The Cost Of Doing Business: How Unregulated Algorithms Affect More Than Marketing

 Our society is in the midst of a terrifying backslide. The prejudices we as a nation were actively combating in recent years are now being amplified and celebrated with new enthusiasm. Dreams of equality for all people and building a better life are now increasingly qualified by your gender, what you look like, and who you love. Financial opportunities, healthcare and education are denied to people based on things like economic discrimination, racial bias and religious intolerance. The highest offices and courts in our nation are being remolded by people who are openly manipulating the public against its own interest to benefit themselves. Yet there are always those among us who seem to be cheering on the destruction and applauding the hate and cruelty that is now on full display. Beliefs that would have embarrassed people in recent history now feel far more widely held. How did we get here? What happened?

It is easy to blame the common, everyday people supporting this destructive downward spiral for the entire state of things. People need to be more responsible about what they believe. How stupid can they be? How could someone vote against what’s best for themselves? They should have known better. Are they really that dumb?

People need to be more responsible about what they believe. How stupid can they be? How could someone vote against what’s best for themselves? They should have known better. Are they really that dumb?

But let me ask you this- Is it that dumb to listen to information that looks like news? Is it that dumb to believe statistics when they are coming from somewhere that seems reputable? Is it that dumb to feel like you are right when everything you see and hear seems to agree with your perspective? Is it that dumb for people to feel like it is okay to be awful when everything they see encourages it? If you take a step back and look at how media and tech companies have been operating in this country you can start to see how easy it is to manipulate and elevate the group of people supporting this regressive madness. These greedy, self-interested companies are facilitating and helping promote dangerous, racist, xenophobic, fascist, and bigoted ideas so that they can continue making money.

Let’s start by taking a look at how these companies are actively choosing to make things worse. When a person begins to search and browse around the internet for media content or products there are algorithms that begin to build based on that information. It takes information from all of the places they clicked on, searched or stopped and finds advertisers and other sites that are similar to what they looked at. This creates cross promotional opportunities and highly specified marketing banners for each individual browser. So instead of studying a demographic these calculations study each person. As time goes on they will begin to encourage someone to revisit the sights they recently visited and suggest other places to find similar or related content.

This kind of feedback loop can be particularly dangerous when you are dealing with someone who, for example, is interested in preparing for a mass shooting. These algorithms may encourage them to shop for high capacity magazines, experiment with certain behaviors or send them to sites that help them logistically prepare for the event. The videos that populate their feeds will begin to encourage their attitudes and interests towards violence and weapons. Likewise, people who believe immigrants are inferior or dangerous become surrounded by an echo chamber of misinformation that supports those beliefs based on the algorithm of their history. It may even encourage them to purchase security systems or lead them to sites with things like panic provisions. Those who are looking for ways to marginalize minorities are able to feel like their bigotry and superiority is validated because they are surrounded by content and media that tells them as much. These information gathering and processing techniques will help all kinds of disturbed people find places with like-minded individuals to further validate their delusions. Essentially, these algorithms help fuel the ideas and behaviors that translate into rapes, murders, abuses and incarcerations in the real world. Our society is being ripped apart by the lack of accountability in technology and media as they shrug their shoulders and tell us that it’s just the way it is.

Why would the tech companies take such a passive stance on so much suffering? Why would content sites like YouTube resist policies that would help diminish and remove hateful, divisive content from their site? What makes social media platforms such as Facebook refuse to take action on content that targets people with manipulative, false information? Why do media platforms keep the truth away from the people who need to be confronted by it the most? Why are they okay with spreading lies and hate? Mass murderers leave us taunting hints of their intentions before their violent outbursts. Collective threats against minorities and vulnerable people circulate unchecked. We see abuses and human rights violations being openly celebrated without anyone to say enough is enough. And for what?

It probably comes as no surprise that the answer is money. These calculations might allow toxic ideology to fester but they also allow advertisers to target consumers in a more direct and effective way. This kind of targeted advertising has been proven to be a successful and lucrative marketing tool. Changing these algorithms would mean sacrificing a lot of consumer revenue. It doesn’t matter if it is helping encourage violence, terrorism and brutality among us, no executive is going to put public good above profit growth. They say that if fascists want to create content and sell merchandise they should be allowed to, and that we don’t have to watch it or buy it if we don’t want to. They say that the market has dictated a need for these things and that there needs to be a place for these ideas. These companies accumulate massive sums of money at the risk of our safety and well-being then they turn around and use their money to help advertise and elect people who are happy to grease the wheels of the money-making machine with their own propaganda content.

We are the ones forced to live among the people who harbor the hatreds and misconceptions these companies support. Our families and communities are the ones who live in fear of emboldened violence. We are the ones who suffer. The land of the free should not sponsor oppression or suggest hatred. But these companies seem to think that whatever it costs us is just the cost of doing business. Home of the brave, indeed.