Viral hit: we all suffer from an inbuilt psychological bug, exacerbated by the internet. Photo: Marcelo Graciolli on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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Omniscience bias: how the internet makes us think we already know everything

The internet is an answer machine, it doesn’t help us ask better questions. It feeds the illusion that we already know everything we need to know to be well-informed.

Last week, Washington DC was hit by an earthquake. The Republican congressional leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to a Tea Party upstart with the suggestive name of David Brat. This wasn’t just a surprise: it was a shock. Nobody saw it coming – not even Nate Silver.

The political press quickly concluded that Cantor had committed the ultimate political sin of losing touch with the voters. Spending his days and nights in the unreal world of the nation’s capital, absorbed in the high politics of the Capitol, Cantor had forgotten about the people who put him there.

No doubt this is true. But as David Carr, the media correspondent of the New York Times, suggests, certain members of the press might want to get an appointment with an optician to see about that log in their eye.

Carr points out that the only journalists who got even a sniff of the trouble that Cantor was in were from local newspapers. Jim McConnell is a staff reporter at the Chesterfield Reporter, which serves the district in question. He didn’t call Brat’s victory, but he did predict it was going to be very close at a time when everyone assumed Cantor was a shoo-in.

He was able to do this by employing the sophisticated journalistic technique of leaving the office and talking to people. “You could tell wherever you went that Cantor was incredibly unpopular, that people saw him as arrogant,” he told Carr. Meanwhile, members of more prestigious and well-funded national newspapers completely missed the big story about to explode in a district less than two hours drive from Capitol Hill.

Carr blames the internet, at least in part. The web is a tremendous boon to reporters: the world’s information is now accessible from a desk or smartphone. But it can also seduce journalists into thinking that they know everything worth knowing. As Carr puts it, “the always-on data stream is hypnotic, giving us the illusion of omniscience.”

Take another story that seemed to come out of the blue: the current violence in Iraq. There’s no shortage of pundits pronouncing with impressive confidence on its causes and ramifications. The real experts tend to be more cautious; they know how little we know about ISIS and its aims. They may have also have been left wondering why editors only got interested in this story once pictures started to show up in their Twitter streams.

Actually, I think Carr puts his finger on something with implications far beyond the media. We all suffer from an inbuilt psychological bug, which is exacerbated by the internet. Call it “omniscience bias”: the illusion that we know everything we need to.

In 1987, researchers at the University of Oklahoma ran an experiment in which they gave students a series of problems to solve, and asked them to generate as many solutions as they could. The researchers deliberately gave their subjects a very limited amount of information on each problem. One problem was how to provide enough parking spaces on the university campus, given the limited space available. The students came up with different solutions, including reducing demand for parking space by raising fees or using the space more efficiently.

After the students had generated their answers they were asked to estimate what percentage of possible good solutions they thought they had come up with, while, separately, a panel of experts were asked to compile a database of the possible solutions. It turned out that the average participant generated only about one in three of the best solutions – yet when asked, participants guessed that they had landed on three out of four possible solutions. Not only had they missed most of the best ideas, but they found it hard to imagine there were many alternatives they hadn’t covered.

Psychologists have replicated this or similar effects in different ways: we tend to be over-confident that we have the right information we need to form opinions or make judgements. The modern internet feeds this tendency by persuading you that everything you need to know is a click away or coming soon from a feed near you. Google never says, “I don’t know.” It is an answer machine, but it doesn’t help us ask better questions.

Even those paid to be intellectual explorers are can be stymied by the apparent certainties of the web. James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, assembled a database of 34 million scholarly articles published between 1945 and 2005. He analysed the citations included in the articles to see if patterns of research have changed as journals shifted from print to online.

His working assumption was that he would find a more diverse set of citations, as scholars used the web to broaden the scope of their research. Instead, he found that as journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles than they had before. A broadening of available information had led to “a narrowing of science and scholarship”.

Explaining his finding, Evans noted that Google has a ratchet effect, making popular articles even more popular, thus quickly establishing and reinforcing a consensus about what’s important and what isn’t. Furthermore, the efficiency of hyperlinks means researchers bypass many of the “marginally related articles” print researchers would routinely stumble upon as they flipped the pages of a printed journal or book. Online research is faster and more predictable than library research, but precisely because of this it can have the effect of shrinking the scope of investigation.

According to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “our comforting conviction the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” It’s never been easier to go through life assuming you know everything you need to know. But that leaves you more vulnerable to information earthquakes. Just ask Eric Cantor.

