Web Bias: Hacks, Hammers, and Hate

Discovering Bias Through Reverse Engineering and Hacking

I find it interesting that determining bias in the materials we read on the web really requires a combination of basic technical computer science skills along with the more universal, content-based critical thinking skills. Alan November discusses in considerable detail some of the more technical, computer-centric techniques people should learn in order to help them detect bias and deceptive information. These include analyzing URLs and looking up domains on “WhoIs” services. The main point seems to be in order to track where information is truly being sourced, we need to understand enough about web technologies in order to reverse engineer the internet’s underlying structure.

The technical discussion above logically leads me to assume that web programmers (and others who are more knowledgeable about how computers work) are naturally better at detecting bias in web materials than users who aren’t regularly involved in computer engineering activities. Is this really true though? It might be an interesting hypothesis to test. In the same vein, Catherine Seo often talks about “digital immigrants”, or those who belong to age groups that did not grow up using the internet. Is there a wide gap between age groups in terms of technical knowledge about how the World Wide Web works and does this correlate with each age group’s ability to detect bias?

Back to Critical Thinking Basics

As I mentioned at the beginning, determining authenticity and objectivity on the web requires traditional critical thinking skills as well. John Hopkins University’s Library website contains a tutorial, called “Evaluating Information Found on the Internet”. This tutorial lists a number of factors that users should consider such as the authority of the author (credibility in eyes of others within the field), the publishing body of the web material, and demonstrated knowledge of the literature within the domain in which the author is writing. I personally find “point of view” to be a particularly poignant factor, however.

Hammering Away at the Government

For instance, the following article about the Pentagon’s “$600 hammer” appears, at first glance, to be an objective piece written to disprove the urban legend that the military actually spent $600 on a hammer. However, after reading the article and researching the source, I had a very different take on what the motivations behind this piece actually were. This article comes from the National Journal. This is a publication that claims to be non-partisan, yet a good argument could be made that they are a considerably conservative magazine; one that generally advocates privatization and less government. In each of the last two presidential cycles they ranked Obama and John Kerry, respectively, as the #1 most liberal senators. Also, the National Journal owns the domain, govexec.com, which, according to their website, is “a business magazine serving executives and managers in the federal government.” Many of their articles seem to push for more privatization of government agencies and the military. The “$600 hammer” article, on closer examination, implicitly appears to be doing just that. See this passage as a case-in-point:

“Such accounting arcana are bread-and-butter issues for Douglass now that he heads the Aerospace Industries Association of America Inc., whose members want more military service contracts – which they can win only by showing they can perform a given service at lower cost than the military could do it in-house. But when the public and private sectors compete, said Bert M. Concklin, president of the Professional Services Council, differing accounting standards mean that “the government’s costs are elusive, at best.”

So, deceptively, the article starts off, appearing to defend the government, saying that the $600 hammer story is not a legitimate example of the Pentagon’s financial incompetence. However, as the article goes on, the author does an about-face and starts emphasizing that the government’s accounting practices are indeed highly flawed, ineffective, and wasteful, and that this “elusive” accounting system makes it harder for the private sector (i.e. private military contractors) to compete with the public sector.

Don’t Be a Hater

I found a similar case of “point of view” bias in a NY Times article that, the John Hopkins Library site linked to. This article, on the surface, simply warns against racist websites that deceptively pose as being objective and educational. If more closely examined, however, this story is rather one-sided and appears to be advocating an ulterior agenda.

The article primarily features the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. This center holds a very broad definition of  “hate” content and it strongly advocates censorship of any content it deems hateful. Many disparate groups fall within this wide-cast net that the Wiesenthal Center casts, including “hate music, religious extremism, Holocaust denial, militia groups, and conspiracy and new world order ideology.” It is dubious at best to put all of these groups into one pot and label it “hate”. For example, under their broad definition, the Center could easily put gangster rap under the category of hate music. So does this mean that they advocate censoring popular rap songs? In the same vein, there are many people out there who are truly worried about globalism and the potential of elites to gain too much power over all of the world’s populations through the institution of a single, centralized government. Is it fair or responsible to classify such concerned citizens under the category of “hate”? These are dangerous precedents to set and it is a manipulative way to play on people’s fears in order to push an agenda that severely limits freedom of speech on the internet.

In short, when vetting information we read on the web and attempting to determine bias, there is no doubt that we should always be wearing our critical thinking hats. However, there are also some helpful technological strategies and techniques available to internet users that can potentially provide some important clues about whether bias exists in media and where exactly that bias is coming from.

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