Earlier this week, the CDC paused the roll-out of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination after 6 women experienced serious blood clots. Their caution has merit, given that the FDA has been approving vaccinations in advance of the typical large-scale evaluations because speed is seen as so crucial. Reasonably, there is a desire to know more about these blood clots before more might appear. Yet, there was also sheer frustration from many in the medical community because the choice to pause the roll-out suggested that there was a serious issue, that the vaccine was dangerous. In a context in which vaccine hesitancy is likely to undermine herd immunity, any suggestion that the vaccine might have consequences can be twisted and contorted.
Across many mailing lists and Twitter streams, I kept seeing data points trying to ground the seriousness of the blood clots in the J&J vaccine. Most referenced the frequency of blood clots that women experience while taking the birth control pill, roughly 1/1000. People also highlighted how common blood clots are for those who are in the throes of COVID-19. These were meant to highlight just how rare and statistically insignificant blood clots are when taking the J&J vaccine.
Yet, as these attempts to ground the conversation unfolded, a different kind of outrage formed. A handful of people highlighted women they knew who had died of blood clots most likely related to birth control. Many more women who took hormonal birth control expressed frustration that they had no idea that they were at increased risk of a blood clot. Sure, it’s part of the fine print of that printout you get from CVS when picking up your pill, but this wasn’t something doctors emphasized. Unlike the J&J vaccine situation, the relationship between birth control and blood clots – or even COVID-19 and blood clots – hasn’t been front page news.
As I was processing the back-and-forth about statistical risk and who was responsible for sharing what with whom, and at what level of amplitude, I couldn’t help but think about all of the scholarship into the politics of numbers. We’re living at a time when politicians are simultaneously espousing the need for “evidence-based policymaking” and working to diligently undermine, contort, or weaponize evidence. This is what scholars of “agnotology” mean when they talk about the manufacturing of ignorance through the seeding of doubt. Or what other scholars highlight as the “weaponization of transparency.”
I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the scientists at J&J and the FDA who have been working around the clock trying to make a vaccine available to the public, trying to be responsible stewards of information and statistical risk in a context where their desire for caution can be turned on its head to undermine the legitimacy of their work. I also found myself feeling empathy for journalists who recognize the importance of reporting on this development, even as they know that their reporting is easily evolving into misinformation that’s undermining the vaccine roll-out. Working with numbers is itself political.
To work in the world of medicine and science, statistics and probabilities is to grapple with trade-offs at a macro level, which present ethical conundrums even in the best of times. After all, that one terrible death from a blood clot could perhaps have been prevented by not taking the vaccine. But this is where we enter into the world of trade-offs, of unknowns, of morality. Without a vaccine rollout, many more people will die of blood clots from COVID-19. Had that woman been infected with COVID-19, she might have still succumbed to a blood clot. Medicine alters the dimensionality of risk. So how do ethics get negotiated? And by whom? This is the story of public health.
Those complexities underpinning the advancement of science are complicated further by a politicized context such as that which surrounds the COVID-19 vaccine. Each act of communication can be twisted and contorted to convey different agendas, different values, different goals. Amplified transparency of risk is itself a political act. Sprinkle in the expectation in our current society that individuals are expected to make informed decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities, and we have a recipe for disaster. This is what the production of ignorance – aka misinformation, information disorder, agnotology, etc… – looks like in practice. The very acts of scientific transparency, which are intended to help inform decision-making, are twisted on their head, serving to undermining the legitimacy of scientific work and the coordination of a public that must work together to address a deadly disease.
I keep wondering what it will take for the public to trust scientific information. But, perhaps, a better question might be: What kind of information is needed to help a fragmented public work together to solve societal-level challenges?
Note to the reader: These are questions that I’m struggling with. If you have thoughts, ideas (or even reading recommendations!), don’t hesitate to reach out: zephoria [at] zephoria [dot] org.
In my first class in computer science, I was taught that an algorithm is simply a way of expressing formal rules given to a computer. Computers like rules. They follow them. Turns out that bureaucracy and legal systems like rules too. The big difference is that, in the world of computing, we call those who are trying to find ways to circumvent the rules “hackers” but in the world of government, this is simply the mundane work of politicking and lawyering.
When Dan Bouk (and I, as an earnest student of his) embarked on a journey to understand the history of the 1920 census, we both expected to encounter all sorts of politicking and lawyering. As scholars fascinated by the census, we’d heard the basics of the story: Congress failed to reapportion itself after receiving data from the Census Bureau because of racist and xenophobic attitudes mixed with political self-interest. In other words, politics.
As we dove into this history, the first thing we realized was that one justification for non-apportionment centered on a fight about math. Politicians seemed to be arguing with each other over which algorithm was the right algorithm with which to apportion the House. In the end, they basically said that apportionment should wait until mathematicians could figure out what the “right” algorithm was. (Ha!) The House didn’t manage to pass an apportionment bill until 1929 when political negotiations had made this possible. (This story anchors our essay on “Democracy’s Data Infrastructure.”)
Dan kept going, starting what seemed like a simple question: what makes Congress need an algorithm in the first place? I bet you can’t guess what the answer is! Wait for it… wait for it… Politics! Yes, that’s right, Congress wanted to cement an algorithm into its processes in a feint attempt to de-politicize the reapportionment process. With a century of extra experience with algorithms, this is patently hysterical. Algorithms as a tool to de-politicize something!?!? Hahahah. But, that’s where they had gotten to. And now the real question was: why?
In Dan’s newest piece – “House Arrest: How an Automated Algorithm Constrained Congress for a Century” – Dan peels back the layers of history with beautiful storytelling and skilled analysis to reveal why our contemporary debates about algorithmic systems aren’t so very new. Turns out that there were a variety of political actors deeply invested in ensuring that the People’s House stopped growing. Some of their logics were rooted in ideas about efficiency, but some were rooted in much older ideas of power and control. (Don’t forget that the electoral college is tethered to the size of the House too!) I like to imagine power-players sitting around playing with their hands and saying mwah-ha-ha-ha as they strategize over constraining the growth of the size of the House. They wanted to do this long before 1920, but it didn’t get locked in then because they couldn’t agree, which is why they fought over the algorithm. By 1929, everyone was fed up and just wanted Congress to properly apportion and so they passed a law, a law that did two things: it stabilized the size of the House at 435 and it automated the apportionment process. Those two things – the size of the House and the algorithm – were totally entangled. After all, an automated apportionment couldn’t happen without the key variables being defined.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. That 1929 bill was just a law. Up until then, Congress had passed a new law every decade to determine how apportionment would work for that decade. But when the 1940 census came around, they were focused on other things. And then, in effect, Congress forgot. They forgot that they have the power to determine the size of the House. They forgot that they have control over that one critical variable. The algorithm became infrastructure and the variable was summarily ignored.
Every decade, when the Census data are delivered, there are people who speak out about the need to increase the size of the House. After all, George Washington only spoke once during the Constitutional Convention. He spoke up to say that we couldn’t possibly have Congresspeople represent 40,000 people because then they wouldn’t trust government! The constitutional writers listened to him and set the minimum at 30,000; today, our representatives each represent more than 720,000 of us.
After the 1790 census, there were 105 representatives in Congress. Every decade, that would increase. Even though it wasn’t exact, there was an implicit algorithm in that size increase. In short, increase the size of the House so that no sitting member would lose his seat. After all, Congress had to pass that bill and this was the best way to get everyone to vote on it. The House didn’t increase at the same ratio as the size of the population, but it did increase every decade until 1910. And then it stopped (with extra seats given to new states before being brought back to the zero-sum game at the next census).
One of the recommendations of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship (for which I was a commissioner) was to increase the size of the House. When we were discussing this as a commission, everyone spoke of how radical this proposition was, how completely impossible it would be politically. This wasn’t one of my proposals – I wasn’t even on that subcommittee – so I listened with rapt curiosity. Why was it so radical? Dan taught me the answer to that. The key to political power is to turn politicking into infrastructure. After all, those who try to break a technical system, to work around an algorithm, they’re called hackers. And hackers are radical.
If you look at the roster of the Biden-Harris transition team, it’s quickly apparent that the incoming administration is tech-forward. Given the systematic dismantlement of the federal government over the last four years, and the significant logistical and scientific needs underpinning a large-scale vaccine roll-out, it is unsurprising to hear that the new team is looking to bring in tech talent. Under the Obama Administration, the White House invested significantly in shoring up the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an office that has for all intents and purposes laid dormant for four years under the current Administration. The Obama Administration also hired the first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to help envision what a tech-forward US government might look like. As the Biden-Harris transition builds its plans for January 20th, many people in my networks are abuzz, wondering who might be the next CTO.
My advice to the transition team is this: You need a VP of Engineering even more than you need a CTO.
To the non-geeks of the world, these two titles might be meaningless or perhaps even interchangeable. The roles and responsibilities associated with each are often co-mingled, especially in start-ups. But in more mature tech companies, they signal distinct qualifications and responsibilities. Moreover, they signal different ideas for what is top priority. In their ideal incarnation, a CTO is a visionary, a thought leader, a big picture thinker. The right CTO sees how tech can fit into the big picture of a complex organization, sits in the C-suite to integrate tech into the strategy. A tech-forward White House would want such a person precisely to help envision a technocratic government structure that could do great things. Yet, a CTO is nothing more than a figurehead if the organizational infrastructure is dysfunctional. This can prompts organizations to want to build new tech separately inside an “office of the CTO” rather than doing the hard work of fixing the core organizational infrastructure to ensure that larger visions can work. When it comes to government, we’ve learned the hard way how easily a tech-forward effort located exclusively inside the White House can be swept away.
Inside tech companies, there is often a more important but less visible role when it comes to getting things done. To those on the outside, a VP title appears far less powerful, far less important than a C-Suite title. If you’re not a tech geek, a VP of Engineering might appear less important than a CTO. But in my experience, finding the right VP of Engineering is more essential than getting a high profile CTO when a system is broken. A VP-Eng is a fixer, someone who looks at broken infrastructure with a debugger’s eye and recognizes that the key to success is ensuring that the organizational and technical systems function hand-in-hand. While CTOs are often public figures in industry, a VP-Eng tends to shy away from public attention, focusing most of their effort on empowering their team to do great things. VP-Engs have technical chops, but their superpower comes from their ability to manage large technical teams, to really understand the forest and see what’s getting in the way of achieving a goal so that they can unblock that and ensure that their team thrives. A VP-Eng also understands that finding and nurturing the right talent is key to success, which is why they tend to spend an extraordinary amount of time recruiting, hiring, training, and mentoring.
When structured well, the CTO faces outwards while the VP-Eng faces inwards. They can and should be extraordinarily complementary roles. Yet, even though the Obama Administration invested in a CTO and built numerous programs to bring tech talent into the White House and sprinkle tech workers throughout all of the agencies, that tech-forward team never invested in a VP-Eng. They never invested in people whose job it was to truly debug the underlying problems that prevent government agencies from successfully building and deploying technical systems.
As I listen to friends and peers in Silicon Valley talk about all of the ways in which tech people are going to go east to “fix government,” I must admit that I’m cringing. Government functions very differently than industry, by design. In industry, our job is to serve customers. Yes, our companies might want more customers, but we have the luxury of focusing on those who have money and those who want to use our tools. Government must serve everyone. Much to the chagrin of capitalists, the vast majority of government resources goes to the hardest problems, to ensuring that whatever the government implements can serve everyone.
I have spent 20 years calling bullshit on “the pipeline problem” as industry’s excuse for its under-investment in hiring and retaining BIPOC and non-male talent. Even as tech workers are slowly starting to wake up to the realization that justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are essential to the long-term health of tech, I’m watching the flawed logics that underpin the narrative about pipeline problems infuse the conversation about why government tech is broken. Government tech isn’t broken because government lacks talent. Government tech is broken because there are a range of stakeholders who are actively invested in ensuring that the federal government cannot execute, who are actively working to ensure that when the government is required to execute, it does so through upholding capitalist interests. Moreover, there are a range of stakeholders who would rather systematically undermine and hurt the extraordinarily diverse federal talent than invest in them.
