AI and Algorithms in the News

board-1364652_1920Cross-posted on DigiDig

I have been carefully watching for stories about the growing influence of technology in our lives, and sharing links with the DigiDig team via Toni Muzi Falcone. We discussed turning these into a weekly digest or DigiDigest (I truly hope that puns and weak humor attempts are not lost in translation; otherwise my writing tenure will be short here).

So, without further adieu, I list three very relevant stories.

Mother Nature’s Network – How Algorithms Influence us Every Day

This article describes ways in which algorithms help and hurt us. Cory Rosenberg worries that technology reduces our interests, backgrounds and behaviors to a number, and quotes Michele Willson of Curtin University in Perth, Australia: “Time, bodies, friendships, transactions, sexual preferences, ethnicity, places and spaces are all translated into data for manipulation and storage within a technical system or systems. On that basis alone, questions can be posed as to… how people see and understand their environment and their relations.”
Cory asks: “But isn’t the thought of humans as data an affront to our uniqueness?”
The article share examples of bias, e.g. “Google’s online advertising system shows ads for high-income jobs to males much more so than to females,” and examples of algorithms that help, like in “understanding” preferences in music and dating.

Mashable – Online Shopping Algorithms have us in a Decision Rut

Lance Ulanoff sees a “fundamental flaw in the technology designed to serve up things we might like. They are based entirely on past choices and activities and leave zero room for improvisation and unpredictability.” He bemoans the loss of serendipity in shopping recommendations, for example. It’s a timely topic in the US, as Cyber Monday was yesterday and the holidays are looming.

Lance writes: “If we continue to follow the choices made for us on social, services, subscription and retail sites, we will all soon be living a very vanilla life. Our friends will be the same kinds of people, our social feeds will offer just one point of view and our gift-giving will surprise no one.It is time to stand up and say, ‘You don’t know me.'”

Seems Lance would disagree with Cory’s view on the technology’s benefits.

Quanta Magazine – How to Force our Machines to Play Fair

Quanta writer Kevin Hartnett interviews author and Microsoft Distinguished Scientists Cynthia Dwork, who pioneered ideas behind “differential privacy.” She is now taking on fairness in algorithm design.

Cynthia says: “algorithms… could affect individuals’ options in life.. to determine what kind of advertisements to show people. We may not be used to thinking of ads as great determiners of our options in life. But what people get exposed to has an impact on them.”

She explores individual vs. group fairness and introduces the idea of “fair affirmative action.” Dwork would love to find a metric or way to ensure that “similar people [get] treated similarly,” but concludes that it is a thorny problem that people must first come to terms with before training computers to make these judgments.

In Defense of “Fake News”

More people are wondering about the weird crap that mysteriously appears in their news

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

feeds. How much is fake news? Did disinformation tilt an election? What are Google and Facebook going to do to clean up the mess?

You could almost hear the entire PR industry shifting uncomfortably amidst the backlash. I mean, crafting news (that some might call fake, or at least a stretch) is our stock in trade. We package propaganda as newsworthy information and sell it to the media; and, increasingly publish directly to the Web and social networks.

I understand that the fuss is more about blatant lies, not the average press release. But it highlights the challenges of determining what is newsworthy and true; a role that is increasingly being taken on by algorithms.

The Web and social media gave us all ways to easily share and spread information. This can include rumor, conjecture, commercial information, news, and yes, slander and outright lies.

I would never defend the last two; but will fight for our right to issue press releases, and traffic in other kinds of info. Any good system needs to be able to deal with all of this, i.e. anticipate some BS and surface the most credible and significant information, whether via the wisdom of the crowds, programs or a combination.

It is naïve to think that a publication, editors, or algorithms (which of course are written by humans) can present news without bias. The journalistic piece you just wrote might be pristine, free of opinion; but the very act of deciding which stories to feature shows partiality.

That said, the social networking platforms where more of us are getting news can do a much better job of separating the wheat from the chaff. I thought I’d share some of the great stories I’ve seen about the controversy and takeaways from each.

TechCrunch – How Facebook can Escape the Echo Chamber

Anna Escher says “Facebook is hiding behind its [position that] ‘we’re a tech company, not a media company’ … For such an influential platform that preaches social responsibility and prioritizes user experience, it’s irresponsible …”

She recommends that they bring journalists into the process, remove the influence of engagement on news selection during elections, and expand Trending Topics to show a greater diversity of political stories – not just the ones that are the most popular.

