Free Market Shooter was recently presented with an article from Vogue detailing the steps Google’s Yasmin Green is taking to become a “slayer” of internet trolls. A few notable excerpts are below:
“We have that geopolitical lens,” Green tells me. “We have the mandate to think ahead, rather than respond to what’s happening at the moment. To think prophetically.”
“Our job is to get more and better information in the hands of vulnerable people,” she says.
“How can we illustrate this?” asks Green. How, in other words, can the threat be explained so that you don’t have to be a Silicon Valley programmer to understand it?
Does this sound at all to you like a simple reprogramming of search algorithms? Because it sure reads a lot more like McCarthy-ist censorship. And a closer look at Google’s strategy reveals that is exactly what Google intends to do, with right-wing news as the target.
First, you have to take a look at what Yasmin Green and Jigsaw have been up to, and what its original purpose was. Jigsaw was originally put in place to counter ISIS, which was an idea everyone could get behind. Wired posted an article detailing exactly what it was that she did:
“This came out of an observation that there’s a lot of online demand for ISIS material, but there are also a lot of credible organic voices online debunking their narratives,” says Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s head of research and development. “The Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.”
— Jigsaw (@JigsawTeam) September 7, 2016
It all seemed innocuous enough – filtering search results, using national security as the guise for doing so. But later that day, The Intercept detailed exactly where the “program” was heading next: censorship.
Ross Frenett, co-founder of Moonshot, said his company and Jigsaw are now working with funding from private groups, including the Gen Next Foundation, to target other violent extremists, including on the hard right.
“We are very conscious — as our own organization and I know Jigsaw are — that this [violent extremism] is not solely the problem of one particular group,” Frenett said.
Of course, the mainstream media made sure to help boost the claims. The Guardian posted an analysis a few months later, detailing the “tricks” that “right-wing” groups have implemented for the goal of “widespread dissemination of misinformation”, which appears to be much more like a baseless continuation of the Zimdars “fake news” list that made headlines shortly beforehand.
In the past, when a journalist or academic exposes one of these algorithmic hiccups, humans at Google quietly make manual adjustments in a process that’s neither transparent nor accountable.
At the same time, politically motivated third parties including the “alt-right”, a far-right movement in the US, use a variety of techniques to trick the algorithm and push propaganda and misinformation higher up Google’s search rankings.
And just recently, the gut punch came – Google announced it was implementing review teams with outside contractors known as “quality raters” to flag terms that could be deemed to be “upsetting-offensive” to viewers. In other words, it is relying on bots to flag content as right-biased, so it can be moved down in its search rankings:
Google is trying to improve the quality of its search results by directing review teams to flag content that might come across as upsetting or offensive.
With the change, content with racial slurs could now get flagged under a new category called “upsetting-offensive.” So could content that promotes hate or violence against a specific group of people based on gender, race or other criteria.
While flagging something doesn’t directly affect the search results themselves, it’s used to tweak the company’s software so that better content ranks higher. This approach might, for instance, push down content that is inaccurate or has other questionable attributes, thereby giving prominence to trustworthy sources.
The review teams — comprised of contractors known as “quality raters” — already comb through websites and other content to flag questionable items such as pornography. Google added “upsetting-offensive” in its latest guidelines for quality raters. Google declined to comment on the changes, which were reported in the blog Search Engine Land and elsewhere.
You got that right – a “review team” is subjectively deciding which content it will censor. What happened to the programmers and objectively censoring “trolls” and abuse? The whole thing is much more similar to McCarthyism, except instead of targeting “communists” during the Cold War, they are targeting “right-wing” websites and individuals. Truly a threat to “national security” in the same vein as ISIS, isn’t it?
If you take a closer look at Vogue’s article on Yasmin Green, which reads much more like a self-promoting puff piece detailing her style choices and educational background far more than it details anything substantive on how Google will become a “slayer” of trolls, you’ll see where her ideas on censorship likely came from.
“I actually told my family and friends in London that I’m not going to settle in New York,” she recalls. “Obviously! It’s a very aggressive city. It’ll rub off on me. And then you know what? I met a New Yorker and married and had a New York baby.”
She went to University College London, then the London School of Economics, then worked at a consulting firm, where she specialized in oil and gas and traveled throughout Africa and the Middle East, comparing cultures in a way that, when she looks back now, destined her to work at a place like Jigsaw. When a job at Google came up, Green saw a chance to be on the corporation’s intellectual front guard.
It’s quite amusing that someone who has traveled Africa and the Middle East, areas of the world where repression and censorship are so commonplace that they are readily accepted as “part of” the culture, is claiming to working to fight against repression and to stand up for free speech by censoring “hurtful” opinions they oh-so conveniently happen to disagree with. But what else would you expect, from someone who lives in a place as “accepting” and “diverse” as New York City?
If Jigsaw really wanted to combat “trolling” and “fake news”, perhaps they would start by flagging CNN as “upsetting-offensive” before anything else?