Review: Democracy Hacked

Democracy Hacked

Democracy HackedMartin Moore. London: Oneworld Publications, 2018.

Summary: An inquiry into the ways individuals and states have influenced democratic governments, how web-based platforms have made it possible, and some of the alternatives for the future.

Much has been made of various ways the 2016 presidential election in the United States was “hacked” or manipulated exploiting various tools and platforms on the internet. In this book, Martin Moore pulls back the curtain on how it was done, the vulnerabilities of our social media platforms, and both the potential for more influence along these lines in the future, and the alternative, which is not becoming societies of Luddites.

He begins with the different individuals and groups that in some way were connected with efforts to manipulate the internet. He begins by exploring those who are the “freextremists.” These are the denizens of image boards like 4chan that generate memes, whose survival on the board depends on how provocative, indeed how offensive, it is as measured by how often it is reposted. Many of the digital natives on these sites were alt-right or neo-Nazi types. Eventually a number became allied with organizations like Breitbart, and became a key asset in the media campaigns of the Trump elections with alliances with Trump operatives. In turn, Moore profiles plutocrats like Robert Mercer, who provided the capital that turned Breitbart into a web powerhouse. Finally, he details the various ways from hacked email accounts of Clinton staff, to various fake news and meme postings through fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, that influence was brought to bear by Russian entities on US citizens to influence the election. The author remains agnostic on whether these played a decisive influence, although he makes it clear that the Republican candidate used these methodologies or benefited from them to a much greater extent than the Democrat candidate.

The second part of the book looks at the social media platforms used to sway potential voters. The Facebook story is insidious, not only because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but also because Facebook uses an ad and promotional post targeting system utilizing the incredible amounts of information it aggregates on each profile through likes, posts, and clicks on posts. Psychological profiling enables precise targeting of contents to base voters, those who might desert a candidate, and undecided voters. Google’s pursuit of ad revenue also makes it vulnerable for similar reasons. Twitter is different in the ability of this platform to disseminate information, exploited heavily by bots and fake accounts (not to mention then candidate and now President, Donald Trump’s Twitter presence). A common thread is advertising and the use of personal information to increase ad revenues, making these ideal platforms for political exploitation.

The third part of the book explores directions democracy could go. We could move to a platform democracy where platforms deliver everything from places to stay (AirBnB) to transportation (Uber) to healthcare (something Amazon is experimenting with) and schools. There is a possibility of these platforms pervading every aspect of life, to the exclusion of the local, including local news media. More insidious is what Moore calls “surveillance democracy” where a digital identity is mandated by government and becomes necessary for voting, passports and travel, purchasing a home, or even shopping for groceries. He describes the system already in place in India, and how such systems are already being used for social control in China.

The alternative for Moore is not to “unplug” but rather to use technology to serve rather than manipulate democratic processes, including following Estonia’s model of creating policy around the individual and the privacy of their data, rather than large interests. He calls this “democracy re-hacked.”

What Moore seems to be doing is relying on regulation to create and implement policies to protect democracy. What bothers me is that it seems easy to circumvent many such measures, and only those without the resources or the savvy to circumvent such regulation will be shut down. It seems that until there are better limits on the data that can be collected about us (or greater transparency about that collection), targeting ads and promoted stories tailored to our interests will likely continue to find their way into our search results, timelines and Twitter feeds. Perhaps privacy and freedom from manipulative advertising (or even algorithms) might be worth paying for–perhaps a subscription fee to platforms like Facebook or Twitter. In exchange for not harvesting and using our data, we would pay an annual subscription (for example, I pay a certain amount for my identity to not be linked publicly to my URL, and to keep my blog site ad-free). There may be many users who would prefer this option, if private really means private, rather than government imposed regulation.

Whether you think democracy can be “re-hacked” or not, it seems important that a populace educate itself how to avoid becoming unwitting victims of political manipulation through the internet, just as we have to learn to be savvy about viruses, spyware, and other ways hackers attempt to compromise the integrity of our computers and our data. Moore at very least helps us understand both that it is being done, and how, and in doing so already provides us a vital tool in taking back our democracy–personal agency.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Don’t Get Faked Out!

1 Bob TrubeDid you get this message on Facebook recently? Did you forward it to other friends? How did you feel when you found out it was a hoax? Or did you?

One of the sad and dismaying aspects of online life are all the ways people try to mess around with you or even defraud you. From countless spam emails with dubious links to clever attempts to “spear fish” and get your log in credentials, to viruses that either scoop up personal identities, or turn your computer into a virus propagator, one has to constantly be skeptical of what one is seeing–and don’t click on that link.

