In the May-June 2016 issue of New Left Review, Rodrigo Ochigame and James Holston examine the filtering algorithms of social media platforms like Facebook, asking how these supposedly impartial mechanisms affect web-based political mobilization. The authors demonstrate how filtering algorithms are far from politically neutral, and as a case study, they analyze an indigenous struggle against invasive agribusiness in Brazil. Here's an excerpt:
In other words, overt censorship of the internet—for example, server takedown, seizure of domain names, denial of service and editorial manipulation—is not necessary to control the flow of information for political purposes. Algorithmic filtering can accomplish the same end implicitly and continuously through its logics of promotion and suppression. In the algorithmic control of information, there are no clearly identifiable censors or explicit acts of censorship: the filtering is automated and inconspicuous, with a tangled chain of actors (computer scientists, lines of code, private corporations and user preferences). This complex process systematically limits the diversity of voices online and in many cases suppresses certain kinds of speech. Although the outcome may be viewed as tantamount to censorship, we need to broaden our conceptual framework to take account of the specific logics that are built into the selection, distribution and display of information online.
In what follows, we will describe how filtering algorithms work on the leading social media platforms, before going on to explain why those platforms have adopted particular filtering logics, and how those logics structure a political economy of information control based primarily on advertising and selling consumer products. Political activists regularly use such platforms for outreach and mobilization. What are the consequences of relying on commercial logics to manage political speech? We show the impact of algorithmic filtering on a contemporary social conflict, the land disputes between agribusiness and the Guarani and Kaiowá peoples in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. The predominant filtering logics result in various forms of information promotion and suppression that negatively affect indigenous activists and benefit the agribusiness lobby—but we also show how activists can sometimes strengthen their voices by circumventing those logics in creative ways. In conclusion, we will propose a number of strategies to subvert the predominant logics of information control and to nurture alternatives that would enable a more democratic circulation of information online. Given the overwhelming importance of online mediation for social and political life, this is an urgent task.
Image: Indigenous Guarani youths during a ceremony in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Via NY Times.