Ethics For Algorithms

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You are probably aware that the material that shows up in your newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter is only a fraction of what your friends and connections are posting, and some of it is sponsored content tailored for you. Have you every wondered why you are seeing what you are seeing? Algorithms (and a lot of data collected about you).

A similar kind of thing happens when you search on Google. I am surprised how often it works well and I find exactly what I’m looking for. But sometimes it goes sideways. Why for example, when Dylann Roof searched Google, following up a search on Trayvon Martin with a search on “black on white crime” did the top search choices come up as white supremacist organizations? Algorithms.

Why, when I search for a book on Amazon, do I receive a number of recommendations of books in the form of “because you looked at this, you might like this”? I have similar things occur at Barnes & Noble or at Thriftbooks. Why? Algorithms.

One definition of an algorithm I found is: “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” Actually, algorithms are not some arcane mathematical art. They may be as simple as the process we use to solve a long division problem or the process we use in doing our laundry.

What is happening with all these algorithms is that somebody, an individual or group, has established a set of rules to determine what you see. What much of the world became aware of when Frances Haugen appeared on 60 Minutes this past Sunday night is that the ethic behind these rules that form the algorithms is very important. Haugen alleged, producing massive documentation, that Facebook has consistently chosen profit over safety on its various platforms. For one thing, it selected content that fostered anger on its newsfeeds despite the fact that it often spread misinformation and fostered division simply because this kept people on the platform longer, which was where the money is. Another prime example is the impact that it was aware of Instagram having on teenage girls. Not only do glamorous images feed body-shame, but they discovered that the shame and depression keeps girls on the platform in an emotionally destructive spiral. They knew this and did nothing to change their algorithms of what these girls saw.

Computer-based algorithms are widely used for everything from fantasy baseball to mortgage application processing to screening resumes to your FICO score. People are not directly making decisions about what we see online or about our finances or career aspirations. Machines are making the decisions, using the rules programmers establish in the code.

There are at least a few key ethical considerations that rise to the top, highlighted in Cathy O’Neill’s, Weapons of Math Destruction:

  1. How opaque or transparent are the rules used in the algorithm? Most of the time, the algorithms are highly opaque and we know that we’ve been affected but we don’t know why. Because of this, questions of fairness often arise–how do factors of race, gender, age, etc. get factored in?
  2. What is the scale of impact of the algorithm? FICO scores affect credit, auto insurance costs, getting hired or promoted, and being able to rent an apartment or buy a house. How will this algorithm be used in the marketplace and what protects individuals from wrongful harm?
  3. What is the damage this could cause? Where possible, this should be considered proactively. For example, on social media, under what conditions is more engagement harmful to persons or the broader social context?

This is not easily done, particularly because algorithms serve beneficial purposes as well as cause harm. At very least, identifying the real instances of unfairness and harm and eliminating these, or better, anticipating them, seems a place to start. What is most egregious about the content of Frances Haugen’s testimony was that internal studies were showing known harms from platform algorithms that were not addressed because of profit considerations. We should never use complicated ethical questions to forestall dealing with the clear-cut ones. Let’s begin here.

Things That Bring Joy to a Page Admin

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Most of the people I know who are group or page admins on Facebook have thoughts about giving it up. I do. It’s not easy, and more people can mean more problems. Spam posts, comments, and messages. People who openly defy page or group rules. Deciding when to shut down a thread that is going sideways. Banning people. I know. I’ve curated a book page for three years that has grown to a community of 35,000.

The headaches are well known. There is another side–the things that make it worth it. I thought I would share a few of those. Online spaces can be good spaces when we work together to make that happen. Here are some of the things that bring joy:

  1. Knowing that the page has made at least a bit of a difference in someone’s life. It was heartening when someone jotted a note saying that our page was one of the things that was helping them get through the pandemic.
  2. I love when I see people helping each other out. They share enough about a book and what they love that another person finds the next book they want to read.
  3. It gives me joy when I see people trying to learn from their disagreements, asking questions rather than flinging arguments past each other.
  4. It is a delight when people from different cultures share books and ideas that may be new to others of us. I’m glad when others take note and affirm them.
  5. I like it when people can have fun with something that is fun and not feel they have to pontificate or disagree.
  6. I enjoy reading threads where no one feels the need to leave comments like, “I never read anything by Steinbeck, in fact I really don’t like to read, but just thought I ought to say something.”
  7. It’s fun when someone adds an article or quote or even thought that is totally on point and enlarges the discussion.
  8. I like it when people on the page invite their book-loving friends to join the fun. It is encouraging when people think our page is a good enough place that they aren’t embarrassed to share it with their friends.
  9. My heart is touched when someone shares about hard things they are going through and others care without trying to “fix’ them.
  10. I’m grateful for a day when I haven’t had to delete spam comments or messages or ban anybody. But I’m glad to keep our growing “neighborhood” a good and safe place.

