My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.
I was 19 years old when a some configuration of anonymous people came after me. They got access to my email and shared some of the most sensitive messages on an anonymous forum. This was after some of my girl friends received anonymous voice messages describing how they would be raped. And after the black and Latinx high school students I was mentoring were subject to targeted racist messages whenever they logged into the computer cluster we were all using. I was ostracized for raising all of this to the computer science department’s administration. A year later, when I applied for an internship at Sun Microsystems, an alum known for his connection to the anonymous server that was used actually said to me, “I thought that they managed to force you out of CS by now.”
Needless to say, this experience hurt like hell. But in trying to process it, I became obsessed not with my own feelings but with the logics that underpinned why some individual or group of white male students privileged enough to be at Brown University would do this. (In investigations, the abusers were narrowed down to a small group of white men in the department but it was never going to be clear who exactly did it and so I chose not to pursue the case even though law enforcement wanted me to.)
My first breakthrough came when I started studying bullying, when I started reading studies about why punitive approaches to meanness and cruelty backfire. It’s so easy to hate those who are hateful, so hard to be empathetic to where they’re coming from. This made me double down on an ethnographic mindset that requires that you step away from your assumptions and try to understand the perspective of people who think and act differently than you do. I’m realizing more and more how desperately this perspective is needed as I watch researchers and advocates, politicians and everyday people judge others from their vantage point without taking a moment to understand why a particular logic might unfold.
The Local Nature of Wealth
A few days ago, my networks were on fire with condescending comments referencing an article in The Guardian titled “Scraping by on six figures? Tech workers feel poor in Silicon Valley’s wealth bubble.” I watched as all sorts of reasonably educated, modestly but sustainably paid people mocked tech folks for expressing frustration about how their well-paid jobs did not allow them to have the sustainable lifestyle that they wanted. For most, Silicon Valley is at a distance, a far off land of imagination brought to you by the likes of David Fincher and HBO. Progressive values demand empathy for the poor and this often manifests as hatred for the rich. But what’s missing from this mindset is an understanding of the local perception of wealth, poverty, and status. And, more importantly, the political consequences of that local perception.
Think about it this way. I live in NYC where the median household income is somewhere around $55K. My network primarily makes above the median and yet they all complain that they don’t have enough money to achieve what they want in NYC, whether they’re making $55K, $70K, or $150K. Complaining about being not having enough money is ritualized alongside complaining about the rents. No one I know really groks that they’re making above the median income for the city (and, thus, that most people are much poorer than they are), let alone how absurd their complaints might sound to someone from a poorer country where a median income might be $1500 (e.g., India).
The reason for this is not simply that people living in NYC are spoiled, but that people’s understanding of prosperity is shaped by what they see around them. Historically, this has been understood through word-of-mouth and status markers. In modern times, those status markers are often connected to conspicuous consumption. “How could HE afford a new pair of Nikes!?!?”
The dynamics of comparison are made trickier by media. Even before yellow journalism, there has always been some version of Page Six or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Stories of gluttonous and extravagant behaviors abound in ancient literature. Today, with Instagram and reality TV, the idea of haves and havenots is pervasive, shaping cultural ideas of privilege and suffering. Everyday people perform for the camera and read each other’s performances critically. And still, even as we watch rich people suffer depression or celebrities experience mental breakdowns, we don’t know how to walk in each other’s shoes. We collectively mock them for their privilege as a way to feel better for our own comparative struggles.
In other words, in a neoliberal society, we consistently compare ourselves to others in ways that make us feel as though we are less well off than we’d like. And we mock others who are more privileged who do the same. (And, horribly, we often blame others who are not for making bad decisions.)
The Messiness of Privilege
I grew up with identity politics, striving to make sense of intersectional politics and confused about what it meant to face oppression as a woman and privilege as a white person. I now live in a world of tech wealth while my family does not. I live with contradictions and I work on issues that make those contradictions visible to me on a regular basis. These days, I am surrounded by civil rights advocates and activists of all stripes. Folks who remind me to take my privilege seriously. And still, I struggle to be a good ally, to respond effectively to challenges to my actions. Because of my politics and ideals, I wake up each day determined to do better.
Yet, with my ethnographer’s hat on, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with how this dynamic is playing out. Not for me personally, but for affecting change. I’m nervous that the way that privilege is being framed and politicized is doing damage to progressive goals and ideals. In listening to white men who see themselves as “betas” or identify as NEETs (“Not in Education, Employment, or Training”) describe their hatred of feminists or social justice warriors, I hear the cost of this frame. They don’t see themselves as empowered or privileged and they rally against these frames. And they respond antagonistically in ways that further the divide, as progressives feel justified in calling them out as racist and misogynist. Hatred emerges on both sides and the disconnect produces condescension as everyone fails to hear where each other comes from, each holding onto their worldview that they are the disenfranchised, they are the oppressed. Power and wealth become othered and agency becomes understood through the lens of challenging what each believes to be the status quo.
It took me years to understand that the boys who tormented me in college didn’t feel powerful, didn’t see their antagonism as oppression. I was even louder and more brash back then than I am now. I walked into any given room performing confidence in ways that completely obscured my insecurities. I took up space, used my sexuality as a tool, and demanded attention. These were the survival skills that I had learned to harness as a ticket out. And these are the very same skills that have allowed me to succeed professionally and get access to tremendous privilege. I have paid a price for some of the games that I have played, but I can’t deny that I’ve gained a lot in the process. I have also come to understand that my survival strategies were completely infuriating to many geeky white boys that I encountered in tech. Many guys saw me as getting ahead because I was a token woman. I was accused of sleeping my way to the top on plenty of occasions. I wasn’t simply seen as an alpha — I was seen as the kind of girl that screwed boys over. And because I was working on diversity and inclusion projects in computer science to attract more women and minorities as the field, I was seen as being the architect of excluding white men. For so many geeky guys I met, CS was the place where they felt powerful and I stood for taking that away. I represented an oppressor to them even though I felt like it was they who were oppressing me.
Privilege is complicated. There is no static hierarchical structure of oppression. Intersectionality provides one tool for grappling with the interplay between different identity politics, but there’s no narrative for why beta white male geeks might feel excluded from these frames. There’s no framework for why white Christians might feel oppressed by rights-oriented activists. When we think about privilege, we talk about the historical nature of oppression, but we don’t account for the ways in which people’s experiences of privilege are local. We don’t account for the confounding nature of perception, except to argue that people need to wake up.
Grappling with Perception
We live in a complex interwoven society. In some ways, that’s intentional. After WWII, many politicians and activists wanted to make the world more interdependent, to enable globalization to prevent another world war. The stark reality is that we all depend on social, economic, and technical infrastructures that we can’t see and don’t appreciate. Sure, we can talk about how our food is affordable because we’re dependent on underpaid undocumented labor. We can take our medicine for granted because we fail to appreciate all of the regulatory processes that go into making sure that what we consume is safe. But we take lots of things for granted; it’s the only way to move through the day without constantly panicking about whether or not the building we’re in will collapse.
Without understanding the complex interplay of things, it’s hard not to feel resentful about certain things that we do see. But at the same time, it’s not possible to hold onto the complexity. I can appreciate why individuals are indignant when they feel as though they pay taxes for that money to be given away to foreigners through foreign aid and immigration programs. These people feel like they’re struggling, feel like they’re working hard, feel like they’re facing injustice. Still, it makes sense to me that people’s sense of prosperity is only as good as their feeling that they’re getting ahead. And when you’ve been earning $40/hour doing union work only to lose that job and feel like the only other option is a $25/hr job, the feeling is bad, no matter that this is more than most people make. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley engineers feel as though they’re struggling and it’s not because they’re comparing themselves to everyone in the world. It’s because the standard of living keeps dropping in front of them. It’s all relative.
It’s easy to say “tough shit” or “boo hoo hoo” or to point out that most people have it much worse. And, at some levels, this is true. But if we don’t account for how people feel, we’re not going to achieve a more just world — we’re going to stoke the fires of a new cultural war as society becomes increasingly polarized.
