Interesting experiment by BBC reporter on social media, complete with ethical questions

BBC reporter social media experiment

I found this to be an interesting story. The reporter has set up five fake “Americans” with varied interests and political leanings. They never post, but she has “them” respond to likes and suggestions to see what happens. I think it’s interesting with respect to how the social media companies quickly push what their algorithms determine you want to see and keep you engaged.

The ethical debate on this is interesting too. I can see both arguments. Some consider the use of fake info to get fake info to be unethical. The BBC, however, doesn’t see it as violating their policies. I tend to lean toward this being simply an unbiased experiment to learn something, so I’m pretty much OK with what she’s doing here. More people need to see how they’re just getting fed what they want to believe, and then read it all accordingly and make efforts to broaden their information base. (We know they won’t, but I can dream.)

Interesting read. I think she skates along the border of ethical and unethical. Mostly staying within the ethical due to the imaginary creation of the accounts in question. She does do a good job of raising questions. I was reminded, EVERYONE has an agenda. We can look at the “Yellow” journalism that seemingly pushed for the Spanish-American War, with the bold headlines talking about the USS Maine in Havana Harbor.

Although I suspect the better area to question is just how ethical the big companies are that spread information around. Notice I didn’t say good or bad information, or dis/mis-information. Information/data is just that until someone interprets it. So, who decides what is dis or mis information? You? Me? Someone at Google, or FB, or TikTok, or someone in the government (pick your level)?

Just a few of my thoughts.

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Could be semantics, but information does have a definition. Some examples:

  • facts provided or learned about something or someone
  • what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things
  • knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction
  • intelligence, news
  • facts, data

So, one could argue that opinions, lies are not information but it is open because it could be conveyed by a sequence of words, hence your true point that there has to be some interpretation. But that is the battle of the day - what is fact (and how can it be proved) or what is ‘truth’ (not just someone’s ‘truth’, but real truth). Real meta thinking.

In any case, it’s a proof of algorithmic biasing that feeds echo chambers and divisiveness. Easy to put any claim out there and hide behind general anonymity. These ‘social media’ companies (which you could argue are anti-social and not media in some cases) claim they are just the platform and are not responsible for any content. Well, unless it gets really bad, then … but maybe not because people should say what they want … but hate speech …

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Yes, my true point was and still is interpretation. Who gets to decide? Personally I’m in favor of having “too much” information and making decisions based on that, vs too little and making decisions that way. I realize that both can lead to poor decisions, and both can lead to good decisions.

Yet, I want the “end” user to make the decision. I don’t want some anonymous 3rd party deciding what I should or should not know.

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It happens here at Utefans all the time. They won’t admit it, but I know that RockerUte and LAUte created their own algorithm that decides what I see, and when. Some examples:

  • I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s, so I hardly ever see an posts with music from any other era.
  • I always either really like, or really dislike the political posts of @NewbombTurk, @SkinyUte, @LAUte, @Ma-ake, @RockerUte, @Greginslc so I see a hell of a lot of them.
  • I’m a cyclist, and enjoy variety, so they direct @Carolina_Cycling_Ute’s posts my way.
  • I don’t much care for anything related to USC, so I rarely see posts from @ghostofOCGreg
  • And of course since it’s their algorithm, I see a more stuff than I could imagine from RockerUte and LAUte

I could go on, but I need to say that the current version of the algorithm has some serious flaws that require some immediate adjustments:

  • some of my favorite photo posts are from @Steggys_Mixtapes, who I’m sure is posting, but I’m not seeing any of them!
  • a never see posts anymore from @UtahFanSir, one of my favorite posters, why is the algorithm keeping them from me?
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It’s now my duty to inform you that the board’s Committee on Review of Appropriate Posting (CRAP) has now been assigned to all of your activities here: posting, comments, star awards, attendance at UF.net tailgates, activities while wearing UF.net gear in public, and conduct (including consumption of concession offerings) while in Utah Athletics venues, to name a few. Also, please do not be surprised if your posts are edited to assure correct thinking, and do not change any such revisions. Please govern yourself accordingly.