If Silicon Valley waltzes into the federal government in January with its “I’ve got a submarine for that” mindset thinking that it can sprinkle tech fairy dust all over the agencies, we’re screwed. The undermining of the federal government’s tech infrastructure began decades ago. What has happened in the last four years has just sped up a trend that was well underway before this administration. And it’s getting worse by the day. The issue at play isn’t the lack of tech-forward vision. It’s the lack of organizational, human capital, and communications infrastructure that’s necessary for a complex “must-reach-everyone” organization to transform. Rather than coming in with hubris and focusing on grand vision, we need a new administration who is willing to dive deep and understand the cracks in the infrastructure that make a tech-forward agenda impossible. And this is why we need a federal VP-Eng whose job it is to engage in deep debugging. Cuz the bugs aren’t in the newest layer of code; they’re down deep in the libraries that no one has examined for years.
If the new administration is willing to invest in infrastructural repair, my ethnographic work in and around government has led me to three core areas that I would prioritize first. Two are esoteric structural barriers that prevent basic functioning. The third is a political weakness.
1. Procurement. Government outsourcing to industry is modern-day patronage. You don’t need Tammany Hall when you have a swarm of governmental contractors buzzing about. When politicians talk about about “small government,” what they really mean is “no federal employees.” Don’t let talk of “efficiency” fool you either. The cost of greasing the hands of Big Business through procurement procedures theoretically designed for efficiency is extraordinarily expensive. Not only is the financial cost of outsourcing to industry mind-boggling and bloated, but there are additional cost to morale, institutional memory, and mission that are not captured in the economic models. Government procurement infrastructure is also designed for failure, to ensure that government agencies are unable to deliver which, in turn, prompts Congress (regardless of who is in power) to reduce funding and increase scrutiny, tightening the screws on a tightly coupled system to increase the scale and speed of failure. It is a vicious cycle. Government procurement infrastructure is filled with strategically designed inefficiencies, frictions, and insanely corrupt incentives that undermine every aspect of government. They key here is not to replicate industry; the structures of contracting, outsourcing, and supply chains within a capitalist system do not make sense in government — and for good reason. A VP-Eng and a tech-forward government should begin by understanding the damage and ripple effects caused by OMB Directive A-76, which fundamentally shapes tech procurement.
2. Human Resources. Too many people in the tech industry think that HR is a waste of space…. that is, until they find that recruiter who makes everything easier. As such, in industry, we often talk about “people operations” or “talent management” instead of HR. We recognize the importance of investing in talent over the long-term, even if we reject HR. In government, HR is the lifeblood of how work happens in government and it was redesigned by progressives in the 20th century to ensure a more equitable approach to hiring and talent development. For decades, government created opportunities for women and Black communities when industry did not. Unfortunately, this aspect of the “deep state” was not at all appreciated by those invested in maintaining America’s caste system. Those invested in racist hierarchies didn’t need to be explicit about their agendas; they could rely on the language of capitalism to systematically undermine the talent of the federal government. Just as outsourcing in government has statistically taken jobs from Black federal workers and given them to white contractors, a range of HR policies have been designed to make working in government hellacious. Those who have stuck around — out of duty, out of necessity — have become enrolled in an existentially broken system. Some have chosen to sit back and not do their jobs, waiting to be fired. Others took the opposite approach, masochistically throwing themselves at the problem. People come from the outside and complain that government workers are lazy, stupid, incompetent. But it is the system that has produced these conditions. The system has been starved, the policies and protocols are corroded. It is through the purposeful torturing of HR that an executive branch hellbent on destroying federal government can wage the greatest damage; this has been underway for 40 years but the proverbial frogs are now sitting in boiling water. HR will require a lot of repair-work, not quick-fix policy changes. An untended HR system in government becomes a bottleneck unimaginable to those in industry and that’s where we are. Existing talent will require nurturing, and this investment is crucial because their institutional knowledge is profound. Any administration who wants to build a government that can respond to crises as grand as a pandemic or climate change will need to create the conditions for government to be a healthy workplace not just for the next four years but for decades to come. They will need a “people ops” mindset to HR. A VP-Eng should start with a listening tour of those who work on tech projects in agencies.
3. Communications. It never ceases to amaze me that the top communications professional in every federal agency is a political appointee. And every incoming administration — regardless of partisan affiliation — tends to fill these positions with campaign comms people who helped them win the election. Unfortunately, the type of comms that’s needed to win an election (which requires appealing to only some people) is not the same as the type of comms that’s needed to be accountable to the public as a whole for 365 days per year. Over and over, the comms people that White Houses install focus on speaking to their political base and to Congress. This is all fine and well if the only comms need is to negotiate policy outcomes. But the partisan perversion of comms within agencies has another outcome — it delegitimizes the agency among members of the public who are not affiliated with that political party, not to mention the wide majority of the public who is outright disgusted by all partisan tomfoolery. If your political interest is to eliminate the federal government, undermining the legitimacy of federal agencies benefits you. If that’s not your goal, you need to rethink your approach to communications. Right now, every agency needs a crisis comms expert at the helm to regain control over the agency’s narrative. When things are more stable, they need strategic comms professionals who can build a plan for re-legitimization. Each agency also needs an org comms expert whose job, like a VP-Eng, is to repair internal communications infrastructure so that information can effectively flow. Most politicians and government watchdogs think that the key to greater transparency is to increase oversight, just as progressives did after Nixon. But given how broken comms is in all of these agencies, turning up the heat through FOIA, GAO, and Congressional hearings will not increase accountability right now; it will increase breakage. Inside tech companies, comms is often seen as soft, squishy, irrational work, an afterthought that should not be prioritized. But comms, like HR, is the infrastructure that makes other things possible. A VP-Eng needs a comms counterpart working alongside them to achieve any organizational transformation.
Addressing these three seemingly non-tech issues would do more to enable a tech-forward government than any new-fangled shiny tech object. There is so much repair work to be done inside government. Yet, as I listen to those I know in Silicon Valley talk about all of the ways they wish to “fix government,” I fear that we will see a significant flood of solutionism when what’s needed most is humility and curiosity. Humility to understand that the structure of governmental agencies exists in response to the never-ending flow of solutionist interventions. And curiosity to understand how and why road blocks and barriers exist — and which ones to strategically eradicate to empower civil servants who are devoted to ensuring that government functions for the long-term, regardless of who is in power. Grand visioning has its role, but when infrastructure is breaking all around us, we need debuggers and maintenance people first and foremost. We need people who find joy in the invisible work of just making a system function, of recognizing that technical systems require the right organizational structures to thrive. This is the mindset a VP-Eng brings to the table.
In conclusion… If you are working on the transition or planning to jump into government in January, please spend some time understanding why the system is the way it is. If you are a tech person, do not presume you know based on your experience with other broken systems or based on what you read in the news; take the time to learn. If you are not a tech person, do not assume that tech can fix what politics can’t; this is a classic mistake with a long history. If the goal is truly to “build back better,” it requires starting with repairing the infrastructure. Without this, you are building on quicksand.
If you’re a parent trying to corral your children into attending “school” online, you’ve probably had the joy of witnessing a complete meltdown. Tantrums are no longer the domain of two-year-olds; 15-year-olds are also kicking and screaming. Needless to say, so are the fortysomethings. Children are begging to go outside. Teenagers desperately want to share physical space with their friends. And parents are begging their kids to go online so that they themselves can get some downtime. These are just some of the ways in which today’s reality seems upside down.
I started studying teenagers’ use of social media in the early 2000s when Xanga and LiveJournal were cool. I watched as they rode the waves of MySpace and Facebook, into the realms of Snap and Instagram. My book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens unpacks some of the most prevalent anxieties adults have about children’s use of technology, including the nonstop fear-inducing message that children are “addicted” to their phones, computers, and the internet. Needless to say, I never imagined how conditions might change when a global pandemic unfolded.
I cannot remember a period in my research when parents weren’t wringing their hands about kids’ use of screens. The tone that parents took paralleled the tone their parents took over heavy metal and rock music, the same one their grandparents had when they spoke of the evils of comic books. Moral panics are consistent — but the medium that the panic centers on changes. Still, as with each wave of moral panic, there’s supposedly something intrinsic to the new medium that makes it especially horrible for young people. Cognizant of this history and having gone deep on social media activities with hundreds of teenagers, I pushed back and said that it wasn’t the technology teens were addicted to; it was their friends. Adults rolled their eyes at me, just as their teens rolled their eyes at them.
Now, nearly a month into screen-based schooling en masse, I’ve gotten to witness a global natural experiment like none I ever expected. What have we learned? The majority of young people are going batshit crazy living a life wholly online. I can’t help but think that Covid-19 will end up teaching all of us how important human interaction in physical space is. If this goes on long enough, might this cohort end up going further and hating screens?
Until the world started sheltering in place, most teens spent the majority of their days in school, playing sports, and participating in other activities, almost always in physical spaces with lots of humans co-present. True physical privacy is a luxury for most young people whose location in space is heavily monitored and controlled. Screens represented a break from the mass social. They also represented privacy from parents, an opportunity to socialize without parents lurking even when their physical bodies were forced to be at home. Parents hated the portals that kids held in their hands because their children seemed to disappear from the living room into some unknown void. That unknown void was those children’s happy place — the place where they could hang out with their friends, play games, and negotiate a life of their own.
Now, with Covid-19, schools are being taught through video. Friends are through video. Activities are through video. There are even videos for gym and physical sport. Religious gatherings are through video. Well-intended adults are volunteering to step in and provide more video-based opportunities for young people. TV may have killed the radio star, but Zoom and Google Hangouts are going to kill the delight and joy in spending all day in front of screens.
The majority of young people are going batshit crazy living a life wholly online.
Fatigue is setting in. Sure, making a TikTok video with friends is still fun, but there’s a limit to how much time anyone can spend on any app — even teens. Give it another month and there will be kids dropping out of school or throwing their computers against the wall. (Well, I know of two teens who have already done the latter with their iPads.) Young people are begging to go outside, even if that means playing sports with their parents. Such things might not be surprising for a seven-year-old, but when your 15-year-old asks to play soccer with you, do it! As a child of the ‘80s, I was stunned during my fieldwork to learn that most contemporary kids didn’t find ways to sneak out of the house once their parents were asleep because going online was so much easier. I can’t help but wonder if sneaking out is becoming a thing once again.
As we’re all stuck at home, teens are still doing everything possible to escape into their devices to maintain relationships, socialize, and have fun. Their shell-shocked parents are ignoring any and all screen time limitations as they too crave escapism (people who study fortysomethings: explain Animal Crossing to me!!?). But when physical distancing is no longer required, we’ll get to see that social closeness often involves meaningful co-presence with other humans. Adults took this for granted, but teens had few other options outside of spaces heavily controlled by adults. They went online not because the technology is especially alluring, but because it has long been the most viable option for having meaningful connections with friends given the way that their lives have been structured. Maybe now adults will start recognizing what my research showed: youth are “addicted” to sociality, not technology for technology’s sake.
In 2015, I was invited to join the Commerce Department’s Data Advisory Council. Truth be told, I was kinda oblivious to what this was all about. I didn’t know much about how the government functioned. I didn’t know what a “FACA” was. (Turns out that the “Federal Advisory Committee Act” is a formal government thing.) Heck, I only had the most cursory of understanding about the various agencies and bureaus associated with the Commerce Department. But I did understand one thing: the federal government has some of the most important data infrastructure out there. Long before discussions about our current tech industry, government agencies have been trying to wrangle data to help both the public and industry. The Weather Channel wouldn’t be able to do its work without NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration). Standards would go haywire without NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). And we wouldn’t be able to apportion our representatives without Census.
Over the last few years, I have fallen madly in love with the data puzzles that underpin the census. Thanks to Margo Anderson’s “The American Census,” I learned that the history of the census is far far far messier than I ever could’ve imagined. An amazing network of people dedicated to helping ensure that people are represented have given me a crash course into the longstanding battle over collecting the best data possible. As the contours of the 2020 census became more visible, it also became clear that it would be the perfect networked fieldsite for trying to understand two questions that have been tickling my brain:
What makes data legitimate?
What does it take to secure data infrastructure?
(For any STS scholar reading this, add scare-quotes to all of the words that make you want to scream.)