The disconnect between statistical data and perception is astounding. I can’t help but shake my head when I listen to folks talk about how life is better today than it ever has been in history. They point to increased lifespan, new types of medicine, decline in infant mortality, and decline in poverty around the world. And they shake their heads in dismay about how people don’t seem to get it, don’t seem to get that today is better than yesterday. But perception isn’t about statistics. It’s about a feeling of security, a confidence in one’s ecosystem, a belief that through personal effort and God’s will, each day will be better than the last. That’s not where the vast majority of people are at right now. To the contrary, they’re feeling massively insecure, as though their world is very precarious.
I am deeply concerned that the people whose values and ideals I share are achieving solidarity through righteous rhetoric that also produces condescending and antagonistic norms. I don’t fully understand my discomfort, but I’m scared that what I’m seeing around me is making things worse. And so I went back to some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches for a bit of inspiration today and I started reflecting on his words. Let me leave this reflection with this quote:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There’s a joke out there that when you’re having your first child, you tell everyone personally and update your family and friends about every detail throughout the pregnancy. With Baby #2, there’s an abbreviated notice that goes out about the new addition, all focused on how Baby #1 is excited to have a new sibling. And with Baby #3, you forget to tell people.
I’m a living instantiation of that. If all goes well, I will have my third child in early March and I’ve apparently forgotten to tell anyone since folks are increasingly shocked when I indicate that I can’t help out with XYZ because of an upcoming parental leave. Oops. Sorry!
As noted when I gave a heads up with Baby #1 and Baby #2, I plan on taking parental leave in stride. I don’t know what I’m in for. Each child is different and each recovery is different. What I know for certain is that I don’t want to screw over collaborators or my other baby – Data & Society. As a result, I will be not taking on new commitments and I will be actively working to prioritize my collaborators and team over the next six months.
In the weeks following birth, my response rates may get sporadic and I will probably not respond to non-mission-critical email. I also won’t be scheduling meetings. Although I won’t go completely offline in March (mostly for my own sanity), but I am fairly certain that I will take an email sabbatical in July when my family takes some serious time off** to be with one another and travel.
A change in family configuration is fundamentally walking into the abyss. For as much as our culture around maternity leave focuses on planning, so much is unknown. After my first was born, I got a lot of work done in the first few weeks afterwards because he was sleeping all the time and then things got crazy just as I was supposedly going back to work. That was less true with #2, but with #2 I was going seriously stir crazy being home in the cold winter and so all I wanted was to go to lectures with him to get out of bed and soak up random ideas. Who knows what’s coming down the pike. I’m fortunate enough to have the flexibility to roll with it and I intend to do precisely that.
What’s tricky about being a parent in this ecosystem is that you’re kinda damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Women are pushed to go back to work immediately to prove that they’re serious about their work – or to take serious time off to prove that they’re serious about their kids. Male executives are increasingly publicly talking about taking time off, while they work from home. The stark reality is that I love what I do. And I love my children. Life is always about balancing different commitments and passions within the constraints of reality (time, money, etc.). And there’s nothing like a new child to make that balancing act visible.
So if you need something from me, let me know ASAP! And please understand and respect that I will be navigating a lot of unknown and doing my best to achieve a state of balance in the upcoming months of uncertainty.
** July 2017 vacation. After a baby is born, the entire focus of a family is on adjustment. For the birthing parent, it’s also on recovery because babies kinda wreck your body no matter how they come out. Finding rhythms for sleep and food become key for survival. Folks talk about this time as precious because it can enable bonding. That hasn’t been my experience and so I’ve relished the opportunity with each new addition to schedule some full-family bonding time a few months after birth where we can do what our family likes best – travel and explore as a family. If all goes well in March, we hope to take a long vacation in mid-July where I intend to be completely offline and focused on family. More on that once we meet the new addition.
I am surrounded by people who are driven by good intentions.Educators who want to inform students, who passionately believe that people can be empowered through knowledge. Activists who have committed their lives to addressing inequities, who believe that they have a moral responsibility to shine a spotlight on injustice. Journalists who believe their mission is to inform the public, who believe that objectivity is the cornerstone of their profession. I am in awe of their passion and commitment, their dedication and persistence.
Yet, I’m existentially struggling as I watch them fight for what is right. I havelearned that people who view themselves through the lens of good intentions cannot imagine that they could be a pawn in someone else’s game.They cannot imagine that the values and frames that they’ve dedicated their lives towards — free speech, media literacy, truth — could be manipulated or repurposed by others in ways that undermine their good intentions.
I find it frustrating to bear witness to good intentions getting manipulated,but it’s even harder to watch how those who are wedded to good intentions are often unwilling to acknowledge this, let alone start imagining how to develop the appropriate antibodies.Too many folks that I love dearly just want to double down on the approaches they’ve taken and the commitments they’ve made. On one hand, I get it — folks’ life-work and identities are caught up in these issues.
But this is where I think we’re going to get ourselves into loads of trouble.
The world is full of people with all sorts of intentions. Their practices and values, ideologies and belief systems collide in all sorts of complex way. Sometimes, the fight is about combating horrible intentions, but often it is not. In college, my roommate used to pound a mantra into my head whenever I would get spun up about something: “Do not attribute to maliciousness what you can attribute to stupidity.” I return to this statement a lot when I think about how to build resilience and challenge injustices, especially when things look so corrupt and horribly intended — or when people who should be allies see each other as combatants. But as I think about how we should resist manipulation and fight prejudice, I also think that it’s imperative to move away from simply relying on “good intentions.”
I don’t want to undermine those with good intentions, but I also don’t want good intentions to be a tool that can be used against people. So I want to think about how good intentions get embedded in various practices and the implications of how we view the different actors involved.
The Good Intentions of Media Literacy
When I penned my essay “Did Media Literacy Backfire?”, I wanted to ask those who were committed to media literacy to think about how their good intentions — situated in a broader cultural context — might not play out as they would like. Folks who critiqued my essay on media literacy pushed back in all sorts of ways, both online and off. Many made me think, but some also reminded me that my way of writing was off-putting. I was accused of using the question “Did media literacy backfire?” to stoke clicks.Some snarkily challenged my suggestion that media literacy was even meaningfully in existence, asked me to be specific about which instantiations I meant (because I used the phrase “standard implementations”), and otherwise pushed for the need to double down on “good” or “high quality” media literacy. The reality is that I’m a huge proponent of their good intentions — and have long shared them, but I wrote this piece because I’m worried that good intentions can backfire.
While I was researching youth culture, I never set out to understand what curricula teachers used in the classroom. I wasn’t there to assess the quality of the teachers or the efficacy of their formal educational approaches. I simply wanted to understand what students heard and how they incorporated the lessons they received into their lives. Although the teens that I met had a lot of choice words to offer about their teachers, I’ve always assumed that most teachers entered the profession with the best of intentions, even if their students couldn’t see that. But I spent my days listening to students’ frustrations and misperceptions of the messages teachers offered.
I’ve never met an educator who thinks that the process of educating is easy or formulaic. (Heck, this is why most educators roll their eyes when they hear talk of computerized systems that can educate better than teachers.) So why do we assume that well-intended classroom lessons — or even well-designed curricula — might not play out as we imagine? This isn’t simply about the efficacy of the lesson or the skill of the teacher, but the cultural context in which these conversations occur.
In many communities in which I’ve done research, the authority of teachers is often questioned. Nowhere is this more painfully visible than when well-intended highly educated (often white) teachers come to teach in poorer communities of color. Yet, how often are pedagogical interventions designed by researchers really taking into account the doubt that students and their parents have of these teachers? And how do we as educators and scholars grapple with how we might have made mistakes?
I’m not asking “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” to be a pain in the toosh, but to genuinely highlight how the ripple effects of good intentions may not play out as imagined on the ground for all sorts of reasons.
