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Analysis Tech

The overlay bias

I’m not very fond of some highly popular pieces of writing (I won’t name them because I’m nervous about backlash from authors and/or their supporters) because a part of their popularity is undeniably rooted in technological ‘solutions’ that asymmetrically promote work published in the solution’s country of origin.

My favourite example is Pocket, the app that allows users to save copies of articles to read later, offline if required. Not long ago, Pocket introduced an extension for the Google Chrome browser (which counts hundreds of millions of users) such that every time you opened a new tab, it would show you three articles lots of other Pocket users have read and liked. It’s fairly brainless, ergo presumably non-malicious, and you’d expect the results to be distributed equally from among magazines, journals, etc. published around the world.

However, nine times out of ten – but often more – I’d find articles by NYT, The Atlantic, The Baffler, etc. there. I was reluctant to blame Pocket at first, considering their algorithm seemed too simple, but then I realised Pocket was just the last in a long line of other apps and algorithms that simply amplified existing biases.

Before Pocket, for example, there might have been Twitter, Facebook or some other platform that allowed stories from some domains (nytimes.com, thebaffler.com, etc.) to persist for longer on users’ feeds because they were more easily perceived to be legitimate than articles from other sources, say, a Venezuelan newspaper, a Kenyan blog, a Pakistani magazine or a Vietnamese journal. Or there might have been Nuzzle, which auto-compiles a digest of articles that others your friends on the social media have shared most – likely unmindful of the fact that people quite often share headlines, or domains they’d like to be known to be reading, instead of the articles themselves.

This is a social magnification like the biological magnification in nature, whereby toxic substances pile up in greater quantities in the gizzards of animals higher up in the food chain. Here, perceptions of legitimacy and quality accumulate in greater quantities in the feeds and timelines of people who consume, or even glance through, the most information. And this way, a general consciousness of what’s considered desirable erects itself without anything drastic, with just the more fleeting and mindless actions of millions of people, into a giant wheel of information distribution that constantly feeds itself its own momentum.

As the wheel turns, and The Atlantic publishes an article, it doesn’t just publish a good article that draws hundreds of thousands of readers. It also rides a wheel set in motion by American readers, American companies, American developers, American interests and American dollars, with a dollop of historical imperialism, that quietly but surely brings the world a good article plus a good-natured reminder that The Atlantic is good and that readers needn’t go looking for anything else because The Atlantic has them covered.

As I wondered in 2017, and still do: “Will my peers in India have been farther along in their careers had there been an equally influential Indian for-publishers tech stack?” Then again, how much is one more amplifier, Pocket or anything else, going to change?

I went into this tirade because of this Twitter thread, which describes a similar issue with arXiv – the popular preprint repo for physical sciences, computer science and applied mathematics papers (don’t @ me to quibble over arXiv’s actual remit). As the tweeter Jia-Bin Huang writes, the manuscripts that were uploaded last – i.e. most recently – to arXiv are displayed on top of the output stack, and what’s displayed on top of the stack gets more citations and readership.

This is a very simple algorithm, quite like Pocket’s algorithm, but in both cases they’re algorithms overlaid on existing bias-amplifying architectures. In a sense, they’re akin to the people who might stand by and watch a lynching, neither egging the perpetrators on nor stopping them. If the metaphor is brutal, remember that the effects on any publication or scientist that can’t infiltrate or ‘hack’ social biases are brutal as well. While their contents and their ideas might deserve international readership, these publications and scientists will need to spend more – energy, resources, effort – to grab international attention again and again.

The example Jia-Bin Huang cites is of scientists in Asia, who – unlike their American counterparts – can’t upload a paper on arXiv just before the deadline so that their papers sit on top of the stack because 2 pm in New York is 3 am in Taipei.

As some replies to the thread indicated, the people maintaining arXiv can easily solve the problem by waiting for the deadline to pass, then randomising the order of papers displayed in its email blast – but as Jia-Bin Huang notes, doing that would mean negating the just-in-time advantage that arXiv’s American users enjoy. So here we are.

