The Internet and your inner English Tea Merchant

Earlier this year I had the honour of being invited to give a TEDx talk in Thessaloniki. That was an amazing experience, I had never talked to 800+ people, being filmed by 4 cameras, and live broadcasted all at the same time! It was kind of pushing it to limit for me but it was really fun! I must say that the TEDx Thessaloniki team were extremely professional and helpful! The talk is now on youtube, but of course my delivery was slightly different to the script (try to memorize a 15 minutes lecture and then deliver it to a huge crowd!). So, I though I’d post the script here as well as the video!

In November 2015, when the terrorist attacks happened in Paris, the world went into shock. People and nations all around the globe showed their solidarity in different ways: Iconic buildings were lit in the colours of the French flag, candles were lit in the streets, while online, people showed their respect by applying French flag filters to their profile pictures.

Unfortunately, earlier this year, another terrorist attack occurred but this time in New Zealand. 51 innocent people died as a result. Yet not once did I see someone update their profile picture with the NZ flag, let alone an entire building illuminated in its colours! well, mostly because we actually don’t know how the New Zealand’s flag looks like!

Joking aside, you might say, well, Paris is the capital of France and France is central to Europe, which is central to the world, whereas New Zealand is waaay down there, below Australia, in the corner!

You might say, the attacks in Paris were conducted by fundamentalist Muslims, whereas in New Zealand the victims were Muslims and … you know you don’t want to support Muslims on your Facebook profile, particularly if you want to travel to the US in the close future! You might say, in Paris 130 people got killed whereas in New Zealand the number of victims was only 50, so it’s not really worth the trouble of updating your profile picture!

Then I might say, hey how about Sri Lanka? Three weeks ago, there were a series of terrorist attacks by ISIS in Sri Lanka, killing more than 250 Christians, why didn’t we illuminate our buildings then!? You would say, yea, we just said, Sri Lanka is also down there in the corner! We don’t know how their flag looks like either. We might have guessed New Zealand’s flag must look like Australia’s, but have no clue about Sri Lanka’s flag!

You might think I’m joking, but actually all these “excuses” that I listed are observed in a large-scale data analysis that we conducted to measure collective attention and collective memory of people, when it comes to bad news and disasters.

But to measure “public attention” and how much people care about a topic, we had to be creative! As no one wants to walk up to people on the street and ask them: “Hi there, on a scale of 1 to 10 how much do you care about this disaster?” So instead, we turned to the internet, where people willingly share, with everyone, exactly how much they care!

In particular, we focused on how people reacted to airplane crashes. To do this, we looked at airplane crash articles on Wikipedia and counted how many times people viewed them within the first week after the crash. Wikipedia has been around since 2001 and since then we have had more than 200 crashes. First thing we observed was that there is a big difference in the amount of attention that events trigger if the number of casualties is smaller or larger than 50 people. Basically, events with more than 50 deaths create much more public attention. That was a finding very well received by terrorist groups all around the world!

Then we thought what about the nationality of passengers, does, let’s say, an American death receive the same amount of attention to a Greek death? (as a Persian I’m historically very excited to talk about Greek deaths! I mean ancient Greeks; you guys are ok!) It was hard to determine the nationality of all the victims on all these flights, and the exact location of a crash is not always known. But we could easily extract the subcontinent of the operating airlines. And guess what, we found that on average, when an airplane involved in a  crash was operated by a North American airline, the attention the crash was likely to receive was 50 times more than if the plane had been operated by an African airline with the same number of deaths!

A European death on average triggers 16 times more attention than an Australian death! So, Australian countries are really in the corner!

These analyses were based on data we collected from English Wikipedia. We repeated the same analysis using Spanish Wikipedia, and the good news was that we found that the readers of Spanish Wikipedia are equally racist! There, the largest attention is given to the Latin American flights of course.

Of course, we are biased when it comes to how much we care about things and places. We care much more about things that are similar to us, closer to us, and … benefit us!

Let’s have a look at this map:

Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography

This is one of my favourite maps. Here we have the British Isles in the middle, China at the left side, the rest of Europe, Africa and the rest of Asia are here at the right side. Oh, and here are the Americas. Yea, okay, so the map is a little bit odd. But hey, I didn’t make it up. It was in fact produced by an English Tea Merchant in 1930’s who titled it “The World”. UK is big and right in the centre. Which of course, from his point of view “the world” would look like this. And also, from the point of view of some 17.5 million people in the UK who voted for Brexit!

But let’s not point fingers. I mean, we all have our own inner English Tea Merchant! Our perception of the world, countries, and most importantly humans is as distorted and biased as this map. And not only our perception, but simply how much we care about the world and humans.