The Good Intentions of Engineers
From the outside, companies like Facebook and Google seem pretty evil to many people. They’re situated in a capitalist logic that many advocates and progressives despise. They’re opaque and they don’t engage the public in their decision-making processes, even when those decisions have huge implications for what people read and think. They’re extremely powerful and they’ve made a lot of people rich in an environment where financial inequality and instability is front and center. Primarily located in one small part of the country, they also seem like a monolithic beast.
As a result, it’s not surprising to me that many people assume that engineers and product designers have evil (or at least financially motivated) intentions. There’s an irony here because my experience is the opposite.Most product teams have painfully good intentions, shaped by utopic visions of how the ideal person would interact with the ideal system.Nothing is more painful than sitting through a product design session with design personae that have been plucked from a collection of clichés.
I’ve seen a lot of terribly naive product plans, with user experience mockups that lack any sense of how or why people might interact with a system in unexpected ways.I spent years tracking how people did unintended things with social media, such as the rise of “Fakesters,” or of teenagers who gamed Facebook’s system by inserting brand names into their posts, realizing that this would make their posts rise higher in the social network’s news feed. It has always boggled my mind how difficult it is for engineers and product designers to imagine how their systems would get gamed.I actually genuinely loved product work because I couldn’t help but think about how to break a system through unexpected social practices.
Most products and features that get released start with good intentions, but they too get munged by the system, framed by marketing plans, and manipulated by users. And then there’s the dance of chaos as companies seek to clean up PR messes (which often involves non-technical actors telling insane fictions about the product), patch bugs to prevent abuse, and throw bandaids on parts of the code that didn’t play out as intended. There’s a reason that no one can tell you exactly how Google’s search engine or Facebook’s news feed works.Sure, the PR folks will tell you that it’s proprietary code. But the ugly truth is that the code has been patched to smithereens to address countless types of manipulation and gamification(e.g., SEO to bots).It’s quaint to read the original “page rank” paper that Brin and Page wrote when they envisioned how a search engine could ideally work. That’s so not how the system works today.
The good intentions of engineers and product people, especially those embedded in large companies, are often doubted as sheen for a capitalist agenda. Yet, like many other well-intended actors, I often find that makers feel misunderstood and maligned, assumed to have evil thoughts. And I often think that when non-tech people start by assuming that they’re evil, we lose a significant opportunity to address problems.
The Good Intentions of Journalists
I’ve been harsh on journalists lately, mostly because I find it so infuriating that a profession that is dedicated to being a check to power could be so ill-equipped to be self-reflexive about its own practices.
Yet, I know that I’m being unfair. Their codes of conduct and idealistic visions of their profession help journalists and editors and publishers stay strong in an environment where they are accustomed to being attacked. It just kills me that the cultural of journalism makes those who have an important role to play unable to see how they can be manipulated at scale.
Sure, plenty of top-notch journalists are used to negotiating deception and avoidance. You gotta love a profession that persistently bangs its head against a wall of “no comment.” But journalism has grown up as an individual sport; a competition for leads and attention that can get fugly in the best of configurations. Time is rarely on a journalist’s side, just as nuance is rarely valued by editors. Trying to find “balance” in this ecosystem has always been a pipe dream, but objectivity is a shared hallucination that keeps well-intended journalists going.
Powerful actors have always tried to manipulate the news media, especially State actors. This is why the fourth estate is seen as so important in the American context. Yet, the game has changed, in part because of the distributed power of the masses. Social media marketers quickly figured out that manufacturing outrage and spectacle would give them a pathway to attention, attracting news media like bees to honey. Most folks rolled their eyes, watching as monied people played the same games as State actors. But what about the long tail? How do we grapple with the long tail? How should journalists respond to those who are hacking the attention economy?
I am genuinely struggling to figure out how journalists, editors, and news media should respond in an environment in which they are getting gamed.What I do know from 12-steps is that the first step is to admit that you have a problem. And we aren’t there yet. And sadly, that means that good intentions are getting gamed.
Developing the Hacker Mindset
I’m in awe of how many of the folks I vehemently disagree with are willing to align themselves with others they vehemently disagree with when they have a shared interest in the next step. Some conservative and hate groups are willing to be odd bedfellows because they’re willing to share tactics, even if they don’t share end goals. Many progressives can’t even imagine coming together with folks who have a slightly different vision, let alone a different end goal, to even imagine various tactics. Why is that?
My goal in writing these essays is not because I know the solutions to some of the most complex problems that we face — I don’t — but because I think that we need to start thinking about these puzzles sideways, upside down, and from non-Euclidean spaces. In short, I keep thinking that we need more well-intended folks to start thinking like hackers.
Think just as much about how you build an ideal system as how it might be corrupted, destroyed, manipulated, or gamed.Think about unintended consequences, not simply to stop a bad idea but to build resilience into the model.
As a developer, I always loved the notion of “extensibility” because it was an ideal of building a system that could take unimagined future development into consideration. Part of why I love the notion is that it’s bloody impossible to implement. Sure, I (poorly) comment my code and build object-oriented structures that would allow for some level of technical flexibility. But, at the end of the day, I’d always end up kicking myself for not imagining a particular use case in my original design and, as a result, doing a lot more band-aiding than I’d like to admit. The masters of software engineering extensibility are inspiring because they don’t just hold onto the task at hand, but have a vision for all sorts of different future directions that may never come into fruition. That thinking is so key to building anything, whether it be software or a campaign or a policy. And yet, it’s not a muscle that we train people to develop.
If we want to address some of the major challenges in civil society, we need the types of people who think 10 steps ahead in chess, imagine innovative ways of breaking things, and think with extensibility at their core. More importantly, we all need to develop that sensibility in ourselves. This is the hacker mindset.
Yesterday, Steve Bannon clearly articulated what many people have felt and known for quite some time when he told journalists, “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party… The media’s the opposition party.” This builds on earlier remarks by Trump, who said, “I have a running war with the media.”
Journalists have covered this with their “objective” voice as though it was another news story in the crazy first week of WTF moments. Many of those who value the media have looked at this with wide eyes, struggling to assess which of the many news stories they should be more horrified by. Far too few are getting the point:
The news media have become a pawn in a big chess game of an information war.
News agencies, long trained to focus on reporting information and maintaining a conceptual model of standards, are ill-equipped to understand that they may have a role in this war, that their actions and decisions are shaping the way the war plays out.
When Kellyanne Conway argued that they were operating with “alternative facts,” the media mocked her. They tried to dismiss her comment that the media has a 14% approval rating by fact-correcting this to point out that this was only a Gallup poll concerning the media’s approval rating among Republicans. But they missed her greater point: there’s no cost to the administration to be helpful to the media because the people the Trump Administration cares about don’t trust the media anyhow.
How many years did it take for the US military to learn that waging war with tribal networks couldn’t be fought with traditional military strategies? How long will it take for the news media to wake up and recognize that they’re being played? And how long after that will it take for editors and publishers to start evolving their strategies?
As I wrote in “Hacking the Attention Economy,” manipulating the media for profit, ideology, and lulz has evolved over time. The strategies that hackers, hoaxers, and haters have taken have become more sophisticated. The campaigns have gotten more intense. And now many of the actors most set on undermining institutionalized information intermediaries are in the most powerful office in the land. They are waging war on the media and the media doesn’t know what to do other than to report on it.
We’ve built an information ecosystem where information can fly through social networks (both technical and personal). Folks keep looking to the architects of technical networks to solve the problem. I’m confident that these companies can do a lot to curb some of the groups who have capitalized on what’s happening to seek financial gain. But the battles over ideology and attention are going to be far trickier. What’s at stake isn’t “fake news.” What’s at stake is the increasing capacity of those committed to a form of isolationist and hate-driven tribalism that has been around for a very long time. They have evolved with the information landscape, becoming sophisticated in leveraging whatever tools are available to achieve power, status, and attention. And those seeking a progressive and inclusive agenda, those seeking to combat tribalism to form a more perfect union — they haven’t kept up.
The information war has begun. Normative approaches to challenging the system will not work. What will it take for news media to wake up? What will it take for progressives to start developing skills to fight back?
