Predators on the Yahoo Home Screen

Hi Folks! This is a great piece in the Atlantic, about how the filters on our computers create a sort of feedback loop that can really distort our perceptions. In this case, the author, Sarah Kendzior, clicked on a single story of a child murder, and from then on she found that her home screen — in this case, Yahoo’s — kept bringing her more of the same. More child murder and really disturbing stuff. The algorithm assumed she just loved this kind of story.

The piece goes on to explain that we FORGET that content is being personalized for us. When we see it, it just looks like an assortment of interesting stories that happen to be “trending.” This gives us a skewed view that we don’t even realize is skewed. And when it skews to the scarier stories, we get….scared!

So it’s a great piece, and with a shout out to Free-Range Kids, what’s not to like?

I commented as much and when I did, I felt compelled to give a shout out of my own to another site,  Mean World Syndrome.  As that site explains:

Mean World Syndrome is a phenomenon where the violence-related content of mass media convinces viewers that the world is more dangerous than it actually is, and prompts a desire for more protection than is warranted by any actual threat.

How I love the guy who came up with that syndrome, the late sociologist George Gerber. When Yahoo and other filters bring us a world of meanness, we really have to come up with some way of reminding ourselves (and everyone else) that what’s happening in real life is different from what we see on the screen, even on our homey home screen. — L.

Gee, there sure are a lot of predators out there!

26 Responses

  1. Explains a lot about why the home page on my husbands computer has an inexplainable number of sports stories.

  2. looks like a picture of Princess Anne at the end!

  3. Might I suggest that that Sarah (along with anyone else that wants to keep folks from snooping) download Ghostery (ghostery.com). It’s a browser add-on that shows you who’s tracking on any web page and allows you to block them. That should stop the sneaky algorithms.

  4. Interesting article! I try to just avoid reading the news altogether. I used to be a news maniac but the older I get, the less use I can see in staying in the loop. Even the homepages of major ‘serious’ newspapers seem to be half-filled with sensationalist articles, pseudo science and celebrity stalking.

  5. I have noticed this with items that I look at on Amazon or things that I buy. After getting some feminine hiegene products it was advertising birth control, I guess because the product was sold on baby dot com or such. Problem is, I share this computer with my kids, I would rather not have stuff showing when I look at adult content. So then I have to clear my history, which clears a lot of passwords….

  6. Barry Glassner’s “The Culture of Fear” is still relevant after all these years. What’s new is that our viewing habits are being tracked, and sometimes misidentified. Now that’s scary! And what’s scarier is that as consumers we spend more out of fear than we do out of knowledge and confidence. So it is to the advantage of those marketing to us to keep us afraid. I have found with these algorithms that a single word typed into a Facebook post brings up several responsive ads on the right side of the screen.

  7. It scares me that all of this tracking they do probably won’t seem creepy to my kids.

  8. @@ Birth control and feminine hygene products is not adult content. If your kids are old enough to be shopping on Amazon, you should probably explain to them what those things are.

  9. As Crazy Cat Lady (didn’t we used to be married, or was that another crazy cat lady?) pointed out you have to watch Amazon on this stuff as well. A reporter friend of mine was working on a couple of stories about right-wing religious loonies and ordered some books by and about these folks from Amazon and started getting “We know you will love….” ads for some really disturbing books.

  10. @Alina, thanks for the info on the ghostery app. It’s already changed how yahoo news shows up for me, and it may just be me, but it seems like the pages with the most stuff being blocked load just a little bit faster.

  11. You can also try searching using duckduckgo.com. It doesn’t track your previous searches, so you don’t end up with this skewing.

    H

  12. “Mean World” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thoughts held in mind produce after their kind. Imagine connection, harmony, respect and unity, and you’ll find it. Imagine violence, danger, and insecurity, and you will find that.

    People honestly don’t understand the enormous amount of influence they have over their own experience. In fact, what you think in your mind IS your experience, whatever is happening “out there.”

    I know. Sounds woo-woo, but I have to say it, it’s the truth for me in my own life! And I see how much misery is perpetuated by imagining that things are bad, whether it’s the way your hair turned out today, or the state of the world. It is what it is, and then YOU decide what you think about it, right?

    Can you see things objectively? Hard to do. Most people see everything through their “thought filters” and don’t even realize that they are thinking, judging… that THEY THEMSELVES are creating the experience they are having, and deciding whether it’s “good” or “bad.”

  13. Here’s another example, from the last statistics course I took.

    Say you’re running in a 10k race, and to deal with the boredom
    you keep track of how many runners you pass, how many that pass
    you, and how many you’re at the same pace at. Assume you’re
    average in this field. Also assume that this race has a normal
    bell curve distribution — we all know what that means, right?

    The upshot is your findings will be totally counter to the truth. You’ll
    come up with a large number of slowpokes, and a large number of
    people faster than you. But the majority, that are as fast as you — you’re never going to see them, because they’re running at the same pace as you, but at different points in the race.

