This Newspaper Used an Algorithm to Play a Nasty Trick on Readers in Comments Section

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A publication in Pakistan is taking an aggressive approach to stressing the importance of press freedoms—by helping readers better understand the unpleasantness of having their own words inverted.

The Daily Times and agency Grey Singapore wanted to drive home the dangers of censorship with their “Free My Voice” campaign. They wrote an algorithm that automatically flipped the meaning of commenters’ posts, and applied it to comments beneath a controversial article about the Islamic country’s blasphemy law (which includes such punishments as life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran—but often finds accused parties murdered before their trials are complete).

Commenters praising the article or its subject automatically found themselves criticizing it, and vice versa, with the site changing their intent over and over. Eventually, the gimmick bounced them to a landing page for the publication’s campaign, where they could sign a petition supporting it, or donate.

The idea is a clever one, in the degree to which it succeeds in taking an issue that’s often abstract and make it more personal for the public. Whether trapping readers in a repetitive, frustrating game of bait-and-switch is the best way to win them over may be another question.

But toying with the vanity of self-expression is likely, and the very least, to get their attention for a moment—hopefully long enough to invite some reflection. And the case study for the campaign powerfully frames why freedom of the press needs urgent attention, showcasing stories about the killing of journalists in the streets, or by states, in Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan.

If anyone needs further convincing, there is always the ad from Reporters Without Borders illustrating how the world would look without an independent press. 

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