The United States has always been a diverse but segregated country. This has shaped American politics profoundly. Yet, throughout history, Americans have had to grapple with divergent views and opinions, political ideologies, and experiences in order to function as a country. Many of the institutions that underpin American democracy force people in the United States to encounter difference. This does not inherently produce tolerance or result in healthy resolution. Hell, the history of the United States is fraught with countless examples of people enslaving and oppressing other people on the basis of difference. This isn’t about our past; this is about our present. And today’s battles over laws and culture are nothing new.
Ironically, in a world in which we have countless tools to connect, we are also watching fragmentation, polarization, and de-diversification happen en masse. The American public is self-segregating, and this is tearing at the social fabric of the country.
Many in the tech world imagined that the Internet would connect people in unprecedented ways, allow for divisions to be bridged and wounds to heal.It was the kumbaya dream. Today, those same dreamers find it quite unsettling to watch as the tools that were designed to bring people together are used by people to magnify divisions and undermine social solidarity. These tools were built in a bubble, and that bubble has burst.
Nowhere is this more acute than with Facebook. Naive as hell, Mark Zuckerberg dreamed he could build the tools that would connect people at unprecedented scale, both domestically and internationally. I actually feel bad for him as he clings to that hope while facing increasing attacks from people around the world about the role that Facebook is playing in magnifying social divisions. Although critics love to paint him as only motivated by money, he genuinely wants to make the world a better place and sees Facebook as a tool to connect people, not empower them to self-segregate.
The problem is not simply the “filter bubble,” Eli Pariser’s notion that personalization-driven algorithmic systems help silo people into segregated content streams. Facebook’s claim that content personalization plays a small role in shaping what people see compared to their own choices is accurate.And they have every right to be annoyed. I couldn’t imagine TimeWarner being blamed for who watches Duck Dynasty vs. Modern Family. And yet, what Facebook does do is mirror and magnify a trend that’s been unfolding in the United States for the last twenty years, a trend of self-segregation that is enabled by technology in all sorts of complicated ways.
The United States can only function as a healthy democracy if we find a healthy way to diversify our social connections, if we find a way to weave together a strong social fabric that bridges ties across difference.
Yet, we are moving in the opposite direction with serious consequences. To understand this, let’s talk about two contemporary trend lines and then think about the implications going forward.
Privatizing the Military
The voluntary US military is, in many ways, a social engineering project. The public understands the military as a service organization, dedicated to protecting the country’s interests. Yet, when recruits sign up, they are promised training and job opportunities. Individual motivations vary tremendously, but many are enticed by the opportunity to travel the world, participate in a cause with a purpose, and get the heck out of dodge. Everyone expects basic training to be physically hard, but few recognize that some of the most grueling aspects of signing up have to do with the diversification project that is central to the formation of the American military.
When a soldier is in combat, she must trust her fellow soldiers with her life. And she must be willing to do what it takes to protect the rest of her unit. In order to make that possible, the military must wage war on prejudice. This is not an easy task. Plenty of generals fought hard to fight racial desegregation and to limit the role of women in combat. Yet, the US military was desegregated in 1948, six years before Brown v. Board forced desegregation of schools. And the Supreme Court ruled that LGB individuals could openly serve in the military before they could legally marry.
Morale is often raised as the main reason that soldiers should not be forced to entrust their lives to people who are different than them. Yet, time and again, this justification collapses under broader interests to grow the military. As a result, commanders are forced to find ways to build up morale across difference, to actively and intentionally seek to break down barriers to teamwork, and to find a way to gel a group of people whose demographics, values, politics, and ideologies are as varied as the country’s.
In the process, they build one of the most crucial social infrastructures of the country. They build the diverse social fabric that underpins democracy.
Tons of money was poured into defense after 9/11, but the number of people serving in the US military today is far lower than it was throughout the 1980s. Why? Starting in the 1990s and accelerating after 9/11, the US privatized huge chunks of the military. This means that private contractors and their employees play critical roles in everything from providing food services to equipment maintenance to military housing. The impact of this on the role of the military in society is significant. For example, this undermine recruits’ ability to get training to develop critical skills that will be essential for them in civilian life. Instead, while serving on active duty, they spend a much higher amount of time on the front lines and in high-risk battle, increasing the likelihood that they will be physically or psychologically harmed. The impact on skills development and job opportunities is tremendous, but so is the impact on the diversification of the social fabric.
Private vendors are not engaged in the same social engineering project as the military and, as a result, tend to hire and fire people based on their ability to work effectively as a team. Like many companies, they have little incentive to invest in helping diverse teams learn to work together as effectively as possible. Building diverse teams — especially ones in which members depend on each other for their survival — is extremely hard, time-consuming, and emotionally exhausting. As a result, private companies focus on “culture fit,” emphasize teams that get along, and look for people who already have the necessary skills, all of which helps reinforce existing segregation patterns.
The end result is that, in the last 20 years, we’ve watched one of our major structures for diversification collapse without anyone taking notice. And because of how it’s happened, it’s also connected to job opportunities and economic opportunity for many working- and middle-class individuals, seeding resentment and hatred.
A Self-Segregated College Life
If you ask a college admissions officer at an elite institution to describe how they build a class of incoming freshman, you will quickly realize that the American college system is a diversification project. Unlike colleges in most parts of the world, the vast majority of freshman at top tier universities in the United States live on campus with roommates who are assigned to them. Colleges approach housing assignments as an opportunity to pair diverse strangers with one another to build social ties. This makes sense given how many friendships emerge out of freshman dorms. By pairing middle class kids with students from wealthier families, elite institutions help diversify the elites of the future.
This diversification project produces a tremendous amount of conflict. Although plenty of people adore their college roommates and relish the opportunity to get to know people from different walks of life as part of their college experience, there is an amazing amount of angst about dorm assignments and the troubles that brew once folks try to live together in close quarters. At many universities, residential life is often in the business of student therapy as students complain about their roommates and dormmates. Yet, just like in the military, learning how to negotiate conflict and diversity in close quarters can be tremendously effective in sewing the social fabric.
In the springs of 2006, I was doing fieldwork with teenagers at a time when they had just received acceptances to college. I giggled at how many of them immediately wrote to the college in which they intended to enroll, begging for a campus email address so that they could join that school’s Facebook (before Facebook was broadly available). In the previous year, I had watched the previous class look up roommate assignments on MySpace so I was prepared for the fact that they’d use Facebook to do the same. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly they would all get on Facebook, map the incoming freshman class, and use this information to ask for a roommate switch. Before they even arrived on campus in August/September of 2006, they had self-segregated as much as possible.
A few years later, I watched another trend hit: cell phones. While these were touted as tools that allowed students to stay connected to parents (which prompted many faculty to complain about “helicopter parents” arriving on campus), they really ended up serving as a crutch to address homesickness, as incoming students focused on maintaining ties to high school friends rather than building new relationships.
Students go to elite universities to “get an education.” Few realize that the true quality product that elite colleges in the US have historically offered is social network diversification. Even when it comes to job acquisition, sociologists have long known that diverse social networks (“weak ties”) are what increase job prospects. By self-segregating on campus, students undermine their own potential while also helping fragment the diversity of the broader social fabric.
Diversity is Hard
Diversity is often touted as highly desirable. Indeed, in professional contexts, we know that more diverse teams often outperform homogeneous teams. Diversity also increases cognitive development, both intellectually and socially. And yet, actually encountering and working through diverse viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives is hard work. It’s uncomfortable. It’s emotionally exhausting. It can be downright frustrating.
Thus, given the opportunity, people typically revert to situations where they can be in homogeneous environments. They look for “safe spaces” and “culture fit.” And systems that are “personalized” are highly desirable. Most people aren’t looking to self-segregate, but they do it anyway. And, increasingly, the technologies and tools around us allow us to self-segregate with ease. Is your uncle annoying you with his political rants? Mute him. Tired of getting ads for irrelevant products? Reveal your preferences. Want your search engine to remember the things that matter to you? Let it capture data. Want to watch a TV show that appeals to your senses? Here are some recommendations.
