Knowing the Real Story in a world of Headlines and Algorithms

I’ve been pondering the question of how we know that what we are being told is the real story. This was highlighted by a recent incident at an AFC Championship game.

At a recent game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots there was a technical problem with the systems that provide vital information to the sidelines. This system uses, as part of a marketing deal, a set of Microsoft Surface tablets.

Disclaimer: I’m British and know absolutely nothing about American Football, nor want to really, thankfully I’m not commenting on the game. I’m not even commenting on whether the Microsoft Surface is good at what it does. I’m commenting on how stories emerge and get transmitted.

The most visible part of this failure was a whole gang of people looking blankly and shaking their heads at a set of very visible bright blue Microsoft Surface devices.

All of the initial news headlines were around the failure of Microsoft’s Surface tablets:

These headlines later became a bit more nuanced:

The headlines call out the Microsoft Surface but the articles themselves state that the problem wasn’t with the Microsoft devices at all, but with the stadium network that they were connecting to. It’s worth noting tha these are all headlines from professional news organisations.

Microsoft has had to launch a full media defence of their technology in an attempt to regain the marketing momentum:

“Microsoft Surfaces have not experienced a single failure in the two years they’ve been used on NFL sidelines. In the past two years, Surfaces have supported nearly 100,000 minutes of sideline action, and in that time, not a single issue has been reported that is related to the tablet itself.”

Microsoft Devices Blog

Their attempts to change the perception that their devices failed is admirable but probably ultimately futile, we live in a world of headlines and algorithms.

The search algorithms aren’t too bothered about presenting a balanced story, they are presenting the popular story and the popular story at the moment, in the headlines, is that Microsoft Surface failed.

The natural thing to search for is surface fail, or nfl surface fail both of which start with the stories that have headlines that include the words surface and fail, it’s only lower down the list the more balanced headlines come out.

Search twitter for surface fail and it’s a bit easier to see the progression of the story because the results are presented on a timeline where later developments are reflected at the top. The algorithms aren’t having as much of an impact, but even there the top story is this one:

As I said in my disclaimer, I’m not commenting on whether the Microsoft Surface is any good, or not. What I was intrigued by was the progression of the story. The headline was one thing, the real story was another, the conclusions jumped to were incorrect and yet the overarching commentary remains with the headlines, remembering that the headlines have been cleverly constructed to appear high in the algorithms.

This challenge is nothing new, we’ve always had a story told to us by various agents. It used to be the newspapers:

You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper, and unless you have all the facts, you cannot make proper judgements about what is going on.

Harry S Truman

Now the story agents are on-line media, but we still have to remember that the story we are receiving is filtered and even manipulated. We need, therefore, to approach the on-line media with the same dose of suspicion that we approached the newspapers.

Just because all of the other fish are swimming in one direction doesn’t mean that they are swimming in the right direction.

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