Apple clearly has power, but it isn’t accountable

By John Naughton

The only body that has, to date, been able to exert real control over the data-tracking industry is a giant private company which itself is subject to serious concerns about its monopolistic behaviour. Where is democracy in all this?

A few weeks ago, Apple dropped its long-promised bombshell on the data-tracking industry.

The latest version (14.5) of iOS — the operating system of the iPhone — included a provision that required app users explicitly to confirm that they wished to be tracked across the Internet in their online activities.

At the heart of the switch is a code known as “the identity for advertisers” or IDFA. It turns out that every iPhone comes with one of these identifiers, the object of which is to provide participants in the hidden real-time bidding system with aggregate data about the user’s interests.

For years, iPhone users had had the option to switch it off by digging into the privacy settings of their devices; but, because they’re human, very few had bothered to do that.

From 14.5 onwards, however, they couldn’t avoid making a decision, and you didn’t have to be a Nobel laureate to guess that most iPhone users would opt out.

Which explains why those who profit from the data-tracking racket had for months been terminally anxious about Apple’s perfidy.

Some of the defensive PR mounted on their behalf — for example Facebook’s weeping about the impact on small, defenceless businesses — defied parody.

“We have evidence of its [real-time bidding] illegitimacy, and a powerful law on the statute book which in principle could bring it under control — but which we appear unable to enforce.”

Other counter-offensives included attacks on Apple’s monopolistic control over its Apps store, plus charges of rank hypocrisy – that changes in version 14.5 were not motivated by Apple’s concerns for users’ privacy but by its own plans to enter the advertising business. And so on.

It’ll be a while until we know for sure whether the apocalyptic fears of the data-trackers were accurate.

It takes time for most iPhone users to install operating system updates, and so these are still relatively early days. But the first figures are promising. One data-analytics company, for example, has found that in the early weeks the daily opt-out rate for American users has been around 94 percent.

This is much higher than surveys conducted in the run-up to the change had suggested — one had estimated an opt-out rate closer to 60 per cent.

If the opt-out rate is as high as we’ve seen so far, then it’s bad news for the data-tracking racket and good news for humanity. And if you think that description of what the Financial Times estimates to be a $350B industry is unduly harsh, then a glance at a dictionary may be helpful.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines ‘racket’ as “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity” or “a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation”.

It’s not clear whether the computerised, high-speed auction system in which online ads are traded benefits from ‘bribery or intimidation’, but it is certainly illegal — and currently unregulated.

That is the conclusion of a remarkable recent investigation by two legal scholars, Michael Veale and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, who set out to examine whether this ‘real-time bidding’ (RTB) system conforms to European data-protection law.

“The irony in this particular case is that there’s no need for such an overhaul: Europe already has the law in place.”

They asked whether RTB complies with three rules of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) — the requirement for a legal basis, transparency, and security. They showed that for each of the requirements, most RTB practices do not comply. “Indeed”, they wrote, “it seems close to impossible to make RTB comply”. So, they concluded, it needs to be regulated.

It does.

Often the problem with tech regulation is that our legal systems need to be overhauled to deal with digital technology. But the irony in this particular case is that there’s no need for such an overhaul: Europe already has the law in place.

It’s the GDPR, which is part of the legal code of every EU country and has provision for swingeing punishments of infringers. The problem is it’s not being effectively enforced.

Why not? The answer is that the EU delegates regulatory power to the relevant institutions — in this case Data Protection Authorities — of its member states. And these local outfits are overwhelmed by the scale of the task – and are lamentably under-resourced for it.

Half of Europe’s DPAs have only five technical experts or fewer. And the Irish Data Protection Authority, on whose patch most of the tech giants have their European HQs, has the heaviest enforcement workload in Europe and is clearly swamped.

So here’s where we are: an illegal online system has been running wild for years, generating billions of profits for its participants.

We have evidence of its illegitimacy, and a powerful law on the statute book which in principle could bring it under control — but which we appear unable to enforce.

And the only body that has, to date, been able to exert real control over the aforementioned racket is… a giant private company which itself is subject to serious concerns about its monopolistic behaviour. And the question for today: where is democracy in all this? You only have to ask to know the answer.


