you spend more time looking at Mark’s posts than Sophias’. It will learn you’re more likely to engage with links about home decor than senate meetings. And it will reinforce such content.

It will understand that you’re unlikely to engage with sports content. You never were a sportsperson, you actually despise the whole thing. No sports content for you, what a good experience. It’s like the newspaper section just disappeared. Effective.

It’s good that algorithms improved your experience, due to their in-depth understanding of who you are and what you like.

But I invite you to acknowledge the other side of the coin.

I believe one of the biggest challenges we face today is our ability to search for new stories, for new content. Digitally, it’s increasingly challenging.

Getting stuck in these positive feedback loops may limit our perspective. It may harm the ability to question, something we have developed so well over the last millennia. It could limit our ability to critique, and worst, to debate.

Because nothing good comes from me defending my position to the death. Progress has always been made through active listening, through negotiation and cooperation. Social Media doesn’t foster that, or it’s failing to do so.

It’s great that we can create groups of people like us. But what good can come out of that, if one of the consequences is that we’re shutting up everyone who’s unlike us?

What’s next?

Over the next few months it’s likely I’ll be reflecting on this again. People are getting their news through algorithm driven platforms. At the same time, a non-negotiable percentage of them is still unable to spot fake news.

The ability for us to maintain well and truthfully informed is one of the topics that should be debated. We got to where we are by questioning, by going after what we believed in. I don’t feel it’s in our best interest to give that up and passively accept what’s given to us in form of news.

And we’re lucky, those of us living in democratic societies.

In authoritarian regimes, the technology driving our experiences could be the same used to control and restrict information. That is a violation of people’s civil and individual liberties and not the goal of the world wide web.

Software companies could learn from the police forces. To serve and protect. While we spend most of our time providing technology that enables growth on social media, we must not forget our duty to society.

We must not forget how we can protect the freedom of information. It should be our mission to help technology grow in the right way, maintaining itself ethical.

Algorithms are ‘machines’, but they’re still made by people. It’s in our power to decide how they’ll learn and perform, it’s our job to make sure they’ll do so in a fair and sustainable way.


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João Romão is a founder & CEO at GetSocial.