It isn’t hard to see how we can extend the same suggestion to the world’s Pockets and Nuzzles. Pick your millions of users’ thousand most-read articles, mix up their order – even weigh down popular American publishers if necessary – and finally advertise the first ten items from this list. But ultimately, until technological solutions actively negate the biases they overlie, Pocket will lie on the same spectrum as the tools that produce the biases. I admit fact-checking in this paradigm could be labour-intensive, as could relevance-checking vis-à-vis arXiv, but I also think the latter would be better problems to solve.

Categories
Op-eds Scicomm

Social media and science communication

The following article was originally intended for an Indian publication but I withdrew from the commission because I couldn’t rework the piece according to changes they required, mostly for lack of focus. I thank Karnika Kohli and Shruti Muralidhar for their inputs.

Since the mid-20th century, the news-publishing industry has wielded the most influence on people’s perception of what science is, what its responsibilities and goals are, and what scientists do. The internet changed this by disrupting how news-publishers made money.

In 2012, The Hindu used to sell a copy of its newspaper in Chennai for Rs 4.50 (or so) while it used to cost the publisher Rs 24 to print each copy. The publisher would make up the deficit by soliciting and printing ads from advertisers in different parts of the newspaper. The first major change in this regard was Google and the new centrality of its search engine to exploring the internet. Sites were keen to have their pages ‘rank’ better on search results and began to modify their content according to what Google wanted, giving rise to the industry of search-engine optimisation.

Second, Google AdSense allowed websites to run ads as well as advertisers to target specific users in line with which websites they visited and their content consumption patterns. Third, once Google News started becoming a major news aggregator, news sites re-tailored their content according to its specific needs, including reinterpreting the news in terms of the preferences of Google News and its users.

Fourth, bandwidth became cheaper around the world but especially in India, reducing the cost of accessing the internet and bringing more people online. In response, social media platforms — especially Facebook — began to set up walled gardens to keep these users from leaving the platform and consuming the news elsewhere. And when traffic to sites plummeted, their ads-based revenue came crashing down.

The effect of these ‘gardens’ has become so pronounced that recently, a paper in the journal Experimental Economics found that college students who went off Facebook consumed less news. This conclusion suffixes the belief that most people, especially in the 18-24 age group, consume the news on social media platforms with the notion that they don’t consume news anywhere else.

In another instance, Google at long last become a walled garden proper in August 2019: the fraction of its users who consumed the news on the site itself instead of following a link through to the publisher’s site had breached the 50% mark.

Finally, because the social media made it so easy to share information, citizen-journalism became more appealing, even lucrative. At the same time, social media platforms, which constantly evolve to accommodate their users’ aspirations, began to chip away at the need for public-spirited journalism. As a result, the amount of ‘bad information’ in the public domain exploded even as people become more unwilling to acknowledge that this was all the more reason society needed good journalists.

Obviously all of this is bound to have profound implications for how social media users perceive science. But while this isn’t easy to gauge without a dedicated, long-term study, it is possible to extrapolate based on what we know from anecdotal experiences. Through this exercise, let’s also move beyond the logistics of using the social media well and spotlight the virtues of getting on these platforms that so many people love to hate.

Broadly, social media allows users to organise information in a fixed number of ways but doesn’t give users control over how they are displayed. This limitation is good because the platform sidesteps the paradox of choice and forces users to focus only on what they are saying. But it is also bad because the limitation eliminates diversity of presentation, sometimes forcing users to shoehorn an idea into a note or image when a longer article or an interactive graphic would work better.

Second, social media platforms incentivise some user behaviours over others, which then constrains how users can present scientific results.

These two arcs are united by the fact that these platforms have socialised the consumption of news (and the production as well to some extent). That is, users discover a lot of news these days in social settings, such as in conversation with other users or in the timelines of accounts they follow. Such discovery happens after the news has been filtered through the lenses of others’ interests, encouraging users to follow users whose tastes they like and views they endorse, and stay away from others. This tendency is psychologically rewarding because it contributes to building the echo chamber, which is then economically rewarding for the platform’s owners.

All together, the social media — comprising platforms whose motive is profit and not social and psychological wellbeing — are populist by design. They privilege popularity over accuracy and logical value. In this regard, it would be hubristic to assume that the public perception of science has been separately or distinctly affected by general social-media use patterns.

