Monday, December 26, 2005

A political lens on information

Mark Cuban posts a truly frightening prediction, a world where people use different tools to find information because they don't want to see any information that conflicts with their preconceived opinions:
I have zero doubt that in the future there will be sliders or some equivalent that represent "the [political] flavor" of search that users will look for.

Looking for information about the war in Iraq... push the slide rule to the right till you reach Bill O'Reilly flavored search, or slide it to the left for the Al Franken flavor. The results are then influenced by the brand you prefer to associate with.

The news is no longer just the news ... A search result will no longer just be a search result.

The Web 3.0 - You stay on your side of the web and I will stay on mine.
Can this possibly be true? Are people so afraid of being wrong that they will ignore conflicting information?

Unfortunately, I've seen some of this myself at Findory. Especially around the 2004 elections, Findory received a few pretty remarkable hate mails. This is one, from someone clearly deep in the bowels of the right wing, is one of the most extreme:
Subject: lefty

YOUR TOO LEFT WING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


We also get accusations of bias coming from the left:
Subject: Foo...

Articles history gets arbitrarily flushed from time to time.
No clustering, articles related to the very same topic are repeated and clutter the page space "real estate".
Categorisation is sometimes hapazard, articles showing under the wrong heading and "personalized" topics gathering disconnected subjects.

Yet, you manage to introduce a right-wing bias!

I suggest you use this effort and cleverness to improve the basic product instead...
Since Findory crawls thousands of sources around the world -- some considered to be conservative, some considered to be liberal, most considered to be moderate -- I've been a bit surprised by these comments.

There is a temptation to dismiss these as ravings from the lunatic fringe, but I've been curious about where these people see bias. Even with the most hateful of these e-mails, a calm response usually works well, and I've often been able to discover why a few customers feel so strongly that there is bias one way or the other.

The answer is disturbing. Findory is specifically designed to ignore political biases when recommending articles. If you read a right or a left-leaning opinion article on the Iraq War, you will be recommended other articles on the war and issues surrounding the war, some right-leaning, some left-leaning.

The idea is to avoid pigeonholing, to show people views from across the spectrum, to give people the information they need to make an informed judgment.

For some, that is exactly the problem. They don't want to see both sides. They want a filter, a political lens. As they see it, reading an opinion article on the left should only give them other opinion articles on the left (or visa-versa), reinforcing the opinion they already have.

They don't want discovery. They don't want new information. They don't want to learn. They want to be pigeonholed.

And this is why I find Mark Cuban's post so frightening. If he is correct, what I've seen as a radical fringe, a few people way outside the mainstream, is actually the majority view. Mark sees a world where information is not true or false, but left or right:
This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs -- to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.

In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

- 1984 by George Orwell
That world must not be allowed to come to pass. Information must be free.


chad said...

"Mark sees a world where information is not true or false, but left or right"

But what people need to realize is that the act of observation is inherently a "bias". A person can probably not read more than lets say 200 news items per day and be able to digest them in today's busy work world.

So its clear that people will be getting some kind of personalized mix of information via personalized aggregators (i.e. RSS aggregators). And the apps will be doing some mix of explicit (preferences driven) and implicit (inference driven) to determine WHAT the news items are that people see. so its going to be biased by definition; I like reading Krugman but not Brooks, so who does it hurt if I get the information I want? Information isn't like liver, to be stuffed down your throat by a doting information mother figure - RSS is a sushi converyor belt! Have it your way.

Anonymous said...

I think you're missing the point chad. Exactly because `the act of observation is inherently a "bias"' I think it's important to get both sides of an argument. No side will tell you the exact truth, because that's a) impossible and b) not in the interest of many news publishers. So instead they will give you a shortened version which nicely fits the editor's point of view.

So what Findory apparently does (though I have not verified it myself) makes sense. If you're interested in Iraq war news, it will present you with other news about that - biased in both directions.

And to the article itself: I agree with Greg that this is a pretty scary development. IMHO it's mainly caused by the two-party system in the USA.

Greg G. said...

I agree this is a scary thought, but I think Mark is correct in his assessment; if you look at the mainstream media, people now choose their news based on what they want to hear: if I want to hear one side, I tune into Fox, if I want to hear the other side, CNN. I think this also explains the rise in prominence of blogs; people find someone who speaks to them, and prefer this over a more watered down outlet such as a newspaper that, although it may or may not have a bias to one side or the other, is less explicit in which side it supports.

The fact seems to be that most people already have their mind made up; they're just looking for someone to say it eloquently.