Information Manipulation: Accountability Pipe Dream
July 5, 2014
I read an article with what I think is the original title: “What does the Facebook Experiment Teach us? Growing Anxiety About Data Manipulation.” I noted that the title presented on Techmeme was “We Need to Hold All Companies Accountable, Not Just Facebook, for How They Manipulate People.” In my view, this mismatch of titles is a great illustration of information manipulation. I doubt that the writer of the improved headline is aware of the irony.
The ubiquity of information manipulation is far broader than Facebook twirling the dials of its often breathless users. Navigate to Google and run this query:
cloud word processing
Note anything interesting in the results list displayed for me on my desktop computer:
The number one ad is for Google. In the first page of results, Google’s cloud word processing system is listed three more times. I did not spot Microsoft Office in the cloud except in item eight: Is Google Docs Making Microsoft Word Redundant.
For most Google search users, the results are objective. No distortion evident.
Here’s what Yandex displays for the same query:
No Google word processing and no Microsoft word processing whether in the cloud or elsewhere.
When it comes to searching for information, the notion that a Web indexing outfit is displaying objective results is silly. The Web indexing companies are in the forefront of distorting information and manipulating users.
Flash back to the first year of the Bush administration when Richard Cheney was vice president. I was in a meeting where the request was considered to make sure that the vice president’s office Web site would appear in FirstGov.gov hits in a prominent position. This, gentle reader, is a request that calls for hit boosting. The idea is to write a script or configure the indexing plumbing to make darned sure a specific url or series of documents appears when and where they are required. No problem, of course. We created a stored query for the Fast Search & Transfer search system and delivered what the vice president wanted.
This type of results manipulation is more common than most people accept. Fiddling Web search, like shaping the flow of content on a particular semantic vector, is trivial. Search engine optimization is a fools’ game compared with the tried and true methods of weighting or just buying real estate on a search results page, a Web site from a “real” company.
The notion that disinformation, reformation, and misinformation will be identifiable, rectified, and used to hold companies accountable is not just impossible. The notion itself reveals how little awareness of the actual methods of digital content injection work.
How much of the content on Facebook, Twitter, and other widely used social networks is generated by intelligence professionals, public relations “professionals,” and folks who want to be perceived as intellectual luminaries? Whatever your answer, what data do you have to back up your number? At a recent intelligence conference in Dubai, one specialist estimated that half of the traffic on social networks is shaped or generated by law enforcement and intelligence entities. Do you believe that? Probably not. So good for you.
Amusing, but as someone once told me, “Ignorance is bliss.” So, hello, happy idealists. The job is identifying, interpreting, and filtering. Tough, time consuming work. Most of the experts prefer to follow the path of least resistance and express shock that Facebook would toy with its users. Be outraged. Call for action. Invent an algorithm to detect information manipulation. Let me know how that works out when you look for a restaurant and it is not findable from your mobile device.
Stephen E Arnold, July 5, 2014