Any company whose business model is based on advertising revenue and attention is incentivized to engage you by giving you what you want. And what you want in theory is different than what you want in practice.
Consider, for example, what Netflix encountered when it started its streaming offer. Users didn’t watch the movies that they had placed into their queue. Those movies were the movies they thought they wanted, movies that reflected their ideal self — 12 Years a Slave, for example. What they watched when they could stream whatever they were in the mood for at that moment was the equivalent of junk food — reruns of Friends, for example. (This completely undid Netflix’s recommendation infrastructure, which had been trained on people’s idealistic self-images.)
The divisions are not just happening through commercialism though. School choice has led people to self-segregate from childhood on up. The structures of American work life mean that fewer people work alongside others from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Our contemporary culture of retail and service labor means that there’s a huge cultural gap between workers and customers with little opportunity to truly get to know one another. Even many religious institutions are increasingly fragmented such that people have fewer interactions across diverse lines. (Just think about how there are now “family services” and “traditional services” which age-segregate.) In so many parts of public, civic, and professional life, we are self-segregating and the opportunities for doing so are increasing every day.
By and large, the American public wants to have strong connections across divisions. They see the value politically and socially. But they’re not going to work for it. And given the option, they’re going to renew their license remotely, try to get out of jury duty, and use available data to seek out housing and schools that are filled with people like them. This is the conundrum we now face.
Many pundits remarked that, during the 2016 election season, very few Americans were regularly exposed to people whose political ideology conflicted with their own. This is true. But it cannot be fixed by Facebook or news media. Exposing people to content that challenges their perspective doesn’t actually make them more empathetic to those values and perspectives. To the contrary, it polarizes them. What makes people willing to hear difference is knowing and trusting people whose worldview differs from their own. Exposure to content cannot make up for self-segregation.
If we want to develop a healthy democracy, we need a diverse and highly connected social fabric. This requires creating contexts in which the American public voluntarily struggles with the challenges of diversity to build bonds that will last a lifetime. We have been systematically undoing this, and the public has used new technological advances to make their lives easier by self-segregating. This has increased polarization, and we’re going to pay a heavy price for this going forward. Rather than focusing on what media enterprises can and should do, we need to focus instead on building new infrastructures for connection where people have a purpose for coming together across divisions. We need that social infrastructure just as much as we need bridges and roads.
Anxious about the widespread consumption and spread of propaganda and fake news during this year’s election cycle, many progressives are calling for an increased commitment to media literacy programs. Others are clamoring for solutions that focus on expert fact-checking and labeling. Both of these approaches are likely to fail — not because they are bad ideas, but because they fail to take into consideration the cultural context of information consumption that we’ve created over the last thirty years. The problem on our hands is a lot bigger than most folks appreciate.
What Are Your Sources?
I remember a casual conversation that I had with a teen girl in the midwest while I was doing research. I knew her school approached sex ed through an abstinence-only education approach, but I don’t remember how the topic of pregnancy came up. What I do remember is her telling me that she and her friends talked a lot about pregnancy and “diseases” she could get through sex. As I probed further, she matter-of-factly explained a variety of “facts” she had heard that were completely inaccurate. You couldn’t get pregnant until you were 16. AIDS spreads through kissing. Etc. I asked her if she’d talked to her doctor about any of this, and she looked me as though I had horns. She explained that she and her friends had done the research themselves, by which she meant that they’d identified websites online that “proved” their beliefs.
For years, that casual conversation has stuck with me as one of the reasons that we needed better Internet-based media literacy. As I detailed in my book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, too many students I met were being told that Wikipedia was untrustworthy and were, instead, being encouraged to do research. As a result, the message that many had taken home was to turn to Google and use whatever came up first. They heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.
Understanding what sources to trust is a basic tenet of media literacy education. When educators encourage students to focus on sourcing quality information, they encourage them to critically ask who is publishing the content. Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have? The underlying assumption in all of this is that there’s universal agreement that major news outlets like the New York Times, scientific journal publications, and experts with advanced degrees are all highly trustworthy.
Think about how this might play out in communities where the “liberal media” is viewed with disdain as an untrustworthy source of information…or in those where science is seen as contradicting the knowledge of religious people…or where degrees are viewed as a weapon of the elite to justify oppression of working people.Needless to say, not everyone agrees on what makes a trusted source.
Students are also encouraged to reflect on economic and political incentives that might bias reporting. Follow the money, they are told. Now watch what happens when they are given a list of names of major power players in the East Coast news media whose names are all clearly Jewish. Welcome to an opening for anti-Semitic ideology.
Empowered Individuals…with Guns
We’ve been telling young people that they are the smartest snowflakes in the world. From the self-esteem movement in the 1980s to the normative logic of contemporary parenting, young people are told that they are lovable and capable and that they should trust their gut to make wise decisions. This sets them up for another great American ideal: personal responsibility.
In the United States, we believe that worthy people lift themselves up by their bootstraps. This is our idea of freedom. What it means in practice is that every individual is supposed to understand finance so well that they can effectively manage their own retirement funds. And every individual is expected to understand their health risks well enough to make their own decisions about insurance. To take away the power of individuals to control their own destiny is viewed as anti-American by so much of this country. You are your own master.
Children are indoctrinated into this cultural logic early, even as their parents restrict their mobility and limit their access to social situations. But when it comes to information, they are taught that they are the sole proprietors of knowledge. All they have to do is “do the research” for themselves and they will know better than anyone what is real.
Combine this with a deep distrust of media sources. If the media is reporting on something, and you don’t trust the media, then it is your responsibility to question their authority, to doubt the information you are being given. If they expend tremendous effort bringing on “experts” to argue that something is false, there must be something there to investigate.
Now think about what this means for #Pizzagate. Across this country, major news outlets went to great effort to challenge conspiracy reports that linked John Podesta and Hillary Clinton to a child trafficking ring supposedly run out of a pizza shop in Washington, DC. Most people never heard the conspiracy stories, but their ears perked up when the mainstream press went nuts trying to debunk these stories. For many people who distrust “liberal” media and were already primed not to trust Clinton, the abundant reporting suggested that there was something to investigate.
Most people who showed up to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria to see for their own eyes went undetected. But then a guy with a gun decided he “wanted to do some good” and “rescue the children.” He was the first to admit that “the intel wasn’t 100%,” but what he was doing was something that we’ve taught people to do — question the information they’re receiving and find out the truth for themselves.
Experience Over Expertise
Many marginalized groups are justifiably angry about the ways in which their stories have been dismissed by mainstream media for decades. This is most acutely felt in communities of color. And this isn’t just about the past. It took five days for major news outlets to cover Ferguson. It took months and a lot of celebrities for journalists to start discussing the Dakota Pipeline. But feeling marginalized from news media isn’t just about people of color. For many Americans who have watched their local newspaper disappear, major urban news reporting appears disconnected from reality. The issues and topics that they feel affect their lives are often ignored.
For decades, civil rights leaders have been arguing for the importance of respecting experience over expertise, highlighting the need to hear the voices of people of color who are so often ignored by experts. This message has taken hold more broadly, particularly among lower and middle class whites who feel as though they are ignored by the establishment. Whites also want their experiences to be recognized, and they too have been pushing for the need to understand and respect the experiences of “the common man.” They see “liberal” “urban” “coastal” news outlets as antithetical to their interests because they quote from experts, use cleaned-up pundits to debate issues, and turn everyday people (e.g., “red sweater guy”) into spectacles for mass enjoyment.
Consider what’s happening in medicine. Many people used to have a family doctor whom they knew for decades and trusted as individuals even more than as experts. Today, many people see doctors as arrogant and condescending, overly expensive and inattentive to their needs. Doctors lack the time to spend more than a few minutes with patients, and many people doubt that the treatment they’re getting is in their best interest. People feel duped into paying obscene costs for procedures that they don’t understand. Many economists can’t understand why so many people would be against the Affordable Care Act because they don’t recognize that this “socialized” medicine is perceived as experts over experience by people who don’t trust politicians who tell them what’s in their best interest any more than they trust doctors. And public trust in doctors is declining sharply.