I’m currently reading a new book called Democracy Hackedby Martin Moore, that explores the various way different entities attempt to influence our political behavior using personal data that we offer up online, through psychological profiling. We’ve heard the stories of fraudulent accounts set up on Facebook and Twitter to disseminate targeted “news” where it will do the most harm, or reinforce already existing beliefs.

What is most troublesome to me in all of this is the jettisoning of anything that remotely resembles the truth–whether it is a meme, a photograph, or a “news” story. The real intent of most of this is not to inform, but to provoke a reaction–usually negative–against an individual (usually an opposition political candidate) or a group (immigrants, some ethnic or identity groups, social classes, or simply those of another political party).

So, along with the tactics I use to avoid getting scammed by those after identity information, there are practices I’m developing to avoid getting scammed by “fake news” and other ways entities try to manipulate, rather than inform, me.

  1. Look at who is publishing the story or meme or photo. Do you recognize the source? What do you know about them? While some want to question established news outlets, which do have their own bias, you definitely want to question outlets with names you haven’t heard of.
  2. Are they making a negative claim about someone? Are they making a statement of supposed fact, either to support their own work, or undermine someone else? I find it a good idea, and do this increasingly, to fact check the story. Snopes.com is one of the best, being rated “center” by AllSides.com. This Make Use Of article suggests five unbiased fact checking sites.
  3. If you care about truth, get out of your “echo chamber.” Do not listen only to things you agree with or portrayals of what you disagree with by those who share your outlook. I follow both the National Review and The Atlantic.  I might check what Fox News, PBS, NBC, and even the BBC say about an important story, paying attention to the differences. Realize that social media will tailor news stories to what you have shown interest in. It’s no accident that you see products advertised that you’ve searched online. The stories you see in your feed are not an accident either.
  4. I don’t listen to PAC sponsored ads, and listen to candidate sponsored ads with a grain of salt. Our courts have said that the big money interests, conservative and liberal, can dominate our political conversation over the airwaves. I guess that is the price of free speech. That doesn’t mean we have to listen. Or if you do–fact check! Pay attention to the way the ad attempts to manipulate your emotions.
  5. Do your own research. The League of Women Voters often provides extensive information on candidates and issues. Look at records for those who have been in office. They will tend to do what they have done if they have the opportunity. Don’t rely on ads or even news stories to accurately represent this.

When many of us first discovered the internet, we thought this was an incredible place to be informed. We have to understand that for many, they see it as an incredible place to manipulate political behavior. In this as well as in areas of our private information, I don’t want to be scammed or faked out. That means vigilance as I read what comes across various feeds online, especially via social media, but also even in our more traditional media. The manipulators assume we will be too distracted, too credulous, and perhaps unaware of the psychological profiling they have done. I don’t want them to be right. Do you? Our democracy’s future may hang on how we answer.

 

When We Cannot Reason Together

688px-Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle

Raphael, The School of Athens

It seems to me that in many quarters of the United States, we’ve reached a dangerous place of no longer being able to reason together when we have differences–whether the aim is simply understanding one another, or arriving at some agreement of how we will live together with our differences, or how, without achieving perfect agreement, we can arrive at measures that we can agree on and implement that make things better for all. Whether it is in dysfunctional politics or the use of obstructive tactics to shut down speakers on a campus or violent confrontations on our streets, we seem to be becoming an increasingly angry society more concerned about our own rightness and power than the pursuit of the good,the true, and the beautiful, that, when I last checked, none of us has a corner on. It makes me quite concerned for our country.

I’ve seen it on social media. The most grievous is when I see people who don’t know each other attack one another’s character because they differ. I’ve seen it on my Facebook profile where two people I count as friends, but who don’t know each other, end up attacking each other, having no idea what a fantastic person the other individual is. And why is it that whenever one voices an opinion there are those who feel it is their mission in life to jump in, argue, rebut, or simply pronounce how wrong-headed and stupid you are? How refreshing it would be if someone were to say, “you seem an intelligent person, and you see things differently than I do. Would you tell me more about why you think that way?” It just doesn’t happen, sadly. Sometimes it tempts me to limit myself to posting cute memes and pretty pictures or uncontroversial articles–although that is an increasingly narrow category–it seems we have a difficult time talking civilly online about anything.