A version of this post appeared in The Observer on 23 May, 2021.

In Review: Bellingcat and the unstoppable Mr Higgins

By John Naughton

Review of We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, by Eliot Higgins, Bloomsbury, 255pp

On the face of it, this book tells an implausible story. It’s about how an ordinary guy – a bored administrator in Leicester, to be precise – becomes a skilled Internet sleuth solving puzzles and crimes which appear to defeat some of the world’s intelligence agencies. And yet it’s true. Eliot Higgins was indeed a bored administrator, out of a job and looking after his young daughter in 2011 while his wife went out to work. He was an avid watcher of YouTube videos, especially of those emanating from the Syrian civil war, and one day had an epiphany: “If you searched online you could find facts that neither the press nor the experts knew.”

Higgins realised that one reason why mainstream media were ignoring the torrent of material from the war zone that was being uploaded to YouTube and other social media channels was that these outlets were unable to verify or corroborate it. So he started a blog — the Brown Moses blog — and discovered that a smattering of other people had had a similar realisation, which was the seed crystal for the emergence of an online community that converged around news events that had left clues on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

This community of sleuths now sails under the flag of Bellingcat, a name taken from the children’s story about the ingenious mice who twig that the key to obtaining early warning of a cat’s approach is to put a bell round its neck. This has led to careless journalists calling members of the community “Bellingcats” — which leads them indignantly to point out that they are the mice, not the predators!

The engaging name belies a formidable little operation which has had a series of impressive scoops. One of the earliest involved confirming Russian involvement in the downing of MH17, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft brought down by a missile when flying over Ukraine. Other impressive scoops included identification of the Russian FSB agents responsible for the Skripal poisonings and finding the FSB operative who tried to assassinate Alexai Navalny, the Russian democratic campaigner and Putin opponent who is now imprisoned — and, reportedly, seriously ill — in a Russian gaol.

‘We are Bellingcat’ is a low-key account of how this remarkable outfit evolved and of the role that Mr Higgins played in its development. The deadpan style reflects the author’s desire to project himself as an ordinary Joe who stumbled on something significant and worked at it in collaboration with others. This level of understatement is admirable but not entirely persuasive for the simple reason that Higgins is no ordinary Joe. After all, one doesn’t make the transition from a bored, low-level administrator to become a Research Fellow at U.C. Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and a member of the International Criminal Court’s Technology Advisory Board without having some exceptional qualities.

“One could say that the most seminal contribution Bellingcat has made so far is to explore and disseminate the tools needed to convert user-generated content into more credible information — and maybe, sometimes, into the first draft of history.”

One of the most striking things about Bellingcat’s success is that — at least up to this stage — its investigative methodology is (to use a cliché) not rocket science. It’s a combination of determination, stamina, cooperation, Internet-saviness, geolocation (where did something happen?), chronolocation (when did it happen?) and an inexhaustible appetite for social-media-trawling. There is, in other words, a Bellingcat methodology — and any journalist can learn it, provided his or her employer is prepared to provide the time and opportunity to do so. In response, Bellingcat has been doing ‘boot camps’ for journalists — first in Germany, Britain and France and — hopefully — in the US. And the good news is that some mainstream news outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC, have been setting up journalistic units working in similar ways.

In the heady days of the so-called ‘Arab spring’ there was a lot of excited hype about the way the smartphone had launched a new age of ‘Citizen Journalism’. This was a kind of category error which confused user-generated content badged as ‘witnessing’ with the scepticism, corroboration, verification, etc. that professional journalism requires. So in that sense one could say that the most seminal contribution Bellingcat has made so far is to explore and disseminate the tools needed to convert user-generated content into more credible information — and maybe, sometimes, into the first draft of history.

Mr Higgins makes continuous use of the phrase “open source” to describe information that he and his colleagues find online, when what he really means is that the information — because it is available online — is in the public domain. It is not ‘open source’ in the sense that the term is used in the computer industry, but I guess making that distinction is now a lost cause because mainstream media have re-versioned the phrase.

