יום שישי, 16 בדצמבר 2016

Paradise Lost: Why the 2016 Election Should Sound the Death Knell for Digital Utopians

Jason Policastro

“The mind is it’s own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”

-John Milton, Paradise Lost
Well, shit.

Fake news. A post-truth society. Unprecedented political polarization. Foreign hackers meddling in our electoral process.

These are the themes of the day, and many of us are shocked by their apparent swift arrival. What happened to our promised technology-enabled enlightenment? How have we been denied our digital utopia?

Ten years ago, a certain kind of internet Pollyanna dominated future-of-news conversations. According to new-media gurus like Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and others, the rise of online communities would serve to promote truth, transparency, and informed discourse. Information wants to be free, we were assured. Stodgy news institutions would be cast aside in favor of the wisdom of the crowd. A new era of government transparency was imminent.

In the wake of the most divisive and dishonest campaign season in history, one in which misinformation, innuendo, and flat-out lies have played their largest role ever, how’s that working for you?

Local Obfuscation, Writ Large

The events of this year didn’t shock everyone, least of all those who’ve been monitoring the decline of the traditional press.

In 2009, journalist and television writer/producer David Simon relayed his experience in puncturing the Baltimore City Police Department’s justification for withholding the names of officers involved in the shooting of civilians in the line of duty. An officer had recently shot an unarmed 61-year-old man, and the department spokesperson was breaking the longstanding policy of releasing the officer’s name under the pretense of threats against officers. Simon later discovered these threats were actually not related to officer-involved shootings.

Simon laid bare how the BCPD’s opacity was aided by a newly weakened Baltimore Sun:

“Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit — these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information. And in a city where officials routinely plead with citizens to trust the police, where witnesses have for years been vulnerable to retaliatory violence, we now have a once-proud department’s officers hiding behind anonymity that is not only arguably illegal under existing public information laws, but hypocritical as well.”

I don’t think I need to explain the consequences of this policy, but quickly: A perceived lack of accountability by police contributed to a divide between the police department and the citizens it was charged to protect and serve, in Baltimore and other cities. This divide — and the lack of trust at its heart — helped stoke the fires of unrest that burned Baltimore and other cities in 2015.

Simon notes in his column that he didn’t trip over any bloggers or “citizen journalists” in his attempt to uncover the truth in this case — technology and new media weren’t filling in the gaps in coverage left by a weakened newspaper.

The 2016 presidential campaign featured the same dynamic, writ large: A powerful public figure was able to spread misinformation and manipulate the public because the press was too weak or discredited to counter him.

And in the case of the election, technology wasn’t equipped to squelch the spread of fake news, prevent meddling by foreign hackers, or work to expose us to different points of view in our social media feed. Instead, the Internet exacerbated and enabled these problems.

Send in the Clowns

At the end of the 2000s, the decline of newspapers had reached full throttle with each week bringing a new round of layoffs and buyouts. But new media gurus were impassioned in their declarations of how blogs, social media, and “citizen journalists” would fill the void and uphold journalistic ethics.

These were heady days for civic-minded tech workers with dreams of a new digital utopia. Indeed, we were assured that a new age of transparency was inevitable and fast approaching, bringing with it a more open government, elevated political discourse, and a sense of enlightenment for “netizens,” among other benefits.

Reliable news, as these new digital utopians saw it, was a commodity, easily available and therefore easily created — at reduced cost — by anyone with a keyboard and Internet connection. The role of journalists would shift from creation to curation, organizing user-generated content, “cover what you do best, link to the rest,” according to Jarvis.
There are no newspapers in North Haverbrook, but plenty of bloggers.

Going forward, news would be networked, succumbing to an inevitable society-wide evening of the playing field. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, declared that the Internet would “flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people.”

Clay Shirky, in his 2008 ode to the rise of online communities “Here Comes Everybody”, celebrated the collapse of barriers to publication:

“The question that mass amateurization poses to traditional media is ‘What happens when the costs of reproduction and distribution go away? What happens when there is nothing unique about publishing anymore because users can do it for themselves?’ We are now starting to see that question being answered.”

Indeed. The answer to that question is the weaponized anti-intellectualism known as “fake news”, a descendant of the Bush-Cheney culture wars that has harnessed the power of social networks to influence the American electorate, compromise our social fabric, and made millions for keyboard nihilists. Just ask the owners of Comet Pizza in DC.

When the barriers to publication drop, anyone can rush the door.

Fake News Gets Real

A recent Buzzfeed study found that of the Facebook posts it examined from three major right-wing websites, 38% were either untrue, or a mixture of the truth and lies. And the more extreme the lie, the more likely it was to go viral — the site Freedom Daily was the most inaccurate, and had the most shared content.

Many of the people behind these so-called “alt-right” sites aren’t even conservatives and don’t espouse the beliefs they spew. Some are just teenagers in Macedonia who have found profitable marks in gullible Americans. They’re going for advertising dollars, fabricating garbage that will get them the most clicks. They’ve monetized lies, and business is booming.