Why should we be surprised that most people are getting medical information from their personal social network and the Internet? It’s a lot cheaper than seeing a doctor, and both friends and strangers on the Internet are willing to listen, empathize, and compare notes. Why trust experts when you have at your fingertips a crowd of knowledgeable people who may have had the same experience as you and can help you out?
Consider this dynamic in light of discussions around autism and vaccinations. First, an expert-produced journal article was published linking autism to vaccinations. This resonated with many parents’ experience. Then, other experts debunked the first report, challenged the motivations of the researcher, and engaged in a mainstream media campaign to “prove” that there was no link. What unfolded felt like a war on experience, and a network of parents coordinated to counter this new batch of experts who were widely seen as ignorant, moneyed, and condescending. The more that the media focused on waving away these networks of parents through scientific language, the more the public felt sympathetic to the arguments being made by anti-vaxxers.
Keep in mind that anti-vaxxers aren’t arguing that vaccinations definitively cause autism. They are arguing that we don’t know. They are arguing that experts are forcing children to be vaccinated against their will, which sounds like oppression. What they want is choice — the choice to not vaccinate. And they want information about the risks of vaccination, which they feel are not being given to them. In essence, they are doing what we taught them to do: questioning information sources and raising doubts about the incentives of those who are pushing a single message. Doubt has become tool.
Grappling with “Fake News”
Since the election, everyone has been obsessed with fake news, as experts blame “stupid” people for not understanding what is “real.” The solutionism around this has been condescending at best. More experts are needed to label fake content. More media literacy is needed to teach people how not to be duped. And if we just push Facebook to curb the spread of fake news, all will be solved.
I can’t help but laugh at the irony of folks screaming up and down about fake news and pointing to the story about how the Pope backs Trump. The reason so many progressives know this story is because it was spread wildly among liberal circles who were citing it as appalling and fake. From what I can gather, it seems as though liberals were far more likely to spread this story than conservatives. What more could you want if you ran a fake news site whose goal was to make money by getting people to spread misinformation? Getting doubters to click on clickbait is far more profitable than getting believers because they’re far more likely to spread the content in an effort to dispel the content. Win!
People believe in information that confirms their priors. In fact, if you present them with data that contradicts their beliefs, they will double down on their beliefs rather than integrate the new knowledge into their understanding. This is why first impressions matter. It’s also why asking Facebook to show content that contradicts people’s views will not only increase their hatred of Facebook but increase polarization among the network. And it’s precisely why so many liberals spread “fake news” stories in ways that reinforce their belief that Trump supporters are stupid and backwards.
Labeling the Pope story as fake wouldn’t have stopped people from believing that story if they were conditioned to believe it. Let’s not forget that the public may find Facebook valuable, but it doesn’t necessarily trust the company. So their “expertise” doesn’t mean squat to most people. Of course, it would be an interesting experiment to run; I do wonder how many liberals wouldn’t have forwarded it along if it had been clearly identified as fake. Would they have not felt the need to warn everyone in their network that conservatives were insane? Would they have not helped fuel a money-making fake news machine? Maybe.
But I think labeling would reinforce polarization — but it would feel like something was done. Nonbelievers would use the label to reinforce their view that the information is fake (and minimize the spread, which is probably a good thing), while believers would simply ignore the label. But does that really get us to where we want to go?
Addressing so-called fake news is going to require a lot more than labeling.It’s going to require a cultural change about how we make sense of information, whom we trust, and how we understand our own role in grappling with information. Quick and easy solutions may make the controversy go away, but they won’t address the underlying problems.
What Is Truth?
As a huge proponent for media literacy for over a decade, I’m struggling with the ways in which I missed the mark. The reality is that my assumptions and beliefs do not align with most Americans. Because of my privilege as a scholar, I get to see how expert knowledge and information is produced and have a deep respect for the strengths and limitations of scientific inquiry. Surrounded by journalists and people working to distribute information, I get to see how incentives shape information production and dissemination and the fault lines of that process. I believe that information intermediaries are important, that honed expertise matters, and that no one can ever be fully informed. As a result, I have long believed that we have to outsource certain matters and to trust others to do right by us as individuals and society as a whole. This is what it means to live in a democracy, but, more importantly, it’s what it means to live in a society.
Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving. People are. Unfortunately, that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another.
The path forward is hazy. We need to enable people to hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated — and in many ways, overwhelming — information landscape. We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches because the societal context has shifted. We also cannot simply assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us, whether they be traditional news media or social media. We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines. This won’t be easy or quick, but if we want to address issues like propaganda, hate speech, fake news, and biased content, we need to focus on the underlying issues at play. No simple band-aid will work.
Special thanks to Amanda Lenhart, Claire Fontaine, Mary Madden, and Monica Bulger for their feedback!
For most non-technical folks, “hacking” evokes the notion of using sophisticated technical skills to break through the security of a corporate or government system for illicit purposes. Of course, most folks who were engaged in cracking security systems weren’t necessarily in it for espionage and cruelty. In the 1990s, I grew up among teenage hackers who wanted to break into the computer systems of major institutions that were part of the security establishment, just to show that they could. The goal here was to feel a sense of power in a world where they felt pretty powerless. The rush was in being able to do something and feel smarter than the so-called powerful. It was fun and games. At least until they started getting arrested.
Hacking has always been about leveraging skills to push the boundaries of systems. Keep in mind that one early definition of a hacker (from the Jargon File) was “A person who enjoys learning the details of programming systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” In another early definition (RFC:1392), a hacker is defined as “A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.” Both of these definitions highlight something important: violating the security of a technical system isn’t necessarily the primary objective.
Indeed, over the last 15 years, I’ve watched as countless hacker-minded folks have started leveraging a mix of technical and social engineering skills to reconfigure networks of power. Some are in it for the fun. Some see dollar signs. Some have a much more ideological agenda. But above all, what’s fascinating is how many people have learned to play the game. And in some worlds, those skills are coming home to roost in unexpected ways, especially as groups are seeking to mess with information intermediaries in an effort to hack the attention economy.
It all began with memes… (and porn…)
In 2003, a 15-year-old named Chris Poole started an image board site based on a Japanese trend called 4chan. His goal was not political. Rather, like many of his male teenage peers, he simply wanted a place to share pornography and anime. But as his site’s popularity grew, he ran into a different problem — he couldn’t manage the traffic while storing all of the content. So he decided to delete older content as newer content came in. Users were frustrated that their favorite images disappeared so they reposted them, often with slight modifications. This gave birth to a phenomenon now understood as “meme culture.” Lolcats are an example. These are images of cats captioned with a specific font and a consistent grammar for entertainment.
Those who produced meme-like images quickly realized that they could spread like wildfire thanks to new types of social media (as well as older tools like blogging). People began producing memes just for fun. But for a group of hacker-minded teenagers who were born a decade after I was, a new practice emerged. Rather than trying to hack the security infrastructure, they wanted to attack the emergent attention economy. They wanted to show that they could manipulate the media narrative, just to show that they could. This was happening at a moment when social media sites were skyrocketing, YouTube and blogs were challenging mainstream media, and pundits were pushing the idea that anyone could control the narrative by being their own media channel. Hell, “You” was TIME Magazine’s person of the year in 2006.
Taking a humorist approach, campaigns emerged within 4chan to “hack” mainstream media. For example, many inside 4chan felt that widespread anxieties about pedophilia were exaggerated and sensationalized. They decided to target Oprah Winfrey, who, they felt, was amplifying this fear-mongering. Trolling her online message board, they got her to talk on live TV about how “over 9,000 penises” were raping children. Humored by this success, they then created a broader campaign around a fake character known as Pedobear. In a different campaign, 4chan “b-tards” focused on gaming the TIME 100 list of “the world’s most influential people” by arranging it such that the first letter of each name on the list spelled out “Marblecake also the game,” which is a known in-joke in this community. Many other campaigns emerged to troll major media and other cultural leaders. And frankly, it was hard not to laugh when everyone started scratching their heads about why Rick Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up” suddenly became a phenomenon again.