Over the last two years, I’ve been learning as much as I could possibly learn about the census. I’ve also been dipping my toe into archival work and trying to strengthen my theoretical toolkit to handle the study of organizations and large scale operations. And now we’re a matter of days away from when everyone in the country will receive their invitation to participate in the census, and so I’m throwing myself into what is bound to be a whirlwind in order to fully understand how an operation of this magnitude unfolds.
While I have produced a living document to explain how differential privacy is part of the 2020 census, I’ve mostly not been writing much about the research I’m doing. To be honest, I’m relishing taking the time to deeply understand something and to do the deep reflection I haven’t had the privilege of doing in almost a decade.
If I’ve learned anything from the world of census junkies, this decadal process is raw insanity and full of unexpected twists and turns. Yet, what I can say is that it’s also filled with some of the most civic-minded people that I’ve ever encountered. There are so many different stakeholders trying to ensure that we get a good count in order to guarantee that everyone in this country is counted, represented, and acknowledged. This is important, not just for Congressional apportionment and redistricting, but also to make sure that funding is properly allocated, that social science research can inform important decision-making processes, and that laws designed to combat discrimination are enforced.
I’m sharing this now, not because I have new thinking to offer, but because I want folks to understand why I might be rather unresponsive to non-census-obsessives over the next few months. I want to dive head-first into this research and relish the opportunity to be surrounded by geeks engaged in a phenomenal civic effort. For those who aren’t thinking full-time about the census, please understand that I’m going to turn down requests for my time this spring and my email response time may also falter.
Of course.. if you want to make me smile, send me photographs of cool census stuff happening in your community! Or interesting census content that comes through your feeds! And if you want to go hog wild, get involved. Census is hiring. Or you could make census-related content to encourage others to participate. Or at the very least, tell everyone you know to participate; they’ll get their official invitation starting March 12.
The US census has been taking place every 10 years since 1790. It is our democracy’s data infrastructure. And it is “big data” before there was big data. It’s also the cornerstone of countless advances in statistics and social scientific knowledge. Understanding the complexity of the census is part-and-parcel with understanding where our data-driven world is headed. When this is all over, I hope that I’ll have a lot more to contribute to that conversation. In the meantime, forgive me for relishing my obsessive focus.
I was recently honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Alongside Oakland Privacy and William Gibson, I received a 2019 Barlow/Pioneer Award. I was asked to give a speech. As I reflected on what got me to this place, I realized I needed to reckon with how I have benefited from men whose actions have helped uphold a patriarchal system that has hurt so many people. I needed to face my past in order to find a way to create space to move forward.
This is the speech I gave in accepting the award. I hope sharing it can help others who are struggling to make sense of current events. And those who want to make the tech industry to do better.
I cannot begin to express how honored I am to receive this award. My awe of the Electronic Frontier Foundation dates back to my teenage years. EFF has always inspired me to think deeply about what values should shape the internet. And so I want to talk about values tonight, and what happens when those values are lost, or violated, as we have seen recently in our industry and institutions.
But before I begin, I would like to ask you to join me in a moment of silence out of respect to all of those who have been raped, trafficked, harassed, and abused. For those of you who have been there, take this moment to breathe. For those who haven’t, take a moment to reflect on how the work that you do has enabled the harm of others, even when you never meant to.
The story of how I got to be standing here is rife with pain and I need to expose part of my story in order to make visible why we need to have a Great Reckoning in the tech industry. This award may be about me, but it’s also not. It should be about all of the women and other minorities who have been excluded from tech by people who thought they were helping.
The first blog post I ever wrote was about my own sexual assault. It was 1997 and my audience was two people. I didn’t even know what I was doing would be called blogging. Years later, when many more people started reading my blog, I erased many of those early blog posts because I didn’t want strangers to have to respond to those vulnerable posts. I obfuscated my history to make others more comfortable.
I was at the MIT Media Lab from 1999–2002. At the incoming student orientation dinner, an older faculty member sat down next to me. He looked at me and asked if love existed. I raised my eyebrow as he talked about how love was a mirage, but that sex and pleasure were real. That was my introduction to Marvin Minsky and to my new institutional home.
My time at the Media Lab was full of contradictions. I have so many positive memories of people and conversations. I can close my eyes and flash back to laughter and late night conversations. But my time there was also excruciating. I couldn’t afford my rent and did some things that still bother me in order to make it all work. I grew numb to the worst parts of the Demo or Die culture. I witnessed so much harassment, so much bullying that it all started to feel normal. Senior leaders told me that “students need to learn their place” and that “we don’t pay you to read, we don’t pay you to think, we pay you to do.” The final straw for me was when I was pressured to work with the Department of Defense to track terrorists in 2002.
After leaving the Lab, I channeled my energy into V-Day, an organization best known for producing “The Vagina Monologues,” but whose daily work is focused on ending violence against women and girls. I found solace in helping build online networks of feminists who were trying to help combat sexual assault and a culture of abuse. To this day, I work on issues like trafficking and combating the distribution of images depicting the commercial sexual abuse of minors on social media.
By 2003, I was in San Francisco, where I started meeting tech luminaries, people I had admired so deeply from afar. One told me that I was “kinda smart for a chick.” Others propositioned me. But some were really kind and supportive. Joi Ito became a dear friend and mentor. He was that guy who made sure I got home OK. He was also that guy who took being called-in seriously, changing his behavior in profound ways when I challenged him to reflect on the cost of his actions. That made me deeply respect him.
I also met John Perry Barlow around the same time. We became good friends and spent lots of time together. Here was another tech luminary who had my back when I needed him to. A few years later, he asked me to forgive a friend of his, a friend whose sexual predation I had witnessed first hand. He told me it was in the past and he wanted everyone to get along. I refused, unable to convey to him just how much his ask hurt me. Our relationship frayed and we only talked a few times in the last few years of his life.
So here we are… I’m receiving this award, named after Barlow less than a week after Joi resigned from an institution that nearly destroyed me after he socialized with and took money from a known pedophile. Let me be clear — this is deeply destabilizing for me. I am here today in-no-small-part because I benefited from the generosity of men who tolerated and, in effect, enabled unethical, immoral, and criminal men. And because of that privilege, I managed to keep moving forward even as the collateral damage of patriarchy stifled the voices of so many others around me. I am angry and sad, horrified and disturbed because I know all too well that this world is not meritocratic. I am also complicit in helping uphold these systems.
What’s happening at the Media Lab right now is emblematic of a broader set of issues plaguing the tech industry and society more generally. Tech prides itself in being better than other sectors. But often it’s not. As an employee of Google in 2004, I watched my male colleagues ogle women coming to the cafeteria in our building from the second floor, making lewd comments. When I first visited TheFacebook in Palo Alto, I was greeted by a hyper-sexualized mural and a knowing look from the admin, one of the only women around. So many small moments seared into my brain, building up to a story of normalized misogyny. Fast forward fifteen years and there are countless stories of executive misconduct and purposeful suppression of the voices of women and sooooo many others whose bodies and experiences exclude them from the powerful elite. These are the toxic logics that have infested the tech industry. And, as an industry obsessed with scale, these are the toxic logics that the tech industry has amplified and normalized. The human costs of these logics continue to grow. Why are we tolerating sexual predators and sexual harassers in our industry? That’s not what inclusion means.
I am here today because I learned how to survive and thrive in a man’s world, to use my tongue wisely, watch my back, and dodge bullets. I am being honored because I figured out how to remove a few bricks in those fortified walls so that others could look in. But this isn’t enough.
I am grateful to EFF for this honor, but there are so many underrepresented and under-acknowledged voices out there trying to be heard who have been silenced. And they need to be here tonight and they need to be at tech’s tables. Around the world, they are asking for those in Silicon Valley to take their moral responsibilities seriously. They are asking everyone in the tech sector to take stock of their own complicity in what is unfolding and actively invite others in.
And so, if my recognition means anything, I need it to be a call to arms. We need to all stand up together and challenge the status quo. The tech industry must start to face The Great Reckoning head-on. My experiences are all-too common for women and other marginalized peoples in tech. And it it also all too common for well-meaning guys to do shitty things that make it worse for those that they believe they’re trying to support.
If change is going to happen, values and ethics need to have a seat in the boardroom. Corporate governance goes beyond protecting the interests of capitalism. Change also means that the ideas and concerns of all people need to be a part of the design phase and the auditing of systems, even if this slows down the process. We need to bring back and reinvigorate the profession of quality assurance so that products are not launched without systematic consideration of the harms that might occur. Call it security or call it safety, but it requires focusing on inclusion. After all, whether we like it or not, the tech industry is now in the business of global governance.
“Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society. Taking short-cuts may be financially profitable in the short-term, but the cost to society is too great to be justified. In a healthy society, we accommodate differently abled people through accessibility standards, not because it’s financially prudent but because it’s the right thing to do. In a healthy society, we make certain that the vulnerable amongst us are not harassed into silence because that is not the value behind free speech. In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.
The Great Reckoning is in front of us. How we respond to the calls for justice will shape the future of technology and society. We must hold accountable all who perpetuate, amplify, and enable hate, harm, and cruelty. But accountability without transformation is simply spectacle. We owe it to ourselves and to all of those who have been hurt to focus on the root of the problem. We also owe it to them to actively seek to not build certain technologies because the human cost is too great.
My ask of you is to honor me and my story by stepping back and reckoning with your own contributions to the current state of affairs. No one in tech — not you, not me — is an innocent bystander. We have all enabled this current state of affairs in one way or another. Thus, it is our responsibility to take action. How can you personally amplify underrepresented voices? How can you intentionally take time to listen to those who have been injured and understand their perspective? How can you personally stand up to injustice so that structural inequities aren’t further calcified? The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good. But it’s not enough to say that we’re going to do good; we need to collectively define — and hold each other to — shared values and standards.
People can change. Institutions can change. But doing so requires all who harmed — and all who benefited from harm — to come forward, admit their mistakes, and actively take steps to change the power dynamics. It requires everyone to hold each other accountable, but also to aim for reconciliation not simply retribution. So as we leave here tonight, let’s stop designing the technologies envisioned in dystopian novels. We need to heed the warnings of artists, not race head-on into their nightmares. Let’s focus on hearing the voices and experiences of those who have been harmed because of the technologies that made this industry so powerful. And let’s collaborate with and design alongside those communities to fix these wrongs, to build just and empowering technologies rather than those that reify the status quo.
Many of us are aghast to learn that a pedophile had this much influence in tech, science, and academia, but so many more people face the personal and professional harm of exclusion, the emotional burden of never-ending subtle misogyny, the exhaustion from dodging daggers, and the nagging feeling that you’re going crazy as you try to get through each day. Let’s change the norms. Please help me.
we’re all taught how to justify history as it passes by
and it’s your world that comes crashing down
when the big boys decide to throw their weight around
but he said just roll with it baby make it your career
keep the home fires burning till america is in the clear
i think my body is as restless as my mind
and i’m not gonna roll with it this time
no, i’m not gonna roll with it this time
— Ani Difranco
On April 17, 2019, I gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference (DPLAfest). This is the transcript of that talk.
I love the librarian community. You all are deeply committed to producing, curating, and enabling access to knowledge. Many of you embraced the internet with glee, recognizing the potential to help so many more people access critical information. Many of you also saw the democratic and civic potential of this new technology, not to mention the importance of an informed citizenry in a democratic world. Yet, slowly, and systematically, a virus has spread, using technology to systematically tear at the social fabric of public life.
This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, most of Silicon Valley in the late 90s and early aughts was obsessed with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. How did they not recognize that this book was dystopian?
Slowly, and systematically, a virus has spread, using technology to systematically tear at the social fabric of public life.
Epistemology is the term that describes how we know what we know. Most people who think about knowledge think about the processes of obtaining it. Ignorance is often assumed to be not-yet-knowledgeable. But what if ignorance is strategically manufactured? What if the tools of knowledge production are perverted to enable ignorance? In 1995, Robert Proctor and Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” to describe the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance. In an edited volume called Agnotology, Proctor and Londa Schiebinger collect essays detailing how agnotology is achieved. Whether we’re talking about the erasure of history or the undoing of scientific knowledge, agnotology is a tool of oppression by the powerful.