I really wrestle with what to do. I would love to have discussions with people who want to have genuine discussions that don’t reduce to “you’re wrong, we’re right.” But I’ve pretty nearly concluded that Facebook is not the place to do it. And frankly, I don’t have the time to dialogue with those who really aren’t interested genuine dialogue, but simply feel compelled to counter any point that they disagree with. And sooner or later on any issue of substance–someone makes a pronouncement with an implied (or explicit) put down of any who differ, ending any rational conversation. Over the years, that has come from different ends of the political spectrum, depending on the issue. Sometimes conversations end with battling pronouncements. On more than one occasion, I’ve just taken the whole thread down because it became toxic. But this bothers me–is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?

I’ve also considered one or a combination of these option

  • Deleting conversation stopping comments–but I don’t like cutting off my friends.
  • Deleting all comments–this has the effect of saying–“I just put this out there to think about” but precludes real dialogue.
  • Blocking people–in this case I might just as well unfriend them–tough when you do value them as friends.
  • Include a request that if people simply want to make pronouncements, they should do it on their own pages–except that those who do this tend to ignore such requests.

Probably my preferred option at this point is generally to stop making those posts. I don’t think they change minds and the virtual world seems to just foster either incivility or echo chambers and I don’t want to add to it. In the future, when you hear from me on Facebook, know that it is something that cuts pretty close to the bone.

What will I do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear from others who have wrestled with this:

  • I will keep blogging and reviewing books. Know that my blogs and reviews will reflect things I care about, and are consonant with the ethos of this blog–the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • I will work hard in my own online behavior to listen to understand before I write to respond. I can’t change others, but I can be the change I hope to see. Whether it works or not, at least I can live with myself.
  • I will look for ways to take real action in the real world about things I care about rather than talk in the virtual world.
  • I will find people who I can have face to face conversations with who are different from me–but committed to dialogue with civility.
  • I will vote for people who have track records of reasoning together with their political opponents to serve all their constituents. I will not vote for people who foster divisiveness. Sometimes, that may mean I will not vote for any candidate for a given office.
  • I will not expect politicians to implement ideologically pure policies or utopian solutions. I will not look for them to bring in the kingdom of God. I will expect them to legislate and lead in ways that serve not merely their “base” but to reach proximately good solutions that fairly serve all their constituents–in my school district, city, county, state, or the country.
  • I will also look to the role we can play in our participation in mediating institutions-churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhood groups, and other more local groups. When we put so much stake in the political arena, we give away the power and influence that may be exercised through these groups.

Perhaps what I’m realizing, even as I write this, is that online life is a poor substitute for real citizenship. I still believe that the online world can be a great place to learn, listen, and understand, and even change our minds if we are open to it. It doesn’t encourage deliberative argument, or careful, “longform” thinking between people. I don’t think that’s what it is made for. I, for one, will be looking for other ways to reason together.

I’m not sure I like this conclusion or feel I’ve reached a landing place that I’m content with. I’d really value your help!

Why “Bob on Books” is Now on Facebook

Bob on Books Home

Screen capture of Bob on Books on Facebook 9/10/2018

You might have noticed in yesterday’s post that there is now a “Bob on Books” Facebook page. Facebook kind of forced me into it. For as long as I’ve had my blog, Facebook allowed scheduled automated sharing of my WordPress posts on my Facebook profile. Facebook blocked this capability at the end of July but allowed scheduled automated sharing to Facebook pages.

I suspect this is part of Facebook’s approach to dealing with “fake news” and “fake account” sites and the propagation of this material. But it was at least a minor inconvenience to many of us who connected our profiles to our WordPress blogs. It is still possible to manually post links from a blog to your profile, an extra step. Harder than that is that when Facebook broke the connection, it also cut my “follower count” on my blog by 2500 in one fell swoop. Now that may not be all bad, because I suspect a good number of my Facebook friends don’t look at my blog but were still counted as “followers.” But it meant taking the time to set up a page and inviting people to “like” and “follow” it. That certainly has the advantage of people “opting into” your content, and perhaps is a better indicator of interest. Maybe it is more honest.

There are several advantages beyond this of a page:

  • People interested in blog posts and other material can access this quickly.
  • It allows me to post polls, articles, photos and quotes, and a “question of the day” facilitating ongoing conversation to a greater degree than the blog.
  • Facebook provides a variety of metrics for pages that you don’t have access to on profiles. I can also get another indicator of the interest in individual blog posts.
  • It is easier to post on Facebook than the blog, which anyone on Facebook can do. On the blog, people need to set up a WordPress account (not necessarily a blog) to post comments, something not everyone wants to do.
  • For a relatively low expense, I’ve added 100 followers beyond my own circle of contacts in the last month. I tried promoting the website for the blog, but this led to very few additional blog followers. I haven’t promoted posts.
  • I don’t have a good sense yet whether the page has translated into more traffic on my blog, although my summer stats usually decline, and this year have been on the rise. Unfortunately, WordPress stats aggregate all “referrals” from Facebook, so clicks from my profile, my page, or posts in other groups (which I do a fair amount of) are all lumped together. It certainly hasn’t hurt, from what I can tell.

