Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Quick and Dirty RSS Tutorial!

I recently used social media to ask a bunch of my friends whether or not they use RSS feeds to follow sources on the Web. I was kinda shocked to see how many people didn't know what RSS is, or, how to subscribe to a site with it. I'm writing this blog post because I think that this shows a dangerous lack of media literacy among people of good will. This will be the last "quick and dirty" post before a real news item. 

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Walled Gardens and Confirmation Bias

Modern people live in a news-saturated environment. Learning about the world around us is like trying to drink from a fire-hose. Not only is it impossible to read, hear, or, watch everything on the Web---it's impossible to scan everything that the Web publishes everyday and decide what tiny fraction of it we want to read, hear, or, watch. This means that people not only have to be discriminating about what they spend their time consuming, they have to pay attention to what technology they put into place to decide what they are exposed to every day.

Take a look at this screenshots from Google Play News Stand (you can always click on an image to see a larger version):

This is a screenshot of Google Play News Stand,
reproduced under the "Fair Use" copyright provision.

This is an example of an "aggregator websites".  These are websites that are designed to bring together individual stories from a wide variety of websites for you to look at so you don't have to manually search around for them. These sites have the same "drinking from a fire hose" problem as individuals do, so they use computer programs to do the actual search. They use instructions that programmers have included in the coding, preferences from the viewers, and, access to personal information of viewers that has been "scraped" from their use of other Web products (eg:  the Google search engine.)

In the case of the Google News Stand screenshot, pay attention to the first story: "Patrick Brown seeks $8 M in damages from CTV News---", it's important to realize that this story has been selected for me personally. That's because the Google analytics software knows who I am and it has a long data file about me---it knows where I live, what political party I support, what news sources I routinely read, how old I am, where I work, etc. The computer program that is "aggregating" the websites that it puts on the April 23 News Stand page knows that I live in Ontario, am interested in politics, and, often read the Toronto Star on line. That's why the first story I see is the one on Patrick Brown.

There is a big problem that people need to understand about this site. Google News Stand is what is known as a "walled garden". By this, I mean that Google gets to choose what does or doesn't get onto this website. In the Google example, this probably only means that you will only see fairly "middle-of-the-road", general consensus stories. In other words, you probably never see anything on it that you couldn't expect to see on the CBC or read in the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail. So forget about any sort of thought-provoking analysis, investigative articles that use detailed research to oppose "conventional wisdom", or, stories that deal with local issues.

Another way of thinking about this is to say that News Stand is a "filter bubble". When an algorithm sets out to select what stories it thinks you might be interested in, it also creates a situation where you no longer get "surprised" or see stories that you violently disagree with. This means that the opportunities for learning something that might lead to changing your mind about an issue are fewer than if someone else---like an idiosyncratic newspaper editor---was deciding what stories to put in front of you. This is a really dangerous thing for society because most---if not all---people are predisposed to look specifically for evidence the supports their pre-existing assumptions and discount that which undermines them. Psychologists call this "confirmation bias".

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Confirmation Bias

To understand this phenomenon, it is important to realize that there two ways to reason: like a philosopher or a lawyer. A philosopher looks at the evidence and arguments and tries to figure out what is the most likely to be true. She may come up with a hypothesis about what is actually the fact, but this is always provisional---if a new piece of evidence comes forth that invalidates that hypothesis, she will discard the hypothesis and create a new one to explain what is going on. In contrast, a lawyer is not trying to find the truth, he is setting out to win. If he sees a piece of evidence that would lose him the case, he will totally ignore it or try to find some way of discrediting that evidence---such as actively seeking out an "expert" who the lawyer thinks will say that the evidence isn't actually harmful to his client. That's because he doesn't really care about truth, but winning. And a lawyer who don't fight for his clients even when he thinks they are guilty can never expect to get ahead in his profession.

(To be fair to lawyers, our system of justice is based on adversarial battle between prosecution and defense. And this, in turn, is based on the idea that people with limited abilities and insight often have to deal with ambiguous situations where no one really does know who is being honest or not. In such cases, it's better for a lawyer to be forced to do all he can to win rather than make him the judge and jury of his client. But for the purposes of this discussion, the two ways of thinking are relevant. Consider, if you will, if a lawyer in a case ever says "Well you've got me there. I've never thought about it that way. I suppose I'm going to have to rethink what I believe about this." Philosophers actually do say such things in scholarly debate.)