By engaging in these campaigns, participants learned how to shape information within a networked ecosystem. They learned how to design information for it to spread across social media.
They also learned how to game social media, manipulate its algorithms, and mess with the incentive structure of both old and new media enterprises. They weren’t alone. I watched teenagers throw brand names and Buzzfeed links into their Facebook posts to increase the likelihood that their friends would see their posts in their News Feed. Consultants starting working for companies to produce catchy content that would get traction and clicks. Justin Bieber fans ran campaign after campaign to keep Bieber-related topics in Twitter Trending Topics. And the activist group Invisible Children leveraged knowledge of how social media worked to architect the #Kony2012 campaign. All of this was seen as legitimate “social media marketing,” making it hard to detect where the boundaries were between those who were hacking for fun and those who were hacking for profit or other “serious” ends.
Running campaigns to shape what the public could see was nothing new, but social media created new pathways for people and organizations to get information out to wide audiences. Marketers discussed it as the future of marketing. Activists talked about it as the next frontier for activism. Political consultants talked about it as the future of political campaigns. And a new form of propaganda emerged.
The political side to the lulz
In her phenomenal account of Anonymous — “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy” — Gabriella Coleman describes the interplay between different networks of people playing similar hacker-esque games for different motivations. She describes the goofy nature of those “Anons” who created a campaign to expose Scientology, which many believed to be a farcical religion with too much power and political sway. But she also highlights how the issues became more political and serious as WikiLeaks emerged, law enforcement started going after hackers, and the Arab Spring began.
Anonymous was birthed out of 4chan, but because of the emergent ideological agendas of many Anons, the norms and tactics started shifting. Some folks were in it for fun and games, but the “lulz” started getting darker and those seeking vigilante justice started using techniques like “doxing”to expose people who were seen as deserving of punishment. Targets changed over time, showcasing the divergent political agendas in play.
Perhaps the most notable turn involved “#GamerGate” when issues of sexism in the gaming industry emerged into a campaign of harassment targeted at a group of women. Doxing began being used to enable “swatting” — in which false reports called in by perpetrators would result in SWAT teams sent to targets’ homes. The strategies and tactics that had been used to enable decentralized but coordinated campaigns were now being used by those seeking to use the tools of media and attention to do serious reputational, psychological, economic, and social harm to targets. Although 4chan had long been an “anything goes” environment (with notable exceptions), #GamerGate became taboo there for stepping over the lines.
As #GamerGate unfolded, men’s rights activists began using the situation to push forward a long-standing political agenda to counter feminist ideology, pushing for #GamerGate to be framed as a serious debate as opposed to being seen as a campaign of hate and harassment. In some ways, the resultant media campaign was quite successful: major conferences and journalistic enterprises felt the need to “hear both sides” as though there was a debate unfolding. Watching this, I couldn’t help but think of the work of Frank Luntz, a remarkably effective conservative political consultant known for reframing issues using politicized language.
As doxing and swatting have become more commonplace, another type of harassment also started to emerge en masse: gaslighting. This term refers to a 1944 Ingrid Bergman film called “Gas Light” (which was based on a 1938 play). The film depicts psychological abuse in a domestic violence context, where the victim starts to doubt reality because of the various actions of the abuser. It is a form of psychological warfare that can work tremendously well in an information ecosystem, especially one where it’s possible to put up information in a distributed way to make it very unclear what is legitimate, what is fake, and what is propaganda. More importantly, as many autocratic regimes have learned, this tactic is fantastic for seeding the public’s doubt in institutions and information intermediaries.
The democratization of manipulation
In the early days of blogging, many of my fellow bloggers imagined that our practice could disrupt mainstream media. For many progressive activists, social media could be a tool that could circumvent institutionalized censorship and enable a plethora of diverse voices to speak out and have their say. Civic minded scholars were excited by “smart mobs” who leveraged new communications platforms to coordinate in a decentralized way to speak truth to power. Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street. Black Lives Matter. These energized progressives as “proof” that social technologies could make a new form of civil life possible.
I spent 15 years watching teenagers play games with powerful media outlets and attempt to achieve control over their own ecosystem. They messed with algorithms, coordinated information campaigns, and resisted attempts to curtail their speech. Like Chinese activists, they learned to hide their traces when it was to their advantage to do so. They encoded their ideas such that access to content didn’t mean access to meaning.
Of course, it wasn’t just progressive activists and teenagers who were learning how to mess with the media ecosystem that has emerged since social media unfolded. We’ve also seen the political establishment, law enforcement, marketers, and hate groups build capacity at manipulating the media landscape. Very little of what’s happening is truly illegal, but there’s no widespread agreement about which of these practices are socially and morally acceptable or not.
The techniques that are unfolding are hard to manage and combat. Some of them look like harassment, prompting people to self-censor out of fear. Others look like “fake news”, highlighting the messiness surrounding bias, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. There is hate speech that is explicit, but there’s also suggestive content that prompts people to frame the world in particular ways. Dog whistle politics have emerged in a new form of encoded content, where you have to be in the know to understand what’s happening. Companies who built tools to help people communicate are finding it hard to combat the ways their tools are being used by networks looking to skirt the edges of the law and content policies. Institutions and legal instruments designed to stop abuse are finding themselves ill-equipped to function in light of networked dynamics.
The Internet has long been used for gaslighting, and trolls have long targeted adversaries. What has shifted recently is the scale of the operation, the coordination of the attacks, and the strategic agenda of some of the players.
For many who are learning these techniques, it’s no longer simply about fun, nor is it even about the lulz. It has now become about acquiring power.
A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.
We now know that the US election polls were wrong. Just like they were in Brexit. Over the last few months, I’ve told numerous reporters and people in the media industry that they should be wary of the polling data they’re seeing, but I was generally ignored and dismissed. I wasn’t alone — two computer scientists whom I deeply respect — Jenn Wortman Vaughan and Hanna Wallach — were trying to get an op-ed on prediction and uncertainty into major newspapers, but were repeatedly told that the outcome was obvious. It was not. And election polls will be increasingly problematic if we continue to approach them the way we currently do.
It’s now time for the media to put a moratorium on reporting on election polls and fancy visualizations of statistical data. And for data scientists and pollsters to stop feeding the media hype cycle with statistics that they know have flaws or will be misinterpreted as fact.
Why Political Polling Will Never Be Right Again
Polling and survey research has a beautiful history, one that most people who obsess over the numbers don’t know. InThe Averaged American, Sarah Igo documents three survey projects that unfolded in the mid-20th century that set the stage for contemporary polling: the Middletown studies, Gallup, and Kinsey. As a researcher, it’s mindblowing to see just how naive folks were about statistics and data collection in the early development of this field, how much the field has learned and developed. But there’s another striking message in this book: Americans were willing to contribute to these kinds of studies at unparalleled levels compared to their peers worldwide because they saw themselves as contributing to the making of public life. They were willing to reveal their thoughts, beliefs, and ideas because they saw doing so as productive for them individually and collectively.
As folks unpack the inaccuracies of contemporary polling data, they’re going to focus on technical limitations. Some of these are real. Cell phones have changed polling — many people don’t pick up unknown numbers. The FCC’s ruling that limited robocalls to protect consumers in late 2015 meant that this year’s sampling process got skewed, that polling became more expensive, and that pollsters took shortcuts. We’ve heard about how efforts to extrapolate representativeness from small samples messes with the data — such as the NYTimes report on a single person distorting national polling averages.
But there’s a more insidious problem with the polling data that is often unacknowledged. Everyone and their mother wants to collect data from the public. And the public is tired of being asked, which they perceive as being nagged. In swing states, registered voters were overwhelmed with calls from real pollsters, fake pollsters, political campaigns, fundraising groups, special interest groups, and their neighbors. We know that people often lie to pollsters (confirmation bias), but when people don’t trust information collection processes, normal respondent bias becomes downright deceptive. You cannot collect reasonable data when the public doesn’t believe in the data collection project. And political pollsters have pretty much killed off their ability to do reasonable polling because they’ve undermined trust. It’s like what happens when you plant the same crop over and over again until the land can no longer sustain that crop.
