Saturday, January 14, 2017

Google-Induced Hysteria

A mass-murderer, a "self-investigator", and a "self-radicalized jihadist" have one thing in common - they were driven crazy by the first ten hits on Google.

The other day a guy went into an airport in Ft. Lauderdale and started shooting people in the head.   The funny thing was, no one noticed.   People shooting up bars, restaurants, shopping malls, school campuses, and airports is so commonplace that it hardly lasts one news cycle.   We look at random shootings the same way we look at car wrecks - part of the cost of doing business.

And about the same number of people die every year due to gun violence as to car wrecks - about 35,000 or so.  The number of car deaths has dropped by 10,000 due to safer cars, while the number of gun deaths remains relatively flat.   In both cases, we live with this carnage.  We are not about to dismantle our transportation system just yet, but try to improve the situation with automation, and so forth.   It is the cost of using a car-based transportation system.   And I guess we view the number of gun deaths as the cost of having "second amendment rights" and learn to live with that, right or wrong.

And it is sad, we view this as a random thing like the weather.  But I digress.

In most of these cases, however, the issue is crazy people with guns doing the carnage.  And what sets these crazy people off is Google.

Google's algorithms are tied across platforms.  If you use gmail, Youtube, Blogger, as well as the Google search engine (and who doesn't?) you may have noticed already that once you express an interest in a topic, you get inundated by suggestions for other, similar media on the same topic.   It can get really annoying, as if you click on even one cute cat video, for example, you are flooded with cute cat stuff for the rest of your life.

Rather than expose us to a panoply of different ideas, Google gives us more of the same, over and over again.  Worse yet, what Google thinks is "important" enough to make the first ten hits in response to a search is often the worst sort of dreck imaginable.   For example, headlines were made recently when it was noted that if you Google "holocaust" the top ten hits were to neo-Nazi holocaust denial sites.   This was the result of using brigades of online users to "upvote" these sites on various platforms (such as Reddit) so that Google would think they are more popular than they are.

In fact, on Reddit, in the months leading up to the election, many pro-Trump supporters were making no bones about how they were manipulating Google searches by getting thousands of up-votes for images and URLs so that they would appear as number one on a Google search.   And no doubt, much of this brigading is coming from Russian troll farms, who can hire armies of people to manipulate Google search results and thus manipulate public opinion.

Google's algorithm was based on popularity - much like social media is - so if your URL is mentioned on a number of other sites, it elevates your site to the top of the Google cesspool.  If you are astute you know how the algorithm works (or know what an algorithm is, even) - or you can sort of guess how it works based on the results you see.  If you are astute, that is.  Most people aren't.

That is why when I heard about this Ft. Lauderdale shooter, I felt a chill run up my spine.  He apparently had some mental health issues and actually complained to the FBI that the government was "forcing him to watch ISIS videos".   And I could see where a mentally imbalanced person who is also a veteran, might begin to think this when his "feed" online and his google searches all turn up ISIS videos. As a veteran, he might google something to do with the Iraq war, which in turn links to Islamic fundamentalist sites, which in turn links to ISIS.  Google doesn't care if you are for or against something, it just barfs up topical content.  He then goes to YouTube, and if he watches even one ISIS video, he is flooded with dozens more.

By the way, why again do we allow ISIS videos on the Internet?   Are there no limits to free speech?

And then a week later, we hear from mass-murderer Dylan Roof, who said he was radicalized to believe in race war after reading a bunch of hits on Google about the Travon Martin case.   And no doubt, like so many other Google search results, it included a lot of far-right neo-Nazi URLs that decried "Black on White violence" (when Black on Black violence is far more common).   He "self-radicalized" but not without the help of what is becoming one of the most powerful companies in the world - Google.

