So, about Ms Penny and the algos being racist

It might not be the algos you know:

I’ll illustrate with an anecdote from my Facebook days. Someone on the data science team had cooked up a new tool that recommended Facebook Pages users should like. And what did this tool start spitting out? Every ethnic stereotype you can imagine. We killed the tool when it recommended then president Obama if a user had “liked” rapper Jay Z. While that was a statistical fact – people who liked Jay Z were more likely to like Obama – it was one of the statistical truths Facebook couldn’t be seen espousing.

I disagreed. Jay Z is a millionaire music tycoon, so what if we associate him with the president? In our current world, there’s a long list of Truths That Cannot Be Stated Publicly, even though there’s plenty of data suggesting their correctness, and this was one of them.

African Americans living in postal codes with depressed incomes likely do respond disproportionately to ads for usurious “payday” loans. Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 25 probably do engage with ads singing the charms and advantages of military service.

Why should those examples of targeting be viewed as any less ethical than, say, ads selling $100 Lululemon yoga pants targeting thirtysomething women in affluent postal codes like San Francisco’s Marina district?

It’s not the algos that are racist/sexist/classist. It’s us.

12 comments on “So, about Ms Penny and the algos being racist

  1. And what did this tool start spitting out? Every ethnic stereotype you can imagine. We killed the tool

    JESUS CHRIST, IT’S TELLING THE TRUTH! TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFFFF!!!! (Weeps, collapses to the ground).

  2. The article, based on a leaked presentation, said that Facebook was able to identify teenagers at their most vulnerable.

    If advertisers want to identify me at my most vulnerable to targeted advertising, it’s after a heavy night’s drinking. No doubt there’s a whole micro-industry dedicated to spewing ads to drunks at 2am.

  3. I still remember my surprise when one of my Facebook nyms started getting adverts for gay holidays. Then I had a damn good look at what I’d been doing and it wasn’t unreasonable.

    If you excuse the fact that Faceache didn’t deal properly with cats. Which is inexcusable on the interwebs.

  4. In my experience online ads just show you the item you have just bought or looked at. Genius.

  5. Rob,
    My experience exactly. You buy a washing machine, it gives you ads for washing machines. I’m not running a bleeding launderette here, you know.

  6. Actually there is a weird logic to all those ads showing you things you have just bought.

    The purpose of them is to remind people who didn’t complete the transaction for a particular purchase to go back and do it.

    The return on investment on this sort of advertising turns out to be quite high, so it’s still worth spamming people who are a bit more decisive on their purchases to catch those who aren’t.

  7. ‘Serving in the Navy?’

    More likely 3 Para Mortars. All the stories are true (apparently).

  8. “In my experience online ads just show you the item you have just bought or looked at. Genius.”

    And offering it at a lower price. GRRRR!

  9. ‘It’s not the algos that are racist/sexist/classist. It’s us.’

    ‘We have met the enemy, and it is us.’ – Pogo

Leave a Reply

Name and email are required. Your email address will not be published.