The great irony of the Bellingcat story is that the business model that finances the ‘free’ services (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram et al) that are polluting the public sphere and undermining democracy is also what provides Mr Higgins and his colleagues with the raw material from which their methodology extracts so many scoops and revelations. Mr Higgins doesn’t have much time for those of us who are hyper-critical of the tech industry. He sees it as a gift horse whose teeth should not be too carefully examined. And I suppose that, in his position, I might think the same.

Forthcoming in British Journalism Review, vol. 32, No 2, June 2021.

Worried about data overload or AI overlords? Here’s how the CDH Social Data School can help

By Anne Alexander

Ahead of the CDH Social Data School application Q&A on May 4, Dr Anne Alexander, Director of Learning at Cambridge Digital Humanities (CDH), explains how the programme provides the digital research tools necessary for the data-driven world.

The world we live in has long been shaped by the proliferation of data – companies, governments and even our fellow citizens all collect and create data about us every day of our lives.

Much of our communications are relayed digitally, the buildings we live in and the urban spaces we pass through have been turned into sensors, we work, play and even sleep with our digital devices. Particularly over the past year, as the pandemic has dramatically reduced in-person interactions for many, the data overload has come to seem overwhelming. 

The CDH Social Data School (June 16-29) which Cambridge Digital Humanities is organising in collaboration with the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is aimed at people working with data in the media, NGOs and civil society organisations and in education who want to equip themselves with new skills in designing and carrying out digital research projects, but who don’t enjoy easy access to education in data collection, management and analysis.

We want to make available the methods of inquiry and the technical skills we teach to students and staff at the University of Cambridge to a much wider audience. 

This year’s CDH Social Data School will include modules exploring the ethical and societal implications of new applications in Machine Learning, with a specific focus on the problems of structural injustice which permeate the computer vision techniques underpinning technologies such as facial recognition and image-based demographic profiling. 

We are keen to hear from participants whose work supports public interest journalism, human rights advocacy, trade unionism and campaigns for social justice, environmental sustainability and the decolonisation of education. 

Although criticism of the deployment of these technologies is now much more widespread than in the past, it often focuses on the problems with specific use cases rather than more general principles.

In the CDH Social Data School we will take a “bottom-up” approach by providing an accessible introduction to the technical fundamentals of machine learning systems, in order to equip participants with a better understanding of what can (and usually does) go wrong when such systems are deployed in wider society. 

We will also engage with these ideas through an experimental approach to learning, giving participants access to easy-to-use tools and methods allowing them to pose the questions which are most relevant to their own work. 

Participants are not expected to have any prior knowledge of programming to take part – familiarity with working with basic office tools such as spreadsheets will be helpful. We will be using free or open source software to reduce barriers to participation. 

We are particularly interested in applications from participants from countries, communities and groups which suffer from under-resourcing, marginalization and discrimination.

We are keen to hear from participants whose work supports public interest journalism, human rights advocacy, trade unionism and campaigns for social justice, environmental sustainability and the decolonisation of education. 

The CDH Social Data School will run online from June 16-29.

Apply now for the CDH Social Data School 2021

Please join us for a Q&A session with the teaching team:

Tuesday 4 May 2 – 2.45pm BST

Registration essential: Sign up here

Read more on the background and apply for your place at the School here.

In Review: Is more state ownership the panacea that will save us from the big tech giants?

By Julia Rone

Living in a world with an increasingly uncontrolled accumulation of power by big tech, what alternatives are there to privately owned enterprises that could ensure the tech sector better serves democratic society? Julia Rone reviews Andrew Cumbers’ new book ‘Reclaiming Public Ownership. Making Space for Economic Democracy’ and starts a conversation on how to apply his writing to the tech sector.

Every discussion we’ve had so far on regulating tech giants ends up with discussing whether regulation (be it anti-trust/regulating ‘recommending’ algorithms/treating big tech as public utilities) is enough.

As a colleague smartly noted last time, we have reduced our expectations of the state to a form of (light-touch) regulation to take place only in case markets fail. But as Mariana Mazucatto has famously shown in her spectacular book “The Value of Everything”, “the state” has in fact funded the fundamental science and tech development behind not only the Internet but also the technologies used in purportedly private companies’ successes such as the iPhone. The state has been a key driver of innovation rather than some clumsy behemoth lagging behind technology and poking its nose in people’s business.