Interestingly, the Internet is a great tool to show us these biases. Because everything that we do on the Internet leaves a digital footprint and by analysing the data generated by our activities on the Internet, we can have a global-scale picture of our behaviour, similarities, differences, biases and subjectivities. Sometimes all we need for change is a mirror that we can see ourselves in.

But Internet also provides us with one more thing. No, I mean apart from the increasingly degrading pornography! Internet, provides us with the sum of the human knowledge! And cat videos. Let’s focus on the first one. We have things like Wikipedia that I mentioned, Wikipedia is the largest repository of human knowledge online, That is to say collection of human knowledge that is mostly collected by young, white men from rich countries, but still!

To be fair, what distinguishes Wikipedia from other things that are produced and written by rich, white men, is that theoretically it’s open to everyone. Any person who can read Wikipedia can also edit it. That of course leads to huge editorial wars that I have spent a large portion of my short career studying. But these edit wars are exactly what makes Wikipedia reliable and great! Articles get edited again and again and after a while they are so well polished that all the editors are happy with them.

Another interesting thing about these huge online repositories are that unlike paper-based encyclopaedias, people actually use them! Whenever a new crash is reported, people flock to the site to read about it. If we then trace the paths of these readers to see what they read next, we find they continue to engage with Wikipedia to learn about previous airplane disasters. Which in turn, inflates the attention that these previous crashes receive to such an extent that new interest completely overshadows the initial attention that a plane crash page received when it was first reported!

For example, when the Malaysia Airline passenger flight was shot down by military missile in 2014, not only did many people read about this event on Wikipedia, but also, we could see a significant increase in the readership of the article about a similar event in which an Iranian commercial flight was shot down by US Navy in 1988 killing 290 normal citizens and flight crew.

It’s not only you who goes to Youtube to quickly watch the match highlights of yesterday’s game and ends up watching all football videos that have ever been uploaded to the Internet! Analysing these traces of Wikipedia users, we also found other interesting patterns. For example, we saw that  the flow of attention from a new crash is bigger to the old crashes that are more similar in cause and geography, and are closer in time. So, our collective memory is biased just like our collective attention. For instance, the flow from current events to past events starts to vanish if the time separation between them exceeds 40 years.

So although we’re interested in past events, there is a limit to how far back we’re actually willing to go! With many people more interested in recent historical events over those that occurred over 40 years ago. That may not sound great, but the fact that we are just a few clicks away from the whole history of human kind, and that current events trigger our interest in exploring the past is an entirely Internet-mediated phenomenon.

The last thing about the Internet, is that it also connects us! It theoretically connects us to literally any other human on this planet with access to the Internet. And Justin Bieber! Think about Twitter, the conversations that it hosts around live events, political topics, cultural phenomena, during which millions of users from all round the world join in and talk -and troll- each other all at the same time! This has never been possible in the history of mankind to have such a huge “town hall” or as you say “agora”. Of course, we criticise social media and Twitter, particularly for certain things such as fake news, hate speech and limiting our attention to people that are similar to us and putting us in filter bubbles, but remember! We created the Internet, and it resembles our offline world.

Fake news and hateful speech have existed for a very long time.

Many people argue that these are the main ingredients of popular media. When it comes to filter bubbles we only need to go back 30 years ago (because who wants to go back 40 years imma right!), to find that the majority of people were exposed to only one newspaper, very few TV channels and could only really interact with very similar people within their vicinity on a daily basis. For instance, people at their local church or their fellows at their regular strip club.

But today, thanks to the Internet, we are only a few clicks away from alternative news outlets and people with opposing ideologies. Unfortunately, we chose not to interact with people of different opinions much, and social media platforms encourage us to trim our social ties, keep the ones we like, and avoid facing people who are different. But if we want, we can easily break the bubbles and expose ourselves to a whole different environment. Step out of our comfort zone and use this opportunity to get closer to one another.

Remember, the same technology that these days we claim is killing our democracies and wiping out our civilizations, just a bit more than a decade ago, led to the creation of something like Wikipedia. Of course, the difference in Wikipedia is that people of opposing opinions HAVE To work together and get to a consensus, whereas on social media we are also just one click away from removing a connection or ending a friendship.

We have only just arrived on planet Internet. A planet whose geography, size, pace, and physics are all over the place! They are nothing like what we have experienced before in the thousands of years of human social history. We have to start discovering the rules of nature all over again! But as scary as that sounds, this also means we have the chance to grow and learn like never before! We haven’t done great on planet earth and we have almost destroyed it. But let’s do better with the Internet! We can unite or stay divided. But we can and we should save the Internet. Because the Internet is the new land.

Published by Taha Yasseri

Associate Professor, School of Sociology, University College Dublin

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