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P.S. @salUTE: We’re going to assign the CRAP Grammar And Spelling Police (GASP) to all your posts until further notice. You may not believe you need this, and if so you are right. The purpose behind this assignment has nothing to do with your grammar and spelling. We just want you to know we’re watching.

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“Ethical” – not sure many people know or care to know about this anymore.

I’m curious as to why this would be considered unethical as she didn’t deceive anyone. I more take it to be like when journalists embed themselves with groups or individuals to learn what is happening to them. She didn’t post things or try to convince people to follow her on social media she just followed others.

In the politics section of this site I’ve described doing nearly an identical thing. I wanted to learn what was being served to left leaning and right leaning accounts. It is disturbing because as I put it you basically create your own walled garden or echo chamber. And it isn’t necessarily because of unethical reasons either, they just want to serve you content that keeps you engaged and using their service.

For example, you can’t serve me up enough mountain biking videos on Instagram or TikTok. And since that is what I show interest on with those mediums that is all I get. Not necessarily a bad thing.

The algorithms may be sophisticated but it doesn’t mean it is complicated. Here is the easiest way to understand it. Based off of what you follow, it begins to suggest similar content that people who follow the same people you do, also follow. So say I follow Utah Athletics, then it might start recommending BYU athletics because others who follow Utah athletics follow byu too, or are friends with those who do. Those two groups might also have in common the LDS church and so it’ll recommend that too. And if I don’t engage in that it’ll keep trying as I follow more and more, building a profile. It might also serve up some outdoor recreation stuff.

Basically the algorithms acknowledge a truth about each of us that we aren’t that original and we all follow some pretty similar things.

You can see how that carries over into politics and how if you only see content from people like you you start to get way more myopic. And lack of diverging voices starts to make things feel like undisputed facts. And that is very unhealthy.

Now couple that with the fact that outrage really deepens engagement and then when someone says something outrageous, or false or whatever - engagement goes through the roof. A guy on TikTok recently proved that falsehoods get WAY more engagement than truth. He has truthful videos with 2000 views, and videos of lies (easily verifiable things too) that get hundreds of thousands of views. There are two reasons for this - first is that people get outraged and comment - and when a social media service sees engagement they promote it elsewhere - they don’t care what the engagement is. But then a lot of people see it and they believe it.

A quick aside: I listen to a lot of unique and diverging musical styles. A couple of times on Spotify I’ve had it recommend songs to me that are nothing like the song I am listening too, but I’ve been the only one to listen to it. So it’ll be like, “Listeners to this obscure Texas two string bass solo act also listened to Deftones and Aimee Mann.” And I’m like, “Heh, yeah that is me - I’m that ‘other’ listener.”

Anyway, I don’t think what she has done is unethical at all because we need to understand what is happening to us. Social media is making us all more extreme and we are only getting fed information that shows one side and agrees with us. Really can’t be worse and more concerning.

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You bring up an interesting point, idea, or thought on echo chambers. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I despise echo chambers. Yes, my politics lean to the conservative, but I don’t like just getting news from conservative folks. I want to know what and why from the liberal/progressive side of things.

IMO echo chambers lead us to where everyone is the “other” to someone and therefore easy to demonize. Getting on my soapbox, get out and talk to those who hold different views than you. Odds are you’ll find we all have more in common than not. I’m off my soapbox. Thank you for your time.

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I do the same, except from the other side.

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I’m glad to hear that. I’m also willing to bet that you have seen that we all have far more in common than not. I think discussions amongst the “people” is a good thing. Now if we could just get politicians, both major parties, to actually listen, and have real discussions. The vitriol has to stop somewhere.

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Nice work coming up with those acronyms. (See related post in The pet peeves thread.) :wink: