Monday, June 6, 2016

Beastly behaviour on the Internet

Ong Hwee Hwee
Deputy Digital Editor

JUN 5, 2016

From animals to algorithms, social media had plenty to raise a ruckus over


A curious topic has been trending on the Internet: What determines what's trending on Facebook?

The popular understanding is that a set of complex, top-secret algorithms acts as the invisible hand which draws up the influential list of trending topics appearing on the pages of its 1.6 billion users.

But it has emerged over the past weeks that there is in fact a team of men and women - known internally as news curators - behind the invisible hand.

The issue is still a talking point but the debate has shifted from who decides what's trending to what it says about what we read online, and how it shapes our views.

First, a quick recap of the saga.

The controversy over Facebook Trends was triggered by a Gizmodo report last month which interviewed some of Facebook's former curators.

Curators, working out of the basement of the social media giant's New York office, would decide which topics, identified by algorithms, to list as trending, and how they should be named and summarised, said the tech news site. One of them also alleged that Facebook was deliberately omitting articles with conservative viewpoints.

Facebook rejected the allegation of bias but acknowledged the role of news curators. In fact, it took the rare move of making public a 28-page internal document detailing how human editors and computer algorithms decide on trending topics.

Now, you may ask: Does it matter whether it's man or machine who decides on trending topics? Haven't editors been deciding what we read in newspapers?

A key difference, as some would argue, is the sheer reach of Facebook, and its power to shape views, especially when some rely on it as the main platform for information.

And Facebook's reach goes beyond its user base.

Both digital news websites and print media eager to expand its online footprint take reference, with varying degrees, from what's trending on Facebook because it is a key traffic driver for many.

For better or worse, it has become an integral part of the news cycle.

There is also a deeper reason why this episode has generated much discussion: It is not just about Facebook.

It is about how information is filtered and delivered to us in the digital age - whether it is through computer algorithms, browsing history, reading patterns, what we share on social media or even what we buy from online stores.

It is about how we process such information and form opinions based on it. And how it may perpetuate our biases when we are fed more of the same.

We may end up seeing the world as we already see it, as Ms Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, put it in a recent speech.

Addressing the graduating class at her alma mater Yale University, the former journalist said: "From the Facebook and Twitter feeds we monitor, to the algorithms that determine the results of our Web searches based on our previous browsing history and location, our major sources of information are increasingly engineered to reflect back to us the world as we already see it.

"They give us the comfort of our opinions without the discomfort of thought."


Opinions are often formed quickly, and expressed freely, in the online world.

The furore over the death of the gorilla Harambe is a case in point.

The shooting on May 28 that killed the gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo in the United States has prompted a chorus of online criticism.

The zoo said it had little choice but to kill the animal in order to protect the three-year-old boy who entered the gorilla enclosure. Non-lethal methods, such as tranquilliser darts, would be slow to take effect on the 190kg gorilla.

Some experts and people who have actually worked with gorillas have voiced support for the zoo.

Former zookeeper Amanda O'Donoughue pointed out that it was in fact dangerous to use tranquilliser darts as Harambe could have fallen on the boy, trapping him.

[Not to disagree with the Zoo's decision, but this argument does not exactly lead one to the conclusion that shooting the gorilla would not result in the same. Couldn't the dead or dying gorilla also fall on the boy? The Zoo's argument is that tranquilisers would have taken too long to work. All the experts agree on this. And all the experts agree that in the time it takes for the tranquiliser to work, the agitated gorilla could lash out, injuring or even killing the boy.]

What needed to be examined is the safety of the animal enclosures from the visitor side, she said last week in a Facebook post which has close to 1.2 million shares.

But the zoo's explanation failed to stem the wave of online criticism.

A Facebook group called "Justice for Harambe" attracted more than 150,000 likes. An online petition on garnered nearly half a million signatures.

The online lynching, meanwhile, has started. A stream of vitriolic remarks targeted the boy's mother, who was blamed and shamed for bad parenting.

The online flaming has claimed innocent victims. A Facebook user with the same name as the boy's mother found herself the target of abuse. Another woman who merely witnessed the gorilla incident and spoke to the media was mistaken by the mob as the child's mother. She had to take down her Facebook page because of the attack.

More than anything, the episode "offers us another peek inside the zoo we call the human condition", Chicago Tribune reporter Jerry Davich wrote in a hard-hitting column. [Below] "Who we are, how we react to confrontation, what we value, how we attempt to intimidate, and how important it is for us to point blame," he wrote. "Even for the death of a gorilla we didn't know existed."

