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.
I live in Manhattan, in Chelsea, on 27th Street between 6th and 7th, the same block in which the second IED was found. It was a surreal weekend, but it is increasingly becoming depressing as the media moves from providing information to stoking fear, the exact response that makes these events so effective.I’m not afraid of bombs. I’m afraid of cars. And I’m increasingly becoming afraid of American media.
After hearing the bomb go off on 23rd and getting flooded with texts on Saturday night, I decided to send a few notes that I was OK and turn off my phone. My partner is Israeli. We’ve been there for two wars and he’s been there through countless bombs. We both knew that getting riled up was of no help to anyone. So we went to sleep. I woke up on Sunday, opened my blinds, and was surprised to see an obscene number of men in black with identical body types, identical haircuts, and identical cars. It looked like the weirdest casting call I’ve ever seen. And no one else. No cars, no people. As always, Twitter had an explanation so we settled into our PJs and realized it was going to be a strange day.
As other people woke up, one thing became quickly apparent — because folks knew we were in the middle of it, they wanted to reach out to us because they were worried, and scared. We kept shrugging everything off, focusing on getting back to normal and reading the news for updates about how we could maneuver our neighborhood.But ever since a suspect was identified, the coverage has gone into hyperventilation mode.And I just want to scream in frustration.
The worst part about having statistical training is that it’s hard to hear people get anxious about fears without putting them into perspective.~100 people die every day in car crashes in the United States. That’s 33,804 deaths in a year. Thousands of people are injured every day by cars. Cars terrify me.And anyone who says that you have control over a car accident is full of shit; most car deaths and injuries are not the harmed person’s fault.
The worst part about being a parent is having to cope with the uncontrollable, irrational, everyday fears that creep up, unwarranted, just to plague a moment of happiness.Will he choke on that food? What if he runs away and gets hit by a car? What if he topples over that chair? The best that I can do is breathe in, breathe out, and remind myself to find my center, washing away those fears with each breath.
And the worst part about being a social scientist is understanding where others’ fears come from, understanding the power of those fears, and understanding the cost of those fears on the well-being of a society.And this is where I get angry because this is where control and power lies.
Traditional news media has a lot of say in what it publishes. This is one ofthe major things that distinguishes it from social media, which propagates the fears and anxieties of the public.And yet, time and time again, news media shows itself to be irresponsible, motivated more by the attention and money that it can obtain by stoking people’s fears than by a moral responsibility to help ground an anxious public.
I grew up on the internet. I grew up with the mantra “don’t feed the trolls.” I always saw this as a healthy meditation for navigating the internet, for focusing on the parts of the internet that are empowering and delightful.Increasingly, I keep thinking that this is a meditation that needs to be injected into the news ecosystem. We all know that the whole concept of terrorism is to provoke fear in the public. So why are we not holding news media accountable for opportunistically aiding and abetting terroristic acts?Our cultural obsession with reading news that makes us afraid parallels our cultural obsession with crises.
There’s a reason that hate is growing in this country. And, in moments like this, I’m painfully reminded that we’re all contributing to the culture of hate.When we turn events like what happened this weekend in NY/NJ into spectacle, when we encourage media to write stories about how afraid people are, when we read the stories of how the suspect was an average person until something changed, we give the news media license to stoke up fear.And when they are encouraged to stoke fear, they help turn our election cycle into reality TV and enable candidates to spew hate for public entertainment.We need to stop blaming what’s happening on other people and start taking responsibility.
Most people who don’t code don’t appreciate how hard it is to do right.Plenty of developers are perfectly functional, but to watch a master weave code into silken beauty is utterly inspiring. Unfortunately, most of the code that underpins the tools that we use on a daily basis isn’t so pretty. There isa lot of digital duct tape.
I’m a terrible programmer. Don’t get me wrong — I’m perfectly capable of mashing together code to get a sorta-kinda-somewhat reasonable outcome.But the product is inevitably a Frankensteinesque monstrosity. I’m not alone. This is why I’m concerned about the code that is being built. Not all code is created equally.
If you want to understand what we’re facing, consider what this would mean if we were constructing cities. In the digital world, we are simultaneously building bridges, sewage systems, and skyscrapers.Some of the bridge builders have civil engineering degrees, some of our sewage contractors have been plumbers in past lives, but most of the people building skyscrapers have previously only built tree houses and taken a few math classes. Oh, and there aren’t any inspectors to assess whether or not it’s all going to fall apart.
Code is key to civic life, but we need to start looking under the hood and thinking about the externalities of our coding practices, especially as we’re building code as fast as possible with few checks and balances.
