Why the unequal distribution of information is scarier than mass surveillance, hackers and internet pirates

By Jenée Tibshraeny

Cast your mind back to September, before John Key resigned as Prime Minister, Donald Trump was elected US President, and Phil Goff was elected Auckland Mayor.

Scrolling through Facebook, I was inundated with posts related to the Auckland mayoralty race.

I follow a bunch of New Zealand news organisations and live in Auckland, so it’s no wonder algorithms told Facebook I was interested in the election.

I recall thinking how fantastic it was that social media was providing young people with a platform to engage in local politics.   

That was until I spoke to my younger sister.

I recall being shocked that a few weeks out from the election, she had not heard of the 22-year-old mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick, who ran her entire campaign on social media.

While she doesn’t follow current affairs for a living like I do, my sister and I are similar in age, live in the same neighbourhood and share many interests and friends.

Why hadn’t she been inundated with videos, news stories, comments, etc about Swarbrick on Facebook, as I had?  

Would she have known there was a candidate vying to be a voice for her - a fellow millennial - in the mayoralty race, had I not told her? Which other candidates didn’t she know existed?

I couldn’t believe how someone so similar to me, was perceived so differently by Facebook, and thus fed such different information.

The situation begs the questions, how do our differing experiences on social media shape how we perceive ourselves and the world around us? And how does this affect who we vote for?

The unequal distribution of information

Victoria University professor Kathleen Kuehn believes these questions should drive debates around privacy policy.  

Mass surveillance, identity theft, online scams and hacking are among the bad that has come with the good of the internet age. But it’s the way the internet proliferates the unequal distribution of information that’s the most concerning for Kuehn.

She says the way data gets used can be “discriminatory” and “shape our movements or our futures in ways we don’t even know”.

In the example above, my engagement with Facebook led me to believe Swarbrick would receive a groundswell of support, while my sister didn’t even know she existed. This undoubtedly shaped the way we voted.

“This [unequal distribution of information] can give you a really skewed perception of what’s happening,” Kuehn says.

The normalisation of fake news and the US election

Just look at the way people thought Hilary Clinton was miles ahead of Donald Trump in the US Presidential Election, and the way fake news rose out of the event.

One might question how people believe fake news, but if it’s all you see, it’s possible for it to become a reality.

“The more you conduct your search for fake news, the more what you’re clicking on feeds into the algorithm and that re-solidifies the delivery of fake news and further builds this digital profile… It really shapes knowledge,” Kuehn says.

“It’s hard to have a civil debate because we have completely vastly different knowledge sets. It’s getting to the point where a lot of people don’t even know what’s true anymore.

“Or they don’t think anything’s true, which is even worse in a way, because how do you have a rational debate and how do you preserve democracy when no one can even agree on the basic facts around whether something did or didn’t happen?”

We do it to ourselves

Yet Kuehn notes one of the things that separates the internet age we’re in, from both the past and the Orwellian notion of Big Brother, is that data is being used by intrastate players for corporate purposes more than it is by state authorities for security purposes.

Furthermore, our data isn’t being stolen. Rather we are choosing to hand it over.  

“What makes the contemporary surveillance environment so different, is that we actively participate in it - and we enjoy it,” Kuehn says.

In return, we like being fed what we think we want.

For example, the location-enabling tools on our mobile phone can automatically tell our Uber drivers where to collect us from, track how many steps we may have walked in a day, document the locations we’ve taken our photos from, and automatically pick up our locations when shopping online.

The corporate interests of social sorting

Yet we don’t always comprehend how the likes of Uber, Nike, Countdown and Apple can use that data.

For example, are our airlines charging us more for our flights based on our locations, or are our health insurers charging us more because of the food we buy or amount of steps our GPS trackers say we take each day?

Furthermore, Kuehn questions whether our teenagers in lower socio-economic areas are being fed ads for trade schools, while those in higher socio-economic areas are being targeted by world-renowned universities.

She says this sort of social sorting is dangerous in its subtleness.

“It’s an invisible process that can shape the way people see themselves or the resources they access.”

She suggests people can make some efforts to reduce their digital footprints by using different internet browsers, not signing in to Google when doing searches, or using proxies that go through different countries.

For more on the issue, see Kuehn’s just-published book, ‘The Post-Snowden Era’.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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13 Comments

Thanks Jenée, that's an interesting topic.

Perhaps a bigger question would be why are we so lazy when it comes to news that we expect the likes of FB or somewhere else to provide us with a)what we want or b) what is important. They can't determine what's important to you (a local election) if you are never showing any interest in it - which I assume is the case of your sister.

And why are we as a younger generation so useless at fact checking news. We see a heading, a photo and take that as being the latest news story without question. A 4 page article by a reputable news provider is just too difficult to consume. Or so it would seem.

Critical thinking is not as valued by society as it once was. Healthy contrarianism is sanctioned as aggression that offends sensibility. 'News' items from many 'official' channels have become virtually worthless as sources of objective thought leadership on issues. Debate has evolved into slogan assertion where clever one upmanship and style over substance, 'wins'.