Swirling all around us are conversations about how social media platforms must get better at content management. Last week, Congress held hearings on the dynamics of white supremacy online and the perception that technology companies engage in anti-conservative bias. Many people who are steeped in history and committed to evidence-based decision-making are experiencing a collective sense of being gaslit—the concept that emerges from a film on domestic violence to explain how someone’s sense of reality can be intentionally destabilized by an abuser. How do you process a black conservative commentator testifying before the House that the Southern strategy never happened and that white nationalism is an invention of the Democrats to “scare black people”? Keep in mind that this commentator was intentionally trolled by the terrorist in Christchurch; she responded to this atrocity with tweets containing “LOL” and “HAHA.” Speaking of Christchurch, let’s talk about Christchurch. We all know the basic narrative. A terrorist espousing white nationalist messages livestreamed himself brutally murdering 50 people worshipping in a New Zealand mosque. The video was framed like a first-person shooter from a video game. Beyond the atrocity itself, what else was happening?
He produced a media spectacle. And he learned how to do it by exploiting the information ecosystem we’re currently in.
This terrorist understood the vulnerabilities of both social media and news media. The message he posted on 8chan announcing his intention included links to his manifesto and other sites, but it did not include a direct link to Facebook; he didn’t want Facebook to know that the traffic came from 8chan. The video included many minutes of him driving around, presumably to build audience but also, quite likely, in an effort to evade any content moderators that might be looking. He titled his manifesto with a well-known white nationalist call sign, knowing that the news media would cover the name of the manifesto, which in turn, would prompt people to search for that concept. And when they did, they’d find a treasure trove of anti-Semitic and white nationalist propaganda. This is the exploitation of what’s called a “data void.” He also trolled numerous people in his manifesto, knowing full well that the media would shine a spotlight on them and create distractions and retractions and more news cycles. He produced a media spectacle. And he learned how to do it by exploiting the information ecosystem we’re currently in. Afterwards, every social platform was inundated with millions and millions of copies and alterations of the video uploaded through a range of fake accounts, either to burn the resources of technology companies, shame them, or test their guardrails for future exploits.
What’s most notable about this terrorist is that he’s explicit in his white nationalist commitments. Most of those who are propagating white supremacist logics are not. Whether we’re talking about the so-called “alt-right” who simply ask questions like “Are jews people?” or the range of people who argue online for racial realism based on long-debunked fabricated science, there’s an increasing number of people who are propagating conspiracy theories or simply asking questions as a way of enabling and magnifying white supremacy. This is agnotology at work.
What’s at stake right now is not simply about hate speech vs. free speech or the role of state-sponsored bots in political activity. It’s much more basic. It’s about purposefully and intentionally seeding doubt to fragment society. To fragment epistemologies. This is a tactic that was well-honed by propagandists. Consider this Russia Today poster.
But what’s most profound is how it’s being done en masse now. Teenagers aren’t only radicalized by extreme sites on the web. It now starts with a simple YouTube query. Perhaps you’re a college student trying to learn a concept like “social justice” that you’ve heard in a classroom. The first result you encounter is from PragerU, a conservative organization that is committed to undoing so-called “leftist” ideas that are taught at universities. You watch the beautifully produced video, which promotes many of the tenets of media literacy. Ask hard questions. Follow the money. The video offers a biased and slightly conspiratorial take on what “social justice” is, suggesting that it’s not real, but instead a manufactured attempt to suppress you. After you watch this, you watch more videos of this kind from people who are professors and other apparent experts. This all makes you think differently about this term in your reading. You ask your professor a question raised by one of the YouTube influencers. She reacts in horror and silences you. The videos all told you to expect this. So now you want to learn more. You go deeper into a world of people who are actively anti-“social justice warriors.” You’re introduced to anti-feminism and racial realism. How far does the rabbit hole go?
One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material.
YouTube is the primary search engine for people under 25. It’s where high school and college students go to do research. Digital Public Library of America works with many phenomenal partners who are all working to curate and make available their archives. Yet, how much of that work is available on YouTube? Most of DPLA’s partners want their content on their site. They want to be a destination site that people visit. Much of this is visual and textual, but are there explainers made about this content that are on YouTube? How many scientific articles have video explainers associated with them?
Herein lies the problem. One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material. And then to make sure that what scientific information is available, is undermined. One tactic is to exploit “data voids.” These are areas within a search ecosystem where there’s no relevant data; those who want to manipulate media purposefully exploit these. Breaking news is one example of this. Another is to co-opt a term that was left behind, like social justice. But let me offer you another. Some terms are strategically created to achieve epistemological fragmentation. In the 1990s, Frank Luntz was the king of doing this with terms like partial-birth abortion, climate change, and death tax. Every week, he coordinated congressional staffers and told them to focus on the term of the week and push it through the news media. All to create a drumbeat.
Illustration by Jim Cooke Today’s drumbeat happens online. The goal is no longer just to go straight to the news media. It’s to first create a world of content and then to push the term through to the news media at the right time so that people search for that term and receive specific content. Terms like caravan, incel, crisis actor. By exploiting the data void, or the lack of viable information, media manipulators can help fragment knowledge and seed doubt.
Media manipulators are also very good at messing with structure. Yes, they optimize search engines, just like marketers. But they also look to create networks that are hard to undo. YouTube has great scientific videos about the value of vaccination, but countless anti-vaxxers have systematically trained YouTube to make sure that people who watch the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s videos also watch videos asking questions about vaccinations or videos of parents who are talking emotionally about what they believe to be the result of vaccination. They comment on both of these videos, they watch them together, they link them together. This is the structural manipulation of media. Journalists often get caught up in telling “both sides,” but the creation of sides is a political project.
The creation of sides is a political project.
And this is where you come in. You all believe in knowledge. You believe in making sure the public is informed. You understand that knowledge emerges out of contestation, debate, scientific pursuit, and new knowledge replacing old knowledge. Scholars are obsessed with nuance. Producers of knowledge are often obsessed with credit and ownership. All of this is being exploited to undo knowledge today. You will not achieve an informed public simply by making sure that high quality content is publicly available and presuming that credibility is enough while you wait for people to come find it. You have to understand the networked nature of the information war we’re in, actively be there when people are looking, and blanket the information ecosystem with the information people need to make informed decisions.
For the second time in a week, my phone buzzed with a New York Times alert, notifying me that another celebrity had died by suicide. My heart sank. I tuned into the Crisis Text Line Slack channel to see how many people were waiting for a counselor’s help. Volunteer crisis counselors were pouring in, but the queue kept growing.
Celebrity suicides trigger people who are already on edge to wonder whether or not they too should seek death. Since the Werther effect study, in 1974, countless studies have conclusively and repeatedly shown that how the news media reports on suicide matters. The World Health Organization has adetailed set of recommendations for journalists and news media organizations on how to responsibly report on suicide so as to not trigger copycats.Yet in the past few years, few news organizations have bothered to abide by them, even as recent data shows that the reporting on Robin Williams’ death triggered an additional 10 percent increase in suicide and a 32 percent increase in people copying his method of death.The recommendations aren’t hard to follow — they focus on how to convey important information without adding to the problem.
Crisis counselors at the Crisis Text Line are on the front lines. As a board member, I’m in awe of their commitment and their willingness to help those who desperately need support and can’t find it anywhere else. But it pains me to watch as elite media amplifiers make counselors’ lives more difficult under the guise of reporting the news or entertaining the public.
Through data, we can see the pain triggered by 13 Reasons Why and the New York Times.We see how salacious reporting on method prompts people to consider that pathway of self-injury.Our volunteer counselors are desperately trying to keep people alive and get them help, while for-profit companies reap in dollars and clicks.If we’re lucky, the outlets triggering unstable people write off their guilt by providing a link to our services, with no consideration of how much pain they’ve caused or the costs we must endure.
I want to believe in journalism. But my faith is waning.
I want to believe in journalism. I want to believe in the idealized mandate of the fourth estate. I want to trust that editors and journalists are doing their best to responsibly inform the public and help create a more perfect union.But my faith is waning.
Many Americans — especially conservative Americans — do not trust contemporary news organizations.This “crisis” is well-trod territory, but the focus on fact-checking, media literacy, and business models tends to obscure three features of the contemporary information landscape that I think are poorly understood:
Differences in worldview are being weaponized to polarize society.
We cannot trust organizations, institutions, or professions when they’re abstracted away from us.
Economic structures built on value extraction cannot enable healthy information ecosystems.
Let me begin by apologizing for the heady article, but the issues that we’re grappling with are too heady for a hot take. Please read this to challenge me, debate me, offer data to show that I’m wrong. I think we’ve got an ugly fight in front of us, and I think we need to get more sophisticated about our thinking, especially in a world where foreign policy is being boiled down to 140 characters.
1. Your Worldview Is Being Weaponized
I was a teenager when I showed up at a church wearing jeans and a T-shirt to see my friend perform in her choir. The pastor told me that I was not welcomebecause this was a house of God, and we must dress in a manner that honors Him. Not good at following rules, I responded flatly, “God made me naked. Should I strip now?”Needless to say, I did not get to see my friend sing.
Faith is an anchor for many people in the United States, but the norms that surround religious institutions are man-made, designed to help people make sense of the world in which we operate.Many religions encourage interrogation and questioning, but only within a well-established framework.Children learn those boundaries, just as they learn what is acceptable insecular society.They learn that talking about race is taboo and that questioning the existence of God may leave them ostracized.
Like many teenagers before and after me, I was obsessed with taboos and forbidden knowledge. I sought out the music Tipper Gore hated, read the books my school banned, and tried to get answers to any question that made adults gasp. Anonymously, I spent late nights engaged in conversations on Usenet, determined to push boundaries and make sense of adult hypocrisy.
Following a template learned in Model UN, I took on strong positions in order to debate and learn. Having already lost faith in the religious leaders in my community, I saw no reason to respect the dogma of any institution.And because I made a hobby out of proving teachers wrong, I had little patience for the so-called experts in my hometown. I was intellectually ravenous, but utterly impatient with, if not outright cruel to the adults around me. I rebelled against hierarchy and was determined to carve my own path at any cost.
I have an amazing amount of empathy for those who do not trust the institutions that elders have told them they must respect.Rage against the machine. We don’t need no education, no thought control.I’m also fully aware that you don’t garner trust in institutions through coercion or rational discussion. Instead, trust often emerges from extreme situations.
Many people have a moment where they wake up and feel like the world doesn’t really work like they once thought or like they were once told.That moment of cognitive reckoning is overwhelming. It can be triggered by any number of things — a breakup, a death, depression, a humiliating experience.Everything comes undone, and you feel like you’re in the middle of a tornado, unable to find the ground.This is the basis of countless literary classics, the crux of humanity. But it’s also a pivotal feature in how a society comes together to function.
Everyone needs solid ground, so that when your world has just been destabilized, what comes next matters. Who is the friend that picks you up and helps you put together the pieces?What institution — or its representatives — steps in to help you organize your thinking? What information do you grab onto in order to make sense of your experiences?
Contemporary propaganda isn’t about convincing someone to believe something, but convincing them to doubt what they think they know.
Countless organizations and movements exist to pick you up during your personal tornado and provide structure and a framework. Take a look at how Alcoholics Anonymous works. Other institutions and social bodies know how to trigger that instability and then help you find ground. Check out the dynamics underpinning military basic training.Organizations, movements, and institutions that can manipulate psychological tendencies toward a sociological end have significant power. Religious organizations, social movements, and educational institutions all play this role, whether or not they want to understand themselves as doing so.
Because there is power in defining a framework for people, there is good reason to be wary of any body that pulls people in when they are most vulnerable. Of course, that power is not inherently malevolent. There is fundamental goodness in providing structures to help those who are hurting make sense of the world around them.Where there be dragons is when these processes are weaponized, when these processes are designed to produce societal hatred alongside personal stability.After all, one of the fastest ways to bond people and help them find purpose is to offer up an enemy.
And here’s where we’re in a sticky spot right now.Many large institutions — government, the church, educational institutions, news organizations — are brazenly asserting their moral authority without grappling with their own shit.They’re ignoring those among them who are using hate as a tool, and they’re ignoring their own best practices and ethics, all to help feed a bottom line.Each of these institutions justifies itself by blaming someone or something to explain why they’re not actually that powerful, why they’re actually the victim.And so they’re all poised to be weaponized in a cultural war rooted in how we stabilize American insecurity.And if we’re completely honest with ourselves, what we’re really up against is how we collectively come to terms with a dying empire.But that’s a longer tangent.
