Introducing the FORTYEIGHT Observer (Beta)

Instantly learn when the algorithms behind some of the world’s most popular websites make new observations about you, using our privacy‑preserving browser extension.

Big Tech is like the Derren Brown of the digital world. Laying a trail of discreet breadcrumbs between your path from A to B, planting a thought in your mind with no idea how it got there.

Often, we’re not even aware the thought has been planted until we find ourselves down the YouTube rabbit hole furiously consuming back-to-back videos featuring people or topics that weren’t even a conscious thought just hours or minutes earlier.

As data collection and tracking technology becomes more and more sophisticated, our browsing experience has become increasingly tailored and personalised, often resulting in the witting effect of convincing us to purchase specific products and services, or unwitting effects that leave us feeling depressed, anxious or addicted to a topic or theme. 

It’s an unfortunate part of our digital lives that we’ve come to expect but most of us don’t realise when these recommendations are being made and what assumptions about our habits and interests are driving them. 

Lifting the on veil Big Tech

Much like how the air you breathe condenses on a piece of glass when you breathe on it, helping prove something that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye, FORTYEIGHT Observer (Beta) helps visualise the ‘air’ Big Tech is breathing each time they make a new observation about you.

Imagine you could put a pane of glass in front of the websites you visit each day, helping to show you the result of what goes on behind the scenes. 

You could learn when your Instagram feed started becoming so political, and the political ideology the recommendation algorithm thinks you’re most interested in. Or see how YouTube has inconspicuously started recommending agriculture videos, or the Extinction Rebellion channel, directly after you watched the first few episodes of Clarkson’s Farm.

Image: FORTYEIGHT Dashboard showing data generated by the FORTYEIGHT Observer (Beta) for Chrome and Brave.

Companies make these decisions based on observations made about your browsing behaviour or personal information that you may have shared with the site, but do so behind closed doors. This lack of transparency means that they will never know if these assumptions are accurate or not, and neither will you - negatively affecting both your online experience and their brand.

The FORTYEIGHT Observer (Beta) browser extension acts as an active transparency layer between you and the website, detecting specific content which is likely to have been shown to you as part of an algorithmic process and informing you with smart push notifications, much like your digital bank. When you’re informed about a new observation, you can then visit the FORTYEIGHT web app to view the details.

What can the FORTYEIGHT Observer (Beta) detect?

YouTube - You will see which channel names and filters from videos that are being recommended to you on the homepage and each time you view a video. With entity recognition enabled, you will also see topics that are detected within the titles of recommended videos.

Pinterest - You will see the account names for each pin that’s recommended to you in the Today section and with entity recognition enabled, you will also see topics extracted from the title of each pin, helping spot when specific themes or topics become more or less prevalent.

LinkedIn - Each post displayed in your feed will be detected, and in addition to spotting the hashtags and each person or organisation associated to each post, with entity recognition enabled you will also see the brands and other industry-related topics referenced in each post; helping you see when your feed becomes like an echo chamber of limited topics and views.

Twitter - You will see when tweets appear in your feed from accounts that are labelled as government or state-affiliated media accounts, helping bring to life how the tweets may unwittingly skew towards one government or political ideology over another.

Google - When searching on Google, you will see the recommended searches, related search terms and web domains of the search results shown to you by Google. This can help you to spot when specific companies or domains are always appearing regardless of your search (e.g Wikipedia), or when Google makes search recommendations that favour one side of a situation over another, for example defence vs. prosecution lawyers in the case of sexual assault.

Instagram - Did you know Instagram automatically analyses every image you update and attempts to add a text description to it based on what’s shown in the image? With entity recognition enabled, you will see when Instagram shows you posts in your feed that feature specific topics: For example, ‘beaches’ in the case of a holiday photo from the beach, or social movements, political movements, and ideologies such as ‘feminism’ or ‘BLM’ in the case of written statements posted as images.

Facebook - See the account names or promoted domains of sponsored posts used to drive your recommendations.

Why you need FORTYEIGHT Observer (Beta)

It’s easy to end up in a social media echo chamber, getting ever narrower recommendations that mean you are only hearing the same opinions, leaving some people susceptible to disinformation or conspiracy theories. Bringing transparency to the process would reveal to us the observations that are driving these recommendations and allow us to become more informed when new topics are being discreetly introduced to our digital horizon. 

The battle to stop companies targeting us with online propaganda is on-going, but until then we can all do our part in becoming more informed about the effects of Big Tech. 

Transparency gives you knowledge, and knowledge gives you power

Get started today and visit the Chrome Web Store to install FORTYEIGHT Observer (Beta).

Nicholas Oliver