Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Book excerpt: Conclusion

(This is one version of the conclusion from my book, "Algorithms and Misinformation: Why Wisdom of the Crowds Failed the Internet and How to Fix It")

Wisdom of crowds is the idea that summarizing the opinions of a lot of people often is very useful. Computers can do this too. Wisdom of the crowd algorithms operating at a massive scale pick everything we see when we use the internet.

Computer algorithms look at people's actions as if they were votes for what is interesting and important. Search and recommendations on your favorite websites combine what millions of people do to help you find what you need.

In recent years, something has gone terribly wrong. Wisdom of the crowds has failed us.

Misinformation and scammers are everywhere on the internet. You cannot buy something from Amazon, see what friends are doing on Facebook, or try to read news online without encountering fraudsters and propagandists.

This is the story of what happened and how to fix it, told by the insiders that built the internet we have today.

Throughout the last thirty years of the internet, we fought fraudsters and scammers trying to manipulate what people see. We fought scammers when we built web search. We fought spammers trying to get into our email inboxes. We fought shills when we built algorithms recommending what to buy.

Seeing these hard battles through the lens of insiders reveals an otherwise hidden insight: how companies optimize their algorithms is what amplifies misinformation and causes the problems we have today.

The problem is not the algorithm. The problem is how algorithms are tuned and optimized.

Algorithms will eventually show whatever the team is rewarded for making the algorithms show. When algorithms are optimized badly, they can do a lot of harm. Through the metrics and incentives they set up, teams and executives control these algorithms and how they are optimized over time.

We have control. People control the algorithms. We should make sure these algorithms built by people work well for people.

Wisdom of the crowd algorithms such as recommender systems, trending, and search rankers are everywhere on the internet. Because they control what billions see every day, these algorithms are enormously valuable.

The algorithms are supposed to work by sharing what people find interesting with other people who have not seen it yet. They can enhance discovery and help people discover things they would not have found on their own, but only if they are optimized and tuned properly.

Short-term measures like clicks are bad metrics for algorithms. These metrics encourage scams, sensationalistic content, and misinformation. Amplifying fraudsters and propagandists creates a terrible experience for customers and eventually hurts the company.

Wisdom of the crowds doesn’t work when the crowds are fake. Wisdom of the crowds will amplify scams and propaganda if a few people can shout down everyone else with their hordes of bots and shills. Wisdom of the crowds requires information from real, independent people.

If executives tell teams to optimize for clicks, it can be hard to remove fake accounts, shills, and sockpuppets. Click metrics will be higher when bad actors shill because fake crowds faking popularity looks like a lot of new fake accounts creating a lot of new fake engagement. But none of it is real, and none of it helps the company or its customers in the long run.

Part of the solution is only using reliable accounts for wisdom of crowds. Wisdom of the trustworthy makes it much harder for bad actors to create fake crowds and feign popularity. Wisdom of the trustworthy means algorithms only use provably human and reliable accounts as input to the algorithms. To deter fraudsters from creating lots of fake accounts, trust must be hard to gain and easy to lose.

Part of the solution is to recognize that most metrics are flawed proxies for what you really want. What companies really want is satisfied customers that stay with you for a long time. Always question whether your metrics are pointing you at the right target. Always question if your wisdom of the crowd algorithms are usefully helping customers.

It's important to view optimizing algorithms as investing in the long-term. Inside tech companies, to measure the success of those investments and the long-term success of the company, teams should run long experiments to learn more about long-term harm and costs. Develop metrics that approximate long-term retention and growth. Everyone on teams should constantly question metrics and frequently change goal metrics to improve them.

As Google, Netflix, YouTube, and Spotify have discovered, companies make more money if they invest in good algorithms that don't chase clicks.

Even so, some companies may need encouragement to focus on the long-term, especially if their market power means customers have nowhere else to go.

Consumer groups and policy makers can help by pushing for more regulation of the advertising that funds scams, antitrust enforcement to maintain competition and offer alternative to consumers that are fed up with enshittified products, and the real threat of substantial and painful fines for failing to minimize scams and fraud.

We can have the internet we want. We can protect ourselves from financial scams, consumer fraud, and political propaganda. We can fix misinformation on the internet.

With a deeper understanding of why wisdom of the crowd algorithms can amplify misinformation and cause harm, we can fix seemingly ungovernable algorithms.

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