Any teacher knows that it only takes a few students to completely disrupt a classroom. Forest fires spark easily under certain conditions, and the ripple effects are huge. As a child, when I raged against everyone and everything, it was my mother who held me into the night. When I was a teenager chatting my nights away on Usenet, the two people who most memorably picked me up and helped me find stable ground were a deployed soldier and a transgender woman, both of whom held me as I asked insane questions. They absorbed the impact and showed me a different way of thinking. They taught me the power of strangers counseling someone in crisis. As a college freshman, when I was spinning out of control, a computer science professor kept me solid and taught me how profoundly important a true mentor could be. Everyone needs someone to hold them when their world spins, whether that person be a friend, family, mentor, or stranger.
Fifteen years ago, when parents and the news media were panicking about online bullying, I saw a different risk. I saw countless kids crying out online in pain only to be ignored by those who preferred to prevent teachers from engaging with students online or to create laws punishing online bullies.We saw the suicides triggered as youth tried to make “It Gets Better” videos to find community, only to be further harassed at school.We saw teens studying the acts of Columbine shooters, seeking out community among those with hateful agendas and relishing the power of lashing out at those they perceived to be benefiting at their expense. But it all just seemed like a peculiar online phenomenon, proof that the internet was cruel. Too few of us tried to hold those youth who were unquestionably in pain.
Teens who are coming of age today are already ripe for instability. Their parents are stressed; even if they have jobs, nothing feels certain or stable. There doesn’t seem to be a path toward economic stability that doesn’t involve college, but there doesn’t seem to be a path toward college that doesn’t involve mind-bending debt.Opioids seem like a reasonable way to numb the pain in far too many communities. School doesn’t seem like a safe place, so teenagers look around and whisper among friends about who they believe to be the most likely shooter in their community. As Stephanie Georgopulos notes, the idea that any institution can offer security seems like a farce.
When I look around at who’s “holding” these youth, I can’t help but notice the presence of people with a hateful agenda.And they terrify me, in no small part because I remember an earlier incarnation.
In 1995, when I was trying to make sense of my sexuality, I turned to various online forums and asked a lot of idiotic questions.I was adopted by the aforementioned transgender woman and numerous other folks who heard me out, gave me pointers, and helped me think through what I felt.In 2001, when I tried to figure out what the next generation did, I realized thatstruggling youth were more likely to encounter a Christian gay “conversion therapy” group than a supportive queer peer.Queer folks were sick of being attacked by anti-LGBT groups, and so they had created safe spaces on private mailing lists that were hard for lost queer youth to find.And so it was that in their darkest hours, these youth were getting picked up by those with a hurtful agenda.
Teens who are trying to make sense of social issues aren’t finding progressive activists. They’re finding the so-called alt-right.
Fast-forward 15 years, and teens who are trying to make sense of social issues aren’t finding progressive activists willing to pick them up. They’re finding the so-called alt-right.I can’t tell you how many youth we’ve seen asking questions like I asked being rejected by people identifying with progressive social movements, only to find camaraderie among hate groups. What’s most striking is how many people with extreme ideas are willing to spend time engaging with folks who are in the tornado.
Spend time reading the comments below the YouTube videos of youth struggling to make sense of the world around them. You’ll quickly find comments by people who spend time in the manosphere or subscribe to white supremacist thinking. They are diving in and talking to these youth, offering a framework to make sense of the world, one rooted in deeply hateful ideas.These self-fashioned self-help actors are grooming people to see that their pain and confusion isn’t their fault, but the fault of feminists, immigrants, people of color. They’re helping them believe that the institutions they already distrust — the news media, Hollywood, government, school, even the church — are actually working to oppress them.
Most people who encounter these ideas won’t embrace them, but some will. Still, even those who don’t will never let go of the doubt that has been instilled in the institutions around them. It just takes a spark.
So how do we collectively make sense of the world around us? There isn’t one universal way of thinking, but even the act of constructing knowledge is becoming polarized. Responding to the uproar in the news media over “alternative facts,” Cory Doctorow noted:
We’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true.We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology.The “establishment” version of epistemology is, “We use evidence to arrive at the truth, vetted by independent verification (but trust us when we tell you that it’s all been independently verified by people who were properly skeptical and not the bosom buddies of the people they were supposed to be fact-checking).”
The “alternative facts” epistemological method goes like this: “The ‘independent’ experts who were supposed to be verifying the ‘evidence-based’ truth were actually in bed with the people they were supposed to be fact-checking.In the end, it’s all a matter of faith, then: you either have faith that ‘their’ experts are being truthful, or you have faith that we are.Ask your gut, what version feels more truthful?”
Doctorow creates these oppositional positions to make a point and to highlight that there is a war over epistemology, or the way in which we produce knowledge.
The reality is much messier, because what’s at stake isn’t simply about resolving two competing worldviews.Rather, what’s at stake is how there is no universal way of knowing, and we have reached a stage in our political climate where there is more power in seeding doubt, destabilizing knowledge, and encouraging others to distrust other systems of knowledge production.
Contemporary propaganda isn’t about convincing someone to believe something, but convincing them to doubt what they think they know.Andonce people’s assumptions have come undone, who is going to pick them up and help them create a coherent worldview?
2. You Can’t Trust Abstractions
Deeply committed to democratic governance, George Washington believed that a representative government could only work if the public knew their representatives.As a result, our Constitution states that each member of the House should represent no more than 30,000 constituents.When we stopped adding additional representatives to the House in 1913 (frozen at 435), each member represented roughly 225,000 constituents. Today, the ratio of congresspeople to constituents is more than 700,000:1. Most people will never meet their representative, and few feel as though Washington truly represents their interests. The democracy that we have is representational only in ideal, not in practice.
As our Founding Fathers knew, it’s hard to trust an institution when it feels inaccessible and abstract.All around us, institutions are increasingly divorced from the community in which they operate, with often devastating costs.Thanks to new models of law enforcement, police officers don’t typically come from the community they serve.In many poor communities, teachers also don’t come from the community in which they teach.The volunteer U.S. military hardly draws from all communities, and those who don’t know a solider are less likely to trust or respect the military.
Journalism can only function as the fourth estate when it serves as a tool to voice the concerns of the people and to inform those people of the issues that matter.Throughout the 20th century, communities of color challenged mainstream media’s limitations and highlighted that few newsrooms represented the diverse backgrounds of their audiences. As such, we saw the rise of ethnic media and a challenge to newsrooms to be smarter about their coverage. But let’s be real — even as news organizations articulate a commitment to the concerns of everyone, newsrooms have done a dreadful job of becoming more representative. Over the past decade, we’ve seen racial justice activists challenge newsrooms for their failure to cover Ferguson, Standing Rock, and other stories that affect communities of color.
Meanwhile, local journalism has nearly died.The success of local journalismdidn’t just matter because those media outlets reported the news, but because it meant that many more people were likely to know journalists.It’s easier to trust an institution when it has a human face that you know and respect. Andas fewer and fewer people know journalists, they trust the institution less and less.Meanwhile, the rise of social media, blogging, and new forms of talk radio has meant that countless individuals have stepped in to cover issues not being covered by mainstream news, often using a style and voice that is quite unlike that deployed by mainstream news media.
We’ve also seen the rise of celebrity news hosts. These hosts help push the boundaries of parasocial interactions, allowing the audience to feel deep affinity toward these individuals, as though they are true friends. Tabloid papers have long capitalized on people’s desire to feel close to celebrities by helping people feel like they know the royal family or the Kardashians. Talking heads capitalize on this, in no small part by how they communicate with their audiences. So, when people watch Rachel Maddow or listen to Alex Jones, they feel more connected to the message than they would when reading a news article. They begin to trust these people as though they are neighbors. They feel real.
No amount of drop-in journalism will make up for the loss of journalists within the fabric of local communities.
People want to be informed, but who they trust to inform them is rooted in social networks, not institutions.The trust of institutions stems from trust in people. The loss of the local paper means a loss of trusted journalists and a connection to the practices of the newsroom. As always, people turn to their social networks to get information, but what flows through those social networks is less and less likely to be mainstream news. But here’s where you also get an epistemological divide.
As Francesca Tripodi points out, many conservative Christians have developed a media literacy practice that emphasizes the “original” text rather than an intermediary.Tripodi points out that the same type of scriptural inference that Christians apply in Bible study is often also applied to reading the Constitution, tax reform bills, and Google results. This approach is radically different than the approach others take when they rely on intermediaries to interpret news for them.
As the institutional construction of news media becomes more and more proximately divorced from the vast majority of people in the United States, we can and should expect trust in news to decline. No amount of fact-checking will make up for a widespread feeling that coverage is biased. No amount of articulated ethical commitments will make up for the feeling that you are being fed clickbait headlines.
No amount of drop-in journalism will make up for the loss of journalists within the fabric of local communities.And while the population who believes that CNN and the New York Times are “fake news” are not demographically representative, the questionable tactics that news organizations use are bound to increase distrust among those who still have faith in them.
3. The Fourth Estate and Financialization Are Incompatible
If you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably deeply invested in scholarship or journalism. And, unless you’re one of my friends, you’re probably bursting at the seams to tell me that the reason journalism is all screwed up is because the internet screwed news media’s business model. So I want to ask a favor: Quiet that voice in your head, take a deep breath, and let me offer an alternative perspective.
There are many types of capitalism. After all, the only thing that defines capitalism is the private control of industry (as opposed to government control). Most Americans have been socialized into believing that all forms of capitalism are inherently good (which, by the way, was a propaganda project).But few are encouraged to untangle the different types of capitalism and different dynamics that unfold depending on which structure is operating.
I grew up in mom-and-pop America, where many people dreamed of becoming small business owners. The model was simple: Go to the bank and get a loan to open a store or a company. Pay back that loan at a reasonable interest rate — knowing that the bank was making money — until eventually you owned the company outright. Build up assets, grow your company, and create something of value that you could pass on to your children.
In the 1980s, franchises became all the rage. Wannabe entrepreneurs saw a less risky path to owning their own business. Rather than having to figure it out alone, you could open a franchise with a known brand and a clear process for running the business. In return, you had to pay some overhead to the parent company. Sure, there were rules to follow and you could only buy supplies from known suppliers and you didn’t actually have full control, but it kinda felt like you did. Like being an Uber driver, it was the illusion of entrepreneurship that was so appealing.And most new franchise owners didn’t know any better, nor were they able to read the writing on the wall when the water all around them started boiling their froggy self. I watched my mother nearly drown, and the scars are still visible all over her body.
I will never forget the U.S. Savings & Loan crisis, not because I understood it, but because it was when I first realized that my Richard Scarry impression of how banks worked was way wrong. Only two decades later did I learn to seethe FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) as extractive ones.They aren’t there to help mom-and-pop companies build responsible businesses, but to extract value from their naiveté.Like today’s post-college youth are learning, loans aren’t there to help you be smart, but to bend your will.
It doesn’t take a quasi-documentary to realize thatMcDonald’s is not a fast-food franchise; it’s a real estate business that uses a franchise structure to extract capital from naive entrepreneurs.Go talk to a wannabe restaurant owner in New York City and ask them what it takes to start a business these days.You can’t even get a bank loan or lease in 2018 without significant investor backing, which means that the system isn’t set up for you to build a business and pay back the bank, pay a reasonable rent, and develop a valuable asset.You are simply a pawn in a financialized game between your investors, the real estate companies, the insurance companies, and the bank, all of which want to extract as much value from your effort as possible. You’re just another brick in the wall.
Now let’s look at the local news ecosystem. Starting in the 1980s, savvy investors realized that many local newspapers owned prime real estate in the center of key towns. These prized assets would make for great condos and office rentals. Throughout the country, local news shops started getting eaten up by private equity and hedge funds — or consolidated by organizations controlled by the same forces. Media conglomerates sold off their newsrooms as they felt increased pressure to increase profits quarter over quarter.
