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The news you shouldn’t use

by on June 3, 2020

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews

Drowning in disinformation and utter bullshit

The ongoing revolt of the past week seems to be taking a breather, but I don’t think it’s going away. The same way the pandemic is not going away anytime soon, nor is systemic racism, nor police violence, nor economic inequality and injustice.

However what makes revolts refreshing, is that they pierce through the narrative orthodoxy to disrupt our perception of the world, hopefully for the better. This is why some people describe themselves as “woke” as there is a genuine sense that much of our culture is asleep to the harsh realities most people face.

As a media scholar, I recognize the role that media play in soothing society, distracting as many as possible from stories and situations that should upset them. While we no longer live in a media environment dominated by a few voices, we still live in a media environment dominated by a few companies.

It is a mistake to regard the plurality of voices as evidence that the handful of companies who own our public sphere do not use their position to tip the scales in their favour, and skew the dominant discourse to their advantage.

Metaviews subscriber (and aspiring motorcycle reviewer) Matt Kuzyk posted a relevant comment on yesterday’s issue about defunding police agencies, and in recognition of substack killing his first draft, I’ll honour his effort by sharing his comment and wrapping the hook for today’s post around it:

Society is watching two different movies right now. Until people come out of their silos, reform/reconciliation very unlikely.

Also, why is corporate America not at all threatened by any of this? Willing to wager Amazon et al. wouldn’t be posting solidarity messages on Instagram if this were about their workforce unionizing or demanding better wages 🤔

Matt raises two relevant points, although I think there’s more nuance to be found here.

Society is definitely watching different narratives right now, but they’re not just two. That’s one example of a media bias that remains dominant. The reduction of conflicts to binary or partisan differences. Everything is jammed into a liberal vs conservative, or Dems vs Republicans. Yet that in no way reflects how people think and feel.

While I agree that our silos and echo chambers are a significant obstacle to social change, there are far more than two of them!? We’ve not only been divided and conquered, but this process continues to iterate, as we are continuously divided into smaller and smaller silos, echo chambers, filter bubbles, or marketing segments.

And yet that division is entirely arbitrary and weak. In a network society it takes relatively little for us to be united, since we’re already all connected! The key is to emphasize what we have in common, or what we have to gain, as a commons, that can help bring us together. That’s partly why we’re witnessing an ideological collapse, as we seek better means of understanding our world.

This is also why Amazon et al are threatened. Not just by these current revolts, but by our ability to choose alternatives at any time. Granted an alternative to Amazon could not be built overnight, in spite of what supporters of Shopify might imagine. Yet an alternative to Amazon is not necessary if we wish to pursue a decentralized economy that rewards locally owned and operated enterprises.

Although unionizing and taking Amazon over is also something the company should credibly fear. It takes a considerable and near endless stream of anti-union propaganda to discourage people from organizing for their own interests. Last year we discussed some efforts to organize digital workers into unions, however our recent issue on TikTok cults does illustrate how social organizing is increasingly easier and can scale when people are properly motivated.

The problem however remains in our media, and the way in which we communicate, understand our world, and connect with each other. Assuming we’re able to connect in the first place.

The crisis has also demonstrated how critically important digital infrastructure is to the functioning of our modern society, and how inequitable access to this infrastructure deepens and exacerbates geographic, economic, and racial inequality and inequity. With workplaces and schools shut down, hundreds of millions of people around the globe have become reliant on digital infrastructure — especially broadband Internet networks — for their jobs, education, healthcare visits, and social interactions.

However, in both the United States and the United Kingdom deployment of this critical infrastructure (and access to it) is controlled by a small (and shrinking) oligopoly of large for-profit telecommunications corporations. This has led to inadequate service and severe inequality. For instance, tens of millions of Americans, many in rural areas, do not have access to a broadband connection with bare minimum speeds, and Internet access in the country is far slower and more expensive than most other advanced countries.