The sad thing, of course, is that the value created with public funding has been subsequently privatized/appropriated by private companies – not only in monetary terms but also in symbolic terms. I’ve never had random strangers at parties telling me about publicly funded researchers, yet I have endured hours of men (it’s usually men) praising Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

Now, we might think that this “forgetting” of the role of the state is innocent, a childish fascination with mythical entrepreneurial figures. But that’s not the case. The bad-mouthing of the state we see in tech industry is part of a much broader trend (neoliberalism?) of framing the state as incompetent, wasteful, bureaucratic and incapable of innovation.

This is why, when, as a reaction to the 2008 economic crisis, the British government nationalized (fully or partially) large parts of UK’s retail or banking sector, they were quick to appoint private executives, often from the very banks that had caused the crisis to begin with.

What nationalization amounted to, in this case, was the public sector absorbing bad debts to allow private capital to restructure and start accumulating profits again. Andrew Cumbers begins his brilliant book on public ownership with this example and dedicates the rest of the book to 1) explaining why even amidst the biggest crisis of capitalism private executives were considered more competent; 2) what alternatives are there to privately owned enterprises.

While the neoliberal bad-mouthing of the state and its reduction to light-touch regulator have been undoubtedly super influential, the question I would like to bring to the table, drawing extensively on Cumbers, is: should we uncritically rehabilitate the state? Is more state the panacea that will save us from the big bad tech giants? Or should we try to think of new forms of ownership and democratic management, in our case, of digital platforms? In the following paragraphs I will present Cumbers’ book in detail (maybe too much detail but it’s really a great book) before returning to these key questions at the end.

Historic experiences with nationalization in the UK – “neither socialization nor modernization”

What makes Cumbers’ book so brilliant is that he engages in depth with existing theories, empirical examples and critiques of public ownership but then he moves beyond this purely analytical exercise of discussing ‘who is right and who is wrong’.

Instead, he puts forward an alternative – a vision of public ownership that goes beyond the state, embraces diversity and heterodoxy, and puts at its center the core principle of economic democracy.

To begin with, Cumbers argues that nationalization and state planning have such a bad name partially because of the way they were instituted in practice. Talking about the British post 1945 experience with nationalization, Cumebrs argues it was “neither socialization, nor modernization” (p. 14). More radical agendas never penetrated the upper echelons of the Labour establishment: referring to the nationalization programme as “socialization” was mainly PR and the government “was deeply suspicious of anything remotely ‘syndicalist’ that might provide more grass-roots or shop-floor representation and influence on the councils of nationalized industries” (p. 15).

Management was top-down and the large bureaucratic structures produced “an alienating environment for the average worker”, creating a “significant democratic deficit” in industries that were owned and managed supposedly on behalf of the people. Nationalization in the UK played out as centralization significantly weakening the power and authority of local governments vis-a-vis the national government (p.21)

What is more, “nationalized industries, in their varying ways. provided large and continuous subsidies to the private sector, while being severely constrained in their own operations!” (p.20). In the socialist USSR, nationalization was similarly not a synonym of economic democracy, with workers councils in Yugoslavia being the exception rather than the common practice. So nationalization in these and other cases analysed by Cumbers basically meant making the state the capitalist-in-chief. Now, this turned out not to be particularly efficient (even though there is a big difference between industries in this respect). There were plenty of thinkers eager to explain why this was the case.

Hayek’s critique of nationalization and central planning

The centralization of economic power and decision-making, according to thinkers such as Hayek, led to the crushing of individual freedoms and democracy. Central planning, Hayek and other critics emphasized, furthermore creates several knowledge problems – how could central planners “have all the knowledge needed about the individualized demands of millions of consumers in advanced economies?” (p.64). What is more, knowledge is dispersed in society and not easily appropriated by central managers, especially considering that economies are dynamic and evolutionary, and therefore ever changing and unpredictable (p. 65). According to Hayek, “markets and private ownership can solve such knowledge problems, because they involve dispersed decision-making and experimentation […] It is precisely the anarchy of market order, which is the key both to innovation and to the preservation of more democratic societies” (p. 64). So far so good. But we’ve all heard this before – socialism failed because it was too centralized and incapable of innovating.