Now we have fake news as Frankenstein’s monster, raging beyond our control, legitimizing previously fringe elements, stoking fear and aggression, and undermining our democracy.

What Have We Learned?

On top of the damaging and dangerous rise of fake news, what other lessons have we learned about technology’s role in the 2016 election?

1. Technology helped foreign hackers breach our democratic process.

What started as the biggest untold story of the election has now mushroomed into a scandal that threatens its very legitimacy: Russian hackers breaching the DNC and possibly working to get Trump elected. But how were they able to get their hands on the data that has called our democratic process into question and spread it far and wide?

It turns out WikiLeaks, hailed in its early days as the ultimate forum for government whistleblowers, had a healthy appetite for illegally hacked DNC data from the Russians. It’s intellectually lazy to call the leak of Clinton campaign emails a win for government transparency. As with all leaks, the source and their motives must be considered. For example, Wikileaks also tweeted recklessly about a Clinton Foundation employee allegedly contemplating suicide.

This kind of personal attack and destruction of privacy is a frequently used tactic for repressing dissent. In a New York Times’ op-ed, Zeynep Tufecki explains that WikiLeaks has “outed rape victims and gay people in Saudi Arabia, private citizens’ emails and personal information in Turkey, and the voice mail messages of Democratic National Committee staff members.”

The practice even has its own name in Russian, kompromat, which means compromising materials about a public figure. Only now, thanks to the power of technology, anyone can be targeted. Subversion and misdirection are time-tested tools of the powerful. This time, instead of politicians trying to buttonhole a reporter into forwarding their agenda, we’re at the mercy of foreign hackers whose target, according to Tufecki, is “the very heart of our democracy.”

2. The tech gods will not save us.

As for the wave of fake news that choked Facebook before the election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is furiously washing his hands. “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think that is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg told the New York Times on November 18.

He bills the site as a neutral platform, and the truth is that Zuckerberg has no financial incentive to police fake news on Facebook. To the contrary, the more time users spend on the site spewing and interacting with misinformation, the more ad dollars for the site. Somehow, Facebook and Google are able to closely track our every click and use the data they harvest as a selling point to advertisers. But we’re to believe they’re somehow unable to put their considerable expertise to work against misleading fake news stories?

Facebook is no passive vessel. It puts algorithmic heft behind the content you see. If Facebook can tell you’re a deep blue liberal, based on what you’ve viewed, clicked, liked, etc., then you will be served a steady diet of liberal content. And if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, you’ll get the opposite.

Zuckerberg’s actions on the topic speak far louder than his words. In an effort to convince the Chinese to allow Facebook to play in China’s massive and potentially lucrative internet market (a shameless, failed campaign thus far), the company has built an internal tool that would automatically censor posts before they appear, in keeping with local censorship laws. In this case, it seems that Facebook is perfectly willing and able to parse information contained in potential posts.

At one time, Facebook had editors for its Trending section, but fired them after being pressed by conservatives. And this June, the site adjusted its algorithm to de-emphasize news and amplify posts from friends and family in your News Feed just as the election was heating up, thereby shrinking the echo chamber even further.

To their credit, both Google and Facebook have since vowed to disable the funding sources of fake news sites. But the damage has been done, and the moral selectivity of the tech industry’s leaders should all but obliterate the notion of inherent benevolence in the tech sector. Tufecki made it damningly plain in her Nov. 15 column, “When Facebook is discussed in tomorrow’s history books, it will probably not be about its quarterly earnings reports and stock options.”
This inauguration ceremony is kind of a drag.

3. Technology cloisters us, rewires us, and erodes our empathy.

Instead of clicking through to read the full story, most people speed-browse through their social-media feeds, scanning headlines. It could be argued that headlines have surpassed the actual story in importance. This motivates fake and legitimate news outlets alike to create the most outrageous headlines possible to drive clicks. These clicks are tracked, similar content is sent your way, and the cycle continues.

The typical user is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, so instead of drinking deeply from a reliable, objective news source, they take sips from the fire hose of social media and subject themselves to toxic misinformation. They seek out confirmation of their own views because it’s a safe harbor in an information storm, and they remain sheltered from the conflicting views of the other side. When you’re indiscriminate about where your information comes from, you’ve empowered the scammers that helped to shape the narratives that dominated this election.

Partisan sensationalism reigns, degrading our political discourse and shredding our social fabric. Nuance and common ground are not lucrative; therefore they have been largely abandoned.

Pay No Attention to the Algorithm Behind the Curtain
“You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking.”

In the shockwave that followed Trump’s victory, Jeff Jarvis emitted a blamestorm on Twitter, lacerating himself, media, journalism, the educational system, and anyone else in the immediate vicinity for the election results. He then took a few swings at his favorite punching bag in another postmortem for journalism, bashing the press for failing to properly inform the public about Trump and what his ascendance to the presidency would mean for America.

But one industry remained blameless. Somehow, only one industry and its major players continued to evade Jarvis’s abundant, righteous anger.

Any guesses as to who remains in Jarvis’ good graces?

You can Google the answer.

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