Commentary

The Ideological Tech Trap

In order to compete in the digital age, news organizations here and there are developing self-learning algorithms that enable publications to serve subscribers content most relevant to them based on their reading patterns.

The theory being that the more users are on your site, the more likely they are to become paid subscribers and of greater value to advertisers.

There is much to be said about giving the customer more of what s/he wants. I argued years ago that newspapers needed to customize digitally delivered editions (within reasonable parameters) so that someone who valued better high school sports coverage would get more of it, and those who hated the crossword puzzle or international news would never see either.

Digital newspapers that are well designed already make it pretty easy to click (only) on the sections you want to read. You are then free to get angry about exactly WHICH stories the editors chose to put in the section (or their perceived biased POV). Likewise, you are free to subscribe or sign up for newsletters, eblasts, alerts and updates from whatever fringe publication aligns with your personal worldview.

Meanwhile, the pubs from which your stories originate are using machine learning to push out more of the kind of thing you already read. And before you know it, you are in the infamous echo chamber, where your knowledge of world events is narrowed to narratives that make you feel like you are smart as all hell and that the world is increasingly moving toward the way you see it all unfolding.

I met one of these guys the other night at a cocktail party, and it was frightening. A well-educated, highly accomplished former Wall Street tech exec spent a half hour celebrating Trump’s “accomplishments,” trashing the “mainstream media” for being “after him” and basically reiterating Trump’s worldview on immigration, foreign affairs and the economy.

I asked what TV news shows he watches (Fox, naturally) and newspapers he reads. He stunned me by claiming to read The Washington Post, which covers Trump about as critically as any publication in the nation. Later, it became clear that he tends only to read columnists with whom he agrees, not the general news coverage of any publication. So, basically, he did not wander far from his sociopolitical tribe when “gathering” the news. Nor was he much interested in having his POV challenged, making him more of an ideologue than an informed conversationalist.

When news organizations say things like “democracy dies in the dark” and “Are you missing what’s important?” and even “All the news that’s fit to print” they are clarion calls to be informed, not just to drop in, cherry-pick what appeals to your worldview and leave claiming that you are now informed.

It means becoming a student of information, knowing where it comes from, what the inherent biases are of the people who report, edit and publish it, comparing it to other sources which might have a different slant on the same story. It means generally getting out of your comfort zone to challenge your thinking, not just reinforce it.

We now live in a world where you are a few keystrokes from thousands of sources of news. It has never been easier to compare how differently publications cover the same story. This may not last too much longer, as the big tech companies (i.e., Google and Facebook) continue to refine their profiles of you and only send you to “news” that they think you would like.

This is a trap, not a solution.

If you want to be truly informed, it will take some effort on your part. Don’t ask tech to do it for you.

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