The market is the solution to all evils, seriously?

What makes the book “Reclaiming public ownership” interesting is that Cumbers doesn’t stop here. Instead, he moves the argument forward by, first of all, explaining why Hayek’s solution is not so appealing as it seems. To begin with, he notes some spheres of life should just not be marketized – think of romantic love, health or education. The absurdity of the marketization of education in contexts such as the US and the UK becomes painfully obvious when compared to the fully free public education in countries such as Austria. Competition and profit are not and should not be the only drivers of economic decision-making (p. 80):

“It is precisely the incursion and spread of ‘free market values’ and norms – through heightened commodification processes – into all areas of economic life that needs to be resisted and rolled back if wider social goals, such as environmental sustainability, decent and ‘choiceworthy’ lives and social justice, are to be achieved” (p. 75).

But beyond such normative discussions, the binaries markets/democracy and planning/authoritarianism just don’t hold empirically. Market economies exist both under democratic and authoritarian regimes, as do forms of central planning (p.76)- just think of how much central planning goes on in private corporations such as Amazon.

Capitalist exploitation rests upon three pillars: “the employment relation, private property and the market” (p. 77).

Real-existing socialism or nationalization attempts in the UK achieved state ownership but they were associated with highly unequal, top-down managerial decision-making and power structures. They were also inefficient.

Markets, purportedly solve efficiency and innovation problems, but they also come with horrible employment relations (think again of Amazon workers peeing in bottles or workplace bullying as seen in *every single TV series about the US corporate world”). What is more, markets can’t and should not govern every aspect of human relations. And finally, they often lead to situations of mass concentration of private property in which a few own a lot and the majority owns nothing but their ability and time to work.

So rather than replacing the state with the market, or vice-versa, what we need to do is to think of alternatives that address all three pillars of exploitation – “the employment relation, private property and the market”.

The alternatives

When thinking of alternatives, Cumbers is careful to urge us not to search for a “one-size fits all solutions” or an all-encompassing model or vision (p. 81). One of the most interesting authors quoted in the book is the associational socialist Otto Neurath, who “used the phrase ‘pseudo-rationalism’ to refer to scientists and philosophers who believed that there is always a possibility of discovering one theory or solution to any problem through rational inquiry” (p. 79). The real world is messy, solutions are always provisional and there are a lot of diverse cultural traditions in the world that should be explored.

Going back to the three pillars (the employment relation, private property and the market), at the core of Cumbers’ alternative vision is the idea that 1) not only should we go beyond marketizing everything, but also 2) the workers should be able to take part in decision-making about companies, that is the employment relations should be democratic and participative. 3) Third, when it comes to property, there is a strong case to be made for “reclaiming public ownership” conceived much more broadly than simply “state ownerhsip”, i.e. nationalization. .

Forms of ownership and the principles behind them:

Cumbers puts forward at least six different forms of ownership, all of which can and should exist together: full state ownership, partial state ownership, local or municipal ownership, employee-owned firms, producer-cooperatives, and consumer cooperatives (p.165). In promoting these diverse forms of ownersip, Cumbers is led by several key principles, among which:

  • taking social justice as class justice: that is, essentially going beyond redistributive justice. i.e. distributing the surplus – or profit- that comes from the labour process through income taxation (not that we are scoring particularly well in this respect currently, anyway…). What is needed instead is to challenge the way the owners of capital control the labour process or “the wider decisions that make and shape economies” (p.146).
  • a commitment to distributed economic power, but not necessarily in decentralized forms: combining diverse forms of public ownership should allow “different groups of citizens to have some level of participation and a stake in the economy, compared to the situation at present, where a small minority globally (the 1 per cent!) hold most of the key decision-making power” (p. 150). In short, there should be different institutional arrangements that “foster distributed and dispersed powers of economic decision-making against tendencies towards hierarchy and centralization” (p 150).
  • tolerance, tradition and heterodox thinking: Traditional forms of collective ownership in fact can be crucial for articulating alternative ownership model. I am thinking here of indigenous communities fighting against corporations “patenting” uses of plants, etc. Another great example, that I encountered actually not in Cumbers’s book but in Xiaowei Wang’ Blockchain Chicken Farm, are Chinese Township and Village enterprises, a large share of which have been owned collectively and about which I will write soon. TVEs were among the key protagonists of China’s explosive growth, outperforming state-owned enterprises).