The big minus that you just have to deal with is that pages are a revenue stream for Facebook and they are constantly inviting you to promote the page, an individual post, and your website. For some reason, I find the page loads more slowly than my personal profile, perhaps because of all the extra analytics. I would like to see Facebook streamline this (it may be better for visitors than admins who see extra content).

This might be more “inside baseball” than some of you may like. What I hope might be the case is that the blog and the Facebook page complement each other and maybe foster a bit of a “Bob on Books” community of people interested in interacting about good books, their reading experiences and how all this relates to our pursuit of the good, the beautiful, and the true in our lives. Blogs allow more extended development of an idea or review of a particular work. Facebook pages afford the chance for briefer but more frequent posts and interactions. I hope you will visit both

I’d love to hear your feedback. Even after five years of doing this, I still feel I’m making it up as I go….

 

Watch Your $%&*@^# Language!

23860378_89e8ebd646_z

Chris James, (No Cursing??) Sign (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Have you noticed that language is getting coarser? We were shopping yesterday in a bookstore (during National Book Day!) and I wandered over to the bestseller shelves. Two of the titles that greeted me were, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and You Are a Badass. At least the former title used an asterisk, but we all know which vowel it was replacing.

Book titles are just symptomatic of the proliferation of profanity in our media. It’s common to see either abbreviations or actual profanity on social media and to come across blog posts liberally laden with profanity. More than that, coarse words for defecation, urination, and sex lace everyday conversation. We use a word for excrement for getting our act together. We routinely use a word for urinating to describe the experience of being angered by something. The f-bomb seems to be an all around adjective as well as a favorite expression of anger. I could go on but you know what I’m talking about.

It’s not like I’ve never used these words. Particularly as a teenager hanging out with my buddies in urban Youngstown, our conversations were richly laced with profanity. For a period of my life, I thought it was kind of cool or edgy. I’d argue that it was only “dirty” because some people said it was. I’d argue that we were getting “real.”

My Christian journey started changing that. It wasn’t so much rules against certain words, as principles that spoke to the power of words in a community, and to shape the community around us. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

I began to realize words have the power to evoke the best or worst angels of our natures, that our words build up others or undermine them. Words can hurt or heal. Actually, this extends beyond profanity to things like gossip where we feed on the meager fare of tearing someone down when they aren’t present to defend themselves. Cyber-bullying might be an example of the destructive power of our words, amplified by social media.

I won’t say that I completely refrain from these things even to this day. Catch me on a bad day struggling with the plumbing in my house, and it won’t always be pretty. If profanity occurs in a text I am quoting, I won’t delete it. I also realize that in both writing and speaking, there are times that a profanity may be the most apt word, and a euphemism or softer term doesn’t cut it. I can see a case in literature where contexts warrant profanity. The test for me is whether it fits or is gratuitous.  The restrained, but appropriate use of a profanity may actually capture attention that a profanity-laced dialogue does not.

That said, I am troubled by the increasing acceptability of profanity in our social and public discourse. I think it reflects an angrier, coarser, bleaker view of life. People might answer that this is the way they see it. Some, I’ve heard it suggested, use this as a “language of resistance” as in “since______ has been elected, everything is all f-ed up.”

I think I would answer that our words not merely reflect reality but help shape it. By words, Genesis tells us that God made the world. Our words can convince us that we live in a stinking latrine or that we are turning manure into gardens that are fertile and fruitful. Our sexual vocabulary can take one of the most beautiful experiences of human intimacy, and reduce it to a tawdry bodily function that sounds like simply another form of relieving ourselves. Or it can elevate the tender, and sometimes clumsy, coming together of two people who really care for each other into enduring love poetry.