None of this is about numbers or platforms or making money. It is about shared conversation around a shared interest–in my case, books. I’ve learned about new authors and read some of them. Most of all, it has been a rich community of very different people–not perfect but pretty good (do we ever get better than that, at least this side of eternity?). While I created and admin the page, I like to call it “ours” because the others who are part of the community help make it what it is. Despite the hassles, I’d say this, and pages or groups like it, are some of the best things on Facebook. And when you find one, be sure to thank the admin who works to make that happen. When people do that, it makes my day.

Review: Posting Peace

Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It, Douglas S. Bursch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: A discussion of the nature of online media, why it divides us, and how Christians can have a reconciling and redemptive presence.

I’m not sure if social media platforms were ever idyllic places, although my son tells me that it was a lot better before my generation got on Facebook and Twitter. In recent years I’ve seen both the delightful and disturbing parts of this media. On the delightful side, I host a book page with over 10,000 followers with fascinating discussions around books and the bookish life of bibliophiles. Then there are mean-spirited and outright false postings, sometimes in repeated comments that, in one instance, led to blocking someone I considered a good friend. I felt I was being used rather than engaged and that what I did was right but I am still disturbed about it, five months later.

Douglas S. Bursch saw plenty of angry in talk radio, where he worked as a host, trying to elevate the show to thoughtful discussion. He explores the peculiar nature of online media, its “always on” nature and how easy it is to post half-formed, often emotional responses to those we don’t even know. We may have thousands of connections and yet feel strangely anonymous, even as are those on our friends list. He calls this “networked individualism” where we are loosely connected to many people but deeply tied to few. Many really exist to meet some need of ours, and when they don’t, they are dispensable. We become numb to relationships. Part of what encourages this is that the media fosters “disincarnate communication.” We show what we want others to see as do they in curated versions of who we really are. Furthermore, social media facilitates a tribal mentality both through our willed choices of who to like and follow and the algorithms that track our behavior and show us who and what we want to see and read. Often, our own tribe has no motive to resolve conflict–we so affirm each other, and those on the outside, in the security of their tribe, are so odious that why bother. Unlike a real world situation where we do have to live with different people, we don’t on social media, and sadly learn ways of relating that translate into the real world as well.

Bursch, a middle child (like me) describes the theme of peacemaking and reconciliation in his life that came to fullest fruit in coming to faith in Christ who reconciled him to God and others. He presses out the implications of this for the online behavior of those who count themselves Christ-followers. He argues that bringing people closer to God and one another ought be a way of life online (and in real life). He proposes five questions that ought to be part of our peacemaking plan:

  1. Is reconciliation my motivation?
  2. Are people my priority?
  3. Am I communicating truth with love?
  4. Where is the grace?
  5. What is the Spirit saying?

He even presses this out into the unpleasant encounters we have with internet trolls, who he reminds us are actually people (unless they are bots).

He also addresses something I’ve always wrestled with as a peacemaking middle child. There are some things we cannot make peace with. Deliberate falsehoods. Racism. Sexual predation. Unjust systems. One of the constructive things he commends is the platforming of the marginalized, particularly by those of us who are socially dominant. It may be that instead of spouting our own ideas, we invite the ideas of those pushed to the margins.

Bursch believes in the power of posting peace. He describes a woman by the name of Freedalyn who, when COVID broke out, went silent, until some discovered she used libraries for internet access. Many had been concerned because they had experienced her quiet, caring presence online. He concludes the book with ways we might make room for the Lord in our online engagement.

At the end of each chapter, Bursch provides questions for reflection and exercises that include the assignment to post online with the hashtag #PostingPeace. The combination of a theology of reconciliation with concrete practices that runs through this book offers the chance of helping us more intentionally and charitably engage online. It has been of growing concern to me that there are no winners in the divisive discourse we see and sometimes join online. Furthermore, when Christians join in such discourse, we turn many against Christ. The warning of Matthew 18:16 haunts me and I don’t want to go swimming with a millstone around my neck! Douglas Bursch not only helps us understand the challenges of online media but offers hope that we can pursue a better way that makes a difference.