Not a utopia

The book then moves on from these more abstract principles to a situated analysis of different experiments with diverse forms of public ownership. Rather than being some utopian, never-tried out experiment, most of these forms of ownership are already present. Municipal-cooperative partnerships, for example, have been crucial for the boom of green energy in Denmark (Chapter 9). The state owned Norwegian Oil company has had a long period of intense parliamentary debates on its key decisions (Chapter 8). (This has changed showing that power battles over ownership and decision-making are ongoing and never settled completely.)

Finally, following strong contestation and opposition to water privatization in Latin America, multinational corporations have retreated with varying implications for ownership – in Bolivia, Venezuela and Uruguay operations have returned to the public sector; in Brazil and Chile a mix of private local and foreign capital remains (Chapter 5). But there have also been attempts to return water companies to municipal control – in Argentina, the Aguas Bonaerense (ABSA) public organization was created as a pubic-private partnership between the local authority and a workers’ cooperative (p.113).

So rather than inventing the hot water (or non-privatized water), we can learn from a number of best practices and try to think how different forms of public ownership can transform and democratize different types of economic activity, depending also on the scale of these activities: finance, utilities industries, public transportation, public services, consumer products, private services, consumer services clearly all operate on different scales.

Private ownership might actually be the best option for a small local hairdresser, state, local cooperatives or municipal ownership – for the management of water, and state or municipal ownership – for the management of railways or gas, etc. (p. 168).

Rather than a one-size fit all solution (“nationalize everything!”), thinking of alternatives should be open to combining different forms of ownership at different levels, with the ultimate goal of increasing participation – not of everyone in everything but of everyone at least in some respects and in what matters to them.

So what?

In short, Cumbers’ book is really interesting. Despite the long quotes I don’t think I have given it justice so just read it (there is also some fascinating critique of the concept of the commons inside). But why on Earth am I writing on this book in a blog for our very techie group?

Well, because I think when we criticize regulation as too light touch and want to rehabilitate the state, we should not forget that state ownership (or enterpreneurship) is not always the panacea. To be honest, I have no idea how exactly the argument in Cumbers’ book can be relevant for finding alternatives to the big tech giants.

In a previous post, I had argued that maybe what we need instead of Facebook, are public networks along national lines, with states owning the data of their citizens, using it for research and machine learning, instead of private companies doing this.

But could we instead think of citizens collectively owning their data? Or having citizen cooperatives managing interoperable networks?

Furthermore, what type of public ownership might be an adequate model for an alternative to Amazon? These are not easy questions. And I would love to discuss them with you.

The reason why I made such an extensive review of this book is because I think it might be relevant but it remains for us to explore how exactly. One thing I am certain of is that few things are worse than the current ownership model of big tech, with a few private corporations owning and exploiting all our data.

Going back to the three pillars outlined by Cumbers, when we think of how to reform big tech/find alternatives, we need to think of how to 1) change employment relations within tech firms allowing more participation in decision-making 2) change property relations – who owns the companies that own us? what forms of ownership might be adequate? 3) change the marketization of ourselves and our data – is this reversible in a world where we rent even our homes to strangers?

Each one of these three aspects should be considered and can be changed.

We just rarely frame the debate in these terms, and even more rarely think of all three aspects together. But this is precisely what we should do.

Bridging digital divides: We are proud partners of the CDH Social Data School 2021

By Hugo Leal

In the data-driven age, we believe it is our duty to help bridge some of the digital divides that plague our societies. The Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is proud to partner on the CDH Social Data School 2021.

We are pleased to announce that applications are open to the CDH Social Data School 2021, taking place entirely online from 16-29 June.