Building a sustainable news business was hard enough when the news had a wealthy patron who valued the goals of the enterprise. But the finance industry doesn’t care about sustaining the news business; it wants a return on investment. And the extractive financiers who targeted the news business weren’t looking to keep the news alive.They wanted to extract as much value from those business as possible.Taking a page out of McDonald’s, they forced the newsrooms to sell their real estate. Often, news organizations had to rent from new landlords who wanted obscene sums, often forcing them to move out of their buildings. News outlets were forced to reduce staff, reproduce more junk content, sell more ads, and find countless ways to cut costs. Of course the news suffered — the goal was to push news outlets into bankruptcy or sell, especially if the companies had pensions or other costs that couldn’t be excised.
Yes, the fragmentation of the advertising industry due to the internet hastened this process. And let’s also be clear that business models in the news business have never been clean. But no amount of innovative new business models will make up for the fact that you can’t sustain responsible journalism within a business structure that requires newsrooms to make more money quarter over quarter to appease investors.This does not mean that you can’t build a sustainable newsbusiness, but if the news is beholden to investors trying to extract value, it’s going to impossible.And if news companies have no assets to rely on (such as their now-sold real estate), they are fundamentally unstable and likely to engage in unhealthy business practices out of economic desperation.
Untangling our country from this current version of capitalism is going to be as difficult as curbing our addiction to fossil fuels.I’m not sure it can be done, but as long as we look at companies and blame their business models without looking at the infrastructure in which they are embedded, we won’t even begin taking the first steps. Fundamentally, both the New York Times and Facebook are public companies, beholden to investors and desperate to increase their market cap. Employees in both organizations believe themselves to be doing something important for society.
Of course, journalists don’t get paid well, while Facebook’s employees can easily threaten to walk out if the stock doesn’t keep rising, since they’re also investors. But we also need to recognize that the vast majority of Americans have a stake in the stock market. Pension plans, endowments, and retirement plans all depend on stocks going up — and those public companies depend on big investors investing in them. Financial managers don’t invest in news organizations that are happy to be stable break-even businesses. Heck, even Facebook is in deep trouble if it can’t continue to increase ROI, whether through attracting new customers (advertisers and users), increasing revenue per user, or diversifying its businesses. At some point, it too will get desperate, because no business can increase ROI forever.
ROI capitalism isn’t the only version of capitalism out there. We take it for granted and tacitly accept its weaknesses by creating binaries, as though the only alternative is Cold War Soviet Union–styled communism.We’re all frogs in an ocean that’s quickly getting warmer. Two degrees will affect a lot more than oceanfront properties.
In my mind, we have a hard road ahead of us if we actually want to rebuild trust in American society and its key institutions (which, TBH, I’m not sure is everyone’s goal). There are three key higher-order next steps, all of which are at the scale of the New Deal.
Create a sustainable business structure for information intermediaries (like news organizations) that allows them to be profitable without the pressure of ROI.In the case of local journalism, this could involve subsidized rent, restrictions on types of investors or takeovers, or a smartly structured double bottom-line model.But the focus should be on strategically building news organizations as a national project to meet the needs of the fourth estate. It means moving away from a journalism model that is built on competition for scarce resources (ads, attention) to one that’s incentivized by societal benefits.
Actively and strategically rebuild the social networks of America.Create programs beyond the military that incentivize people from different walks of life to come together and achieve something great for this country.This could be connected to job training programs or rooted in community service, but it cannot be done through the government alone or, perhaps, at all.We need the private sector, religious organizations, and educational institutions to come together and commit to designing programs that knit together America while also providing the tools of opportunity.
Find new ways of holding those who are struggling.We don’t have a social safety net in America.For many, the church provides the only accessible net when folks are lost and struggling, but we need a lot more.We need to work together to build networks that can catch people when they’re falling.We’ve relied on volunteer labor for a long time in this domain—women, churches, volunteer civic organizations—but our current social configuration makes this extraordinarily difficult.We’re in the middle of an opiate crisis for a reason. We need to think smartly about how these structures or networks can be built and sustained so that we can collectively reach out to those who are falling through the cracks.
Fundamentally, we need to stop triggering one another because we’re facing our own perceived pain.This means we need to build large-scale cultural resilience.While we may be teaching our children “social-emotional learning”in the classroom, we also need to start taking responsibility at scale.Individually, we need to step back and empathize with others’ worldviews and reach out to support those who are struggling. But our institutions also have important work to do.
At the end of the day, if journalistic ethics means anything, newsrooms cannot justify creating spectacle out of their reporting on suicide or other topics just because they feel pressure to create clicks.They have the privilege of choosing what to amplify, and they should focus on what is beneficial.If they can’t operate by those values, they don’t deserve our trust. While I strongly believe that technology companies have a lot of important work to do to be socially beneficial,I hold news organizations to a higher standard because of their own articulated commitments and expectations that they serve as the fourth estate. And if they can’t operationalize ethical practices, I fear the society that must be knitted together to self-govern is bound to fragment even further.
Trust cannot be demanded.It’s only earned by being there at critical junctures when people are in crisis and need help.You don’t earn trust when things are going well; you earn trust by being a rock during a tornado.The winds are blowing really hard right now.Look around.Who is helping us find solid ground?
When confronted with white supremacists, newspaper editors should consider ‘strategic silence’
George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi party, had a simple media strategy in the 1960s. He wrote in his autobiography: “Only by forcing the Jews to spread our message with their facilities could we have any hope of success in counteracting their left-wing, racemixing propaganda!”
Campus by campus, from Harvard to Brown to Columbia, he would use the violence of his ideas and brawn of his followers to become headline news. To compel media coverage, Rockwell needed: “(1) A smashing, dramatic approach which could not be ignored, without exposing the most blatant press censorship, and (2) a super-tough, hard-core of young fighting men to enable such a dramatic presentation to the public.” He understood what other groups competing for media attention knew too well: a movement could only be successful if the media amplified their message.
Contemporary Jewish community groups challenged journalists to consider not covering white supremacists’ ideas. They called this strategy “quarantine”, and it involved working with community organizations to minimize public confrontations and provide local journalists with enough context to understand why the American Nazi party was not newsworthy.
In regions where quarantine was deployed successfully, violence remained minimal and Rockwell was unable to recruit new party members. The press in those areas was aware that amplification served the agenda of the American Nazi party, so informed journalists employed strategic silence to reduce public harm.
The Media Manipulation research initiative at the Data & Society institute is concerned precisely with the legacy of this battle in discourse and the way that modern extremists undermine journalists and set media agendas. Media has always had the ability to publish or amplify particular voices, perspectives and incidents. In choosing stories and voices they will or will not prioritize, editors weigh the benefits and costs of coverage against potential social consequences. In doing so, they help create broader societal values. We call this willingness to avoid amplifying extremist messages “strategic silence”.
Editors used to engage in strategic silence – set agendas, omit extremist ideas and manage voices – without knowing they were doing so. Yet the online context has enhanced extremists’ abilities to create controversies, prompting newsrooms to justify covering their spectacles. Because competition for audience is increasingly fierce and financially consequential, longstanding newsroom norms have come undone. We believe that journalists do not rebuild reputation through a race to the bottom. Rather, we think that it’s imperative that newsrooms actively take the high ground and re-embrace strategic silence in order to defy extremists’ platforms for spreading hate.
Strategic silence is not a new idea. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s considered media coverage their most effective recruitment tactic and accordingly cultivated friendly journalists. According to Felix Harcourt, thousands of readers joined the KKK after the New York World ran a three-week chronicle of the group in 1921. Catholic, Jewish and black presses of the 1920s consciously differed from Protestant-owned mainstream papers in their coverage of the Klan, conspicuously avoiding giving the group unnecessary attention. The black press called this use of editorial discretion in the public interest “dignified silence”, and limited their reporting to KKK follies, such as canceled parades, rejected donations and resignations. Some mainstream journalists also grew suspicious of the KKK’s attempts to bait them with camera-ready spectacles. Eventually coverage declined.
The KKK was so intent on getting the coverage they sought that they threatened violence and white boycotts of advertisers. Knowing they could bait coverage with violence, white vigilante groups of the 1960s staged cross burnings and engaged in high-profile murders and church bombings. Civil rights protesters countered white violence with black stillness, especially during lunch counter sit-ins. Journalists and editors had to make moral choices of which voices to privilege, and they chose those of peace and justice, championing stories of black resilience and shutting out white extremism. This was strategic silence in action, and it saved lives.
The emphasis of strategic silence must be placed on the strategic over the silencing. Every story requires a choice and the recent turn toward providing equal coverage to dangerous, antisocial opinions requires acknowledging the suffering that such reporting causes. Even attempts to cover extremism critically can result in the media disseminating the methods that hate groups aim to spread, such as when Virginia’s Westmoreland News reproduced in full a local KKK recruitment flier on its front page. Media outlets who cannot argue that their reporting benefits the goal of a just and ethical society must opt for silence.
Newsrooms must understand that even with the best of intentions, they can find themselves being used by extremists. By contrast, they must also understand they have the power to defy the goals of hate groups by optimizing for core American values of equality, respect and civil discourse. All Americans have the right to speak their minds, but not every person deserves to have their opinions amplified, particularly when their goals are to sow violence, hatred and chaos.
If telling stories didn’t change lives, journalists would never have started in their careers. We know that words matter and that coverage makes a difference. In this era of increasing violence and extremism, we appeal to editors to choose strategic silence over publishing stories that fuel the radicalization of their readers.
(Visit the original version at The Guardian to read the comments and help support their organization, as a sign of appreciation for their willingness to publish our work.)
The below original text was the basis for Data & Society Founder and President danah boyd’s March 2018 SXSW Edu keynote,“What Hath We Wrought?” — Ed.
Growing up, I took certain truths to be self evident. Democracy is good. War is bad. And of course, all men are created equal.
My mother was a teacher who encouraged me to question everything. But I quickly learned that some questions were taboo. Is democracy inherently good? Is the military ethical? Does God exist?
I loved pushing people’s buttons with these philosophical questions,but they weren’t nearly as existentially destabilizing as the moments in my life in which my experiences didn’t line up with frames that were sacred cows in my community. Police were revered, so my boss didn’t believe me when I told him that cops were forcing me to give them free food, which is why there was food missing. Pastors were moral authorities and so our pastor’s infidelities were not to be discussed, at least not among us youth. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, but hypocrisy is destabilizing.Nothing can radicalize someone more than feeling like you’re being lied to.Or when the world order you’ve adopted comes crumbling down.
The funny thing about education is that we ask our students to challenge their assumptions. And that process can be enlightening.
The funny thing about education is that we ask our students to challenge their assumptions. And that process can be enlightening.I will never forget being a teenager and reading “The People’s History of the United States.”The idea that there could be multiple histories, multiple truths blew my mind.Realizing thathistory is written by the winners shook me to my core.This is the power of education.But the hole that opens up, that invites people to look for new explanations…that hole can be filled in deeply problematic ways.When we ask students to challenge their sacred cows but don’t give them a new framework through which to make sense of the world, others are often there to do it for us.
For the last year, I’ve been struggling with media literacy. I have a deep level of respect for the primary goal. As Renee Hobbs has written, media literacy is the “active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create.”The field talks about the development of competencies or skills to help people analyze, evaluate, and even create media.Media literacy is imagined to be empowering, enabling individuals to have agency and giving them the tools to help create a democratic society.But fundamentally, it is a form of critical thinking that asks people to doubt what they see. And that makes me nervous.
Most media literacy proponents tell me that media literacy doesn’t exist in schools. And it’s true that the ideal version that they’re aiming for definitely doesn’t.But I spent a decade in and out of all sorts of schools in the US, where I quickly learned that a perverted version of media literacy does already exist.Students are asked to distinguish between CNN and Fox. Or to identify bias in a news story. When tech is involved, it often comes in the form of “don’t trust Wikipedia; use Google.”We might collectively dismiss these practices as not-media-literacy, but these activities are often couched in those terms.
I’m painfully aware of this, in part because media literacy is regularly proposed as the “solution” to the so-called “fake news” problem. I hear this from funders and journalists, social media companies and elected officials. My colleagues Monica Bulger and Patrick Davison just released a report on media literacy in light of “fake news” given the gaps in current conversations. I don’t know what version of media literacy they’re imagining but I’m pretty certain it’s not the CNN vs Fox News version. Yet, when I drill in, they often argue for the need to combat propaganda, to get students to ask where the money is coming from, to ask who is writing the stories for what purposes, to know how to fact-check, etcetera. And when I push them further, I often hear decidedly liberal narratives. They talk about the Mercers or about InfoWars or about the Russians. They mock “alternative facts.” While I identify as a progressive, I am deeply concerned by how people understand these different conservative phenomena and what they see media literacy as solving.