Psychologists have found that the natural tendency of people is to think like lawyers instead of philosophers. That's why people who work in the oil industry discount the evidence of climate change. It's also why it is so hard to get many white people to see the privileges that give them advantages over people of colour. It's also why many men are incapable of understanding the effects of their sexist behaviour on women. Human society is absolutely rife with confirmation bias.

Because confirmation bias is so common, our society has developed mechanisms to limit the number of problems that can come from it. The scientific method is one. Several other examples come from the legal system. For example, when a judge rules that "hearsay evidence" is inadmissible, he is specifically using a rule of discourse to overcome a natural tendency for juries to believe what they want to believe. (Hearsay evidence is evidence that is based on second-hand accounts---eg: "I heard so-and-so say that he did it"---where the person who is supposed to have made the original claim is unavailable for cross-examination.) The key problem with hearsay is that the other lawyer and the judge are not able to bring the original person who is supposed to have said something to the stand and ask them whether a: they actually said what they are reported to have said, and, b: any questions that might show that they were mistaken or lying when they said it. If we allow hearsay into a court of law people can be convicted on the basis of gossip and rumour.

Rules like the ones against hearsay evidence are mechanical in nature and not dependent on any individual person being wise enough to understand their importance and remember to apply them in any specific situations. Lawyers and judges have it pounded into their heads at law school that they cannot use hearsay evidence, and, if a judge makes a decision that was based on hearsay evidence, an appeal judge will have to overturn the decision on appeal. This sort of mechanical, culturally-based rule has been created through trial-and-error because of grotesque miscarriages of justice in the past. If you know what to look for, these sorts of fixes exist throughout our society. Examples include the peer-review process for scientific discovery, police officers reading people their rights when being arrested, the rules governing voting procedures, the requirement that all publicly-traded companies have to have regular audits by chartered accountants, and so on. Unfortunately, it is very rare for human society to predict potential problems when a new situation arises and at that time create the cultural "fix" that protects society from confirmation bias. So instead what usually happens is that some ridiculous or catastrophic situation emerges because of confirmation bias, and then---through trial and error---society eventually creates a cultural "workaround" to deal with it. We are currently facing one of those situation with the creation of aggregator services like Google News StandThe problem with the algorithms that companies like Google use in their web-based news aggregators is that they have created an invisible, mechanical system that encourages confirmation bias among the people who read them. 

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Lest people think I am making a mountain out of a molehill, take a look at the following screenshot from a web-based aggregator that is a little less "savoury" than Google News Stand.

Yup. Read that caption! This is "The Drudge Report".
Image used under "Fair Use" Copy rite provision. 
This is today's headline from The Drudge Report. This is one of the most influential "conservative" news aggregators in America. (Here is the actual website URL. But be careful, it has a lot of "snaky malware" in the advertisements. I have "Privacy Badger" on my browser to identify and delete  "sketchy" advertisements, and I've never seen so much blank space on a webpage before! Clicking on the screenshot above is perfectly safe. As is looking at the Wikipedia article.)

This too is a walled garden. But unlike Google, the fellow who created and runs this aggregator---Matt Drudge---hasn't got huge data files on everyone
Matt Drudge, from his FaceBook page.
 "Fair Use" copyright provision.
who uses the Web. Nor does he have access to Bond-villain-sized mega computers and armies of genius coders. Instead, he just looks at other websites and finds the most salacious stories that fit his own political agenda. And yet, it appears that his website gets about 3 million "hits" a day. (That number sounds impressive---I'd be happy if The Back-Grounder was getting over 100---but remember that the USA is a nation of 300 million. More to the point, it's important to understand that a large number of most website "hits" are generally done by robots doing Dao-only-knows-what.) That's certainly enough to have a significant influence on society. And there is a body of opinion that Drudge has had a huge effect on more "mainstream" media coverage, if only that of dragging down public discourse. As evidence, it appears that The Drudge Report has been important in spreading "important" news stories" such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