Two points define a line, three points define a plane.   And it struck me that if you "connect the dots" that a lot of this nonsense is going on.   The self-proclaimed "self-investigator" of the "pizzagate" hoax said he had - you guessed it - Googled it online and found tons of conspiracy videos and links.   How could this not be true?  Why wasn't someone doing something about it!  In his small mind, he was going to be a "hero" and rescue children from sex-trafficking.   It never occurred to him that so much of the information on the Internet could just be plain wrong, made-up, or a bad joke.

And it never occurs to most people that much of what we get as "news" is often filtered and skewed and should be viewed with skepticism.   Sadly, people are so quick to discredit the local newspaper (which may have a liberal or conservative bias) but are willing to embrace entirely, some unvetted website that spouts radical ideology.

Self-radicalization is the new trend - you go on the Internet and you listen to people who think just as you do.   Or more precisely, you click on one link and you end up down a rabbit-hole, coming out the other end as a different person with different belief systems.   

We shake our heads as to how some teenage girl in the UK could "self-radicalize" online and run off to be a bride to ISIS.   What sort of idiot would do things like this?   Or the teenager in Minneapolis who "self-radicalizes" online and tries to fly to Syria.   Are these Muslims a threat?   Or is it just one of the more effective rabbit-holes online?   And will we see more of this sort of thing in the future?

The last thought is a scary one.   We are entering a world of Google-induced hysteria.   People go online, read a few articles or watch a few videos, and once they do, Google shows them nothing else.   Suddenly the world takes on a very narrow focus - everything is related to itself and no opposing or balanced views appear.   The world takes on a fun-house mirror view - a view that is basically that of insanity.

For example, my sister-in-law sends me a video on how to cut a bottle with string and lighter fluid.  Before long, my YouTube "recommended videos" are nothing but Russian click-bait glass-bottle-cutting videos.  It was such a thing, I ended up making my own.  Video, that is.

Already we are seeing a far right-wing resurgence on the Internet due to this sort of circle-jerk echo-chamber approach to the Internet.   I am picking on Google here as the worst offender, but Social Media - in the form of Facebook in particular, is no better.   You go on Facebook with any sort of preconceived notion, and pretty soon, that notion is fed-back in an endless feedback loop until your head explodes.

It is not hard to see how a young Muslim "self-radicalizes".   He goes on Facebook and mentions he is Muslim.  Pretty soon, he is getting hits on his "feed" from related Muslim content, which is going to include radical conservative Muslim sites.  If he clicks on one, it reinforces the algorithm that he is interested in this sort of thing.  If he "likes" it, it becomes an even more powerful factor in the filter.  Within a few months, his "feed" and his "wall" are all radical Islam.

And the same is true for neo-Nazis here in the US - or Racists.   Dylan Roof, by all accounts, was a loner who didn't get his racist views from his peers at school, but rather by spending countless hours online, on Facebook, on Google, on YouTube, watching and reading the same opinions again and again - that blacks were assaulting and raping whites in record numbers and that the "white race" was under attack.   It became an echo chamber, a funhouse mirror.  Throw in the teenage onset of schizophrenia and you have a perfect storm.

And this could happen to any of us.   It is comforting to think that these are all "crazy people" and that we, as normal human beings would not be affected by these sorts of radical sites or links.   But the reality is, much of what we think of as our "opinions" and values is indeed affected by the environment around us.

We recently started subscribing to the New York Times, and it is almost comical how out-of-touch that newspaper is with mainstream America.   The editorial staff of the New York Times is convinced that if they write enough witty editorials about Trump, it will bring down his administration in short order.   Readers are convinced that if they write enough letters to the editor agreeing with said witty editorials, they will put a stop to Trump once and for all.   No opposing views are shown.

Fox News works the same way.

So you click on one article, and that leads to another article.   Google now assumes you are "Liberal" and filters your results accordingly.  Click on one "conservative" article and the same thing happens.   We are all being manipulated by this tendency today to isolate ourselves from opposing viewpoints. 

And if we are not careful, we might end up like the three people shown above - going off our rocker based on a distorted view of reality.