I get that many progressive communities are panicked about conservative media, but we live in a polarized society and I worry about how people judge those they don’t understand or respect.It also seems to me that the narrow version of media literacy that I hear as the “solution” is supposed to magically solve our political divide.It won’t.More importantly, as I’m watching social media and news media get weaponized, I’m deeply concerned that the well-intended interventions I hear people propose will backfire, because I’m fairly certain that the crass versions of critical thinking already have.
My talk today is intended to interrogate some of the foundations upon which educating people about the media landscape depends. Rather than coming at this from the idealized perspective, I am trying to come at this from the perspective of where good intentions might go awry, especially in a moment in which narrow versions of media literacy and critical thinking are being proposed as the solution to major socio-cultural issues.I want to examine the instability of our current media ecosystem to then return to the question of:what kind of media literacy should we be working towards? So let’s dig in.
Why do we value precision in language? I sat down for breakfast with Gillian Tett, a Financial Times journalist and anthropologist. She told me that when she first moved to the States from the UK, she was confounded by our inability to talk about class. She was trying to make sense of what distinguished class in America. In her mind, it wasn’t race. Or education.It came down to what construction of language was respected and valued by whom.People became elite by mastering the language marked as elite.Academics, journalists, corporate executives, traditional politicians: they all master the art of communication.I did too. I will never forget being accused of speaking like an elite by my high school classmates when I returned home after a semester of college.More importantly, although it’s taboo in America to be explicitly condescending towards people on the basis of race or education, there’s no social cost among elites to mock someone for an inability to master language.For using terms like “shithole.”
Linguistic and communications skills are not universally valued. Those who do not define themselves through this skill loathe hearing the never-ending parade of rich and powerful people suggesting that they’re stupid, backwards, and otherwise lesser.Embracing being anti-PC has become a source of pride, a tactic of resistance. Anger boils over as people who reject “the establishment” are happy to watch the elites quiver over their institutions being dismantled. This is why this is a culture war. Everyone believes they are part of the resistance.
We’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true.We’re not disagreeing about facts,we’re disagreeing about epistemology.The “establishment” version of epistemology is, “We use evidence to arrive at the truth, vetted by independent verification (but trust us when we tell you that it’s all been independently verified by people who were properly skeptical and not the bosom buddies of the people they were supposed to be fact-checking).”
The “alternative facts” epistemological method goes like this: “The ‘independent’ experts who were supposed to be verifying the ‘evidence-based’ truth were actually in bed with the people they were supposed to be fact-checking.In the end, it’s all a matter of faith, then: you either have faith that ‘their’ experts are being truthful, or you have faith that we are. Ask your gut, what version feels more truthful?”
Let’s be honest — most of us educators are deeply committed to a way of knowing that is rooted in evidence, reason, and fact.But who gets to decide what constitutes a fact? In philosophy circles, social constructivists challenge basic tenets like fact, truth, reason, and evidence. Yet, it doesn’t take a doctorate of philosophy to challenge the dominant way of constructing knowledge. Heck, 75 years ago, evidence suggesting black people were biologically inferior was regularly used to justify discrimination. And this was called science!
In many Native communities, experience trumps Western science as the key to knowledge. These communities have a different way of understanding topics like weather or climate or medicine. Experience is also used in activist circles as a way of seeking truth and challenging the status quo. Experience-based epistemologies also rely on evidence, but not the kind of evidence that would be recognized or accepted by those in Western scientific communities.
Those whose worldview is rooted in religious faith, particularly Abrahamic religions, draw on different types of information to construct knowledge. Resolving scientific knowledge and faith-based knowledge has never been easy; this tension has countless political and social ramifications. As a result, American society has long danced around this yawning gulf and tried to find solutions that can appease everyone. But you can’t resolve fundamental epistemological differences through compromise.
No matter what worldview or way of knowing someone holds dear, they always believe that they are engaging in critical thinking when developing a sense of what is right and wrong, true and false, honest and deceptive.But much of what they conclude may be more rooted in their way of knowing than any specific source of information.
If we’re not careful, “media literacy” and “critical thinking”will simply be deployed as an assertion of authority over epistemology.
Right now, the conversation around fact-checking has already devolved to suggest that there’s only one truth. And we have to recognize that there are plenty of students who are taught that there’s only one legitimate way of knowing, one accepted worldview. This is particularly dicey at the collegiate level, where us professors have been taught nothing about how to teach across epistemologies.
Personally, it took me a long time to recognize the limits of my teachers. Like many Americans in less-than-ideal classrooms, I was taught that history was a set of facts to be memorized. When I questioned those facts, I was sent to the principal’s office for disruption.Frustrated and confused, I thought that I was being force-fed information for someone else’s agenda. Now I can recognize that that teacher was simply exhausted, underpaid, and waiting for retirement.But it took me a long time to realize that there was value in history and that history is a powerful tool.
Weaponizing Critical Thinking
The political scientist Deen Freelon was trying to make sense of the role of critical thinking to address “fake news.” He ended up looking back at a fascinating campaign by Russian Today (known as RT). Their motto for a while was “questionmore.” They produced a series of advertisements as teasers for their channel. These advertisements were promptly banned in the US and UK, resulting in RT putting up additional ads about how they were banned and getting tremendous mainstream media coverage about being banned. What was so controversial? Here’s an example:
“Just how reliable is the evidence that suggests human activity impacts on climate change? The answer isn’t always clear-cut. And it’s only possible to make a balanced judgement if you are better informed. By challenging the accepted view, we reveal a side of the news that you wouldn’t normally see. Because we believe that the more you question, the more you know.”
If you don’t start from a place where you’re confident that climate change is real, this sounds quite reasonable. Why wouldn’t you want more information? Why shouldn’t you be engaged in critical thinking? Isn’t this what you’re encouraged to do at school? So why is asking this so taboo? And lest you think that this is a moment to be condescending towards climate deniers, let me offer another one of their ads.
“Is terror only committed by terrorists? The answer isn’t always clear-cut. And it’s only possible to make a balanced judgement if you are better informed. By challenging the accepted view, we reveal a side of the news that you wouldn’t normally see. Because we believe that the more you question, the more you know.”
Many progressive activists ask whether or not the US government commits terrorism in other countries. The ads all came down because they were too political, but RT got what they wanted: an effective ad campaign. They didn’t come across as conservative or liberal, but rather a media entity that was “censored” for asking questions. Furthermore, by covering the fact that they were banned, major news media legitimized their frame under the rubric of “free speech.” Under the assumption that everyone should have the right to know and to decide for themselves.
We live in a world now where we equate free speech with the right to be amplified.Does everyone have the right to be amplified?Social media gave us that infrastructure under the false imagination that if we were all gathered in one place, we’d find common ground and eliminate conflict. We’ve seen this logic before. After World War II, the world thought that connecting the globe through financial interdependence would prevent World War III. It’s not clear that this logic will hold.
For better and worse, by connecting the world through social media and allowing anyone to be amplified, information can spread at record speed.There is no true curation or editorial control.The onus is on the public to interpret what they see. To self-investigate.Since we live in a neoliberal society that prioritizes individual agency, we double down on media literacy as the “solution” to misinformation.It’s up to each of us as individuals to decide for ourselves whether or not what we’re getting is true.
Yet, if you talk with someone who has posted clear, unquestionable misinformation, more often than not, they know it’s bullshit. Or they don’t care whether or not it’s true. Why do they post it then? Because they’re making a statement.The people who posted this meme (figure 1) didn’t bother to fact check this claim. They didn’t care.What they wanted to signal loud and clear is that they hated Hillary Clinton. And that message was indeed heard loud and clear. As a result, they are very offended if you tell them that they’ve been duped by Russians into spreading propaganda. They don’t believe you for one second.
Misinformation is contextual.Most people believe that people they know are gullible to false information, but that they themselves are equipped to separate the wheat from the chaff.There’s widespread sentiment that we can fact check and moderate our way out of this conundrum.This will fail.Don’t forget that for many people in this country, both education and the media are seen as the enemy — two institutions who are trying to have power over how people think. Two institutions that are trying to assert authority over epistemology.
Finding the Red Pill
Growing up on Usenet, Godwin’s Law was more than an adage to me. I spent countless nights lured into conversation by the idea that someone was wrong on the internet. And I long ago lost count about how many of them ended up with someone invoking Hitler or the Holocaust. I might have even been to blame in some of these conversations.
Fast forward 15 years to the point when Nathan Poe wrote a poignant comment on an online forum dedicated to Christianity: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.”Poe’s Law, as it became known, signals that it’s hard to tell the difference between an extreme view and a parody of an extreme view on the internet.
In their book, “The Ambivalent Internet,”media studies scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner highlight how a segment of society has become so well-versed at digital communications — memes, GIFs, videos, etc. — that they can use these tools of expression to fundamentally destabilize others’communication structures and worldviews. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fiction, what’s cruel and what’s a joke. But that’s the point. That is howirony and ambiguity can be weaponized.And for some, the goal is simple:dismantle the very foundations of elite epistemological structures that are so deeply rooted in fact and evidence.
Many people, especially young people, turn to online communities to make sense of the world around them. They want to ask uncomfortable questions, interrogate assumptions, and poke holes at things they’ve heard. Welcome to youth.There are some questions that are unacceptable to ask in public and they’ve learned that. But in many online fora, no question or intellectual exploration is seen as unacceptable. To restrict the freedom of thought is to censor. And so all sorts of communities have popped up for people to explore questions of race and gender and other topics in the most extreme ways possible. And these communities have become slippery. Are those taking on such hateful views real? Or are they being ironic?
In the 1999 film The Matrix, Morpheus says to Neo: “You take the blue pill,the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Most youth aren’t interested in having the wool pulled over their head, even if blind faith might be a very calming way of living. Restricted in mobility and stressed to holy hell, they want to have access to what’s inaccessible, know what’s taboo, and say what’s politically incorrect.So who wouldn’t want to take the red pill?
In some online communities, taking the red pill refers to the idea of waking up to how education and media are designed to deceive you into progressive propaganda. In these environments, visitors are asked to question more. They’re invited to rid themselves of their politically correct shackles.There’s an entire online university designed to undo accepted ideas about diversity, climate, and history. Some communities are even more extreme in their agenda. These are all meant to fill in the gaps for those who are opening to questioning what they’ve been taught.
In 2012, it was hard not to avoid the names Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, but that didn’t mean that most people understood the storyline.In South Carolina, a white teenager who wasn’t interested in the news felt like he needed to know what the fuss was all about. He decided to go to Wikipedia to understand more. He was left with the impression that Zimmerman was clearly in the right and disgusted that everyone was defending Martin. While reading up on this case, he ran across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia and decided to throw that term into Google where he encountered a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a reality that he had never considered. He took that red pill and dove deep into a worldview whose theory of power positioned white people as victims. Over a matter of years, he began to embrace those views, to be radicalized towards extreme thinking. On June 17, 2015, he sat down for an hour with a group of African-American church-goers in Charleston South Carolina before opening fire on them, killing 9 and injuring 1. His goal was simple: he wanted to start a race war.
It’s easy to say that this domestic terrorist was insane or irrational, but he began his exploration trying to critically interrogate the media coverage of a story he didn’t understand. That led him to online fora filled with people who have spent decades working to indoctrinate people into a deeply troubling, racist worldview. They draw on countless amounts of “evidence,” engage in deeply persuasive discursive practices, and have the mechanisms to challenge countless assumptions.The difference between what is deemed missionary work, education, and radicalization depends a lot on your worldview. And your understanding of power.
Who Do You Trust?
The majority of Americans do not trust the news media. There are many explanations for this — loss of local news, financial incentives, hard to distinguish between opinion and reporting, etc. But what does it mean to encourage people to be critical of the media’s narratives when they are already predisposed against the news media?
