Veteran Web Researcher Speaks on Bias and Misinformation

October 10, 2017

The CTO of semantic search firm Ntent, Dr. Ricardo Baeza-Yates, has been studying the Web since its inception. In their post, “Fake News and the Power of Algorithms: Dr. Ricardo Baeza-Yates Weights In With Futurezone at the Vienna Gödel Lecture,” Ntent shares his take on biases online by reproducing an interview Baeza-Yates gave Futurezone at the Vienna Gödel Lecture 2017, where he was the featured speaker. When asked about the consequences of false information spread far and wide, the esteemed CTO cited two pivotal events from 2016, Brexit and the US presidential election.

These were manipulated by social media. I do not mean by hackers – which cannot be excluded – but by social biases. The politicians and the media are in the game together. For example, a non-Muslim attack may be less likely to make the front page or earn high viewing ratings. How can we minimize the amount of biased information that appears? It is a problem that affects us all.

One might try to make sure people get a more balanced presentation of information. Currently, it’s often the media and politicians that cry out loudest for truth. But could there be truth in this context at all? Truth should be the basis but there is usually more than one definition of truth. If 80 percent of people see yellow as blue, should we change the term? When it comes to media and politics the majority can create facts. Hence, humans are sometimes like lemmings. Universal values could be a possible common basis, but they are increasingly under pressure from politics, as Theresa May recently stated in her attempt to change the Magna Carta in the name of security. As history already tells us, politicians can be dangerous.

Indeed. The biases that concern Baeza-Yates go beyond those that spread fake news, though. He begins by describing presentation bias—the fact that one’s choices are limited to that which suppliers have, for their own reasons, made available. Online, “filter bubbles” compound this issue. Of course, Web search engines magnify any biases—their top results provide journalists with research fodder, the perceived relevance of which is compounded when that journalist’s work is published; results that appear later in the list get ignored, which pushes them yet further from common consideration.

Ntent is working on ways to bring folks with different viewpoints together on topics on which they do agree; Baeza-Yates admits the approach has its limitations, especially on the big issues. What we really need, he asserts, is journalism that is bias-neutral instead of polarized. How we get there from here, even Baeza-Yates can only speculate.

Cynthia Murrell, October 10, 2017


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