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

Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.

Summary: An extended treatise on the idea of surveillance capitalism, in which we are the “raw materials” for others economic gain and the object of instrumentarian control.

I heard about this book from an interview with the author. I wish I had been forewarned that the soundbite argument of a radio interview was a bloated treatise laden with abstraction, jargon, and a determination to “show all one’s work.” A much shorter work may have been more effective in making its point.

There are two major ideas in this book. One is that a new form of capitalism has arisen as companies like Google and Facebook have figured out how to monetize their platforms through the information that users willingly and sometimes unwittingly surrender that are used to generate the advertising revenues that really fund their enterprises. We are not the customer, we are the raw material, and these platforms have become increasingly skilled at “scraping” data from every aspect of our lives that may be monetized. Our posts, our likes, our searches, and via our smartphones, our locations, and all our app use are sources. So are the devices wired into our cars and our homes, and eventually, even into our clothes. All of this data is “behavioral surplus” about us enabling various entities to market to us and, less benignly, manipulate our perceptions and behavior.

This leads to the second and perhaps more sinister idea that the entities controlling these platforms are seeking to establish instrumentarian, not totalitarian control of society, working toward the idea of a “frictionless” hive mind, controlled by “Big Other.” The aim is total certainty in the control exercised and guaranteed outcomes to marketing efforts. Platforms own the means of behavioral modification, the use of which is concealed. Zuboff’s description of these efforts reminded me of Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle (review), a world in whose ideal is that nothing be hidden, nothing secret, and all transparent. For Zuboff, the greatest problem these platforms face is “friction,” in which individuals do not surrender privacy or information.

One idea introduced toward the end of the book is that of “equivalence.” Anything that produces more traffic, more engagement, and information is good. It struck me that this was the flaw in the supposed dream of a “hive mind.” This was amply on display in recent elections and efforts at social disruption. Platforms do have the ability to control these but tend to refrain, even though these promote conflicting rather than harmonious interests. My hunch is that capitalism is of greater interest than control and that these platforms are relatively indifferent to content as long as it is profitable.

The bigger problem I have is that this book is long on assertion and short on data or practical recommendations. The most she can offer is “be the friction.” I do believe she offers legitimate warnings about how unwittingly we yield up all kinds of information about ourselves. She doesn’t explore the networking of platforms, and how everything from what we buy at the grocery store to our credit records to our health records, the layout of our homes and our travel histories can be compiled. I’m not convinced that “Big Other” is the greater danger than “Big Brother.” What I do believe is that Zuboff raises a necessary warning that our democratic freedoms, including some measure of self-determination, may be lost. It may even be that they are not taken from us so much as willingly surrendered.

Redeeming Social Media During an Election Year

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Redeeming social media. Many would consider that a quixotic endeavor, especially in an election year. The meme above, which has been circulating on Facebook is an example. I posted it yesterday on Facebook and indicated it reflects my own social media philosophy.

Post wisely over the next months. Someone who commented suggested pausing before speaking, especially when in doubt. I’ve reminded people on my Bob on Books Facebook page that we don’t have to say everything we think. Herbert J. Taylor formulated a 4 Way Test for communications in his company, Club Aluminum back in the 1950’s which was eventually adopted by the Rotary.

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Imagine using this test on everything you post on social media.

Contribute to discourse, not division. We have to seriously consider the implications of all our “us versus them” rhetoric, and often how we pigeonhole and caricature “them.” Are we really interested in dialogue? Do we just exchange slogans and gaslighting tropes? Or do we ask questions, explore reasons, and find out if there are common ground concerns? For example, I think both left and right are concerned about where the country is going. What if we accepted that we all love the country and then listened to each other’s concerns?

Check your facts. So many news stories being circulated on social media are based on dubious information. You might check several fact-checking sites, and if there is evidence that they are false, even if they conform to your political ideas, posting is passing along lies. Realize that much of this material may be generated by foreign entities trying to shape the election. I use reputable news media from different perspectives from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post. When they agree, there is a pretty good basis for them being accurate. If you see blatant falsehoods, report them to social media admins.

