Monday, February 9, 2015

We Need Feminism Because We Need Censorship

So, uh, remember this?
There was a great deal of hand wringing about Google's autocomplete results when one put in certain leading phrases, such as "women should", "women shouldn't", and so on. As the UN ad campaign these came from was launched back in October, 2013, I was curious to see whether things have changed since then. Running a test on all the phrases, not one of them autocompletes anymore.

I have no proof of this, but one does wonder whether these weren't lifted as a result of pressure on Google to stop these completions. Or, maybe they just have a general policy of quietly silencing controversial (and possibly even criminally-minded) autocorrects, and these are some they've shut down. But if this is controversial, it is controversial precisely because it was drawn out as an algorithmic proxy for the zeitgeista questionable assertion:
While the autocomplete restrictions may imply that Google is masking just how bad things are, there are also causes for hope. The top search results for “women shouldn’t have rights,” if you type it in completely, are now dominated by pages about the ad campaign. [Note: autocomplete no longer works on this phrase as of this writing. — RLM] The sheer volatility and self-modifying nature of the Web makes it difficult to pin down prevailing notions for any great length of time. Autocomplete and search results are very sensitive to so-called “freshness,”—all the better to pick up sudden trends—so they use less long-term hysteresis (the dependency of a system on its past states) than you might think.

Of the top results that aren’t about the UN Women ad campaign, not one of them unequivocally promotes an anti-woman position. Some are websites attacking the anti-woman positions, such as an atheist blog on Patheos that quotes and ridicules a Baptist preacher’s misogynistic sermon at great length. Others are debate websites that tend to come down on the equal rights side. One is a Yahoo question, “Reasons why women shouldn’t have equal rights?” posted by a high school girl looking for anti-woman arguments for a school debate. (“Being a girl, I obviously don’t agree with this.”) Most of the respondents say they’ve got nothing. The worst it gets is a troll-infested forum on, which, despite being described by poster KingOfChaos as “heavily populated by males who like to think of themselves as 'alpha' or dominate over women,” still has a number of sentiments such as “IRL most sane ppl think that women should have equal rights.”
If the point of feminism is meaningful equality between the sexes, learning what people think of women is important, offensive or not, and shutting off such knowledge is ultimately counterproductive. Whether Google has taken this step due to external pressure or internal desire to silence a controversy, we are the poorer for the outcome.

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