Election polling is dead, and we need to accept that.
Why Reporting on Election Polling Is Dangerous
To most people, even those who know better, statistics look like facts. And polling results look like truth serum, even when pollsters responsibly report margin of error information. It’s just so reassuring or motivating to see stark numbers because you feel like you can do something about those numbers, and then, when the numbers change, you feel good. This plays into basic human psychology. And this is why we use numbers as an incentive in both education and the workplace.
Political campaigns use numbers to drive actions on their teams. They push people to go to particular geographies, they use numbers to galvanize supporters. And this is important, which is why campaigns invest in pollsters and polling processes.
Unfortunately, this psychology and logic gets messed up when you’re talking about reporting on election polls in the public. When the numbers look like your team is winning, you relax and stop fretting, often into complacency.When the numbers look like your team is losing, you feel more motivated to take steps and do something. This is part of why the media likes the horse race — they push people to action by reporting on numbers, which in effect pushes different groups to take action. They like the attention that they get as the mood swings across the country in a hotly contested race.
But there is number burnout and exhaustion. As people feel pushed and swayed, as the horse race goes on and on, they get more and more disenchanted. Rather than galvanizing people to act, reporting on political polling over a long period of time with flashy visuals and constantly shifting needles prompts people to disengage from the process. In short, when it comes to the election, this prompts people to not show up to vote. Or to be so disgusted that voting practices become emotionally negative actions rather than productively informed ones.
This is a terrible outcome. The media’s responsibility is to inform the public and contribute to a productive democratic process. By covering political polls as though they are facts in an obsessive way, they are not only being statistically irresponsible, but they are also being psychologically irresponsible.
The news media are trying to create an addictive product through their news coverage, and, in doing so, they are pushing people into a state of overdose.
For months I have been concerned about how what I was seeing on the ground and in various networks was not at all aligned with what pundits were saying. I knew the polling infrastructure had broken, but whenever I told people about the problems with the sampling structure, they looked at me like an alien and told me to stop worrying. Over the last week, I started to accept that I was wrong. I wasn’t.
And I blame the media.
The media is supposed to be a check to power, but, for years now, it has basked in becoming power in its own right. What worries me right now is that, as it continues to report out the spectacle, it has no structure for self-reflection, for understanding its weaknesses, its potential for manipulation.
I believe in data, but data itself has become spectacle. I cannot believe that it has become acceptable for media entities to throw around polling data without any critique of the limits of that data, to produce fancy visualizations which suggest that numbers are magical information. Every pollster got it wrong. And there’s a reason. They weren’t paying attention to the various structural forces that made their sample flawed, the various reasons why a disgusted nation wasn’t going to contribute useful information to inform a media spectacle. This abuse of data has to stop. We need data to be responsible, not entertainment.
This election has been a spectacle because the media has enjoyed making it as such. And in doing so, they showcased just how easily they could be gamed. I refer to the sector as a whole because individual journalists and editors are operating within a structural frame, unmotivated to change the status quo even as they see similar structural problems to the ones I do. They feel as though they “have” to tell a story because others are doing so, because their readers can’t resist reading. They live in the world pressured by clicks and other elements of the attention economy. They need attention in order to survive financially. And they need a spectacle, a close race.
We all know that story. It’s not new. What is new is that they got played.
Over the last year, I’ve watched as a wide variety of decentralized pro-Trump actors first focused on getting the media to play into his candidacy as spectacle, feeding their desire for a show. In the last four months, I watched those same networks focus on depressing turnout, using the media to trigger the populace to feel so disgusted and frustrated as to disengage. It really wasn’t hard because the media was so easy to mess with. And they were more than happy to spend a ridiculous amount of digital ink circling round and round into a frenzy.
Around the world, people have been looking at us in a state of confusion and shock, unsure how we turned our democracy into a new media spectacle. What hath 24/7 news, reality TV, and social media wrought? They were right to ask. We were irresponsible to ignore.
In the tech sector, we imagined that decentralized networks would bring people together for a healthier democracy. We hung onto this belief even as we saw that this wasn’t playing out. We built the structures for hate to flow along the same pathways as knowledge, but we kept hoping that this wasn’t really what was happening. We aided and abetted the media’s suicide.
The red pill is here. And it ain’t pretty.
We live in a world shaped by fear and hype, not because it has to be that way, but because this is the obvious paradigm that can fuel the capitalist information architectures we have produced.
Many critics think that the answer is to tear down capitalism, make communal information systems, or get rid of social media. I disagree. But I do think that we need to actively work to understand complexity, respectfully engage people where they’re at, and build the infrastructure to enable people to hear and appreciate different perspectives. This is what it means to be truly informed.
There are many reasons why we’ve fragmented as a country. From the privatization of the military (which undermined the development of diverse social networks) to our information architectures, we live in a moment where people do not know how to hear or understand one another. And our obsession with quantitative data means that we think we understand when we hear numbers in polls, which we use to judge people whose views are different than our own. This is not productive.
Most people are not apathetic, but they are disgusted and exhausted. We have unprecedented levels of anxiety and fear in our country. The feelings of insecurity and inequality cannot be written off by economists who want to say that the world is better today than it ever was. It doesn’t feel that way. And it doesn’t feel that way because, all around us, the story is one of disenfranchisement, difference, and uncertainty.
All of us who work in the production and dissemination of information need to engage in a serious reality check.
The media industry needs to take responsibility for its role in producing spectacle for selfish purposes. There is a reason that the public doesn’t trust institutions in this country. And what the media has chosen to do is far from producing information. It has chosen to produce anxiety in the hopes that we will obsessively come back for more. That is unhealthy. And it’s making us an unhealthy country.
Spectacle has a cost. It always has. And we are about to see what that cost will be.
Today is Columbus Day, a celebration of colonialism wrapped up under the guise of exploration. Children around the US are taught that European settlers came in 1492 and found a whole new land magically free for occupation. In November, they will be told that there were small and disperse savage populations who opened their arms to white settlers fleeing oppression. Some of those students may eventually learn on their own about violence, genocide, infection, containment, relocation, humiliation, family separation, and cultural devaluation which millions of Native peoples experienced over centuries.
Later this month, when everyone is excited about goblins and ghosts, thousands of sexy Indian costumes will be sold, prompting young Native Americans to cringe at the depictions of their culture and community. Part of the problem is that most young Americans think that Indians are dead or fictitious. Schools don’t help — children are taught to build teepees and wear headdresses as though this is a story of the past, not a living culture. And racist attitudes towards Native people are baked into every aspect of our culture. Why is it OK for Washington’s football team to be named the Redskins? Can you imagine a football team being named after the N-word?
Historically, Native people sit out Columbus Day in silence. This year, I hope you join me and thousands others by making a more active protest to Change what people learn!
In 2004, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian was opened on the Mall in Washington DC as a cultural heritage institution to celebrate the stories of Native people and tell their story. I’m a proud trustee of this esteemed institution. I’m even more excited by upcoming projects that are focused on educating the public more holistically about the lives and experiences of Native peoples.
As a country, we’re struggling with racism and prejudice, hate that is woven deep into our cultural fabric. Injustice is at the core of our country’s creation, whether we’re talking about the original sin of slavery or the genocide of Native peoples. Addressing inequities in the present requires us to come to terms with our past. We need to educate ourselves about the limits of our understanding about our own country’s history. And we need to stop creating myths for our children that justify contemporary prejudice.
On this day, a day that we should not be celebrating, I have an ask for you. Please help me and NMAI build an educational effort that will change the next generation’s thinking about Native culture, past and present. Please donate a multiple of $14.91 to NMAI: http://nmai.si.edu/support/membership/ in honor of how much life existed on these lands before colonialist expansion. Help Indian nations achieve their rightful place of respect among the world’s nations and communities.