Resist memes and cheap digs. Other than the one above, I rarely post memes, and never cheap ad hominem attacks. I don’t comment on them unless it seems beneath the dignity of a friend posting it because that just draws attention to the meme. Stuff doesn’t stay in a newsfeed if no one likes or comments on it.

Create beautiful content. This is a challenging time to think about beauty with fires, disease, and political discord. On my book page, we just stay away from all that and are reminded of the good, true, and beautiful in literature. I post prayers to give words to spiritual longings, and humor because I think it helps to have a good laugh. Sometimes I post music, looking forward to the day I will be able to join others in song. Remembering beauty is an act of faith expressing the hope that beauty will prevail.

We can transcend the bitterness and be better, even when we disagree. Some would have us believe that those who disagree with us are nasty or deplorable. Our current political climate thrives on creating tribes that believe they are the only real human beings around and the others subhuman at best. If we believe all are created equal, that all are created in the image of God, that every human being, imperfectly to be sure and to various degrees, reflects something of God, then we already have something in common. Indeed, we have the most important of what makes us human in common. We all have dreams, hopes, and struggles, no matter our politics. In truth, our disagreements are often just about politics, which, despite the rhetoric, is only a small part of daily life. Could it be that we give it too much space in our lives, in our heads?

There will be people who use social media to foment discord and spread deceptive stories and malign those who differ. We don’t have to join them. I would suggest we “socially distance” them when they engage in this kind of behavior, and look for ways to build bridges with those who are our friends, when there are chances–an illness, a new baby, a beautiful family picture. Discord and division spread through those who misuse social media to pass toxic material along, in the same way viral infections spread. We can’t eliminate the infection of political discord in social media, but we may “flatten the curve” by consistently pursuing the social hygiene practices in this post.

Using Online Media During Covid-19

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Staying home, modeling my homemade, no-sew mask. Bob Trube © 2020

Amid sheltering in place during Covid-19, I’ve had to think through my use of online media in this time, in both professional and personal life. I’m still in process, particularly as I observe the various controversies, rumors, information, and dire news reports coming from every country on the planet. I’m sobered by what our first responders and frontline healthcare personnel must face, by news of friends and friends of friends who are fighting infections, and the growing death tolls. In addition to newscasts, much of this information comes over online media. Like most of you, I’m trying to figure out how to walk the line between denial and obsession, of staying informed without being overwhelmed. Here are some thoughts in how I’m thinking about and dealing with this. I’m still figuring it out, and what I say may not fit your situation, so, for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts:

  1. I’m trying to take steps to limit how much I read online. It’s a real temptation for me. I love to learn about things, which probably accounts for the shelves and shelves and piles of books in my home. I’m learning to take times of the day to check the news, and other times where I put the phone in another room, particularly when I want to give uninterrupted time to work projects or reading. If I don’t, there is always another story, and in time, even though I’m pretty even keel, I get weighed down.
  2. When I read about things that heighten my anxiety, or news about friends getting infected, or facing other struggles, I stop and pray. Often, it is just a breath prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” I try to jot a note to express care. I use messaging or emails to check in with others who I care about. I often feel helpless, but I believe God can take the little I can offer and multiply it.
  3. Much of my online presence is about books and reading, and I will stick to that. I’ve been reading Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War right now. It is a wonderful account of how important books were to those in service during World War 2. We’re in a war, facing both dire prospects and extended time at home, books can inspire and divert us. So I’ll keep reading and reviewing and posting articles about books on my Facebook page, as well as “questions of the day,” quotes, and humor. To laugh, to share about books we’ve loved, and talk about books we might read next is an act of hope, and an affirmation of life.
  4. I sense that some of those I work with are already burning out on Zoom. It’s unavoidable for faculty and students I work with. But it is also tiring, because we “see” others, but have to work harder to connect. I’m learning to break these sessions up into smaller doses. I’m also wondering if sometimes, a phone call, or even an old-fashioned handwritten note or letter may be better. Zoom is a great tool, but I’m starting to rummage around and ask if there are other tools in the toolbox I should be using.
  5. I am not going to amplify the dire news, rumors, and controversy. Other than one instance of advocating around an issue that personally affected friends I care about, I try to keep it positive. I love to give shout-outs to our governor and state health director (a fellow Youngstowner and Youngstown State alumnus!) who are giving great leadership to our state. Otherwise, I try to post humor, encouraging stories like the technology developed locally to sterilize the critical N95 masks up to 20 times, and other things, like a video showing how you can make a no-sew mask, along with a selfie of me with one of those masks. There are news outlets and plenty of others bringing dire news, conflicting stories, and controversies. I’ll leave it to them. As for politics, I say the one referendum that counts is the first Tuesday of this November.