Area One: Environmental Consequences
Let’s play a game of math. Almost 1 billion people use Gmail. More than that are active on Facebook each month. Over 300 million are active on Twitter each month. All social media — including Facebook and Twitter — send out notifications to tell you that you have new friend requests, likes, updates, etc. Each one of those notifications is roughly 50KB. If you’re relatively active, you might get 1MB of notifications a day. That doesn’t seem to be that much. But if a quarter of Gmail users get that, this means that Google hosts over 90 petabytes of notifications per year. All of that is sitting live on server so that any user can search their email and find past emails, including the new followers they received in 2007. Is this really a good use of resources? Is this really what we want when we talk about keeping data around?
The tech industry uses crazy metaphors. Artificial intelligence. Files and folders. They often have really funny roots that make any good geek giggle. (UNIX geeks, did you know that the finger command is named as such because that word meant someone is a “snitch” in the 1970s? You probably had a dirtier idea in mind.
We don’t know who started calling the cloud the cloud, but he (and it’s inevitably a he) didus all a disservice. When the public hears about the cloud, they think about the fluffy white things in the sky.“What were the skies like when you were young? They went on forever…And the skies always had little fluffy clouds.”Those clouds giveth. They offer rain, which gives us water, which is the source of life.
But what about the clouds we techies make? Those clouds take. They require rare earth metals and soak up land, power, and water.Many big companies are working hard to think about the environmental impact of data centers, to think about the carbon implications. (I’m proud to work forone of them.) Big companies still have a long way to go, but at least they’re trying. But how many developers out there are trying to write green code?At best, folks are thinking about the cost-per-computation, but most developers are pretty sloppy with code and data. And there’s no LEED-certified code. Who is going to start certifying LEED code!?
In the same sense, how many product designers are thinking about the environmental impact of every product design decision they make? Product folks are talking about how notifications might annoy or engage users but not the environmental impact of them. And for all those open data zealots, is the world really better off having petabytes of data sitting on live servers just to make sure it’s open and accessible just in case? It’s painful to think about how many terabytes of data are sitting in open data repositories that have never been accessed.
And don’t get me started about the blockchain or 3D printing or the Internet of Things. At least bitcoin got one thing right: this really is about mining.
Area Two: Social Consequences
In the early 2000s, Google thought that I was a truck driver. I got the bestadvertisements. I didn’t even know how many variations of trucker speed there were! All because I did fieldwork in parts of the country that only truckers visit. Consider how many people have received online advertisements that clearly got them wrong. Funny, huh?
Now…Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever been incarcerated?
Take a moment to think about the accuracy of our advertising ecosystem — the amount of money and data that goes into making ads right.Now think about what it means that the same techniques that advertisers are using to “predict” what you want to buy are also being used to predict the criminality of a neighborhood or a person. And those that work in law enforcement and criminal justice have less money, oversight mechanisms, and technical skills.
Inaccuracy and bias are often a given in advertising. But is it OK that we’re using extraordinarily biased data about previous arrests to predict future arrests and determine where police are stationed? Is it OK that we assess someone’s risk at the point of arrest and give judges recommendations for bail, probation, and sentencing? Is it OK that local law enforcement agencies are asking tech vendors to predict which children are going to commit a crime before they’re 21?Who is deciding, and who is holding them accountable?
We might have different political commitments when it comes to policing and criminal justice. But when it comes to tech and data analysis, I hope that we can all agree that accuracy matters.Yet, we’re turning a blind eye to all of the biases that are baked into the data and, thus, the models that we build.
Take a moment to consider that 96% of cases are plead out. Those defendants never see a jury of their peers. At a minimum, 10% — but most likely much more — of those who take a plea are innocent. Why? Last I saw, the average inmate at Riker’s waits ~600 days for their trial to begin. Average. And who is more likely to end up not making bail? Certainly not rich white folks.
Researchers have long known that whites are more likely to use and sell drugs. And yet, who is arrested for drugs? Blacks. 13% of the US population is black, but over 60% of those in prison are black. Mostly for drug crimes.
Because blacks are more likely to be arrested — and more likely to be prosecuted and serve time, guess what our algorithms tell us about who is most likely to commit a drug crime? About where drug crimes occur? Police aren’t sent by predictive policing tools to college campuses. They’re sent to the hood.
Engineers argue that judges and police officers should know the limits of the data they use. Some do — they’re simply ignoring these expensive, tax-payer-costing civic technologies. But in a world of public accountability, where police are punished for not knowing someone was a risk before they shoot up a church, many feel obliged to follow the recommendations for fear of reprisal. This is how racism gets built into the structures of our systems. And civic tech is implicated in this.
I don’t care what your politics are. If you’re building a data-driven system and you’re not actively seeking to combat prejudice, you’re building a discriminatory system.
