Opinion | Echo chambers, algorithms and start-ups


Google has repeatedly denied accusations of bias, and the firm’s chief executive officer (CEO), Sundar Pichai, has agreed to testify before the US House Judiciary Committee later this year. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Google has repeatedly denied accusations of bias, and the firm’s chief executive officer (CEO), Sundar Pichai, has agreed to testify before the US House Judiciary Committee later this year. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Last week, there was news, yet again, of Google Inc.’s search engine algorithms creating bias in searches even before they start. Mint further reported that Republicans in the US want to question Google about whether its search engines are influenced by human bias. Google has repeatedly denied accusations of bias, and the firm’s chief executive officer (CEO), Sundar Pichai, has agreed to testify before the US House Judiciary Committee later this year. Facebook Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg testified earlier this year. Twitter has faced similar accusations.

Added to the bias accusations is the phenomenon of the ‘echo chamber’ that is created by the highly targeted algorithms that these companies use. The algorithms were built around making users stay online longer and click through to advertisements and are likely to bombard users with ‘echo chambers’ of information that serve to reinforce what the algorithm thinks the searcher needs to know. For instance, if I search for a particular type of phone on an e-commerce site even once, future searches are likely to auto-complete with that phone showing up even before I type in my entire search string.

Even scratching the surface of the kaleidoscopic angles of view on this matter will spill much ink, but I shall attempt to make a beginning here in an attempt to make some of the salient issues around this plainer for us to understand.

First off, we know that such tech firms are under fire from all quarters. Just as they are struggling to meet calls to contain the online spread of misinformation and hate speech online, they are being accused of suppressing right-wing views. There is no pleasing anyone on this issue.

Secondly, while Republicans may question Pichai all they want, they are unlikely to be able to directly regulate his firm. These issues have existed for over a decade and have been tested by the American court system. The courts have held that companies like Google and Facebook clearly engage in both speech and press activities when they display content created by third-parties.

Free speech is covered by America’s first amendment and is inherent in the constitutions of many other democracies, including India. This means that while these firms can’t be directly regulated in most democracies, political parties and governments can still lean on them and apply pressure to make sure that they filter some of the content that comes through.

The third issue is corporate responsibility. Facebook has started to address this matter by publishing ‘transparency reports’. Zuckerberg claimed earlier this year that Facebook was “able to filter out over 99% of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda content before any human saw it”. However, for all these companies’ efforts at transparency, we cannot ignore the fact that these numbers reflect judgements that are made behind closed doors.

Government attempts to influence the information members of the public see are being moved into secret corporate processes. We have no way of knowing the extent to which they reflect other biases that may be inherent inside each firm. The fact that their main algorithms targeted advertising and hyper-personalization of content makes them further suspect as broad-based arbiters of the news.

This means that those who find information online and use social media platforms must pull in another direction to maintain access to a range of sources and views. This has led to a new breed of deep tech start-ups that tries to address the issues around fair and contextual presentation of news.

Last week, I met Anushree Bishnoi and Ankur Pandey, founders of one such firm in India, called UnFound. The firm uses its own Artificial Intelligence algorithms, developed by working with college students in India. This ‘millennial’ demographic gets its news almost exclusively from online sources, and so was a logical place to start.

The UnFound app expects to address its market in stages. The first will be students pursuing higher education, especially civil service and business school aspirants. The second will cover the burgeoning market of digital news readers in India and the third will address vernacular markets and other specialized sectors and themes such as finance.

The press has always been the fourth estate. Are we witnessing the creation of a fifth estate?

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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