by Jehad Al-Omari
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
I cannot remember when I became completely apolitical. For well over thirty years when lecturing about Arab culture, I used to dread giving a brief overview on Arab affairs, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. My distaste for politics is matched by great enthusiasm for anything historical. I am truly at home when I read anything on the history of people, civilizations, ideas and the rise and fall of nations. At heart, I am a storyteller and I collect stories as others collect antiques and stamps. Stories are personal, especially those that emanate from the heart, and in my lecturing days I simply stood in front of my audience and told them one story after another.
It is with that in mind that I wrote my last article in Only Connect, entitled “Who are the real fanatics in the Holy Land?”*. I wrote about the great storm of 1987 that hit England, my friend the late Richard Hobbs and how and why he had never visited the Holy Land, and my recurring childhood dream of visiting Jerusalem. I truly did not feel that I was writing a political essay. I was passing on a human experience from one culture to another, but one which has political implications. In this sense, as much as I dislike politics there is no escape from the fact that here in the Middle East politics gets into everything whether we like it or not.
However, after the article was published on 22 February I posted it on my Facebook page as I have done with all my previous articles, sharing it with my friends. On this occasion, Facebook had other ideas. Having shared the article around 9 pm that evening, I noticed two hours later that it had received ZERO comments from my friends and followers. This was most unusual. At first, I thought that maybe I had made a mistake and had not posted it properly. I checked my page and discovered that it was public. Perhaps, I thought, Facebook was having a technical problem: posts were not being updated and there was some sort of delay. I kept refreshing my page and, lo and behold, I was seeing posts published a few minutes earlier. I was truly confused as to why nobody seemed to be reading and commenting on my new article.
By this time, it was past midnight so I phoned the only friend that I knew would be awake and would not be disturbed if I phoned that late. I asked if he had seen my post; he said he could only see it on my page but it was not appearing automatically on the timeline. I decided that there had to have been something wrong with how I had posted the article; so I withdrew it from Facebook and went to bed. The next morning, I published it again and waited for a couple of hours. Nothing, no response or comments or anything of the sort, as if it was not placed on my page. I called another friend and she said that although she has me as a “favorite”, which means she should see a post as soon as I publish it, on this occasion she had not received any notification that I had published anything new. Only then did it click that with Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, my article had simply been made to disappear in such a way that although I could see it on my page and those who went specifically to my page could see it, the AI of Facebook made sure that it was not available publicly.
Confused, sad and furious all at the same time, I racked my brain to see if human intelligence could defeat the artificial intelligence of Facebook. The solution that I came up with was to copy a link to the home page of Only Connect instead of my article where Facebook’s AI could neither see the photo of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock nor interpret the article’s title (would reports on matches by football fanatics get censored too?). Therefore, by preventing the AI from seeing both I just about tricked the system, but only just. By doing that, the article began to get some exposure, but not as previous articles had done. This suggested that Facebook’s algorithms were still fighting me.
For two days I was shaken by the experience. It was not only the blatant censorship that infuriated me but the combination of AI as a tool for such censorship and Facebook’s algorithms determining what can be seen and by whom. The whole idea that the quality of one’s writing is the main determinant for how you are received has been truly smashed. Instead, it is the ‘System’ or the ‘Blackbox’, that you have no say in, which determines what is exposed to the public and what is not. This suggests that an apparently global platform is no better or worse than the majority of newspapers, magazines and other publications that are manipulated by governments and rich individuals alike.
Moreover, readers of Only Connect must surely be aware of the increasing debate on AI, particularly after the launch of the Chat GPT platform. The new platform is already making shock-waves across the world and particularly in the world of Information Technology. Anything from the future of Search Engines such as Google to the future of mankind will be affected. It is sixty-seven years since the term Artifical Intelligence was used to establish a new academic discipline in the USA and whilst even forty years ago we were still thinking of it in abstract terms, today we are witnessing the dawn of a new age. How many jobs will be threatened in the future and what is the future of research and human endeavours? How will it affect students and writers and translators alike. We really do not know but as much as there will be some very positive impact for mankind there are going to be some negative consequences such as that which I went through recently.
For me at least, this experience has shown the importance of independent publications such as Only Connect. With the practices that I highlighted and the use of AI and algorithms the future looks bleak, but it will be even bleaker without independent publications serving as alternative platforms to mainstream media and Social Networks.
Another lesson I learnt is to be cleverer in the future in my choice (and our editor’s choice) of titles and photos; for I think this is where I fell foul of the SYSTEM.