Then again, these patterns have also helped mature the old idea that public debates aren’t won or lost on the back of strong scientific evidence or clever logical arguments. More generally, science communication in India is becoming more popular at the same time Indians are becoming more aware of the socio-political consequences of our digital lives and worlds. This simultaneity has the potential to birthe a generation of more conscientious and social-media-savvy science communicators that can devise clever ways to work around apparent barriers.

For example, scientists can adapt an app that has been designed to communicate speed, say by allowing users to rapidly compose and share text, pictures or videos, to meaningfully convey changes in that speed. They could highlight how different parts of a long experiment can proceed at different paces: sluggishly when growing a bacterial culture overnight and rapidly when some chemical reactions with it produce results in seconds.

Communicators can also ‘hack’ social-media echo chambers by setting up small, homogenous online communities. According to one 2018 study, such groups can “maximise the amount of information available to an individual” according to their preferences. The study argues that such “homophilic segregation can be efficient and even Pareto-optimal for society”.

Finally, the limits on how users can organise and present information has in fact incentivised those who had stayed away from communicating science for lack of time and/or resources to sign up. Maintaining a blog or writing articles for newspapers can be laborious. Additionally, writing for the press — the historically most common way to communicate scientific knowledge outside of journals — also means using at least a few hundred words to set readers up before the author can introduce her idea.

But if you discover that a paper has made a mistake or that you want to explain how something works, you post a few threaded tweets on Twitter in a matter of minutes and you are done. A Facebook note wouldn’t take much longer. Instagram even gives you the added benefit of using a large visual prompt to grab users’ attention. WhatsApp introduced the power to do all of this from your smartphone.

One remarkable subset of this group is traditionally underprivileged science workers (to use a broader term that encompasses scientists, postdoctoral scholars and lab assistants). While journalists are typically expected to be objective in their assessment, they — like almost everyone else — have been fattened on a diet of upper-caste men as scientists. So in the course of shortening the distance between a communicator and her audience, social media platforms empower less privileged groups otherwise trapped in a vicious media cycle, which renders them more obscure, to become visible.

Of course, some platforms exact a steep psychological price from users of currently or formerly marginalised groups (including women, transgender people, transsexual people, and pretty much everyone that doesn’t conform to heteronormativity) by forcing them to put up with trolls. So their continued presence on these platforms depends on the support of their institutions, other scientists and science communicators. And should they persist, the rewards range from opportunities to change users’ impression of who/what a scientist is to presenting themselves as a more socially just set of role models to aspiring scientists.

Obviously populism has downsides that are inimical to how science works and how it needs to be communicated, such as by falsely conflating brevity with conciseness and objectivity with neutrality. But it is always better to have a bunch of people using the social media to communicate science while being aware of its (arguably marginal) pitfalls than to have them avoid communicating altogether. This also seems to be the prevailing spirit among those scientists who recognise the importance of reaching the people, so to speak.

Science communication is becoming increasingly popular as an interdisciplinary field of its own right, wherein scientists and sociologists team up to determine the general principles of good communication by examining why some stories work so well among certain audiences, how psychological and linguistic techniques could play a part in establishing authority, etc.

These efforts parallel many scientists taking to Facebook and Twitter, posting updates regularly including comments on the news of the day (at least from their points of view) and offering non-scientists a glimpse of what it is like to be a working scientist in India. Easier access to their views also allows science journalists to contact scientists to understand which developments are worth covering and to solicit comments on the merits of a study or an idea.

In effect, Snehal Kadam and Karishma Kaushik wrote in IndiaBioscience, “social media discussions and opinions are playing a key role in Indian science. This is evident on multiple fronts, from increasing accessibility to administrators and enforcing policy changes to determining the way the Indian science community wants to be represented and viewed, and even breaking down silos between scientists and citizens.”

There are many resources to help scientists understand the social media and use these platforms to their advantage — whether to popularise science, find other scientists to collaborate with or debate science-related issues. I don’t want to repeat their salient suggestions (but @IndScicomm is a good place to start), plus I am not a scientist and I will let scientists decide what works for them.

That said, it is useful to remember that the social media are here to stay. As Efraín Rivera-Serrano, a cell-biology and virology researcher, wrote on PLOS, “These platforms are shaping the future of science and it is imperative for us to exploit these avenues as outreach tools to introduce, showcase, and defend science to the world.”