Tim O’Reilly – Media in the Age of Algorithms

Tim’s exhaustive Medium piece looks at all sides. He rails against “operating from an out-of-date map of the world [in which] algorithms are overseen by humans who intervene in specific cases to compensate for their mistakes,“ and says:

“Google has long demonstrated that you can help guide people to better results without preventing anyone’s free speech… They do this without actually making judgments about the actual content of the page. The ‘truth signal’ is in the metadata, not the data.”

Tim makes an analogy between news algorithms and airplanes “Designing an effective algorithm for search or the newsfeed has more in common with designing an airplane so it flies… than with deciding where that airplane flies.”

He cited an example from the history of aircraft design. While it’s impossible to build a plane that doesn’t suffer from cracks and fatigue… “the right approach … kept them from propagating so far that they led to catastrophic failure. That is also Facebook’s challenge.”

Nieman Lab – It’s Time to Reimagine the Role of a Public Editor

Mike Ananny writes about the public editor’s role, and the challenges they face in the increasingly tech-driven environment. He writes:

“Today, it is harder to say where newsrooms stop and audiences begin. Public editors still need to look after the public interest, hold powerful forces accountable, and explain to audiences how and why journalism works as it does — but to do so they need to speak and shape a new language of news platform ethics.”

He asks “Will the public editor have access to Facebook’s software engineers and News Feed algorithms, as she does to Times journalists and editorial decisions?” and says:

“… public editors must speak a new language of platform ethics that is part professional journalism, part technology design, all public values. This means a public editor who can hold accountable a new mix of online journalists, social media companies, algorithm engineers, and fragmented audiences — who can explain to readers what this mix is and why it matters.”

Latest PR Gambit: Publishing on Platforms

Back in the day (“the day” being about 10 years ago), we had a simple message for PR shoe-737084_1920clients who wanted to get in on the social media and blogging action.

It was: “Go forth and blog too. Master the channels that are accessible to all.” Those who took the time to produce quality content, nurture social communities and post consistently saw their online influence grow.

Now, the open web is being challenged by the growth of social networking platforms. They’re places we go to connect, and get entertained and informed. Their news clout is growing, as the networks are increasingly publishers and aggregators of content. The social networks reach vast audiences with precise targeting – compelling attributes for marketers.

In short, if you are in the news business or want to promote your own, you are missing out if you are not on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

But there are a number of challenges along the way. It takes PR out of our media-centric comfort zones. It’s not obvious how to use social networking channels to accomplish your goals, which generally include coverage KPIs.

Sure, many in PR have jumped on the social media and content marketing bandwagons. We can handle Tweeting and blogging quite well. But getting your news seen and covered or appreciated by the right audiences, especially if your profile does not already have umpteen million friends/followers, is another matter.

Success generally requires a combination of paid and organic promotion as well as an understanding of the algorithms, those wonky programs that determine what appears in our news feeds. But they are black boxes and constantly changing. Plus, ad options may be unfamiliar, and they’re also moving targets.

How does one figure this all out? Listen, read, and more important, experiment. Dip your toes in. Test, validate, then repeat.

Reading this blog is a good start, as it offers commentary, articles about best practices and links to the right resources. The networks can be opaque, when it comes to specifics about their algorithms – but they do inform about changes and make recommendations.

In short, there are no pat answers, although one could invoke advice similar to the words at the beginning of the article: go forth and publish on Facebook (for example). Learn about the secrets of shareable content and how to get into the news feed.

I’ll close with an example from the world of politics, which seems fitting since the election has been front and center. It’s an article that ran awhile back in the NY Times Sunday magazine.

What do you think? Could a similar approach work beyond the field of politics? What ideas does this give you for PR? See the link and excerpts below, and please share your comments.

Inside Facebook’s… Political Media Machine
[Facebook’s] algorithms have their pick of text, photos and video produced and posted by established media organizations… But there’s also a new and distinctive sort of operation that has become hard to miss: political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook, uniquely positioned and cleverly engineered to reach audiences exclusively in the context of the news feed…

These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook… cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media…

But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web…
Truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news…. The point is to get [users] to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

DigiDig Studies the Impact of AI and Algorithms on Society

banner-1571986_1920Full story is on Flack’s Revenge

I’ve had many great conversations with my friend and PR authority Toni Muzi Falcone about the impact of technology on the field and society at large. Recently he told me about a new effort that he helped conceive – DigiDig – a website and citizen-led group dedicated to studying this area.