I don’t want to argue for any form of censorship or a new prudery. The First Amendment protects even profane speech except when it is with the specific intent to incite unlawful acts. I happen to like the First Amendment, even when I disagree with the people and ideas it protects. But if you care about pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful, does this not extend to our use of language and choice of words? Should it not be of concern that the use of profanity in private conversation and increasingly in social media and public discourse is increasingly common not only in the general public, but even in faith communities? We may think we are simply describing the world or “telling it like it is” as we used to say. Do we stop and think that we are not merely evoking memories or a sense of things as they were and arebut also invoking a view of reality as it is and could be? What do our word choices reveal about the vision of reality toward which we are living? As a Christ-follower, how do I speak if I believe I have been called into a beloved community and into a life of infinite wonder and purpose and hope?

It’s not so much that I’m against “bad” words. I think I’ve already suggested that all words, even these have a usage or purpose in some contexts. Rather, I constantly find myself wanting for better words, for clearer thinking, for higher aspirations, to set goals for nobler actions, and graceful expression in spoken and written words. Am I out of touch with reality to want that and pursue it? Must I settle for a coarse world when we have so many hints of a world of goodness, truth and beauty? What do you think?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — “Social” Media

media-998990_1920A friend of mine recently sent an email around with this humorous look at Facebook:

Your morning smile!

For those of my generation who do not, and cannot, comprehend why Facebook exists: I am trying to make friends outside of Facebook while applying the same principles. 

Therefore, every day I walk down the street and tell passersby what I have eaten, how I feel at the moment, what I have done the night before, what I will do later and with whom. 

I give them pictures of my family, my dog, and of me gardening, taking things apart in the garage, watering the lawn, standing in front of landmarks, driving around town, having lunch, and doing what anybody and everybody does every day. 

I also listen to their conversations, give them the “thumbs up” and tell them I like them. 

And it works just like Facebook. 

I already have four people following me: two police officers, a private investigator and a psychiatrist.

–Source unknown

I do suspect that our parents and grandparents probably would have thought our involvement with sharing our statuses, posting our photos, and “liking” and sharing cute little emoticons with others a bit bizarre.

In the past probably the closest we got to social media was listening in on a party line. We didn’t use media to be social unless it was to subject our friends to utter boredom by showing the 400 slides from our last vacation. Often a slide would get stuck, turning the sleep-inducing travel narrative into a blue streak of cuss words. That woke us up!

Social was something we did most of the time face to face rather than through a phone or computer.

Summer evenings were a great time to be social–everyone sat out on their front porches and shared their “statuses” in the form of regular conversation with the neighbors walking by on a trip to the local DQ–the remodeling project in the house, the vacation plans, who was getting married, who was “expecting, or just how hot it was.

Social happened as we sat on the hoods of cars at Handels. It happened when we were hanging around at the pop machine at the local service station. It happened at the neighborhood bar as people talked sports, work, and sometimes about how hard things were in their lives.

Social happened at company and church picnics and family reunions. It happened on the midways of Idora Park and the Canfield Fair. Social happened as neighbors talked over the back fence while working in their gardens. It happened in the driveway as you changed the oil on your car or washed it up on Saturdays.

Social happened at the coffee shop, the mom and pop restaurant with the other “regulars”. It happened at the family grocery, where you knew the butcher, the produce guy, and the cashier. Often, they were all related.

We didn’t post pictures from our local sporting events. We went, we cheered for our team, we enjoyed sitting in the stands during a summer evening game. Better yet, we were on one of the teams, whether a local softball league, or an intramural basketball team or a pickup game of tag football.

We didn’t keep track of the number of “friends” we had. We just had friends. Instead of nearly running into each other staring at the rectangles we carry in our pockets, we waved, smiled, stopped and talked with people we met along the way.  We often had time for unhurried conversations, uninterrupted by buzzes and beeps and “dings.”

It’s funny though. At one time we all would have thought all this social media stuff a bit nutty. And here I am writing all this on a blog. And here you are reading it on a computer, on your phone, perhaps from seeing it on a Youngstown Facebook group. How did that happen?

Review: The Circle

The Circle

The CircleDave Eggers. New York: Vintage, 2014.

Summary: Dystopian fiction exploring the potential in a digital, online age to create a world where nothing is secret, and whether that is a utopia or a nightmare.

Imagine a world where you can know anything, and nothing is hidden or kept secret. Imagine a world where every person has a digital profile that collects all your health, educational, commercial, and social data, every picture by or of you, and makes this available to all. Imagine a world where we have embedded chips so that anyone can know where we are. Imagine we all wear body cameras that record our interactions and activity throughout the day. Imagine that all the archival information in the world may be searched to put together your family history, dark sides and all,.

This is the world Mae finds herself in when she gets a job with The Circle with the help of her friend Annie, a higher up in The Circle. She begins working in Customer Experience, but soon discovers that The Circle wants far more of her than to get a 100 rating on every customer interaction. They want her to share her life with the rest of The Circle–to give opinions via a headset, to give them her digital life, to join groups, to interact with others in The Circle.