There is a scripture I was reminded of again today that shapes my approach:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

Nearly seven years ago when I launched this blog, I wrote, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world.” I think we need this now as much as ever. So I will keep writing about our common love of all things related to books. I will keep writing stories about Youngstown. And I will keep cherishing each day God gives for us to share on this media.

Stay safe dear friends.

Are You “Sharing” Truth or Falsehoods?

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Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration (cropped) by Frederick Burr Opper, Public Domain via Wikipedia

One of the more grievous things about social media is to see the number of posts and memes, many of a political nature, that, when fact-checked, are either half-truths or outright lies. The most unsettling are personal attacks on individuals, based on false information.

I am most disturbed when I see friends who I know as professing Christians engaged in this kind of activity. The apostle Paul in Ephesians calls us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). What is disturbing is that much of this activity evidences neither truth nor love.

Sometimes, it may be that we see something that either incites our outrage, or reinforces an existing belief, and it is so easy to click “share” or “retweet.” The thing is that often, that is exactly what the originators of this content want us to do, whether they are partisans in this country or propagandists from foreign countries seeking to sow discord in the American system.

I think that if all professing Christians determined to not share and retweet political posts, without checking their truthfulness before passing them along, it would not stop this practice, but it might make a difference. If they went a step further and let the person who shared the information with them that it was inaccurate, this might give others pause (and might not).

This does raise the question of how we assess the truthfulness of posts and tweets. The Huffington Post recently published an article on “How to Recognize a Fake News Story” that reflects my own practices. They suggested nine practices:

  1. Read past the headline.
  2. Check what news outlet it is published on. (Google the site’s name.) I would add, be aware of the bias of all news outlets, even mainstream media.
  3. Check the publish date and time (sometimes old events are represented as current).
  4. Who is the author? (Search their past articles to see if they are reputable or have a reputation for hoaxes)
  5. Look at what links and sources are used.
  6. Look for questionable quotes and images. (The article suggests tools you can use).
  7. Beware of confirmation bias. (Don’t just share something because it agrees with your point of view–it could be false.)
  8. Search if other news outlets are reporting it. (Especially those with a different bias).
  9. Think before you share.

I also use sites like FactCheck.org, or Politifact.com to check posts, quotes, and memes. Often I end up finding the actual meme or post and then a detailed citation of reputable sources confirming the post or showing it partially true or false. Some people have accused these sites of bias, but I have found them willing to take to task posts across the political spectrum, and to provide reputable sources to back up their findings.

What is most challenging to me however is that I do not want to be found disobedient to the word of God. And I believe that anyone who really loves God and God’s word does not want to be found disobedient, either. Consider some of these scriptures and their implications for what we say and write online:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16.

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Proverbs 12:22.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” 1 Corinthians 13:6

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” 1 Peter 2:1

I spend a good deal of time online with this blog, and on different social media sites I curate. This is a challenging word that I consider:

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” Matthew 12:36 [All verses NIV]

I just added it up. I’ve written over 1.5 million words on this blog since I began it in 2013. I believe I will give account for every one. As well as my posts and comments on social media. All my emails. My words offline. Apart from grace, I know I’m in deep trouble. But even with grace, I’m sobered that my words, indeed my life, is an open book to God. I love God and I want to tell a story God loves.

If you love God, I think you do as well. We may not always agree, and I don’t think we need to mute our disagreements or our convictions about parties and issues. Can we agree to tell the truth to the best of our ability? Can we agree not to “gaslight” each other? Can we agree to believe the best of each other?

Jesus called his followers the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We may wonder whether what we do makes a difference. I would suggest that it does not take much salt to flavor something. Even a small light can pierce and dispel darkness. “Tipping points” happen when a number of small changes come together and have a cumulative effect. Imagine what would happen if the 65% of self-identifying Christians in the U.S. took truthfulness online seriously. It may not end our political disagreements, but I wonder if it would change the online world and the rancor and discord we encounter.