I am appalled at the inability of many people today, to maintain a position for more than one or two conversational sequences, at which point you get the shoulder shrug and can tell they are thinking 'what a git'.

Sure young people are light years ahead of where I was at their age in terms of inclusion, social equity, technology and environmentalism but basic fact and critical thinking based debate seems to be a dying skill. Very much to our detriment individually and as a society.

I'm not convinced that critical thinking has ever been valued by society. Politicians and rulers don't want it, corporations spending big bucks on advertising don't want it, religions don't want it, and apart from the authority structures in society, it requires going against the grain of a lot of our natural thinking patterns, and makes a lot of people uncomfortable and resentful.

A long time ago at school, it was expected that sacrosanct concepts would be challenged. 'On your feet and tell us why you disagree', was a fairly regular part of my high school education. The teachers used the process to develop the lesson subject. Maybe my school was unusual.

But I agree that today it's different. People look at you suspiciously if you don't carefully dress your challenges in non assertive, carefully nuanced language. Boring though, isn't it.

You nailed that one well middleman. It is boring indeed.

You do of course work for an employer that is right in the thick of this process. Personally I find google more useful for the browsing I do rather that Duck Duck Go, so take some action to reduce the ability to track me or feed me advertising.

Facebook is a disaster now though, I can barely stand to use it now as it is so intrusive with advertising. I would think a competitor in that space might be well received.

Overall I would say you have to turn off the internet and read books. Old fashioned I know, but at least it offers you some layer of protection.

An excellent article, good to see people starting to question what they see on the internet (or should that be Internet 2.0 or Facebook)

Some may say I have a tinfoil hat, but recent examples have shown that most of the internet is indeed monitored/censored in some way, whether people like to believe it or not.

Two terrible examples of the manipulation you encounter everyday came to light in the US election.

1. Facebook
Most people know this one, and it is roughly what you describe above. If someone supported ideas, concepts, and people that were pro-Clinton. Then facebook would only show them pro-Clinton/anti-Trump news, feeds, comments, etc... If they showed no interest in any of them, then they saw nothing.

Many users would not have even known the elections were on (If like most youth they no longer watch news, read papers, etc...) You only click on lolcat sites, then that is all FB will show you.

Except for the "Fake news" i.e. those clever kids in Macedonia, who used Facebooks own algorithms against them to make money for themselves. The articles themselves were all junk, but at least they broke open some of the behind the scenes workings of social media's attempts at "Personalization"

2. Google
Less people know about this one, and to my mind it is worse.
To get this one you need to understand Google aren't a search engine (at least not anymore) - they are an advertising agency. THe more the results are personalised (read: in line with what you think you want) the more likely you will use them, and google will get revenue.

An experiment was conducted whereby numerous users typed in "Donald Trump" into the search box - nothing else.
Results varied depending on the person (technically the device used) typing the request. Which is something most people do not expect.

As google trend/analyse search results for you, they view cookies, they check social media (They do even more if you have an android device). They then personalise the results, so that they fit best with what they think you are looking for.

This is the core problem of the web - Personalisation. How do you find the truth if you are only ever shown what you want to see.

To middleman, I agree with your post. But it is not so simple anymore. Many reputable agencies now refer to tweets, facebook posts, google results as news and/or sources. Trying to find the truth of those sources if near impossible, as once viewed every future item is skewed towards that viewpoint. A quick scan of google results and you can only assume that your source must be correct as all points match your original story.

The young don't have a chance these days, as from birth they are online. Every single thing they view will further re-enforce the pre-conceived viewpoint they already held.

How do you break that cycle?

You correctly identify the means by which information is manipulated to fit preconceived positions and the difficulties in penetrating the well meaning (so far) processes intended to facilitate easier information sourcing.

Stronger emphasis in schools on teaching critical analysis skills and encouragement to challenge accepted wisdom on social and political issues and concepts, would be a useful start.

My grandkids smile at me benignly when I challenge their 'truth is a relative concept' bland happy place, to which they consign tricky concepts. Polarisation is inherently unhealthy, it is so yesterday and to be avoided at all costs.

"Stronger emphasis in schools on teaching critical analysis skills and encouragement to challenge accepted wisdom on social and political issues and concepts, would be a useful start."

Sadly it is the schools forming most of the problems. Moving all learning to tablets, and setting homework based on what they can find on the internet.

Kids do need to learn technology, but they need to learn the concepts (critical thinking, analysis, verification, etc...) first not just dive on in to something as volatile as the internet.

I suspect facebook didn't show many articles about the Auckland Mayoralty because the headlines weren't worded like "This 22 year old girl wanted to be Mayor of Auckland.... what she did next will amaze you!!!!!"

or ..... the irresistible - 'this photo will drop your jaw'.

The kodak punch. Causes many ACC claims.