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Why Google hires anthropologists to talk to conspiracy theorists

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Why Google hires anthropologists to talk to conspiracy theorists Empty Why Google hires anthropologists to talk to conspiracy theorists

Post by Ben Reilly Sat May 29, 2021 11:02 pm

A couple of years ago, staff at a Google “tech incubator” called Jigsaw made an important breakthrough: they realised that while their company has come to epitomise the power of technology, there are some problems that computers alone cannot solve. Or not, at least, without humans.

Jigsaw, wrestling with the problem of online misinformation, quietly turned to anthropologists. These social scientists have since fanned across America and Britain to do something that never occurred to most techies before: meet conspiracy theorists face-to-face — or at least on video platforms — and spend hours listening to them, observing them with the diligence that anthropologists might employ if they encountered a remote community in, say, Papua New Guinea.

“Algorithms are powerful tools. But there are other approaches that can help,” explains Yasmin Green, director of research and development at Jigsaw, which is based in an achingly cool, futuristic office in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, near the High Line. Or, as Dan Keyserling, Jigsaw chief operating officer, puts it: “[We’re using] behavioural science approaches to make people more resilient to misinformation.”

The results were remarkable. Previously, groups such as anti-vaxxers seemed so utterly alien to techies that they were easy to scorn — and it was hard to guess what might prompt them to change their minds. But when the Jigsaw team summoned anthropologists from a consultancy called ReD Associates, who listened with open-minded curiosity to people, it became clear that many of the engineers’ prior assumptions about causation in cyber space were wrong. 

For example, the techies had assumed that “debunking” sites needed to look professional, since that was what they associated with credibility. But conspiracy theorists thought that “smart” sites looked like they were manufactured by the elite — something that matters if you want to counter such theories.

So these days Google’s staff is trying to blend anthropology with psychology, media studies and, yes, data science to create tools that might “inoculate” more internet users against dangerous misinformation. “We can’t do this just based on what we assume works. We need empathy,” says Beth Goldberg, Jigsaw research project manager, who was trained in political science but has now also acquired anthropology skills.

Will it fix the issue? Sadly not by itself, given the deep-seated societal roots of the problem. Nor will a dose of anthropology magically remove the anger that many people feel about the power of tech giants, and the sometimes irresponsible ways in which they have behaved. But the experiment has already had one benefit: it has made some Google techies understand what they don’t understand with their data tools — and why techies sometimes need “fuzzies”, or people with qualitative, not quantitative, analyses. As Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has observed, Silicon Valley would have probably built a much better internet and social media world if it had employed social scientists alongside computer scientists at the outset. 

https://www.ft.com/content/4f00469c-75da-4e29-baf3-b7bec470732c?gaa_at=la&gaa_n=AYc4ysvIgqmCSYUstQEvFVspAXxO75dYL9o1bATLFNvIxhxh9L3Rsj6tuFcEF-yR_8VyJE_y16RiAyw%3D&gaa_ts=60b2bd50&gaa_sig=9Di6K-t5Rzfs_w9JMJ3Sr8xsGybNy1lB8Z2_f1m5YjdLVEuH6n4ZSLhoqPhuoBcoPiEMnQTSHOOR3TX9HYpi5Q%3D%3D

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Post by eddie Sat May 29, 2021 11:49 pm

I really dislike the term “conspiracy theorists”. Just because something is believed that is different to “popular belief” doesn’t mean it’s a conspiracy at all.

Labels. They are so restrictive.

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Post by Ben Reilly Sun May 30, 2021 2:08 am

The fact that they spoke to people who believe in conspiracies is just one of the things that anthropologists are doing to help humanize technology and the way it's used, though.

The point is really that even the likes of Google and Facebook are hitting a wall, finding that even with mountains of data at their fingertips, they need people who understand human nature to solve some of their problems.

The article contains a quote by an anthropologist that I think best sums it up: "The last thing that fish notice is the water." The techies at these big companies are too immersed in what they do to notice how it comes across to other people.

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Post by eddie Sun May 30, 2021 2:17 am

That’s all good. Just wish they would change the terminology for many, very obvious reasons, namely, you can’t do anything good when you come at a group of people using a label.

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Post by Maddog Sun May 30, 2021 3:27 am

eddie wrote:I really dislike the term “conspiracy theorists”. Just because something is believed that is different to “popular belief” doesn’t mean it’s a conspiracy at all.

Labels. They are so restrictive.

Conspiracy theories aren't about having unpopular beliefs. I have those and I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist.

Conspiracy theorists abandon logical thought and seek out very unlikely explanations of events to make them selves appear more informed than the masses. They are also different than people like me that have a healthy dose of skepticism. Skeptics might say they just don't know what happened. A conspiracy theorist will act damn sure about something that they couldn't begin to prove except with cooked data, wild fabrications or speculation.

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Post by eddie Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:04 pm

That’s fair enough but some people use it as a broad brushstroke to not listen to anything other than the “official” story.

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Post by Ben Reilly Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:25 pm

I like Maddog's definition, I tend to agree.

For example, if you think Covid may have come from a lab, you're not a conspiracy theorist. But if you think that Bill Gates hired the Chinese to manufacture Covid so that he could cash in by investing in vaccines, that's a conspiracy theory.

