Prior to reading Zeynep Tufekci’s piece What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson I hadn’t really heard the term “net neutrality”. I realized quickly what it meant – as we had heard a little bit about the concept from Safiya Noble. On a “meta” level, the term directly manifests the tension that Digital Humanities presents. How do the digital and humanities world collide? Can they coexist? How do they affect each other. In the example of #Ferguson, net neutrality stands as a solid example of this relationship.
Safiya mentioned during her talk that as a suggestion to Apple, she would hire people in the sociology/humanities fields alongside qualified programmers. Tufekci argues this lack of sociological foresight in algorithmic filtering, in that it “controls what you seen 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”. It shocked me to discover that there are certain mechanisms built into algorithm filter settings like “term frequency inverse document frequency” which Tufekci explains as “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 n the last five days penalized Ferguson”. This technical function of Twitter, for example, most likely has some reasoning to it. But when something like this, a national/international controversy sparks, how does that fit in? It seems as though it would have trended nationally – but it didn’t (or for a very brief amount of time, according to Tufekci).
“Algorithms have consequences” writes Tufekci. Like she notes, this issue is multifaceted. It does not just have one consequence in one field. It has a multitude of implications, in a multitude of fields. One in particular that really strikes a chord for me is the issue of free speech. Algorithmic filtering stands directly in opposition to the “voiceless being heard”. Around the time that the Internet was shaping up to be what it is today, there was this idealized dream that it would be a place in which everyone could discuss anything. It was to be the most free form of communication of all time. And as with this example, it is clear to see that this ideal is not quite the case in actuality.
As Tufekci notes at the end of the article, Ferguson illuminates so many burgeoning issues in this country. “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”. Not only is the issue of net neutrality coming to the surface, I think it is one of the strongest forces working against these other issues that come up with Ferguson – race, police, employment. It seems that this is the most burning and easily approachable issue to begin dealing with.