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One of the ways to "work around" confirmation bias is to expand the pool of people to talk to about things. Presumably, that way you get exposed to different points of view and that broadens your worldview. That was one of the promises of social media. The theory is that we would pontificate about some sort of issue and one of our FaceBook friends would point out the flaw in the argument and then we'd back down. For example, I recently I got all in a tizzy about a tweet that said that the federal government was attempting to remove some provision in the CRTC mandate that forbids the news media from knowingly spreading false news---but a FaceBook "friend" pointed out that the item was dated in 2011---oops! So this does happen. But unfortunately a lot of people use social media to create their own, special "walled gardens" where they allow only people of like mind. The result is what is known as an "echo chamber".  People in these groups take turns whipping each other into a frenzy about various things. Unfortunately, the result is sometimes someone taking all the rhetoric too seriously and then we have situations like like the guy who took an AR-15 into a Washington pizzeria looking for the children enslaved by the pedaphile sex ring operated by Hillary Clinton.  (This also appears to be what happened with the awful van attack in Toronto, which seems to have been inspired by the on-line "involuntary celibate (incel)" culture that exists on groups like 4chan and Reddit.)

Even if people don't end up drowning in the social media version of a cesspit, there are other issues to consider. Increasing numbers of people get most of their ideas from social media like FaceBook, Twitter, etc. There are several problems with these sources. First of all, these systems have a technological bias against long-form communication. Twitter restricts posts to 280 characters. FaceBook has a very limited editing suite. YouTube's advertising policy discourages posts of more than 15 minutes. The companies do this because their primary goal is to maximize the number of clicks, not the quality of discourse. They get paid by advertisers for the number of times someone logs onto the site, both to maximize the number of ads they see and the amount of information that the company gathers about each view. FaceBook makes a lot more money off people zipping from post to post than they do if someone settles into their chair with a cup of tea and spends a good long time reading something like the Back-Grounder.

What this means in term of content is that the social media business model is based on whatever it takes to get people's momentary attention instead of sustained concentration. This is why FaceBook spends so much of it's time trying to get you to gush over cute cat videos or be outraged about some politician. If they could get away with it, they'd probably be showing short snuff videos too.  (That sounds like an outrageous suggestion, but consider the fact that a few years ago a kid at the local university live-streamed a suicide attempt.) That's because what does best on social media are things that appeal to the more instinctual elements of human consciousness and by-pass higher order reasoning. Mainstream news media has understood this for a long time, hence the adage "if it bleeds, it leads".  (If I remember correctly, one of my first letters to an editor was a complaint about The Mercury printing a salacious photo of a woman in a bikini with a knife at her throat.)

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Introducing RSS Feeds

Knowing that social media is playing games with our access to public information doesn't totally
Nope, not going to happen.
Leonard Nimoy, Fair Use
remove the problem. After all, all human beings still have the lower brain functions and they are still important to our survival. Knowing we are fallible creatures doesn't make us into purely logical beings devoid of emotion. We will still find ourselves being fooled into having an emotional reaction that gets us doing stuff that we wouldn't if we'd had a bit more time to think things through. (After all, how many of us are totally immune to the siren call of advertising?) The only thing we can hope to do is find one of those "workarounds" like the one I discussed dealing with hearsay evidence in courtrooms.

Luckily people far smarter than me have been thinking about
This is the RSS Icon,
look for it on the website.
these issues for a long time. One result of this thinking was the creation of what is known as "Really Simple Syndication software or "RSS".  What this allows people to do is to subscribe (what's what "syndication" means) to those particular blogs that you really want to read. The way to understand this is to think that what you are doing is creating your own, personal newspaper---instead of letting Google analytics or Matt Drudge do it for you. What you do is find the icon on the left on one of the websites you want to follow, copy the relevant info, and then add it to the feeder you have decided to use. (Here are some good instructions about how to use it.) In my own case, I now use a Feeder add-on to my Chrome web-browser. What this does is create a list of websites that shows whether new content has been uploaded to them. When I read these new posts (or listen to new podcasts), they are then marked as "read" and removed from the "new category". If I look at the list of posts and see stuff I don't want to read, I can just click next to it and it becomes "read". And if I see a long list and I don't think I want to see any of them, I can click next to the title of the list, and they are all marked "read". When something new comes along, I see it added to the number under the icon on the top of my browser.

