In a piece posted to The Message collection on Medium today, University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci reveals how issues of net neutrality are altering the news coming out of Ferguson, Mo.
First, Tufekci compares how the story is unfolding on different platforms. While Twitter catapulted Ferguson into the national media, she says, Facebook’s algorithms obscured what was happening in Missouri early on. She goes on to illustrate how algorithms on social sites control the way a news story is brought to our attention.
This isn’t about Facebook per se—maybe it will do a good job, maybe not—but the fact that algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.
Twitter was also affected by algorithmic filtering. “Ferguson” did not trend in the US on Twitter but it did trend locally. So, there were fewer chances for people not already following the news to see it on their “trending” bar. Why? Almost certainly because there was already national, simmering discussion for many days and Twitter’s trending algorithm (term frequency inverse document frequency based) rewards spikes… So, as people in localities who had not been talking a lot about Ferguson started to mention it, it trended there though the national build-up in the last five days penalized Ferguson.
Algorithms have consequences.
Tufekci goes on to imagine a near future in which control over Internet access is used to control media coverage of breaking news stories like this one. For example, livestreams of protests require high-speed Internet connections, and in California, legislation that would make it easier to disable smartphones remotely is being considered.
The issue of access to devices and the network is poignantly underscored by the arrest of two reporters who were charging their phones and using the Internet at a Ferguson McDonald’s. Quartz’s Adam Epstein writes today about how the fast and free connection at the fast food chain has an unintentionally democratizing effect — when news is breaking, free Internet has the power to bring people together in unusual places.
I hope that in the coming days, there will be a lot written about race in America, about militarization of police departments, lack of living wage jobs in large geographic swaths of the country.
But keep in mind, Ferguson is also a net neutrality issue. It’s also an algorithmic filtering issue. How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.