Regular readers of this newsletter will not find any of this surprising, and it is the motivation for our ongoing Future Fibre series. However I raise it again in this issue to establish context, and reinforce how essential it is to recognize and invest in our digital public commons, as it is increasingly where we learn, work, and engage each other.

In Philadelphia, for instance, around 20,000 students have not been able to attend online classes due to a lack of Internet access. However, when the school superintendent, Dr. William Hite, asked the giant telecoms corporation Comcast — which is headquartered in the city and has been the recipient of billions of dollars in public subsidies and tax breaks — to open their residential Wi-Fi networks to these students, they refused. As a result, thousands of students have been forced to do their schoolwork in parking lots while, as education activist Zachary Wright points out “the children of Comcast executives do their schoolwork from their homes using their own home Wi-Fi.”

In a new report released by The Democracy Collaborative (US) and Common Wealth (UK), we contend that now is the time to start thinking about and treating digital infrastructure — including the wireless spectrum, cloud infrastructure, and fiber-based broadband internet networks — as essential public infrastructure. And as with other critical public infrastructure, like roads, water systems, railroads, and electricity networks, this means taking it out of the hands of extractive, for-profit corporations and putting it under democratic and public control.

While regarding the Internet as essential infrastructure, let alone public infrastructure, was considered unacceptable not too long ago, it is increasingly becoming common sense. Along with the recognition that our public commons is an essential element of a democratic society.

Cory Doctorow spells out why this is crucial in his latest essay for the EFF:

A common explanation for the change in our discourse is that the biggest tech platforms use surveillance, data-collection, and machine learning to manipulate us, either to increase “engagement” (and thus pageviews and thus advertising revenues) or to persuade us of things that aren’t true, for example, to convince us to buy something we don’t want or support a politician we would otherwise oppose.

There’s a simple story about that relationship: by gathering a lot of data about us, and by applying self-modifying machine-learning algorithms to that data, Big Tech can target us with messages that slip past our critical faculties, changing our minds not with reason, but with a kind of technological mesmerism.

This story originates with Big Tech itself. Marketing claims for programmatic advertising and targeted marketing (including political marketing) promise prospective clients that they can buy audiences for their ideas through Big Tech, which will mix its vast data-repositories with machine learning and overwhelm our cognitive defenses to convert us into customers for products or ideas.

Cory does a great job in this article detailing and linking to examples of how social media platforms and the technology industry in general has shifted our discourse in their favour and towards their world view. However he makes a clear point about the dangers of over-estimating their power and influence:

The idea that Big Tech can mold discourse through bypassing our critical faculties by spying on and analyzing us is both self-serving (inasmuch as it helps Big Tech sell ads and influence services) and implausible, and should be viewed with extreme skepticism.

But you don’t have to accept extraordinary claims to find ways in which Big Tech is distorting and degrading our public discourse. The scale of Big Tech makes it opaque and error-prone, even as it makes the job of maintaining a civil and productive space for discussion and debate impossible.

Big Tech’s monopolies—with their attendant lock-in mechanisms that hold users’ data and social relations hostage—remove any accountability that might come from the fear that unhappy users might switch to competitors.

Cory is essentially joining the chorus of voices calling for anti-trust action against Big Tech.

While anti-trust actions are necessary, they don’t happen quickly, and we have pressing concerns that cannot be deferred. One such example is the impact of social media on elections:

Internet-based advertising has been a boon for both political campaigns and disinformation campaigns, which love to take advantage of the ability to slice and dice the electorate into incredibly tiny and carefully targeted segments for their messaging. These ads—which may or may not be truthful and are designed to play very specifically on tiny groups—are incredibly difficult for regulators, researchers, and anyone else not in the targeted group to see, identify, analyze, and rebut.

Google prohibits this kind of microtargeting for political ads, while Twitter tries not to allow any political advertising. Facebook, on the other hand, is happy to let politicians lie in their ads and continue microtargeting on its platform. Members of Congress have challenged Facebook and its CEO to explain this stance in the face of rampant disinformation campaigns, but to no avail.