This alone would probably have creeped me out and had me running for the hills. But Mae has been rescued from a dead end job with a local utility. She has a father with MS struggling with his health insurer–until The Circle finds out and adds him to their plan. The hooks go deeper even as she is cut off from much of her former life, eventually moving into a Circle dorm. After an incident caught on Circle’s SeeChange cameras catches her “borrowing” a kayak after hours, she meets one of the three leaders of The Circle, its public voice, Eamon Bailey. He helps her to recognize that the worst part of her act was keeping secrets, that we are better people when we do not hide but rather openly share our lives with the world. And in her “evolved” state of insight, she agrees to go “clear” and wear a camera recording all her activity, and becomes an celebrity both within The Circle, and in the wider public who love watching Mae’s life.

She tries to usher her former boyfriend Mercer into the wonders of being connected with the world through The Circle. He will have none of it, and when she attempts to promote his business, he leaves the grid, writing her a long letter warning her of what she is getting into. He is not the only one. She encounters a shadowy figure, Kalden, who also tries to warn her of what would happen if they should succeed in “closing the Circle,” creating a world where The Circle becomes a vehicle by which all is known, seen, and nothing remains secret. She is disturbed, and also fascinated by him, reflected in some rather kinky hookups in bathrooms. Yet she goes further and deeper into the Circle’s plans. What will this mean for Mae? Her parents? Mercer? Her friend Annie?

I’ll leave you to discover what happens if you have not read the book or seen the recent movie version (trailer here). I will also leave you with the thought that everything the book describes, as far as I could tell, is technologically possible today. More than that, the amount of information we voluntarily surrender about ourselves via social media, online and offline purchasing with credit cards, our banking and credit histories, the photos and files we store in the cloud, the customer cards we use at various stores and more, is staggering. Increasingly our medical records and health history is digitized and shared between providers and insurers, and we agree to it all. And the GPS chips in our smartphones track our every move. Everything in The Circle could or is being done. The only thing forestalling the tyranny Kalden and Mercer foresee is the lack of sufficient will and impetus to do it. We’ve laid much of the groundwork for such things either willingly or unknowingly.

More intriguing yet is the effort to usher in a utopia, the effort to perfect human nature, this time through stripping us of any secret worlds. Such a world substitutes social conformity (and who decides what conformity is?) for the harder won integrity that consists of living truthfully, living consistently with what one values when no one is looking. Instead of living one’s life coram deo (before the face of God), we substitute the human god of the grid, and the much more capricious fancies of its controllers and the mentality of the online mob.

Finally, the book raises the question of whether it is really a good thing to be able to know everything. Is the steady stream of status updates, online surveys, likes, tweets, news stories really making us more informed? More wise? Perhaps if nothing else, Eggers book makes us reflect on all the information we offer up, our addiction to the little rectangles we carry in our pockets, and the illusions all this fosters of a kind of omniscience that may be too much for our little brains to handle.

Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

shamed

So You’ve Been Publicly ShamedJon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015.*

Summary: Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience.

If you have any kind of presence on social media, this book should give you pause. In fact, even if you are not on social media, it might make you think. Any kind of transgression, whether an offensive statement, or an impulsive act can become the object of a public shaming campaign on social media. It often can be vicious, pervasive, you can even lose your job, and it stays there–on the internet.

Jon Ronson begins by describing how he used shaming to free himself from a form of identity theft cloaked in academic jargon, as a group of researchers created a spambot identity on Twitter of Ronson. Ronson’s only recourse after a film interview of the spambot creators being cute was to upload a video (yes, they were arrogant enough to allow themselves to be filmed) to expose what they were doing. A vicious series of comments wishing all sorts of unspeakable fates followed. The spambot came down. One more victorious shaming campaign!

Then along comes the case of Jonah Lehrer, a one-time promising science writer exposed by journeyman journalist Michael Moynihan. Moynihan became suspicious of quotes of Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book on creativity. They just didn’t sound like Dylan to him, and it turns out they were fabricated. Other material was plagiarized from press-releases, and from earlier pieces he’d written (self plagiarism, a little more controversial, but the rule is still to cite yourself rather than use the material uncited). When Moynihan published an article it effectively spelled the end of his journalism career. Ronson recounts the eerie scene in St. Louis, where Lehrer attempts a poorly constructed apology, with a live Twitter stream of comments being shown on a screen behind him. Posts like this were typical:

“Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist.” (p. 43)

Lehrer, as far as I can tell is still trying to reconstruct a writing career with a blog focusing on social science writing and recently released A Book About Love which makes a more forthright apology than the St. Louis speech, but has received mixed reviews. Fabrication and plagiarism tend to be career-enders for writers. In Lehrer’s case, social media and the internet make it far worse. A Google search still readily turns up the articles about his transgressions.

