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Microsoft fumbles again due to unbridled technological optimism at MSN

This example of “synthetic media” is courtesy of billionaire Gary Fegel, who owns Racetrack News.

Experienced news consumers are well aware that misinformation and disinformation flood digital channels like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter. Less reputable sites like World News Daily have spawned a cottage industry of fact checking sites.

For the second time in a month, Microsoft has demonstrated that “fake news (1)” can wiggle its way into (once?) reputable aggregators like MSN, now that human editors are a thing of the past.

Screen Shot, MSN news
Screen shot of outrageous MSN sports news headline. Source was Racetrack.

Futurism broke the story (originally published 12 September by Racetrack “editor” Richard Ror, a site owned by a billionaire private equity investor) on 14 September 2023:

“Microsoft Publishes Garbled AI Article Calling Tragically Deceased NBA Player ‘Useless’.”

“Brandon Hunter useless at 42,” read the article, which was quickly called out on social media. The rest of the brief report is even more incomprehensible, informing readers that Hunter “handed away” after achieving “vital success as a ahead [sic] for the Bobcats” and “performed in 67 video games.”

I worked briefly in 2018 on the Microsoft team that vetted news outlets that were eligible to be featured on MSN News . It seems obvious today that our work was sent to the bit bucket, perhaps when Microsoft sacked its MSN News human editors in May 2020.

Staff who maintain the news homepages on Microsoft’s MSN website and its Edge browser – used by millions of Britons every day – have been told that they will be no longer be required because robots can now do their jobs (emphasis added).

Within days, The Guardian reported that those algorithms screwed up.

A week after the Guardian revealed plans to fire the human editors who run MSN.com and replace them with Microsoft’s artificial intelligence code, an early rollout of the software resulted in a story about the singer Jade Thirlwall’s personal reflections on racism being illustrated with a picture of her fellow band member Leigh-Anne Pinnock.

This incorrectly identified photo was a glaring illustration of how often facial recogntion software misidentifies of people of color.

A growing body of research exposes divergent error rates across demographic groups, with the poorest accuracy consistently found in subjects who are female, Black, and 18-30 years old.

Microsoft had an intimate understanding of that problem because it collaborated with IBM in 2018 to research the issue.

Despite that awareness, Microsoft leadership proceded with its blinkered view of the world, one steeped in unfettered technological optimism.

2023 algorithmic screw ups at MSN

Search Engine Land reached out to Microsoft for a statement regarding this latest mess that stayed online for at least a day before being pulled:

“The accuracy of the content we publish from our partners is important to us, and we continue to enhance our systems to identify and prevent inaccurate information from appearing on our channels. The story in question has been removed.”

Notice there is no apology. The story is still live on Microsoft “partner” site Racetrack.news (2).

This is the second time within a four-week period that Microsoft published glaringly obvious non-human vetted news stories.

In August, a travel story stayed online for at least five days that included the Ottowa Food Bank as the third-most important place that visitors “shouldn’t miss” when “headed to Ottawa.”

screen shot of Microsoft AI story from August
Microsoft published an algorithmic-generated travel story about Ottowa, Ontario, the capital city of Canada, in August 2023.

We know about these latest MSN fake news stories because savvy news consumers who have large megaphones discovered them: first Paris Marx (17 Aug 2023) and then Futurism.com (14 Sept. 2023, Recurrent Ventures, a New York City media company).

MSN joins a gaggle of news organizations demonstrating problematic algorithmic reporting:

Synthetic media have ripple social effects

Synthetic media newsrooms are “fully staffed by robots that perform all the tasks involved in the stages of information gathering, text processing, and news transmission.” The term also refers to artifacts of algorithmic content, whether text, voice, video or images.

Some newsroom automation makes common sense, such as updating election results or stock market information.

But “news reports” created in whole by an algorithm scraping copyrighted information … whether or not the algorithm mangled the rewrite … should be a front-and-center news story. Software is displacing far more employees than journalists (see the Hollywood writer’s strike). Yet we have zero national public policy action on the social impacts of algorithmic software.

If mega sites that can afford the best software, like MSN (as of 15 September 2023, Microsoft has a market cap of $2,453,000,000,000 – that’s trillions), screw up like this, what can we expect from less moneyed or technologically experienced organizations?

What about less glaringly obvious errors? Or errors spotted by people with lower profile social media accounts or without connections with reporters at national news sites?

One proposed solution: news organizations should label any report generated by an algorithm. Officials in the EU are considering mitigating AI-generated disinformation through “technology [that] recognise[s] such content and clearly label[s] [it] to users.”

Socrates seems to have had a crystal ball:

Socrates did not want his words to go fatherless into the world, transcribed onto tablets or into books that could circulate without their author, to travel beyond the reach of discussion and questions, revision and authentication… The problems to which Socrates pointed are acute in an age of recirculated ‘news’, public relations, global gossip and Internet publication. How can we tell which claims and counterclaims, reports and supposed facts are trustworthy when so much information swirls around us. It is hard to distinguish rumour from report, fact from fiction, reliable source from disinformant, truth-teller from deceiver.

What do you think?

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(1) Fake news “is fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but…lack(s) the news media’s editorial norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of information.” From the Center for Information Technology & Society, Univerisity of California at Santa Barbara.

(2) The MSN story first ran on Racetrack.news. The Racetrack.news story is still live.

Motorsports Network claims 61,000,000 active users each month and almost 1 billion fans featuring 15 languages. The company is headquartered in Miami and London with additional offices in 10 countries. GMF Capital (GMF), the family office for billionaire Gary Fegel and a leading private investment firm, bought Motorsports Network in June.

That original story linked to a tweet that referenced a TMZ Sports obituary. I used ChatGPT4 rewrite the TMZ story; it made sense.

 

 

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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