Lawmakers now want to go further and make this kind of microtargeting for political advertising against the law. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) today introduced a bill (PDF) that would amend federal election law to do just that.

The proposed Banning Microtargeted Political Ads Act would do exactly what it says. Platforms and campaigns covered by the law, and their agents, would be prohibited from targeting “the dissemination of a political advertisement” to “an individual or specific group of individuals on any basis.”

While I don’t believe this particular attempt will be successful, it does advance the larger policy debate around how to regulate and mitigate the potential for abuse and manipulation.

The problem however, is that it’s not just microtargeting, but the business model that has come to dominate our media industries.

In this paper, we present a type of media disorder which we call “junk news bubbles” and which derives from the effort invested by online platforms and their users to identify and share contents with rising popularity. Such emphasis on trending matters, we claim, can have two detrimental effects on public debates: first, it shortens the amount of time available to discuss each matter; second it increases the ephemeral concentration of media attention. We provide a formal description of the dynamic of junk news bubbles, through a mathematical exploration the famous “public arenas model” developed by Hilgartner and Bosk in 1988. Our objective is to describe the dynamics of the junk news bubbles as precisely as possible to facilitate its further investigation with empirical data.

This kind of research is essential towards our understanding of how to repair or rework our media environment.

In particular the fetishization of trending topics and going viral. Do we take for granted why our media environment is configured to focus on this? Who’s interests are served by focusing our attention on useless entertainment that is the intellectual equivalent of disease inducing junk food?

Our pre-pandemic concerns about conspiracy and disinformation did not anticipate how such factors become issues of life and death when compliance with public health advisories becomes difficult to achieve.

The Gates conspiracy theories are part of an ocean of misinformation on COVID-19 that is spreading online. Every major news event comes drenched in rumours and propaganda. But COVID-19 is “the perfect storm for the diffusion of false rumour and fake news”, says data scientist Walter Quattrociocchi at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice, Italy. People are spending more time at home, and searching online for answers to an uncertain and rapidly changing situation. “The topic is polarizing, scary, captivating. And it’s really easy for everyone to get information that is consistent with their system of belief,” Quattrociocchi says. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the situation an infodemic: “An over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — rendering it difficult to find trustworthy sources of information and reliable guidance.”

For researchers who track how information spreads, COVID-19 is an experimental subject like no other. “This is an opportunity to see how the whole world pays attention to a topic,” says Renée diResta at the Stanford Internet Observatory in California. She and many others have been scrambling to track and analyse the disparate falsehoods floating around — both ‘misinformation’, which is wrong but not deliberately misleading, and ‘disinformation’, which refers to organized falsehoods that are intended to deceive. In a global health crisis, inaccurate information doesn’t only mislead, but could be a matter of life and death if people start taking unproven drugs, ignoring public-health advice, or refusing a coronavirus vaccine if one becomes available.

The problem however is not disinformation or conspiracy alone. As we previously discussed, public health agencies are doing a poor job of communicating, and are in serious need of an upgrade. In many jurisdictions, this is leading to an erosion in the trust and credibility of public health officials.

Far more troubling to those who care about the role of scientific advice during the coronavirus crisis was the servile response from those two scientists. The comments I have received from other scientists confirm my fear that this dismal performance has not merely destroyed faith in Whitty and Vallance and threatened the government’s ability to manage this excruciatingly tricky stage of the pandemic. It has probably damaged the public image of science itself.

While it may be difficult to accept, it is possible that the public image of science is taking a hit amidst the pandemic induced chaos. Given that science is one of the cornerstones of democracy, that should deeply disturb us all.

I believe there is clear reason our media environment shoulders the blame. In spite of the plurality of voices we may hear, the ownership of these platforms makes placing that blame relatively straight forward.

The end result is that you’re not getting the news you can use. You should instead seek out better sources, and better networks, so that you can do what is possible to inform yourself and get through this crisis, which will not be ending anytime soon.

Perhaps then in closing, we’ll offer a bit of news you can use: those travel points you’ve been collecting may soon be worthless!?

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