Ronson moves on to other lesser-knowns. There is the case of Justine Sacco, working in a New York public relations firm (of all things),who foolishly hit “send” on this tweet:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (p. 64)

She became  world number one trending topic on Twitter, before her plane landed, and no efforts to scrub Twitter, or issue an apology could save her job. He recounts the case of “Hank”, who at a software developers conference made a sexually innuendo-ed joke while sitting behind a woman developer, Adria. She turned, photographed him, and tweeted the incident. He came home to find he was out of a job. Eventually he posted something about this to find much of the developer community rally to his cause and shame Adria. Consequently the shamer became not only the shamed, but also lost her job.

As Ronson goes into these accounts, he begins to wonder what they reveal about the shamers, including himself, and their glee, and verbal violence in taking down their targets. Does the anonymity of the internet feed the phenomenon, the social distance between shamer and shamed. He contrasts social media shaming with Judge Ted Poe, who uses public shaming in sentencing. Far from being the “theater of the absurd,” as one blogger called it, Poe maintained, supported by testimony of those he sentenced, that it was the “theater of the effective.” Often, in this kind of public shaming, the defendant ends up being encouraged by people. It is face to face and not anonymous. And it works in turning around lives, maintained Poe.

The latter part of the book explores how people come through shame and explores the interesting idea that those the least apologetic about their shameful activity may cope better. There is the case of Max Mosley, exposed for some rather unusual S & M activities that were alleged to be Nazi scenarios. He turns around and sues the outlet that published this for defamation and wins, on the fact that the Nazi portion of this could not be supported by the facts. He freely admitted his unusual sexual tastes. Ronson also visits shame eradication groups that de-sensitize one to shame. Not exactly his cup of tea.

He explores the case of Lindsey Stone whose friend snapped and posted a picture of her flipping off and shouting at a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that said “Silence and Respect.” The kind of snarky thing lots of kids do, right? Well, the picture went viral, and once again, the comments were vicious, and the result was a lost job. Eventually, Ronson works out a deal with a company that works with online reputations and describes the strategy to bury the damning material way down in search engine results by creating a positive web presence for a person. The goal is to move the damaging stuff to page 2 where nobody ever looks. Their work helps the Lindsey Stone, and others who share her name, mostly by displacing the unsavory image with a host of other photos and web presence under her name.

Ronson’s book raises the question of what much of our “outrage” on social media really reveals, not about the objects of the outrage, but about us. His candor and self-reflectiveness about his own participation in shaming rites on social media invite us to ask, “when have I done this, and what does this say about me?” What I think he doesn’t explore and could be considered is the temptation to be provocative, to push the envelope in order to get more views, comments, follows–the definition of social media success. The closest he gets are the corners Jonah Lehrer cut under the pressures of a burgeoning writing career.

Ronson also reminds us that the consequences of our words on social media have impacts not in virtual reality but in the lives of real people. And his tale reminds us to reflect carefully before hitting the “send”, “post”, or “publish” buttons. Carelessness here could change one’s life, and not in ways one would like. Better re-read this before posting!

*Content and language advisory. Includes descriptions of various forms of sexual expression and profanity.

The University Today: Technology

IMG_2388

A library and a world at my fingertips as I write this post (c)2016 Robert C Trube

Last week, I began a series of four posts on The University Today, adapted from an address last summer at the World Assembly of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. I focused on four change forces (internationalization, technology, economics, and secularization) at work in the university world and considering their implications for collegiate ministries working in the university. I’m struck as I write this that these trends do not have implications for Christians in the university alone. They profoundly shape the character of our institutions.

Nowhere is this more true than in the rapidly changing world of technology which is shaping what is being taught, how it is being taught, and how students learn. Most significantly, technology is shaping, wittingly or unwittingly, the very sense of what a university is for. Here is the excerpt of the address on technology, followed by questions for reflection:

Technology

The explosion of technology is shaping what is taught and funded at many of our institutions. Pressures from parents, students, governments, and businesses are compelling changes in how higher education’s ends are being conceived. Academic degrees in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) are being emphasized while programs in the humanities, languages, the arts, and social sciences are struggling to secure funding, enrollments, and to reconceive their role as an adjunct to STEM. In many settings, education is being treated as a commodity rather than a formative experience and engagement with life’s big questions. Students are the customers, faculty and university staff the vendors, and productivity is measured in terms of job placement rates.  As I’ve already observed, the decision of many governments to subsidize international study reflects the fact that STEM enjoys an international consensus.

