The Algorithms Will Not Save Us

What a website puts on its front door says something about its values, whether it's a conspiracy video or a video game.

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Feb 22 2018, 4:38pm

Image courtesy of YouTube

Open Thread is where Waypoint staff talk about games and other things we find interesting. This is where you'll see us chat about games, music, movies, TV, and even sports, and welcome you to participate in the discussion.

For three hours, the top trending video on YouTube was a bullshit conspiracy theory alleging a student victims of last week’s Parkland, Florida high school shooting was a crisis actor, an individual hired to push a political agenda on TV. YouTube told Motherboard the video was removed from trending “as soon as they became aware of the video.” But it’s not surprising the video quickly shot up YouTube’s charts; the platform often functions as a megaphone for the Internet’s fringe, and the Parkland shooting has remained in the public consciousness longer than usual because its courageous victims have been unusually vocal about change.

YouTube should know better at this point—how did this take three hours?—but the reality was actually worse than a single video highlighted by the all-powerful YouTube algorithm.

When I saw this being circulated yesterday morning, I tweeted the following: “This is how Logan Paul's suicide forest trended before it was pulled. Algorithms will not save us, and often conform to our worst impulses. YouTube is a media company, and it's long overdue they start acting like it. They should be hiring people to curate their video content.”

Of course, it’s not reasonable to expect YouTube to have a human being manually sifting through everything that’s uploaded to YouTube. It is reasonable to expect there’s a team of people whose job is to watch what videos the algorithm is spitting into the trending list, and making rational, ethically-driven decisions about what should and shouldn’t be pushed onto a huge audience that, very reasonably, may be assuming what’s trending is also what’s true.

A conspiracy video being promoted by YouTube says something about its values, regardless of intent. It doesn’t suggest YouTube’s employees are Parkland truthers, but the service’s first and foremost reliance on an algorithm to surface what’s worth watching leaves it susceptible to being gamed and manipulated by knowing audiences that hold extreme views.

YouTube’s decision to step in and remove the video was an editorial decision. The video was trending. It was popular on YouTube. From a financial perspective, the “right” decision for YouTube would have been to leave it promoted, and let the numbers speak society’s truth. Instead, the video was taken down, as part of YouTube’s muddled post-suicide forest world, where the company has yet to wrestle with the consequences of being a media company.

On last Friday’s podcast, we talked about why there hadn’t been any coverage of Kingdom Come: Deliverance on Waypoint. If you didn’t get a chance to listen, we had reservations about using our own platform to legitimize a game whose creative director supported (and continued to defend) GamerGate. Kingdom Come has reportedly sold more than a million copies, meaning the game hasn’t had much trouble finding itself an enormous audience.

If we were chasing every click possible, it would have made sense to cover Kingdom Come, but we didn’t. Which we choose to highlight at Waypoint is its own statement. That’s not to say we won’t publish anything about Kingdom Come in the future, if we find a way to cover it that wouldn’t betray what Waypoint represents, but for now, our attention goes elsewhere.

It would be valid to ask “Hey, aren’t you just chest-beating and patting yourself on the back for something you could have quietly done without coming across as braggadocios?” It’s a catch 22. If we passed on Kingdom Come but didn’t say anything, would people think we were letting it off the hook? In this case, we erred on the side of disclosing editorial direction.

We aren’t perfect, either. We covered Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, for example, without making note of the external labor politics that made playing the game a surreal experience. You told us that you were disappointed by that, that it was incongruous with the values we talked about on the podcast and elsewhere. We expect our audience to hold us accountable when we don’t live up to our own standards, and use those moments (and others) to listen and change.

And it’s not to suggest everything we cover at Waypoint is exclusively what the staff is interested in talking about. There’s always a balance between the interests of the audience and one’s self, and sometimes that means coming up with words about the game of the moment. But Waypoint’s audience is also here because of its editorial judgement, because of its values. This ethos wasn’t built on algorithms, but on flesh-and-blood people.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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