Perhaps you want to encourage people to think critically about how information is constructed, who is paying for it, and what is being left out. Yet, among those whose prior is to not trust a news media institution, among those who see CNN and The New York Times as “fake news,” they’re already there. They’re looking for flaws. It’s not hard to find them. After all, the news industry is made of people in institutions in a society.So when youth are encouraged to be critical of the news media, they come away thinking that the media is lying. Depending on someone’s prior, they may even take what they learn to be proof that the media is in on the conspiracy. That’s where things get very dicey.
Many of my digital media and learning colleagues encourage people to make media to help understand how information is produced. Realistically, many young people have learned these skills outside the classroom as they seek to represent themselves on Instagram, get their friends excited about a meme, or gain followers on YouTube. Many are quite skilled at using media, but to what end?Every day, I watch teenagers produce anti-Semitic and misogynistic content using the same tools that activists use to combat prejudice. It’s notable that many of those who are espousing extreme viewpoints are extraordinarily skilled at using media. Today’s neo-Nazis are a digital propaganda machine. Developing media making skills doesn’t guarantee that someone will use them for good. This is the hard part.
Most of my peers think that if more people are skilled and more people are asking hard questions, goodness will see the light.In talking about misunderstandings of the First Amendment, Nabiha Syed of Buzzfeedhighlights that the frame of the “marketplace of ideas” sounds great, but is extremely naive. Doubling down on investing in individuals as a solution to a systemic abuse of power is very American.But the best ideas don’t always surface to the top.Nervously, many of us tracking manipulation of media are starting to think that adversarial messages are far more likely to surface than well-intended ones.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to educate people. Or that producing critical thinkers is inherently a bad thing. I don’t want a world full of sheeple.But I also don’t want to naively assume what media literacy could do in responding to a culture war that is already underway. I want us to grapple with reality, not just the ideals that we imagine we could maybe one day build.
It’s one thing to talk about interrogating assumptions when a person can keep emotional distance from the object of study. It’s an entirely different thing to talk about these issues when the very act of asking questions is what’s being weaponized.This isn’t historical propaganda distributed through mass media. Or an exercise in understanding state power. This is about making sense of an information landscape where the very tools that people use to make sense of the world around them have been strategically perverted by other people who believe themselves to be resisting the same powerful actors that we normally seek to critique.
Take a look at the graph above. Can you guess what search term this is? This is the search query for “crisis actors.” This concept emerged as a conspiracy theory after Sandy Hook. Online communities worked hard to get this to land with the major news media after each shooting. With Parkland, they finally succeeded. Every major news outlet is now talking about crisis actors, as though it’s a real thing, or something to be debunked.When teenage witnesses of the mass shooting in Parkland speak to journalists these days, they have to now say that they are not crisis actors. They must negate a conspiracy theory that was created to dismiss them. A conspiracy theory that undermines their message from the get-go. And because of this, many people have turned to Google and Bing to ask what a crisis actor is. They quickly get to the Snopes page. Snopes provides a clear explanation of why this is a conspiracy. But you are now asked to not think of an elephant.
You may just dismiss this as craziness, but getting this narrative into the media was designed to help radicalize more people. Some number of people will keep researching, trying to understand what the fuss is all about. They’ll find online fora discussing the images of a brunette woman and ask themselves if it might be the same person. They will try to understand the fight between David Hogg and Infowars or question why Infowars is being restricted by YouTube. They may think this is censorship.Seeds of doubt will start to form. And they’ll ask whether or not any of the articulate people they see on TV might actually be crisis actors. That’s the power of weaponized narratives.
One of the main goals for those who are trying to manipulate media is to pervert the public’s thinking.It’s called gaslighting. Do you trust what is real?One of the best ways to gaslight the public is to troll the media.By getting the news media to be forced into negating frames, they can rely on the fact that people who distrust the media often respond by self-investigating. This is the power of the boomerang effect. And it has a history. After all, the CDC realized that the more news media negated the connection between autism and vaccination, the more the public believed there was something real there.
In 2016, I watched networks of online participants test this theory through an incident now known as Pizzagate. They worked hard to get the news media to negate the conspiracy theory, believing that this would prompt more people to try to research if there was something real there. They were effective. The news media covered the story to negate it. Lots of people decided to self-investigate. One guy even showed up with a gun.
The term “gaslighting” originates in the context of domestic violence. The term refers back to an 1944 movie called Gas Light where a woman is manipulated by her husband in a way that leaves her thinking she’s crazy.It’sa very effective technique of control. It makes someone submissive and disoriented, unable to respond to a relationship productively.While many anti-domestic violence activists argue that the first step is to understand that gaslighting exists, the “solution” is not to fight back against the person doing the gaslighting. Instead, it’s to get out. Furthermore, anti-domestic violence experts argue that recovery from gaslighting is a long and arduous process, requiring therapy. They recognize that once instilled, self-doubt is hard to overcome.
While we have many problems in our media landscape, the most dangerous is how it is being weaponized to gaslight people.
And unlike the domestic violence context, there is no “getting out” that is really possible in a media ecosystem. Sure, we can talk about going off the grid and opting out of social media and news media, but c’mon now.
The Cost of Triggering
In 2017, Netflix released a show called 13 Reasons Why. Before parents and educators had even heard of the darn show, millions of teenagers had watched it. For most viewers, it was a fascinating show. The storyline was enticing, the acting was phenomenal. But I’m on the board of Crisis Text Line, an amazing service where people around this country talk with trained counselors via text message when they’re in a crisis. Before the news media even began talking about the show, we started to see the impact. After all, the premise of the show is that a teen girl died by suicide and left behind 13 tapes explaining how people had bullied her to justify her decision.
At Crisis Text Line, we do active rescues every night. This means that we send emergency personnel to the homes of someone who is in the middle of a suicide attempt in an effort to save their lives. Sometimes, we succeed. Sometimes, we don’t. It’s heartbreaking work. As word of 13 Reasons Why got out and people started watching the show, our numbers went through the roof. We were drowning in young people referencing the show, signaling how it had given them a framework for ending their lives. We panicked. All hands on deck. As we got things under control, I got angry. What the hell was Netflix thinking?
Researchers know the data on suicide and media. The more the media normalizes suicide, the more suicide is put into people’s head as a possibility,the more people who are on the edge start to take it seriously and consider it for themselves.After early media effects research was published, journalists developed best practices to minimize their coverage of suicide. As Joan Donovan often discusses, this form of “strategic silence” was viable in earlier media landscapes; it’s a lot harder now. Today, journalists and media makers feel as though the fact that anyone could talk about suicide on the internet means that they should have a right to do so too.
We know that you can’t combat depression through rational discourse.Addressing depression is hard work. And I’m deeply concerned that we don’t have the foggiest clue how to approach the media landscape today.I’m confident that giving grounded people tools to think smarter can be effective.But I’m not convinced that we know how to educate people who do not share our epistemological frame.I’m not convinced that we know how to undo gaslighting. I’m not convinced that we understand how engaging people about the media intersects with those struggling with mental health issues.And I’m not convinced that we’ve even begun to think about the unintended consequences of our good — let alone naive — intentions.
In other words, I think that there are a lot of assumptions baked into how we approach educating people about sensitive issues and our current media crisis has made those painfully visible.
Oh, and by the way, the Netflix TV show ends by setting up Season 2 to start with a school shooting. WTF, Netflix?
Pulling Back Out
So what role do educators play in grappling with the contemporary media landscape? What kind of media literacy makes sense? To be honest, I don’t know. But it’s unfair to end a talk like this without offering some path forward so I’m going to make an educated guess.
I believe that we need to develop antibodies to help people not be deceived.
That’s really tricky because most people like to follow their gut more than than their mind. No one wants to hear that they’re being tricked. Still, I thinkthere might be some value in helping people understand their own psychology.
Consider the power of nightly news and talk radio personalities.If you bring Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, or any other host into your home every night,you start to appreciate how they think. You may not agree with them, but youbuild a cognitive model of their words such that they have a coherent logic to them.They become real to you, even if they don’t know who you are. This is what scholars call “parasocial interaction.”And the funny thing about humanpsychology is that we trust people who we invest our energies into understanding.That’s why bridging difference requires humanizing people across viewpoints.
Empathy is a powerful emotion, one that most educators want to encourage.But when you start to empathize with worldviews that are toxic, it’s very hard to stay grounded. It requires deep cognitive strength.Scholars who spend a lot of time trying to understand dangerous worldviews work hard to keep their emotional distance.One very basic tactic is to separate the different signals. Just read the text rather than consume the multimedia presentation of that. Narrow the scope. Actively taking things out of context can be helpful for analysis precisely because it creates a cognitive disconnect. This is the opposite of how most people encourage everyday analysis of media, where the goal is to appreciate the context first. Of course, the trick here is wanting to keep that emotional distance. Most people aren’t looking for that.
I also believe that it’s important to help students truly appreciate epistemological differences. In other words, why do people from different worldviews interpret the same piece of content differently?Rather than thinking about the intention behind the production, let’s analyze the contradictions in the interpretation.This requires developing a strong sense of how others think and where the differences in perspective lie.From an educational point of view, this means building the capacity to truly hear and embrace someone else’s perspective and teaching people to understand another’s view while also holding their view firm.It’s hard work, an extension of empathy into a practice that is common among ethnographers. It’s also a skill that is honed in many debate clubs. The goal is to understand the multiple ways of making sense of the world and use that to interpret media.Of course, appreciating the view of someone who is deeply toxic isn’t always psychologically stabilizing.
Another thing I recommend is to help students see how they fill in gaps when the information presented to them is sparse and how hard it is to overcome priors.Conversations about confirmation bias are important here because it’s important to understand what information we accept and what information we reject.Selective attention is another tool, most famously shown to students through the “gorilla experiment.” If you aren’t familiar with this experiment, it involves showing a basketball video and focusing on counting passes made by people in one color shirt and then asking if they saw the gorilla. Many people do not. Inverting these cognitive science exercises,asking students to consider different fan fiction that fills in the gaps of a story with divergent explanations is another way to train someone to recognize how their brain fills in gaps.
What’s common about the different approaches I’m suggesting is that they are designed to be cognitive strengthening exercises,tohelp students recognize their own fault lines, not the fault lines of the media landscape around them. I can imagine that this too could be called media literacy and if you want to bend your definition that way, I’ll accept it.But the key is to realize the humanity in ourselves and in others.We cannot and should not assert authority over epistemology, but we can encourage our students to be more aware of how interpretation is socially constructed. And to understand how that can be manipulated.Of course, just because you know you’re being manipulated doesn’t mean that you can resist it. And that’s where my proposal starts to get shaky.
Let’s be honest — our information landscape is going to get more and more complex. Educators have a critical role to play in helping individuals and societies navigate what we encounter.But the path forward isn’t about doubling down on what constitutes a fact or teaching people to assess sources.Rebuilding trust in institutions and information intermediaries is important, but we can’t assume the answer is teaching students to rely on those signals.The first wave of media literacy was responding to propaganda in a mass media context.We live in a world of networks now. We need to understand how those networks are intertwined and how information that spreads through dyadic — even if asymmetric — encounters is understood and experienced differently than that which is produced and disseminated through mass media.
Above all, we need to recognize that information can, is, and will be weaponized in new ways. Today’s propagandist messages are no longer simply created by Madison Avenue or Edward Bernays-style State campaigns. For the last 15 years, a cohort of young people has learned how to hack the attention economy in an effort to have power and status in this new information ecosystem.These aren’t just any youth. They are young people who are disenfranchised, who feel as though the information they’re getting isn’t fulfilling, who struggle to feel powerful.They are trying to make sense of an unstable world and trying to respond to it in a way that is personally fulfilling.Most youth are engaged in invigorating activities. Others are doing the same things youth have always done. But there are youth out there who feel alienated and disenfranchised, who distrust the system and want to see it all come down. Sometimes, this frustration leads to productive ends. Often it does not. But until we start understanding their response to our media society, we will not be able to produce responsible interventions. So I would argue that we need to start developing a networked response to this networked landscape. And it starts by understanding different ways of constructing knowledge.
Special thanks to Monica Bulger, Mimi Ito, Whitney Phillips, Cathy Davidson, Sam Hinds Garcia, Frank Shaw, and Alondra Nelson for feedback.