They started in Italy (the website for now is almost entirely in Italian) and have an international focus. I asked Toni to tell me more, and he shared the following:

“DigiDig questions the algorithmic society. It is a start-up community, launched on October 9, 2016, of some 150 Italian digitally active and prominent citizens wishing to better understand, discuss and raise awareness of peers on issues related to ‘user power’ vis-à-vis XXI century global robber barons.

The intention is to connect with the many similar or analog groups that populate the global digital space. Our immediate focus includes Brussels and New York, but we also wish to dialog with New Zealand, Kazakhstan and Namibia.

Its promoters are academics, intellectuals, journalists, managers, lobbyists, elected officials, communicators, writers, sociologists, and polemicists.

Following two open house sessions in Rome and Milano last June, a coordinating committee of six was formed and a web space just opened a few days ago containing a shared ‘manifesto’ plus opinions and comments in Italian and English.

The manifesto, titled: ‘the algorithm as a technology of freedom?’, defines its main issue as

(…..) the active and critical observation of the true nature of the global process reorganizing social and economic life, focused on the development and exchange of cognitive products of artificial intelligence.

As algorithms simplify digital procedures as well as the automation of humanity’s most delicate and discretionary activities, we cannot accept that such process proceeds in disrespect of the elementary rules of transparency, information and access to participation to its decision-making processes and operational standards.

If it is true that –as often affirmed by creators, shareholders and executives of those global groups – we are in fact confronted with a new ‘public sphere and/or space’ (and we very much believe it is so) – we also insist that the mechanisms creating new alphabets, social structures and determining influences over individual choices, need to be understandable, shared, socially negotiable and integrated.(…).

No membership fees, but requests for contributions via PayPal at info@digidig.it

Breaking into Facebook’s News Feed: 3 Stories, 9 Tips

Facebook has made quite a few changes to its algorithm and news feed in recent months, as has been news-1592592_1280chronicled on this blog.  Digiday said that some publishers are responding by focusing more efforts on SEO.

But where does this leave brands and marketers who want to target Facebook users with news and content?

You need to change with times. These days, your content should be informative, relevant and entertaining – it helps if the topics resonate with your friends and family.

There were quite a few good posts that recommended strategies in light of the updates.  Here were three that stood out, and three tips for each.

In A Publisher’s Guide to Facebook’s News Feed Updates, the Newswhip blog shared these tips:

  1. Focus on organic reach and stories shared by actual users vs. brand pages
  2. Use engagement metrics to inform strategy and content creation
  3. Stay attuned to what interests your readers and work hard to serve a niche audience

The same blog follow up with more good advice: How to Adapt to Facebook’s “Personally Informative” News Feed. It offered a helpful pointer to how Facebook defines Personally Informative. This means staying in tune with audience interests. Newswhip recommends:

  1. Creating an RSS aggregator featuring the news sources favored by your desired audience
  2. Building your personal brand – the changes favor peer-to-peer sharing
  3. Being genuine, avoiding clickbait and deception

To the last point, Facebook’s more recent changes target and penalize click bait.  The Hootsuite blog featured a story on How to Get Clicks without resorting to Clickbait.  It recommends:

  1. Be accurate, the headline shouldn’t promise more than the content delivers
  2. Create an emotional connection
  3. Take the time and care to craft an effective headline

 

Steal this News Feed (How to get Into Facebook Trending)

I don’t typically write about reverse engineering news feeds. This blog is about hacking the feed in a hacker-1500899_1280figurative sense; i.e. boosting the odds that your news gets featured in the social networks that dominate our attention these days. It’s less about black hat, more smart marketing and communications.

But I thought I’d share a story about the actual hacking of algorithms. In Quartz, David Gershgorn wrote that Stealing an AI Algorithm and its data is a “high school-level exercise.”  He wrote:

Researchers have shown that given access to only an API, a way to remotely use software without having it on your computer, it’s possible to reverse-engineer machine learning algorithms with up to 99% accuracy. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft allow developers to either upload their algorithms to their cloud or use the cloud company’s proprietary AI algorithms, both of which are accessed through APIs.

The article explained how you can crack the algorithm’s logic by sending queries, and evaluating the answers:

Think about making a call to a machine learning API as texting a friend for fashion advice. Now imagine you were to send your friend thousands of messages…  After driving your friend insane, you would get a pretty clear idea of their fashion sense, and how they would pick clothes given your wardrobe. That’s the basis of the attack.

