Algorithms, Politics and “The Great Pumpkin”

For LeafTech’s new website and blog launch, we decided to talk about something that the Peanuts’ gang know all too well not to discuss: “Religion, Politics and The Great Pumpkin” (Charles M. Schulz.)  Moreover, because it’s voting season, let’s talk about politics’ roles in Russian Hacking, WikiLeaks, and no, we won’t go there: what we find more and more interesting at LeafTech is the role algorithms play in the information (particularly political) we receive from Social Media, our web searches and how they permeate the Internet and how they make up the information we receive and how we view the world.

So what is an algorithm?

Simply put an algorithm is any well-defined computational procedure that takes some value, or set of values, as input and produces some value, or set of values, as output. An algorithm is thus a sequence of computational steps that transform the input into the output.

Source: Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson (2009), Introduction to Algorithms 3rd edition.

In English it’s a set of steps that cause something to accomplish something, and it should be meaningful and effective, otherwise, it’s not worth doing or computing.

People have been using algorithms to solve square roots since ancient Babylon and it’s those same sets of steps that are causing you to receive the information you’re receiving right now.  And although you might wonder why you tend to get ads that pop-up for left-leaning candidates, when all you ever visit is msnbc.com, it’s not a magical coincidence that you are.  It’s all thanks to algorithms that are basically watching your every search.

So give me some very popular algorithms and how do they work?

Speaking of search: Google Search – yep it’s the grand-daddy of all algorithms and how many times have you used it today? Did you use it to search “LeafTech”?  Google’s algorithms uses things like “crawlers” and “indexers” to use another algorithm called “PageRank”.  Want to know about a certain Politician’s resident Closet Skeletons? Thank PageRank. Why is your neighbor supporting an Issue by single- handedly keeping the particular Issue’s sign company in business?  There’s a PageRank for that.  It’s a very guarded algorithm built on algorithm built on algorithm, it’s an enigma, hidden beneath a riddle, like Russia or Spam (the ham product.)  You didn’t really think we knew the secret sauce behind the Google Search algorithm, did you? Don’t we wish!

Facebook: yep that search you just did for that politician you personally hate or love (we’re not judging), you’re going to start to see more articles based on whether you typed in so-and-so is great or so-and-so is awful.  If you use positive attributes and a name you’re going to see more articles that cast whatever candidate you’re searching in a positive light, but if you use negative terms you’re going to start seeing that person in a really unflattering shade of limelight.  Fun thing about the Facebook algorithm: it’s quite simple and easy to throw off.  Simply spend the day searching the opposite of what you know to be true and you’ll get quite a different view of the “other” America – and sort of learn where they’re coming from.  Give it a try sometime.

Encryption: We’ll throw this last one in here because it has the word “crypt” in it and it’s literally something that was illegal prior to 1996.  Yes, you read that right, prior to 1996, encryption was categorized as government munitions and therefore illegal for the general public to use.  But, in order for the Internet to work we need encryption as it keeps our credit card numbers and other personally identifiable information (PII) safe.  We’ll talk about PII another day!  Encryption algorithms take basic and usually private information like our passwords and turn them into unusable nonsense, or at least that’s how they’re supposed to work.  You may hear the terms AES, 3DES, Twofish, RSA – as these are the most secure forms of encryption today.

So the next time you find yourself obsessively searching whether candidate A really did that awful thing or Issue B is that great, maybe stop and think: are you throwing off the information you receive by how you search?  Are the little algorithms hard at work behind each search, skewing your view of the issues?

And, at LeafTech, we really do believe in “The Great Pumpkin” we just don’t talk about him.  Happy Halloween Everyone and welcome to our revamped site!