Violence, Bias, Hate: What Algorithms Miss and Why You Should Care

One year ago, the Daily Beast and other publications ran a story about a Minnesota Trump rally in which a man was depicted wearing a t-shirt that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

Credit for that political photo in the illustration above goes to Reuter’s Jonathan Ernst.

During a campaign in which reporters were routinely chastised, mocked and assaulted, the shirt in question drew brief intense scrutiny last year but then faded from digital view until this month when its sale was spotted on the Walmart marketplace site.

According to the Washington Post, which wrote about algorithms and inappropriate items sold on popular websites, “Walmart wants to sell you everything you’d ever want to buy. Until Thursday, that included a T-shirt that read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.”

The item was pulled from the digital shelves and carts shortly after the company received complaints about its violent content.

But that’s not the real story in the age of the machine.

First, Walmart like many box store merchants has adopted an eBay like platform of sellers not officially employed by the company but allowed to post on its website for a fee. Walmart took the heat for promoting the item, which it should, as its main concern is profit–and that comes with risk; but third-party seller Teespring was responsible for putting the item on the global site.

Teespring reportedly told the Associated Press, “As soon as we were alerted to this content promoting violence against journalists, we removed the content, added this content to our automated scanning systems, and kicked off a human sweep [my italics] of the site to find and remove any similar content.”

The operative words here are “human sweep”–once a humanities term, as in “Tolstoy’s historical and human sweep is breathtaking”–now has metamorphosed into a tech term meaning a person checked what a machine did, making sure in this case that digital deletions of the t-shirt were complete across the buying spectrum.

Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine discusses this phenomenon at length in several chapters about tech-inspired violence, bias and hate.

Technology is neither moral nor immoral; it is amoral, programmed to do two things simultaneously: surveil and sell. For instance, this Facebook post is doing that right now through your smartphone and browser.

The problem with amoral algorithms programmed for profit has wide-ranging ramifications, especially if no human monitors what the machine is selling or compiling. This is the reason why Russians were able to hijack the 2016 US presidential election, also discussed on the Interpersonal Divide site.

For instance, do you believe that institutional racism exists? If so, that has been programmed into machines. See this post based on a WIRED article about digital stereotypes of women that contains this excerpt from Interpersonal Divide:

For instance, if machines compile data suggesting that a certain race, gender and age of people living in a given location may have a higher inclination for wrongdoing, and that person happens to wander into a wealthier section of the neighborhood, merchants equipped with apps might be prone to mistake innocent shoppers for potential shoplifters, depriving them of service or worse, accusing them of crimes.

As for the t-shirt in question, its offensive nature is particularly vile in as much as journalists sacrifice their lives daily to bring society the truth. Last year, 115 journalists and media staff died reporting the news. This year promises another grim statistic as hate is spewed across multiple social media platforms.

Why should you care about a t-shirt using the racially charged text of lynching? Sooner or later, someone is going to target your profession, your friend, your family, your race, your religion, your lifestyle–you–in a product inciting violence, bias or hate. That product will be disseminated across multiple digital platforms globally before a person communicates complaints to a supervisor who checks with the company’s CEO before trying repeatedly to get through to a Walmart-like marketplace to remove the item, ensuring that this has been done via a “human sweep” in the age of the machine.

Move one letter of that term and you get “humans weep” in the age of the machine. But that’s a humanities take on the topic, and so will have little impact, unless companies remember that people matter more than algorithms.

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