Leeds Critical Data Studies Group

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Chasing the algorithmic magic: an introduction to the Critical Data Studies Group at the University of Leeds

The Facebook Trends feed is a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook. This list is personalized based on a number of factors, including Pages you’ve liked, your location and what’s trending across Facebook.

In May 2016 the service was at the centre of a big controversy. Allegations were made that human curators were involved in selecting and moderating political news items adopting a liberal bias, favouring left-leaning topics at the expense of conservative ones. The Trends system has been discussed extensively since the accusations, and while some of the claims of systematic political bias may have been exaggerated, it is clear that a significant degree of obfuscation was going on at Facebook. Far from being a neutral and fully computational content aggregator, the Trending feed was, and still is, the result of multiple interactions between humans and machines. One of such interactions is what Tarleton Gillespie calls ‘clickworking‘. Clickworking is the ‘human computation’ that happens after the Facebook algorithm has identified spikes of activity or other patterns in a data stream. The human curators then go through this content using a proceduralised, repetitive set of steps in order to identify and categorise the trending items. While the curators are asked to make the sorts of decisions that only humans can make, i.e. based on meaning, they are forced to do so by following a set of standardised instructions in order to maximise efficiency, and to reduce variations caused by differences in judgement. The curators are fully assimilated in the computational process, acting like human interpreter programs that execute instructions in a scripting language.

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