Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Yahoo and the solution for itching ears

If you are reading this then I suspect that you already know that the Internet is a wonderful and terrible place all at once. It is simultaneously a resource for both good and evil. However one of the more insidious things about the Internet is how it is shaped and moulded behind the scenes. The content that you see can be very different than the content that I see...even if we go to the same page. Consider the story of Sarah Kendzior:

"On February 8, 2012, I was on Yahoo's homepage when a headline caught my eye: "Mo. teen gets life with possible parole in killing." Curious, I clicked to see what atrocity had transpired in the state where I live. Alyssa Bustamante, a teenager from Jefferson City, had strangled and stabbed her nine-year-old neighbor for the sheer thrill of it, later describing the event in her diary as an "ahmazing" experience. Horrified, I closed the page. Like many whose homepage defaults to Yahoo, this quick scan of a story was a rote action, information via procrastination, almost subconsciously performed every morning before I move on to other things. In this case, the story was so awful that I wanted to get away. Except, it turned out, I couldn't.

"For the next month, I woke up to a barrage of horrifying stories that seemed to signal an epidemic of child torture in America...I rarely clicked on any of these headlines, and at first, I didn't notice the way they had crept into my Yahoo homepage -- and into my mind -- until their pervasiveness became impossible to ignore.

"That's when I realized: Yahoo had decided I liked child murder."

Ms. Kendzior is someone that understands how the Internet works and is well aware of the fact that sites such as Yahoo and Google filter what you see based upon what they perceive to be your interests:

"Unlike tabloid television, algorithmic personalization does not announce that it's pandering to base interests. When sensationalized reports about violence against children are on TV, I can change the channel -- an act that is harder to do on the Internet when seemingly "neutral" spaces, like Yahoo's homepage, leave no tell-tale trace of manipulation. You can't change the channel when you don't know you're watching the program.

"Yahoo personalizes headlines for its audience of over 700 million people through its Content Optimization and Relevance Engine, an algorithmic system based on demographic data and reading behavior. As a researcher who studies digital media, I was aware that my news was filtered, but I had never noticed the filtering process in action, probably because, until now, Yahoo had guessed me right. (Or at least not so gruesomely wrong.) When the headlines first appeared, I thought they were an anomaly, but as the weeks went on, I noticed a pattern. Going through my search history, I could trace the emergence of stories to the day I read about the Bustamante murder."

There is a very real problem with this type of filtering:

"Few perusing Yahoo headlines would suspect that children murdering children is a reader category chosen by robots. While disturbing on an epistemological level, it may also have practical consequences. As we rely on internet media to give us a taste of what's going on, we don't realize we're consuming a particular flavor. A sudden uptick in stories on violence -- particularly by or against a specific demographic category -- can spur paranoia, prejudice and vigilante behavior. What a machine thinks we need to know can become what we fear. But because the algorithmic process is both secret and subjective, we have no way of tracking the ramifications."

We start to see and hear the things that we want to see and hear...even when they are things that we think that don't want to see and hear. In this case Ms. Kendzior was given something that shocked her system but how much targeted information had Yahoo fed her before she realized what was going on? She admits that she had never questioned how the news that was being given to her via Yahoo was being shaped as long as it was sublte and agreed with her.

The Apostle Paul warned Timothy that a day like this was coming to the church:

"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."

Very rarely will a person willingly take in teaching that is jarringly false. The problem comes when a pastor or teacher feeds a subtle and agreeable diet of false doctrine to a congregation. It is one of the reasons that we always need to be searching and studying the Bible and not just taking someone else's word as to what it says.


Source: The Atlantic via Tim Challies


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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