My own personal RSS feed. 
This has several advantages over other options. It is possible to set up a link on a web page that will email new posts to readers. But this clutters up your email and it causes formatting problems so you don't really see exactly what the author really wanted you to see. Secondly, it isn't as easy to glance at a list of website notices in order to decide what you do or do not want to read when they are mixed in with other traffic. In a way, an RSS feed is like when we read an old paper edition of a newspaper---I routinely discarded the "Real Estate" and "Sports" sections and mainly read the first one. You don't want to have to open each individual email from all your web sites to see what's inside. With an RSS feeder I can tell at a glance what I want to read and what I want to discard---just like with the Toronto Star.

People often say "well, I just go back once in a while to look at the pages I like---I don't need to subscribe". That doesn't really happen with most people, though. Instead, they log onto social media,
Aaron Swartz,
one of the "good guys"
image c/o Wiki-Commons
look at cute cat pictures, get angry about that awful politician that they are being told to hate, etc, look at the time, are horrified about how much they've wasted, and, run off to do something else. That's not an accident---very clever, very well-paid people who studied human psychology at university have set up social media sites to get you to do that. In contrast, very idealistic people (if you have the time, read this article about Aaron Swartz, one of the RSS inventors---warning, it has a sad ending) have been trying to push back against this avalanche of corporate greed through things like RSS feeds.

A reader might at this point ask "What's the difference in subscribing to a bunch of RSS feeds and using an aggregator like Google News Stand or The Drudge Report? Aren't they all "walled gardens"?" Yes, they are---but the significant difference is that YOU get to create the walled garden, not some algorithm or an individual with an axe to grind. Moreover, the decision to choose whether or not to subscribe to a site using and RSS feed is both conscious and rational. It requires a moment's reflection, and, uses the cerebral cortex instead of the "reptile brain".  Almost no one consciously decides to subscribe to a feed of never-ending cute kitten memes. And almost no one "instinctively" posts links to long reads. Choosing to use an RSS feed is a choice to refuse to be manipulated by social media. 

Another thing to realize about actively subscribing to a blog through a RSS feed is that you are investing in a "relationship of trust" with the author. Part of the problem with fake news is that a lot of it appears to come from credible sources because the standardized format means that what you see is pretty much the same whether it comes from The New York Times or some teenagers in Macedonia. If you take the time to subscribe and read repeated posts, you have a much, much better chance of learning whether or not the blog can be trusted. This is exactly the same thing as when you find a good trades person and stick to them instead of just choosing the first guy who shows up when you search for "Guelph plumbers". If you get all your info based on what you see on FaceBook you might find the odd nugget of gold---but you are going to find a lot of gravel too. Why not subscribe to the vein of gold instead of hoping for another nugget to come along some time soon?

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Of course, I have a vested interest in getting people to start subscribing to various blogs instead of just cruising social media. I want you to subscribe to the "Back-Grounder". (I also want people to pay me through Patreon too.) But there is a bigger point. Companies like Google and FaceBook are driving the old newspapers into the dirt. If you won't support the Quixotic attempts to get some sort of quality local media off the ground, we won't have any local news coverage at all.

I was at a local get-together the other day and someone said "if delegates don't come to City Council, then the newspapers won't say that so many public presentations were in favour of the proposal". She knows that there are no real "newspapers" in Guelph, but she still made the point reflexively. But the fact is that besides Adam Donaldson and his live twitter feed, there is no good coverage of City Council. And besides "the Guelph Back-Grounder", there's no investigative journalism happening either. So it doesn't really matter how many folks show up at a Council meeting to push for a proposal---simply because almost no one has any way of knowing.

To be honest, this situation really concerns me. It's why I looked into if anyone was serious about replacing "The Mercury" when it was finally taken off life-support. And it's why I decided to start writing this blog when I realized that no, no one was working on a replacement. It's also why I keep asking for support on Patreon. No one is going to to work as a reporter giving Guelph good coverage of things like Council meetings unless we develop the culture of paying for news. And in any social movement there needs to be people who take the first steps. As little as a dollar a month makes a difference. It's a concrete statement that you think local news is important.

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