However, anyone who wants to hack Facebook’s news feed would not benefit from this approach, which relies on the availability of an API that’s accessible to developers in the cloud.

So, what about figurative hacking? As this recent NiemanLab piece relates (it also references Gershgorn) Almost No one Knows How Facebook Trending Algorithm Works (But Here’s an Idea). Joseph Lichterman wrote:

Trending now… features broad topics surfaced by the algorithm. According to Facebook’s guidelines, the engineers overseeing Trending are “responsible for accepting all algorithmically detected topics that reflect real-world events.”

Based on some sniffing around, he determined that these thing can help you get into Facebook Trending:

  • Make sure your content includes keywords or hash tags that are trending
  • Don’t spam (Facebook detracts for frequent posting)

What do you think? I’ll be sharing many more tips about how to optimize your news for the Facebook news feed in an upcoming post.

Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Headline Writer!

You may recall Elton John’s album “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.” That’s what I thought piano-1589154_1280of when I heard about Facebook’s move to lessen the role of people in Trending topics.

As reported in the Washington Post: “Facebook just greatly diminished the role that human beings will play in the platform’s Trending topics bar, announcing … that actual people will no longer write topic descriptions for the site.  [This] comes months after the company faced an unusually high level of scrutiny for alleged political bias in its Trending feature. Humans will serve a janitorial role in the process, while the algorithms take more control.”

It is an interesting state of affairs when algorithms are deemed to be more unbiased than people – and we are serving the machine in a “janitorial role” (of course, Facebook did not come out and say this as I have – another article attributed the change to the need for scalability).

It seems clear, however that they are still smarting from the bias accusations. Perhaps Facebook’s trying to counter this by giving machines, which we think of as logical, more of a role.

There was a great article in Time magazine about the danger of placing too much trust in algorithms. Rana Foroohar wrote about Cathy O’Neil’s new book Weapons of Math Destruction, which highlights the growing role of algorithms in everything from job performance evaluations, to grading teachers, credit decisions, etc.  They determine which ads we see, and increasingly point us to (and describe) news topics.

Rana writes:

“The Big Data algorithms that sort us into piles of “worthy” and “unworthy” are mostly opaque and unregulated, not to mention generated (and used) by large multinational firms with huge lobbying power to keep it that way.”

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Algorithm

The latest Facebook algorithm changes are in, and the tally is Facebook 1, headline writers 0.  As was dont-panic-1067044_1920widely reported over the past few days (e.g., see this TechCrunch piece), the social network has taken measures to reduce the number of click bait stories in our news feeds.

They’re trying to improve the user experience, by studying which types of stories people bounce from and coming up with a formula that flags the content (and marks the source as a click baiter).

Apparently this has a lot to do with the headline – does it withhold crucial information to tempt  curiosities, or over hype the article contents? Facebook offered these tips to help publishers comply. The changes are designed to reward quality and punish excesses of content creators.

Here, Facebook places us in an awkward position. I mean, who would argue for more click bait? The problem is that the types of things they’re now watching for are exactly the time-proven tactics that work, i.e. draw the user in. If the headline doesn’t pull, the shitting thing doesn’t get read.

The devil is in the details – I am not a believer in hypey headlines, and promising more than articles deliver. But hype is in the eye of the beholder, or now the algorithm. I used their sniff test while reading the esteemed NY Times, some of their stories could take a hit according to the screening logic.

Tell me please, exactly how a computer is supposed to make these judgments at scale?

It all gets back to what I was saying earlier, about fighting excesses.  When more brands are plying more content, you get lots of listicles, crappy info graphics and irritating come-ons that are too tempting to resist.  Inevitably, quality declines. (See my post about Open Spaces Marketing to learn how to avoid this trap).

Algorithm writers have been trying to stay ahead of the content deluge for years, guiding users to the higher quality stuff. Recall Google’s Panda update in 2011 (see this Search Engine Land piece) to smack down content mills. Few mourn the decline of those sites.

Looking at it this way, these companies are our friends, and doing us all a service.

As I like to say, if you live by the algorithm, you can die by it too.

As Google says, and as I imagine Facebook would agree, write great content for people not algorithms, and you’ll do just fine (OK, well we may need to rethink our headlines too).

Huffington Post taps Data Science to go Viral

My recent posts have explored how publishers are working with social platforms to expand audience and IMG_2875adapt story telling formats (see Publishers & Platforms In a Relationship, and Platforms as Publishers: 6 Key Takeaways for Brands). They reported the experiences of social teams and editors at some of the largest broadcast, print daily and native web outlets.

