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Vatican: Algorithms Not ‘Neutral Sequences of Operations’, but Serve ‘Precise Aims’

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REUTERS/DARREN STAPLES

The Vatican waded into the raging debate on the use of online algorithms Saturday, warning the faithful that social media and online services can make use of their personal data for “manipulative purposes.”

In particular, the Vatican voiced its concern over the production and use of personal data, “and the preponderant role of the algorithms that process the data and produce, in turn, additional data and information, at different levels, also available for those who intend to use it for purely commercial, propaganda or even manipulative purposes and strategies.”

While the Vatican was dealing specifically with the use of digital equipment and online technologies by the tourism sector’s operators and users in its 2018 message for World Tourism Day, the Vatican department of Human Development also delved into more general concerns about the dangers of online data sharing and the unseen agendas behind the use of that data.

“Algorithms, in fact, are not simple numbers and neutral sequences of operations,” said the message, which was signed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, “but rather elaborations of intentions that pursue precise aims and can be used to influence personal choices and decisions, and effect [sic] the formation of individual thought and consciousness.”

“When technological tools become omnipresent, they do not favour the development of a capacity to live wisely, to think in depth, to love generously,” the message states.

The Vatican’s critique of the indiscriminate use of algorithms comes just as a battle is heating up in the online world over issues such as “shadow banning,” selective censorship, and the manipulation of “trending topics” according to ideological agendas.

A July 25 report from VICE News revealed that social media giant Twitter is concealing the accounts of certain high-profile conservatives from other users through a process referred to as “shadowbanning.”

The following day, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to investigate Twitter for its practice of “shadow banning” Republicans and conservatives, saying that the practice is “discriminatory and illegal” while adding that there had been “many complaints” about the practice.

Until recently, only conservative news outlets such as Breitbart News have covered Twitter’s practice of hiding tweets and accounts of conservatives, but now even left-leaning outlets have begun reporting on the issue.

In cases of selective censorship, sometimes the algorithm itself is written in a neutral fashion but then human operators intervene to skew output and online visibility. In other cases, the algorithms themselves are already ideologically biased through instructions to seek out specific words, topics, or figures of speech associated with a particular political or cultural viewpoint.

Just last month, Facebook was obliged to apologize to a Texas newspaper after flagging a post containing text from the Declaration of Independence as “hate speech,” the latest episode of a long string of instances in which the social networking service has come under fire for selective censorship.

Casey Stinnett, managing editor of the Liberty County Vindicator, said the July censorship was the result of an “automated action” triggered by a particular word or phrase.

Stinnet wrote: “This is frustrating, but your editor is a historian, and to enjoy the study of history a person must love irony. It is a very great irony that the words of Thomas Jefferson should now be censored in America.”

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