Technology is also shaping the way we learn, and the way education is delivered. A student may now access on a smartphone information that might have taken hours to find in a university library. Increasingly, the classroom is not the location of lectures but a place to discuss and apply content viewed online and to collaborate in learning with other students, a shift being referred to as the “flipped” classroom. Increasingly educators are required to display expertise not merely in their academic discipline but also in the use of various online technologies and social media. We have also seen a vast increase in online courses as either an alternative to or adjunct to education on a physical campus.  Technology also means instant communication of everything from revolutions to complaints about the campus administration.  One university leader I know utilizes social media constantly not only to promote the accomplishments of his institution but also to maintain contact with current and prospective students, and other constituents of the university.

Questions

  1. How might Christians contribute to the discussion of education’s purpose in the institutions where they work? What are the opportunities for our mission if the spiritual hunger and aspirations of students are not acknowledged and the “big questions” are not explored in their education?
  2. How should the transformation in the delivery of education influence our ministry approaches on campus? What will it mean for us to incarnate the gospel in an increasingly virtual world?

 

Outrage and the Speech of Freedom

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By David Shankbone – David Shankbone CC BY – SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3554956

“Why are we so angry?”

That’s a question I’ve been musing on of late.

My Facebook friends are a curious phenomena of my life. I find some expressing outrage against anything that might be associated with the political left. And then there are others equally outraged with anything associated with the political right. It makes me kind of glad that they only meet on my newsfeed! It also makes me wonder what it says about me that I have friends at both these extremes.

Some suggest that outrage with the political establishment explains the attraction of people to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Whether or not these are the best candidates for president, it concerns me that outrage might outweigh more measured judgments of who should serve in this important office.

I come back to my question of “why are we so angry?”

Outrage is defined as “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” I wonder what feeds the anger that shows up in road rage, gun violence, and the vitriolic discourse that increasingly seems to be the social and popular media norm.

I do wonder at time about the capacity of our media to ratchet up our anger as one angry voice augments another, with media personalities egging this on because it means more views to a blog, a talk show, or “news” program. One study suggests that “anger is the internet’s most powerful emotion.”

Could this be one reason why we are so angry?

While expressions of outrage may well be protected free speech, I do wonder whether any of this promotes what I call the speech of freedom–the speech whose aim is to promote the common good of both speaker and those with whom they disagree. It seems to me that all outrage does is solidify my bond with those who share my anger while alienating me further from any who see things differently.

Maybe that’s what some of us want. But I kind of wonder how healthy a community is that is formed around anger. And I think we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to keep fostering the antagonisms that our media seem bent on ratcheting up. Do we really want a world that is divided into winners and losers, a zero sum game? There are many parts of the world that operate like that. By and large, they are brutal, vengeful places where victory and tragedy are never far apart.

Can anger ever be useful? The apostle Paul once wrote, “be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” I’ve come to realize that anger is a sign, and to ask what that is a sign of, and to act quickly to address the source of my anger. Sometimes, it is simply that a selfish desire has been frustrated, and it may be useful to hold up the mirror and see what this is showing me about myself.

Sometimes, we are angry because of some injustice or grievance that breaks a relationship. I can stew and build resentment, or I can go, before the sun sets, and say, “we need to talk, because this endangers our relationship.” It’s not always possible to work out differences in a day–the issue is not letting them fester. There is an incredible freedom that comes when anger turns to forgiveness and reconciliation.

What about social media and other things that ratchet up anger? I wonder if it is really worthwhile giving attention to these things. What if we took the time we spent posting and reading angry rants to writing a letter to our political representatives on something we care about? What about spending the time volunteering in something we care about? What about having a conversation with a living person with a different point of view–face to face! And for people of faith, what about taking the time we would spend reading and writing things against a person to pray for them. Praying for those in public leadership is commanded in the Bible–attacking them in social media is not!

All these may be ways to turn anger into the speech of freedom.

I began this post with the question of “why are we so angry?” There is a slight twist to that question in the story of Jonah, when Jonah is pouting because God spared the powerful city of Nineveh. God asks Jonah, “do you do well to be angry?”

Do do well to be angry? Do you?