Those featured, however, didn’t go into detail on the role of advertising to boost reach.

At last week’s NY Data Science Meetup (at Metis NYC) we learned how the Huffington Post, the largest social publisher, is using data science to better understand which articles can benefit from a promotional push. Their efforts have propelled merely popular stories into through-the-roof viral successes.

The meetup was about Data Science in the Newsroom. Geetu Ambwani, Principal Data Scientist at Huffington Post, recalled the days when their editors monitored searches trending on Google to inform content creation and curation. Since then it is a new game, as more people are discovering and consuming news through social media.

In an age of distributed news, HuffPo needed a new approach.

Data across the Content Life Cycle

Geetu discussed the role of data in the content life cycle spanning creation, distribution and consumption. For creation, there are tools to discover trends, enhance and optimize content, and flag sensitive topics. Their RobinHood platform improves image usage and the all-important headline.

Geetu’s favorite part, she said, was exploring the “content gap” between what they write and what people want to read. It’s a tension that must be carefully considered – otherwise writers might be tempted to focus on fluff pieces vs. important news stories.

When it comes to consumption, data can be used to improve the user experience – e.g. via recommendations and personalization.

Project Fortune Teller: Data Predict Viral Success

Geetu and her team turned to data science to help with distribution. “The social networks are the new home page – we need to be where the audience is,” she said.

Only a small percentage of their stories get significant page views on the web. Performance on social often varies by platform. The team honed the content mix for each to improve engagement. Part of this was determining which articles out of the 1000 daily stories should get an extra boost.

Geetu wondered if they could mine data to spot the ones that have “legs” beyond early popularity. With this info in hand, they could promote these with high value ads, and populate Trending Now and Recommendation widgets to further boost sharing and reach.

And thus , Project Fortune Teller was born. The team looked for winners according to a range of data such as web traffic growth, and social consumption and sharing. But it was no easy task. There are many variables to consider. They needed to determine the optimal time window, as some articles take a bit longer to start to trend. Finally, they intentionally excluded hot news stories, instead focusing on evergreen content that was resonating.

Geetu and her team mined historical data, using time series analysis to build a model (for more details, see this SlideShare presentation). They notified the content promotion staff when there was a likely winner. The resulting quick action turned popular articles into viral successes.

The conclusion? Machine learning is a key driver of success for predicted content.

Facebook Calls the News Shots, Upending Media and Marketing

I generally don’t chase breaking news stories – my posts come once or twice a week at most. This may stormy-1472633_1920seem a disadvantage in the fast moving world of social media. But the slower pace affords some perspective –  I try to look beyond the quick headline, see the bigger picture and connect the dots for readers.

And experience has shown that if I miss one news cycle, there will be another right around the corner.

For example, in just a few short weeks, Facebook drew fire for apparent bias in their Trending Now feature.  Research came out confirming that it is the number one social network for news – and the chief way many of us get our news. The company changed its algorithm, decreasing the organic reach of publishers.  And just this week they’re again catching flack – this time, for not seeming to think through implications of Facebook Live, as citizen journalists broadcast raw footage faster than Facebook can filter the streams (see Farhad Manjoo’s NY Times piece).

On the one hand you have admire their continued innovation.  Facebook never stands still, always seems ready to shake things up to keep users engaged and coming back. On the other, you wonder how much they’ve thought through all the implications.  It’s a little like the proverbial dog chasing a car.  Facebook has caught the news “car”, now what does it do?

They seem to be playing all sides, trying to make everyone happy while increasing their influence. There have been the predictable media responses about impact on journalism, echo chambers and trivializing of news.

The reality is, news is  is in the eyes of the beholder – and in a content and algorithm-driven world, Facebook – increasingly the arbiter – says News with a capital N needs to get in line.

Meanwhile, media should adapt their strategies, as it is clearly a mistake to focus on Facebook and platforms at the expense of cultivating other sources of traffic and attention.

Marketers go where media and users do – so they need to  take a fresh look and revise their play books.

As to the impact on users, and society at large? There, I am not so concerned. We continue to have endless choices of info, news, opinion and analysis.

If people want to rely on Facebook to stay informed, that is their prerogative.  If they want to ignore news and spend their time with baby pictures, that is fine too.  These are likely the same people who looked no farther than the bridge of their nose for other views before Facebook.