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Algorithms: the Ultimate Excuse

The controversy about apparent liberal bias in social media seems to have come to a head with the recent collaborative deplatforming of Alex Jones, along with Shopify renouncing its free speech pledge and removing storefronts from four gun and ammunition dealers, New York governor Andrew Cuomo pressuring banks to not do business with companies of which Como doesn't approve — "Nice bank you have there. It would be a shame if the New York Attorney General decided to investigate."

We at PJ have certainly had our own bad experience with this — Bridget Johnson was blocked from Twitter for weeks, Jim Treacher has been blocked twice in the course of a few days — and of course there are a dozen other examples.

When pressed about it, the answer is always "algorithms." "It's not our fault it's the algorithms." So what are they talking about?

An algorithm is nothing more than a procedure — a series of steps that lead to a result. The word is mostly used with reference to computer programs, but not necessarily — the way you learned to do long division is an algorithm.

The specific algorithms that are used come from the category of "machine learning" or more broadly "artificial intelligence." These phrases sound science-fictional and cool but the reality is that all of these are doing something conceptually simple: the programs get inputs, process them in various ways, and present them to a person who says "you're getting warmer" or "you're getting colder." This trains the program to get warmer as often as possible.

The potential weak spot here is the person in the loop. Imagine you're Twitter and you have a machine learning algorithm you're training to identify Nazis on Twitter. You put a person in the loop who thinks Trump is a Nazi and anyone who says anything favorable about Trump is a Nazi sympathizer. (They exist: I lost a couple of friends when they called me a Nazi sympathizer for just that reason.)

The algorithm spots someone liking the tax cuts: the person says, "he's a Nazi." The algorithm soberly notes that. It doesn't know any better, it has no more understanding than an old-fashioned tabulating machine understood why it put the A and B cards into different bins.

Endorsed Brett Kavanagh? "He's a Nazi." In Congress with an (R) after your name? "Oh yeah, definite Nazi."

Pretty quickly the algorithm will confidently identify any Republican, any Trump fan, or any independent who says #MAGA, as a Nazi.

So now we come to @Jack Jack Dorsey's recent media blitz in which he said "yes Twitter leans left", but that there was no bias in their algorithms.