Solution: Audits and Inspection
Decisions made involving tech can have serious ramifications that are outside of the mind’s eye of development. We need to wake up. Our technology is powerful, and we need to be aware of the consequences of our code.
Before our industry went all perpetual beta, we used to live in a world where Test or Quality Assurance meant something.Rooted in those domains is a practice that can be understood as an internal technical audit. We need to get back to this. We need to be able to answer simple questions like:
Does the system that we built produce the right output given the known constraints?
Do we understand the biases and limitations of the system and the output?
Are those clear to the user so that our tool cannot enable poor decision-making or inaccurate impressions?
What are the true social and environmental costs of the service?
We need to start making more meaningful trade-offs. And that requires asking hard questions.
Audits don’t have to be adversarial. They can be a way of honestly assessing the limitations of a system and benchmarking for improvement. This approach is not without problems and limitations, but, if you cannot understand whether a model is helping or hurting, discriminating or resulting in false positives, then you should not be implementing that technology in a high stakes area where freedom and liberty are at stake.Stick to advertising.
Technology can be amazingly empowering. But only when it is implemented in a responsible manner.Code doesn’t create magic. Without the right checks and balances, it can easily be misused.In the world of civic tech, we need to conscientiously think about the social and environmental costs, just as urban planners do.
A pair of Gizmodo stories have prompted journalists to ask questions about Facebook’s power to manipulate political opinion in an already heated election year. If the claims are accurate, Facebook contractors have depressed some conservative news, and their curatorial hand affects the Facebook Trending list more than the public realizes.Mark Zuckerberg took to his Facebook page yesterday to argue that Facebook does everything possible to be neutral and that there are significant procedures in place to minimize biased coverage. He also promises to look into the accusations.
As this conversation swirls around intentions and explicit manipulation, there are some significant issues missing.First, all systems are biased.There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to media.That has long been a fiction, one that traditional news media needs and insists on, even as scholars highlight that journalists reveal their biases through everything from small facial twitches to choice of frames and topics of interests.It’s also dangerous to assume that the “solution” is to make sure that “both” sides of an argument are heard equally. This is the source of tremendous conflict around how heated topics like climate change and evolution are covered.Itis even more dangerous, however, to think that removing humans and relying more on algorithms and automation will remove this bias.
Recognizing bias and enabling processes to grapple with it must be part of any curatorial process, algorithmic or otherwise.As we move into the development of algorithmic models to shape editorial decisions and curation, we need to find a sophisticated way of grappling with the biases that shape development, training sets, quality assurance, and error correction, not to mention an explicit act of “human” judgment.
There never was neutrality, and there never will be.
This issue goes far beyond the Trending box in the corner of your Facebook profile, and this latest wave of concerns is only the tip of the iceberg around how powerful actors can affect or shape political discourse. What is of concern right now is not that human beings are playing a role in shaping the news — they always have — it is the veneer of objectivity provided by Facebook’s interface, the claims of neutrality enabled by the integration of algorithmic processes, and the assumption that what is prioritized reflects only the interests and actions of the users (the “public sphere”) and not those of Facebook, advertisers, or other powerful entities.
The key challenge that emerges out of this debate concerns accountability.In theory, news media is accountable to the public. Like neutrality, this is more of a desired goal than something that’s consistently realized.While traditional news media has aspired to — but not always realized — meaningful accountability, there are a host of processes in place to address the possibility of manipulation: ombudspeople, whistleblowers, public editors, and myriad alternate media organizations. Facebook and other technology companies have not, historically, been included in that conversation.
I have tremendous respect for Mark Zuckerberg, butI think his stance that Facebook will be neutral as long as he’s in charge is a dangerous statement.This is what it means to be a benevolent dictator, and there are plenty of people around the world who disagree with his values, commitments, and logics.As a progressive American, I have a lot more in common with Mark than not, but I am painfully aware of the neoliberal American value systems that are baked into the very architecture of Facebook and our society as a whole.
Who Controls the Public Sphere in an Era of Algorithms?
In light of this public conversation, I’m delighted to announce that Data & Society has been developing a project that asks who controls the public sphere in an era of algorithms. As part of this process, we convened a workshop and have produced a series of documents that we think are valuable to the conversation:
These documents provide historical context, highlight how media has always been engaged in power struggles, showcase the challenges that new media face, and offer case studies that reveal the complexities going forward.
This conversation is by no means over. It is only just beginning. My hope is that we quickly leave the state of fear and start imagining mechanisms of accountability that we, as a society, can live with.Institutions like Facebook have tremendous power and they can wield that power for good or evil. Butfor society to function responsibly, there must be checks and balances regardless of the intentions of any one institution or its leader.