Gorilla in our midst reveals our primal instincts

Jerry Davich

Apparently, everyone is now an expert on zoo management, gorilla behaviors, tranquilizer darts and proper parenting.

Here we are more than a week after the killing of a lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, and millions of self-appointed experts are still debating what happened. And, more to the point, what should have happened after the fact.

After several days of observing the fallout of this high-profile incident over Memorial Day weekend (which, by the way, sadly took our focus off the holiday's meaning), I've noticed that more than anything it revealed our human values, our moral judgments and our primal fears.

If you don't know what happened, on May 28, a gorilla named Harambe (meaning "all pull together" in Swahili) was shot and killed after a 3-year-old boy climbed over a 3-foot-high railing, wandered through some bushes and plunged 15 feet into a shallow moat of the zoo's gorilla enclosure.

A cellphone video of the dramatic incident shows the 420-pound gorilla first acting startled at the boy's appearance in his territory. And then the gorilla appeared to act protective of the helpless boy, at one point gently propping him up on his feet.

A second later, however, the gorilla clutched the boy's ankle and dragged him through the moat, prompting screams from zoo visitors and the boy's mother. The gorilla didn't appear to have malicious intent, but even its most gentle of behavior could have killed the boy at any moment.

I've since learned that male gorillas instinctively attempt to intimidate anything or anyone when they become agitated or threatened. Harambe seemed to intimidate all of us for a few seconds.

Zoo officials decided to shoot and kill the endangered gorilla to rescue the endangered boy. Priorities are priorities, and the right decision was made. The boy is recovering nicely from the harrowing incident, his family says.

End of story, right? Not even close.

Critics immediately attacked zoo officials for their decision for a single rifle shot, as opposed to using a tranquilizer dart to subdue the gorilla. I disagree with these critics while offering my sympathies to Harambe's handlers. If that was your child being dragged by a scared gorilla, would there be any other decision than to kill it? Of course not.

More people, though – millions of them by my estimate – criticized the boy's mother alleging neglect of her child while clamoring for charges of child endangerment.

"We are closely reviewing the facts of the case," the Cincinnati Police Department said in a statement.

The rest of us don't need to review facts. We are instinctively encaged by our knee-jerk opinions.

A Facebook group called "Justice for Harambe" had more than 150,000 "likes" by Friday, showing a photo of Harambe with the caption, "I was scared too." A viral online petition by had nearly a half million signatures as I write this column.

"We the undersigned want the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life," the petition states. "We believe that this negligence may be reflective of the child's home situation. This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy's parents did not keep a closer watch on the child."

Those are harsh accusations without knowing all the facts of this freak incident. Was the boy being harmfully neglected? Did it last two minutes? Ten minutes? Or did the toddler simply slip away from his mother's watchful eye for just long enough to scamper over that railing?

If you're a parent who has ever lost track of your wandering toddler for even a few frantic moments, as I have, I would need more information about this zoo incident before calling for neglect charges against the boy's mother.

I listened to her desperate 911 call to police and she sounded terrified, as any parent would be in that situation. Unless there's proof of repeated neglect in her home, or the mother was drunk at the zoo, I don't agree with the holier-than-thou attitude of those parent-shaming critics.

On a broader scale, I find it troubling that we, as a society, are ready to instantly rise up and protest the fatal shooting of this gorilla while routinely ignoring the human carnage around us on a daily basis. Where are the online petitions and new Facebook groups demanding change in the wake of murder after murder in America the ballistic?

I understand that this incident tapped into our primal instincts to place blame and point fingers. It's what we've done for eons. It's as primitive of a human reaction as Harambe's response in that zoo's moat.

Maybe it's no coincidence for animal rights activists to appear quicker to defend a creature that's beloved by humans and one that also emulates us. If, say, an endangered alligator was in that moat, a fatal shot wouldn't have been criticized.

This gorilla in our midst, albeit very briefly, offers us another peek inside the zoo we call the human condition. Who we are, how we react to confrontation, what we value, how we attempt to intimidate, and how important it is for us to point blame. Even for the death of a gorilla we didn't know existed.

Most of us will forget about this dead gorilla by the next news cycle (remember Cecil the lion killed by the Minnesota dentist?). However, we'll continue to ape our primitive reactions to this incident for years to come.

We haven't evolved past Harambe as much as we would like to believe.

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