Sunday , October 24 2021

Putting algorithms in charge of the news was an awful idea

Why can’t Google’s algorithms find any good news for queer people?

If you’re interested in reading about the global suffering of queer people I’ve got just the place for you. It’s called “Google News.”

Today’s actually an off day for the product. Typically, if you take a gander at the “LGBTQ+topic in Google News you’ll find that about 90% of the stories surfaced by the platform’s algorithms are negative.

But today is “Coming Out Day,” so there’s a handful of non-negative pieces in the feed right now taking up slots that are typically filled with negative ones.

a screenshot of the LGBTQ+ topic on Google Newsa screenshot of the LGBTQ+ topic on Google News

As of the time of this article’s publishing, the stories that surface in the LGBTQ+ topic break down as follows:

  • 52 total in feed
  • 39 clearly negative
  • 12 not directly negative
  • 1 entirely unrelated

The negative pieces make up about 76% of the feed. That’s a problem. And it’s a really simple problem to solve. But Google has no interest in doing so because the solution is to replace the algorithm with human curators.

And not just because the algorithms in use are apparently biased towards negative news pieces concerning the LGBTQ+ community, but because they’re just bad at curating news.

For example, the Arrowhead Pride newspaper’s readers were probably quite interested to learn that Willie Gay Jr. was going to be active for Sunday’s game against the Bills. But this news wasn’t useful to the LGBTQ+ community at large. And it certainly doesn’t belong in the “Pride” section. That’s a mistake no human curator would have made.

A screenshot of the Google News feed for LGBTQ+ PrideA screenshot of the Google News feed for LGBTQ+ Pride

Yesterday it was the top story in the Pride section. Today, it’s been replaced by a news piece about someone taking a crap on a Pride flag. In fact, all of the stories displayed in the section are negative. So much for Pride. 

Again, this isn’t something that would happen with a human curator. Bigots probably think it’s hilarious though.

It would be understandable if we lived in a world where there simply wasn’t any good news related to queer people. But that’s a ridiculous assertion that’s easy to refute.

If we take a look at PinkNews, a popular queer news publication, its front page is full of positive news pieces. There’s some negative ones too. That’s how balanced coverage works.

Unfortunately, Google‘s algorithms aren’t capable of finding balance or surfacing relevant pieces. It surfaces what it’s been trained to look for.

Google is comprised of mostly straight, cisgender, white men and its products work demonstrably better for people fitting that description than those who don’t.

Nearly half of the people in the US use an Android device. And most of those come with Google News preinstalled. That means Google News is among the globe’s largest aggregators of news.

And the algorithm is feeding everyone almost exclusively negative stories related to the LGBTQ+ community without apparent or competent human oversight. That’s bound to have some consequences. 

The biggest problem is that Google is an AI company. And the answer to every problem it faces is always going to be: more AI.

And, because of that, Google‘s become old and out of touch. It’s still operating like an early 2000s-era big business that’s beholden to outdated retro-futuristic ideas on how powerful algorithms will be in “just a few more years.”

The reality is that Google‘s been developing these algorithms for longer than it takes to educate a doctor and they’re still functionally stupider than a 5th grader.

AI isn’t the future. It’s just a tool. The future is people.

We reached out to Google for comment. We’ll update this piece if we get a response. 

Related: Google News thinks I’m the queerest AI journalist on Earth

Update 11 October 12:38 PST: Google returned our request for commentary. A Google spokesperson provided Neural with the following statement:

Google News shows you a mix of the most important headlines, local news and the latest developments on the topics news organizations are writing about. It does not distinguish between “positive” or “negative” news.

This Article was first published on thenextweb.com

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