Modern Day Witch Hunt
Modern Day Witch Hunt
2009-04-13 20:51:08 by Andrew Hitchcock G+

Last week it was #savejon and this week it is #amazonfail. What do these hashtags have in common? They were both markers used in modern day witch hunts.

The basic pattern is similar. Someone posts an unsubstantiated claim on the internet. Thousands of "twactivists" repeat and forward the claims creating an internet swarm. They write outraged blog posts and send angry e-mails to the supposedly offending company. The few people that actually possess critical thinking skills e-mail the company for more information or start doing research on their own. Eventually the big, slow moving company responds to the issue, but by then all the low-attention span sheeple have already moved on to the next big drama.

In #savejon's case, a guy named Jon claimed claimed a stock art company had stolen his art and was now suing him. Turns out that was all a lie.

With #amazonfail, Amazon stopped giving sales rank to some GLBT books. People thought they were pressured by the religious right to remove the books from the sales charts. This was a perfect example of confirmation bias because people would search for other gay books and see that they didn't have a sales rank either. It is easy to think it only affects GLBT books when you are only searching for those books. Additionally, people searched for [homosexuality] and only got books by anti-gay authors. Of course they did! Gay people usually describe themselves as gay not homosexual!

Google has encountered similar issues with their automated ranking algorithms. A few years ago searches for [Jew] returned an anti-semetic website first. Since people don't understand how search engines work, Google had to post an explanation. There is no ulterior motive, big complicated systems can produce wonky results sometimes.

Hack journalists who think they know computers know that this could never, ever be a computer glitch. No, computers and software always work perfectly. Most people don't realize how hard it is to maintain large ontologies and sets of metadata, especially when that data comes from publishers, third party sellers, and users.

What's even worse is that some people still refuse to believe it was a mistake. These people are as bad as moon landing conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truthers. They maintain their beliefs no matter how much evidence or logic you throw at them. Some people just need to feel persecuted.

I find it interesting that this has happened twice in as many weeks. I'm a little worried about the reactionary witch hunt mentality that people are showing. Instead of taking some random internet claim with a bit of skepticism, people automatically assume the worst. Whatever happened to giving someone the benefit of the doubt or innocent until proven guilty? Drop the persecution complex and just chill, okay?

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