    That’s what happens when you try to judge how safe a community
    is by following the media. You can only do that by climbing out of
    your own field of reference (I was going to say “fish bowl”, but I’ll
    resist) and getting an unbiased view. And it’s not going to come
    from a Yahoo news page.

  14. Amanda Mathews, No, the things that I bought/ was looking at on Amazon and others, showed up on the sidebar of the daily newspaper and my Face Book page. Totally outside of the Amazon stuff, where I would expect that to be.

    And yes, my kids do look at the local newspaper page. Not so much my FB, but sometimes it is left up. I am not so concerned about birth control, but rather the random things that I might look up, that are more personal in nature. Say, lube. Too much info for my kids.

  15. Jim, nope, I am not your CrazyCatLady. I do have over 200 cats, but only 2 are alive. The rest are porcelin. You do have the same name as my ex-brother-in-law though. But I doubt you are the same person either. 😉

  16. I wonder if this is what my friend has been experiencing with her Yahoo news. She has been discussing some strange stories lately, and she is pretty helicoptory.

  17. There was a really interesting article in the NY Times this past February (I think) about the kinds of information gathering and statistical analysis that goes into this kind of target marketing. I just made it sound boring, but my husband and I thought it was fascinating:) The article doesn’t touch on fear-cultivation, but focuses on marketing to pregnant women and the really surprising ways companies (specifically Target) figure out which customers are most likely pregnant based on things they’ve purchased from the store. And then how the company uses that information to (very craftily) market MORE stuff to expecting parents. It’s a great read, especially for those of us always questioning what people are trying to sell us. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?_r=2&hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1329404583-0XMNRpK7ZSMEjv%206SwijpA&pagewanted=all

  18. CrazyCatLady, get Google Chrome and set up different profiles. You could have one for yourself and one for the kids.

  19. My daughter sometimes comments on the ads she sees on my computer when we’re looking at it together. And I always go: “What? Oh, that’s an ad, I don’t see them.” I really don’t. I have an inbuilt filter that recognises ads faster than it takes to reach my consciousness and manage to completely ignore them. I am hoping my daughter will develop this too.

  20. This is only tangentially related, but today I was on the Girl Scouts’ website for a story and came across their internet safety initiative. I thought “this ought to be good” and clicked through. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the core messages of it were: 1. the dangers of online predators have been trumped up by news outlets looking for sensational stories. 2. This stuff DOES exist, though, but the good news is that it’s really really easy to protect yourself from it 3. Here’s how you go about doing that. I’m not a shill for Girl Scouts by a long shot, but I thought it might interest people to know that at least one influential organization is trying to present a balanced mesage on the kinds of topics discussed here.

  21. Linvo, I am like you, I hardly notice those ads on the side. It was only after I purchased a book that showed up that I became more aware of the side ads.

    My friend mentioned above though, well she saw an “article” on the side, about “Money for Struggling Homeowners – It doesn’t need to be repaid.” (Too good to be true, I know.) She forwarded the link to me and her mother. The funny thing was, when I went to the site for what was local for her in another state, it came up with my newspaper name for me. I had to let her know that not everything that she sees on those sidebars are actually what they appear to be.

    I suspect that tuning out the ads, (or headlines) is something that is learned. I use the computer a lot to verify stuff, to learn new things. She is a person who is a lot like members of one Face Book group that I am in – they would rather ask other people than go and look it up themselves. She just doesn’t have as much experience tuning stuff out. My kids used to notice all the time, but I do let them play games on certain sites that have the ads – with the warning to never ever click on them. They used to comment about the ads, they don’t do that anymore.

  22. I was in Phoenix on vacation last month, and while there looked up information on the Desert Botanical Gardens. Back home in Wisconsin after our trip, the banner ad on my local newspaper’s web site was for…you guessed it….the Desert Botanical Gardens! I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this while on-line in Arizona, but was surprised to see it at home.

  23. It’s amazing what these algorithms can do. And yet the airlines can’t figure out an algorithm that seats toddlers next to their parent…?!

  24. Funny that technology should facilitate the terror feedback loop. It is after all self selected – the tech is just trying to understand what is most important to you so it can help you find what you want. Have people been so well trained to reinforce their own absurd fears that they actively select for more? Survey (or intelligent learning algorithm anyway) says yes. At least in this case. The tech is a mirror; what you see inside is yourself. Maybe its telling you something you don’t want to know but it has not made a mistake. If you don’t like what you find there, you now know who to blame.

  25. […] read an article today that talks about how our perception of the world can be distorted by any number of factors. […]

  26. […] Predators on the Yahoo Home Screen, from Lenore at Free-Range Kids • because it’s interesting how much we do to shape our own perceptions, without even realizing it… […]

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