Ethics and Algorithms

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

George Orwell was right. Big Brother is watching, only now they are called algorithms, the list of instructions and rules that a computer needs to do a task.

In Orwell’s book, 1984, Big Brother included totalitarian forces that governed the thoughts and actions of people living in a dystopian science fiction society under mass surveillance and regimentation. In Orwell’s imagined future, Thought Police persecute individuality and independent thinking. Big Brother is the dictatorial leader.

Now, 73 years after the English writer’s book was published in 1949, rigid and mindless computer algorithms do the job of governing human behavior. But now it’s not science fiction.

Orwell might be surprised to learn that Big Brother became senile.

Here’s an example: On April 6, I posted on Facebook a report explaining how an ethicist tells the difference between a genuine ethical dilemma and a difficult ethical choice. This is about ethics in journalism. I tried to boost that report, aiming to get a bigger audience through advertising.

The response from Meta for Business, the new corporate name for Facebook, said: “Your ad was rejected.” It went on to say the ad was rejected “because it doesn’t comply with our Cheating and Deceitful Practices policy.” Imagine that. Meta considers a report about ethics, the study of right or good conduct, as cheating or deceitful conduct.

Meta algorithms must have overheated a circuit or two to arrive at that conclusion. Or Facebook and its algorithms are unfamiliar with the term “ethics.” That might be the reason, a year ago, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google faced congressional lawmakers who criticized them for algorithms that promote misinformation and online extremism, such as baseless election fraud claims and anti-vaccine content.

Back to the issue of ethics being cheating or deceitful conduct, Meta stated further: “Ads may not promote products or services that are designed to enable a user to engage in cheating or deceitful practices.” The rejection notice gave eight examples of cheating or deceitful practices. None of them mentioned ethics.

One of the prohibited examples: “Ads many not promote fake documents, such as counterfeit degrees, passports, immigration papers, or fake currency.” Another discouraged “Incentivizing or soliciting reviews in exchange for free products.”

None of them seemed to justify banning an ad about ethical practices intended to help journalists.

It appears Facebook and its algorithms need to be smarter about ethics, including the welfare of their users.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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