Column: The complicated ethics of algorithms


Joseph Adams

News editor

The images that A.I. (artificial intelligence) evokes are usually killer robots from The Terminator movies destroying mankind. We are not there—yet.

The dangerous robots that we face are subtler, like ethnic and racial hatred being spread through propaganda on Facebook to justify genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. They incite racial hatred in the United States, assist the rise of misinformation groups like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers, or allow ads to appear beside horrible, disgusting content on YouTube.

Most algorithms currently are used to promote popular content that is being shared and provide advertising revenue from promoted content. The more popular a topic becomes, the more it becomes promoted by those algorithms due to the potential increase in ad revenue. They dictate what content you see online, and they work to keep viewers on certain web pages to increase ad viewership, even if the content is unethical, destructive to rational thought or violent.

Advertising revenue, not ethics, is the clear motivator in all these problems with algorithms. Currently, The Campus Ledger, according to Facebook, somehow violates community guidelines. Who is making that decision and moderating our privileges to post our website on Facebook is not a person at all, but an algorithm. This programmed set of numbers has decided that our content somehow does not meet community guidelines.

It’s absurd.

Soon, A.I. will control vehicles, weapons, jobs previously held by humans, such as paralegals, food service professionals, parts of the medical field, etc.

This is largely a good thing, it makes living easier. The part that is difficult to control are the ethics of algorithms.

Who decides what is ethical? There are harmless parts of the internet like The Campus Ledger that are swept under some larger ban.

We strive to be appropriate for our readers and our community because we are community journalists.

The ban, it seems, is an attempt to make Facebook seem like it is not a cesspool of privacy violations and a forum for spreading outright lies, hate and propaganda.

These problems brought to the attention of billionaire Mark Zuckerberg are only now a problem, and his company is only now working to fix problems that have already caused a huge amount of damage.

Then, shortly after Zuckerberg’s hearing in Congress about transparency and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook hired a public relations firm to find dirt on and attack George Soros because he called Facebook and Google ‘a menace to society.’ Facebook, Google and Congress do not care, they get the money. Now consumer’s data and browsing history are sold to advertisers, which is unacceptable, and ads are driving the content we see online.

Facebook as it was intended is fine, but it has become a platform for your disregarded old friends and relatives to promote their multi-level-marketing scams and outdated political beliefs.

The problem is advertising algorithms can target people interested in certain topics that could be harmful to society, like the anti-vaccine movement. It doesn’t help that Facebook and YouTube are inadvertently spreading anti-vaccine propaganda. The growth of the movement leads to doctors and pro-vaccine activists being harassed by large anti-vax groups through Facebook, the preferred platform of the anti-vaxxers.

Propaganda and ignorance spread on Facebook through unchecked advertising algorithms. The danger behind those algorithms is that they promote harmful content, make consumers dumber and make people’s biases stronger. It generates an online bubble of ideas and content. Advertising algorithms are degrading humans into their most primal self.

The only reasonable solution to these problems is regulation. Companies like Facebook and Google need government oversight. The power that they have is overwhelming and many tech companies are monopolizing the content consumers view online.

When I say regulation, I do not mean the type of regulation that House Republicans were advocating, alleging that Google search algorithms are somehow biased against conservatives.

It turns out that when you do bad things in government most of the news coverage is going to be negative. An example is white nationalist Steve King, who was recently re-elected to the House of Representatives from Iowa. If you search Rep. King’s name, the coverage is not going to be positive because he is an outright racist serving in the government.

The hearings held by House Republicans showed that the GOP is woefully uneducated about how the internet works, and yet they have legislated on it for years, even passing a bill that let’s advertisers use private information without the consumer’s consent in 2017.

The government is actively participating in selling us out instead of protecting us. The cycle between powerful tech lobbyists and politicians is giving tech lobbies too much power. The road to regulation has started, but tech companies and lobbyists will fight tooth and nail to take away consumer protections to make more money. Regulation needs to happen, human lives need to stop being controlled by advertising and advertisers themselves must reconcile the ethical issues of their ads appearing alongside, baseless conspiracy theories, or hate speech.

In the move to the future, we must look at what we are doing before it is done, involve citizens in innovation and try not to destroy ourselves in the relentless pursuit of ad revenue. I understand that ads keep certain websites free, but I also pay $70 a month for the privilege of even accessing the internet.

I am not an industry insider, but Google and Facebook could very well be a ‘menace to society’ if they get to retain the power they have unchecked and unregulated.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.