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Post by eddie Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:37 pm

Ben Reilly wrote:I like Maddog's definition, I tend to agree.

For example, if you think Covid may have come from a lab, you're not a conspiracy theorist. But if you think that Bill Gates hired the Chinese to manufacture Covid so that he could cash in by investing in vaccines, that's a conspiracy theory.

It might be called “a conspiracy theory” but it still doesn’t mean that it can’t be true. Nobody will ever truly know, will they?

Not saying I think the Bill Gates thing is true btw, but if we found out it was true, I wouldn’t be at all shocked or surprised.

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Post by Ben Reilly Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:40 pm

Not to rant about conspiracy theorists, but ...

In the article, it mentioned that the conspiracy theorists they talked to were turned off by websites that looked professional, as they assumed that the people running the conspiracy created those websites. That, frankly, is pretty ignorant -- it doesn't take a great deal of skill to make a slick-looking website. I know a good number of people who've designed nice websites and I'm fairly certain they didn't learn web design in the Illuminati.

A person deserving of the "conspiracy theorist" label isn't actually open-minded. When presented with a perfectly reasonable counter to their theories, they actually incorporate that counter into the conspiracy theory, because they're that devoted and committed to the conspiracy theory that they lose the ability to think objectively and rationally.

Many people coming out of the QAnon conspiracy community say they felt like they were in a cult, or on drugs. The theory became a lifestyle that they realized they were fighting to defend and justify constantly. There's something to be said for standing up for what you believe in, but there's no good excuse for never questioning your beliefs. That, to me, is what a true conspiracy theorist is -- they defend their beliefs like a religious zealot.

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Post by Ben Reilly Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:41 pm

eddie wrote:
Ben Reilly wrote:I like Maddog's definition, I tend to agree.

For example, if you think Covid may have come from a lab, you're not a conspiracy theorist. But if you think that Bill Gates hired the Chinese to manufacture Covid so that he could cash in by investing in vaccines, that's a conspiracy theory.

It might be called “a conspiracy theory” but it still doesn’t mean that it can’t be true. Nobody will ever truly know, will they?

Not saying I think the Bill Gates thing is true btw, but if we found out it was true, I wouldn’t be at all shocked or surprised.

But my point is that I don't know why anybody would say that's true, or believe it, without proof.

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Post by Maddog Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:43 pm

Ben Reilly wrote:I like Maddog's definition, I tend to agree.

For example, if you think Covid may have come from a lab, you're not a conspiracy theorist. But if you think that Bill Gates hired the Chinese to manufacture Covid so that he could cash in by investing in vaccines, that's a conspiracy theory.

Exactly.

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Post by Maddog Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:45 pm

eddie wrote:
Ben Reilly wrote:I like Maddog's definition, I tend to agree.

For example, if you think Covid may have come from a lab, you're not a conspiracy theorist. But if you think that Bill Gates hired the Chinese to manufacture Covid so that he could cash in by investing in vaccines, that's a conspiracy theory.

It might be called “a conspiracy theory” but it still doesn’t mean that it can’t be true. Nobody will ever truly know, will they?

Not saying I think the Bill Gates thing is true btw, but if we found out it was true, I wouldn’t be at all shocked or surprised.

I think the truth almost always comes out. Especially if the conspiracy has more than a handful of participants.


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Post by eddie Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:47 pm

Well I find a lot of media stories are believed without much proof apart from the story was reported in the media. As you know, I’m always committed to be open-minded about everything I read, which means I sit on the fence.

In any case, the term “conspiracy theorist” doesn’t describe absolutely everybody that is tarred with that brush. There are varying degrees, as there are with every group of people.


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Post by Maddog Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:52 pm

eddie wrote:Well I find a lot of media stories are believed without much proof apart from the story was reported in the media. As you know, I’m always committed to be open-minded about everything I read, which means I sit on the fence.

In any case, the term “conspiracy theorist” doesn’t describe absolutely everybody that is tarred with that brush. There are varying degrees, as there are with every group of people.


It is misapplied no doubt .

It's used to identify those that won't follow the group think dejour.

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Post by Ben Reilly Sat Jun 05, 2021 8:55 pm

The job of a reporter is to write reports that are worthy of belief, that's why in general, I'll believe most of what the media reports -- if not necessarily believing what people say to reporters.

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Post by eddie Sat Jun 05, 2021 9:36 pm

Ben Reilly wrote:
eddie wrote:
Ben Reilly wrote:I like Maddog's definition, I tend to agree.

For example, if you think Covid may have come from a lab, you're not a conspiracy theorist. But if you think that Bill Gates hired the Chinese to manufacture Covid so that he could cash in by investing in vaccines, that's a conspiracy theory.

It might be called “a conspiracy theory” but it still doesn’t mean that it can’t be true. Nobody will ever truly know, will they?

Not saying I think the Bill Gates thing is true btw, but if we found out it was true, I wouldn’t be at all shocked or surprised.

But my point is that I don't know why anybody would say that's true, or believe it, without proof.

On the other hand, a big thing like that may never be revealed and more importantly, some things can be known, felt or believed by a person or persons, without any proof - can’t think of a good example right now, but you catch my drift.


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