Will you take truthfulness seriously? Will you encourage this in your social media circles? Do you think I am speaking the truth? Will you share that truth?

Fostering Civil Spaces on Social Media

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Social Media: Image by Gerd Altman via Pixabay, [CC0 1.0]

Several good friends have recently announced their intention to leave Facebook until after the U.S. national elections in November. Their reason is their own mental health. The level of argument, vicious attacks, false or misleading claims, and fake news are putting off increasing numbers who once thought these sights to be a fun and social way to keep up with friends. Is that the way it has to be?

In recent years I’ve been increasingly involved both as a participant and a page administrator on Facebook and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good has been conversations, particularly around books, where people have shared about their love of books, what they love reading, what they don’t (and these can be polar opposites), and discussions where people learn from each other, and about new genres of literature and authors they might like and learn from.

The bad have been arguments where people go beyond reasoned and vigorous exchanges to slogans, epithets, and dismissive remarks in increasingly heated exchanges. Others often just shut down and leave.

The ugly comes when people resort to personal attacks on the character of each other, or of other figures, or even bullying and abusive behaviors.

What have I learned about creating civil spaces?

  1. If you are expecting perfection, forget it. People have bad days. Some people only want to assert an idea without defending it. People misunderstand each other. There are “trolls” and downright mean people. The truth is, we have bad days with the people who are closest to us.
  2. Probably the best thing that can be done is to have clear rules about posting online. Social media researcher J. Nathan Matias has found that clear posting rules with clear consequences both reduce harassment and increase participation. On my book page, I bar any personal attacks, profanity, and bullying, and any “marketing” posts for books (open that door and that is all you get). Others can include things like off-topic posting. Positively, I encourage respectful dialogue, and focusing on our common love of books. I think it doesn’t hurt to remind people why a group exists.
  3. Moderators or page administrators have to be willing to enforce rules. This is easier when you have them. It can mean shutting down toxic threads, deleting posts that violate your rules, and posting reminders about page or group rules when needed. I try to send a friendly message to those who break rules the first time. With most people that’s enough. Often they even apologize, especially when they realize they are dealing with a person rather than an algorithm. The only person I ever banned was someone who called another member “stupid.” When I messaged him about it, he called me “stupid.” NEVER call page admins names!
  4. Watch “vigorous” interactions closely. I try to let them go as long as they don’t degenerate to name-calling or personal attacks.
  5. Learn the limit’s of your particular page or group’s capacity and exceed them at your peril! Sometimes you discover them when you exceed them! I’ve found you can talk religion as long as you don’t go negative on others. Politics–forget it in this climate. Controversial issues? Sometimes, the issue is how “in your face” the post or comment is to opposing positions.
  6. On pages I curate, I try to mix it up to allow for diversity–serious with light, posts appealing to a variety of interests, posts from diverse authors and sources, with a healthy dose of humor–even if it is lame! While we have basic page standards, I want people to know that we don’t want this to be an echo chamber but a place where different people can meet.
  7. I try to promote engagement. Sometimes over a hundred people respond to the “Question of the Day” on my page, and many others check out the contributions.
  8. I avoid commenting on many posts except when I’m directly asked a question. I want people to have a sense that the page is about all of us, not just me.

And a few things about other pages and groups:

  1. Know and follow the page rules and never cross the admins.
  2. Engage what others post as well as respond when people engage you. Be friendly, and a little humor never hurts as long as it is not belittling to the other person.
  3. Don’t be that person who talks incessantly, or dominates posts.
  4. Learn to distinguish between things you disagree with, or are different from your experience, and genuinely objectionable behavior where you are disrespected. Don’t get into it with with such folks–just message the admin. They may not immediately spot your interaction if there is a lot of activity. This is what they get paid the big bucks for (usually nothing!).

Mostly, it comes down to the things that make for good conversations in any setting. Funny how we forget these when we are online. That, I suppose, is where the rules really help.

One final thing. Kindness never hurts.  Often when there is an unexpectedly strong response, there is often more going on than meets the eye. For example, someone responded very strongly to an article I posted on vaccines one time. As we interacted, I discovered the reason why. The person had lost a family member to an extreme reaction to the vaccine. The conversation moved from a discussion that could be controversial to a connection with the deep pain that comes from loss. A saying that is variously attributed is perhaps a good thing to remember in all our online interactions:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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.

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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.