Are Facebook’s algorithms changing our worldview and through its decisions what this means for society.
By KIRK WALLACE
This report investigates how the new ecosystem developed from the peripherals of Facebook’s trending system are reshaping the way in which we build a worldview, building newsfeeds based on our own fields of interests and trending activities through the social media giant. To demonstrate the new shape that is being constructed based on users’ online behaviours, a study behind Facebook’s new Safety check feature has been used as a prime casting of this as it develops through global events as they arise.
MECHANICAL TURK (or Automaton Chess Player)
To gain an understanding of where the development of algorithmic processes behind the simple functions of technologies in computing was first conceived, one must present its first incarnation from the 16th century, in what was referred to as ‘The Mechanical Turk’.
The Turk was an early conception of a computer-operated illusion made out as a chess-playing machine able to compete against a human opponent. It was operated by a human chess master sitting inside a hidden compartment in a cabinet and exhibited in public as an automaton through various owners until it was eventually revealed to be an elaborate hoax. First unveiled by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770, The Turk remained in operation until its destruction in 1854 from a fire.
The skilled operator inside the Turk won most exhibition games competed around Europe and across the Americas for roughly 84 years, defeating most notable statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.
Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk)
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk web service allows for human participation to assist with computers in order to perform menial tasks that proves to be too laborious and time consuming for people to undertake.
“A crowdsourcing Internet marketplace enabling individuals and businesses (known as Requesters) to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do” most notably exemplified by Amazon Web Services.
Here, employers (also known as Requesters) can post jobs (known as Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs)), eg. selecting the best photographs from a collection, adding to it the product descriptions, labelling artists/producer credits on music CDs. Workers (also called Providers or Turkers) can take on existing jobs and complete them for payment as set by the employer. This program takes on the modern illusion of a mechanical process actuated by human labour likening it to The Mechanical Turk.
What is EdgeRank?
“the Facebook algorithm that decides which stories appear in each user’s newsfeed. The algorithm hides boring stories, so if your story doesn’t score well, no one will see it.”
The newsfeed is the first feature shown after a user logs onto Facebook, which is a summary of recent activity among friends off the Facebook account listing.
Every time a friend makes a comment on a post or posts a status update, tags a photo, RSVPs to an invite to an event or joins up to a fan page, these are actions which generate a potential story to a friend’s personal newsfeed. These actions are what Facebook refers to as ‘edges’.
From this step, to prevent every story from being created to a newsfeed, which would be overwhelming, Facebook designed an algorithm to predict the interest to each user, building a system that ranks the edges – this algorithm is referred to as ‘EdgeRank’. These are then put through a filter of each user’s personal newsfeed to end up as a top-ranked story for that particular end user.
Safety Check Feature
Facebook’s Safety Check feature was originally designed for friends and family to check in on those who have travelled to or are in close proximity to locations under a natural disaster.
After the Paris attacks this past November, which had killed at least 129 people, FB had added to its function the use for terrorist attacks (LINK). However, in the wake of the recent attack at Istanbul, Turkey’s Ataturk Airport this July the network drew suspicion when the feature was not available for this tragic event that left 36 dead and 147 wounded (LINK). Users had accused the social media giants of ‘waiting for a Western disaster before switching the check-in system on, while terrorist attacks in Africa and Middle Eastern countries were ignored.’ (www.ibtimes.co.uk), Facebook and its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg were made to defend the policy to not switch the feature on for this event (LINK) while having it readily available for a select few terrorist attacks, namely those affecting the Western world. A recent case arose when a family sought to use the feature to check in on both cousins in Paris, France during the Bataclan and Stade De France attacks who were marked as ‘safe’ after news feed refreshing enabled the feature to work. However, the same family, after twin suicide bombings in Burj al-Barajneh, Beirut, Lebanon, with cousins residing in the region, had found comfort in hearing of their safety through WhatsApp messaging service than Facebook’s Safety Check which had not been activated for this event, (Tuysuz & Almasy, 2016).
General Facts of Safety Check
Roughly 36 times that the Safety Check has been activated.
2016 Mina Stampede crush @ Mecca. (September 24, 2015) 2,400 + deaths. NO activation of Safety Check.
During tragic Paris attacks – The Huffington Post reported 24 hours after the attacks, 4.1 million people marked themselves safe by using the safety tool.
Inspired by 2011 earthquake/tsunami in Japan – “more than 12.5 million people were affected nationwide and more than 400,000 people were evacuated, Facebook took notes on how people used social media to stay connected with those they cared about. Thus, the beginning stages of Safety Check were born.
New feature introduced last month, “community-generated Safety Check,” a process initiated following a “critical mass of users are discussing a crisis on the network”, as opposed to having an operator from FB start the process.
Beirut Suicide Bombings
Series of suicide bombings in Beirut Thursday – 43 people were killed and wounded 239.
Facebook has received backlash for not implementing the Safety Check tool.
Vice President of Growth Alex Schultz addressed the reasoning of Safety Check being turned on for Paris and not Beirut, “where violence is more common and terrible things happen with distressing frequency.”
In the statement he points out that every time Facebook has launched the tool, they learn new things in order to improve it. We can only hope that disasters like Paris and Beirut don’t happen enough for Facebook to master Safety Check.
After Baghdad Bombing
July 3, 2016 – truck bombing in Karrada, Baghdad, killing 250, (25 children + 20 women).
Safety Check activated within hours of attacks in Istanbul and Dhaka – activated 30 hours late from the actual explosions in Baghdad.
Razbar Sulaiman, a hackathon organizer and UN specialist who lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, wrote in a blog post, echoing frustrations on social media. “Did it seriously take 30 hours after the explosions to create/consider the safety check-in? I’m extremely disappointed.”
Initially, a Facebook spokesperson told Politico that the feature was not deployed following the bombing on Sunday, because “she noted the feature is not used during longer-term crises, like wars or epidemics, because such emergencies have no clear start or end, making it difficult to determine when an individual is ‘safe.'”
My Own Story
On the morning of Thursday, 7 July 2005 The London bombings, also referred to as 7/7, happened in the United Kingdom’s capital city. Four purported Islamic terrorist suicide bombers set off a series of coordinated attacks across central London during rush hour targeting the public transport system. Three bombs were detonated in quick succession aboard the Underground rail system with a fourth on a double-decker bus at Tavistock Square. The attacks left 52 people dead and over 700 injured. This was Britain’s worst terrorist attack since the 1988 Lockerbie, Scotland bombing of the Pan Am Flight 103.
In 2005, I was living in North London with my girlfriend although at the time I had flown home for a month for a family event. My girlfriend remained in our North London flat and on the morning of these attacks was travelling to work on the Underground to the corner of Hampstead Road and Drummond Street. [51.526543, -0.138868]. After it happened, all mobile communications were disabled as were all landlines. In Australia, when news broke, it was after seven pm and I had no way of ringing her to find out if she was OK. This was before I was connected to Facebook and when mobile communications had limited internet access. I was worried for several hours before I could get an email to my brother (also living in London at the time, working at News Ltd, at Katherine’s Dock) through which I asked if he could visit her workplace “Lawrence Corner” to inquire as to her safety. He had to wait several hours to get through roadblocks.
She informed my brother that she was safe, which he relayed back to me. He told me that she thought the bomb blasts were earthquakes as she experienced the whole building and floor around her shaking with several rumbles of what sounded like thunder. This was the only method of a safety check on loved ones ten years prior to Facebook’s initiative was put to action.