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Quercus, £10.99)

 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

Flickr: B.S.Wise/YouTube
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Extremist ads and LGBT videos: do we want YouTube to be a censor, or not?

Is the video-sharing platform a morally irresponsible slacker for putting ads next to extremist content - or an evil, tyrannical censor for restricting access to LGBT videos?

YouTube is having a bad week. The Google-owned video-sharing platform has hit the headlines twice over complaints that it 1) is not censoring things enough, and 2) is censoring things too much.

On the one hand, big brands including Marks & Spencer, HSBC, and RBS have suspended their advertisements from the site after a Times investigation found ads from leading companies – and even the UK government – were shown alongside extremist videos. On the other, YouTubers are tweeting #YouTubeIsOverParty after it emerged that YouTube’s “restricted mode” (an opt-in setting that filters out “potentially objectionable content”) removes content with LGBT themes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a social media giant be criticised for being a lax, morally irresponsible slacker and an evil, tyrannical censor and in the same week. Last month, Facebook were criticised for both failing to remove a group called “hot xxxx schoolgirls” and for removing a nude oil painting by an acclaimed artist.

That is not to say these things are equivalent. Quite obviously child abuse imagery is more troubling than a nude oil painting, and videos entitled “Jewish People Admit Organising White Genocide” are endlessly more problematic than those called “GAY flag and me petting my cat” (a highly important piece of content). I am not trying to claim that ~everything is relative~ and ~everyone deserves a voice~. Content that breaks the law must be removed and LGBT content must not. Yet these conflicting stories highlight the same underlying problem: it is a very bad idea to trust a large multibillion pound company to be the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable.

This isn’t because YouTube have some strange agenda where it can’t get enough of extremists and hate the LGBT community. In reality, the company’s “restricted mode” also affects Paul Joseph Watson, a controversial YouTuber whose pro-Trump conspiracy theory content includes videos titled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “A Vote For Hillary is a Vote For World War 3”, as well as an interview entitled “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”. The issue is that if YouTube did have this agenda, it would have complete control over what it wanted the world to see – and not only are we are willingly handing them this power, we are begging them to use it.

Moral panics are the most common justification for extreme censorship and surveillance methods. “Catching terrorists” and “stopping child abusers” are two of the greatest arguments for the dystopian surveillance measures in Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Act and Digital Economy Bill. Yet in reality, last month the FBI let a child pornographer go free because they didn’t want to tell a court the surveillance methods they used to catch him. This begs the question: what is the surveillance really for? The same is true of censorship. When we insist that YouTube stop this and that, we are asking it to take complete control – why do we trust that this will reflect our own moral sensibilities? Why do we think it won't use this for its own benefit?

Obviously extremist content needs to be removed from YouTube, but why should YouTube be the one to do it? If a book publisher released A Very Racist Book For Racists, we wouldn’t trust them to pull it off the shelves themselves. We have laws (such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) that ban hate speech, and we have law enforcement bodies to impose them. On the whole, we don’t trust giant commercial companies to rule over what it is and isn’t acceptable to say, because oh, hello, yes, dystopia.

In the past, public speech was made up of hundreds of book publishers, TV stations, film-makers, and pamphleteers, and no one person or company had the power to censor everything. A book that didn’t fly at one publisher could go to another, and a documentary that the BBC didn’t like could find a home on Channel 4. Why are we happy for essentially two companies – Facebook and Google – to take this power? Why are we demanding that they use it? Why are we giving them justification to use it more, and more, and more?

In response to last week’s criticism about extremist videos on the YouTube, Google UK managing director Ronan Harris said that in 2016 Google removed nearly 2 billion ads, banned over 100,000 publishers, and prevented ads from showing on over 300 million YouTube videos. We are supposed to consider this a good thing. Why? We don't know what these adverts were for. We don't know if they were actually offensive. We don't know why they were banned. 

As it happens, YouTube has responded well to the criticism. In a statement yesterday, Google's EMEA President, Matt Brittin, apologised to advertisers and promised improvements, and in a blog this morning, Google said it is already "ramping up changes". A YouTube spokesperson also tweeted that the platform is "looking into" concerns about LGBT content being restricted. But people want more. The Guardian reported that Brittin declined three times to answer whether Google would go beyond allowing users to flag offensive material. Setting aside Brexit, wouldn't you rather it was up to us as a collective to flag offensive content and come together to make these decisions? Why is it preferable that one company takes a job that was previously trusted to the government? 

Editor’s Note, 22 March: This article has been updated to clarify Paul Joseph Watson’s YouTube content.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.