Divided by Algorithms – COVID-19 series

Regardless of whether you support Daniel Andrews’s lockdown or want to give him the boot and open up, here’s what I know to be true for both parties. They see what they already believe.

For some context on this week’s technology essay, please invest four short minutes to watch my latest episode of #SteveFeed on Algorithms, or as I like to call them: Weapons of Math Destruction.

OK – thanks for watching, and if you haven’t already, please go back to write a quick comment…and subscribe to my YouTube channel!

What we have now globally, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, is algorithms shaping the discussion. Just like the Australian example above from Twitter, social media wants you to pick a team rather than discuss an issue. The reason for this eventuality is simple. Their business is predicated on engagement, from which they gain social preference data that they then use to sell extremely targeted advertising. Extreme is the key word – the more extreme a view, the more likely it is to get get consumer engagement.

In the Attention Economy Enragement = Engagement.

Based on our scroll and click patterns, we are served more of our existing beliefs. Our internet experience becomes an echo chamber. We seek to validate what we already believe and partake in confirmation bias. While this kind of stuff doesn’t matter when we are tweeting about our favourite football teams, it becomes an issue when we are discussing health and economic policies for which there are real and long-term consequences.

As I wrote early on in the pandemic, there is no economics without health. Health needs to be at the top of the hierarchy in every decision we make in life. But health is a curious thing. There are significant lag effects on short-term decisions. Often negative health externalities arrive long after decisions are made. Studies have shown that for every 1% increase in unemployment in the US, 40,000 people die. There is a similar percentage correlation per population in all developed economies.

What we have right now in Australia, and the world over, is an inability for intelligent discourse. It seems as though all and any discourse is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Those in favour of lockdowns are seen as new age communist crazies, and those in favour of opening up are seen as cold-hearted capitalists who would rather see the bodies pile up rather than take a profit hit. What isn’t being heard is the viewpoints somewhere in the middle. A sensible discussion on scenario planning for not just this pandemic, but the inevitable next one and learning to live with it, while protecting the most vulnerable.

We now have dogma instead of dialogue.

It’s not just with COVID, but on all important socio-political discussions, because the arbiters of knowledge (the social web) have algorithmic bias and their business models are not geared to tempered discourse. The division created by algorithms has the potential to tear apart functioning democratic societies.

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Keep Thinking,