Originally conceived by Cambridge Digital Humanities, this year’s event is organised in association with us, the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy. We co-designed and will deliver together a new version of an already outstanding initiative.

Two of our goals at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy are to enhance public understanding of digital technologies and build journalistic capacity to interrogate big data and Big Tech.

These goals align neatly with the objectives of a Data School, borne out of the need to democratise the exploration of digital methods and push back against abusive practices of data appropriation and exploitation by internet giants.

In the data-driven age, we believe it is our duty to help bridge some of the digital divides that plague our societies.”

I was part of the team that originally put together the Data School pilot, back in 2019, and it was clear to us then that academia was, once again, falling short on its mission and failing the public it should serve.

In the data-driven age, we believe it is our duty to help bridge some of the digital divides that plague our societies.

The yawing skills-gap between those who can and those who cannot understand key aspects of digital data manipulation and analysis, is one of the digital divides that must be urgently closed.

For that purpose, the CDH Social Data School utilises in-house expertise in digital methods and provides hands-on training and knowledge exchange across sectors, professions and disciplines.

Who can apply?

We invite, in particular, people and organisations whose role is to form and inform the public, such as journalists, watchdogs and NGOs, academics, and civil servants, to join us in Cambridge.

The CDH Social Data School also strives to address, even if modestly, other digital divides that fall along the traditional class, gender and racial fault-lines.

Although open to all, the selection procedure prioritises individuals from organisations whose access to digital methods training is limited or non-existent due to insufficient human or financial resources, especially the ones located in the Global South.

“The Social Data School is a venue for that dialogue and an avenue to foster the development of better technical, legal and ethical practices in digital methods research.”

Furthermore, we particularly welcome applications from women and black and minority ethnic candidates as they have historically been under-represented in the technology and data science sectors.

While this will do little to redress centuries of colonial, affluent, white, male fuelled inequalities, we at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy believe that academic institutions, widely perceived as bastions of elitism, have a special responsibility to adopt inclusive practices and adapt our events to pressing public needs.

If academics want to remain relevant and have proper impact beyond obtuse journal impact factors, we must remove the barriers standing in the way of cross-sectorial and interdisciplinary dialogue.

The CDH Social Data School is a venue for that dialogue and an avenue to foster the development of better technical, legal and ethical practices in digital methods research. Both our delivery format and our programme intend to facilitate a conversation among professions, disciplines and methods.

It is less about having experts looking into a pool of data than about inviting participants to share their knowledge and experiences within the context of a guided immersion into digital methods.

Whenever someone asks to describe the CDH Social Data School format the term “data stroll” comes to mind.

It bears some resemblance with what our colleague Tommaso Venturini calls a “data sprint”, intensive code and data-driven gatherings of people with different skill sets focused on specific research question, but with a more critical and even contemplative nature.

For starters, the pace is slower as we intend to reflect critically upon problems arising from data rather than solving them in a week.

This peripatetic wondering confers the Data School its “strolling” colours. It caters more to “adventurous beginners” willing to get their hands dirty than to data whizzes obsessed over data cleaning.

It is less about having experts looking into a pool of data than about inviting participants to share their knowledge and experiences within the context of a guided immersion into digital methods.

For these reasons, having people from diverse backgrounds is not just a matter of desegregating or decolonising curricula but also an opportunity to confront and learn from different regional, disciplinary, cultural or gender informed perspectives over the widespread practices of data surveillance.

In the context of the Social Data School, democratising access to digital methods is also a call to reclaim our data and demonstrate that data appropriated for private profit can be reappropriated for the common good.

This year’s programme is very rich and ambitious, covering topics ranging from data protection and surveillance to machine learning.

We will also try to make (some) sense of the online disinformation nonsense.

If you are a journalist who has the interest but lacks the tools to investigate the spread of misinformation, work for an NGO who wants to monitor online abuses, a watchdog trying to assess the impact of Machine Learning, a civil servant working to improve the health of our online spaces, an academic willing but hesitant to experiment with digital methods, the Social Data School was designed for you.

Apply now

In Review: Democracy, law and controlling tech platforms

By John Naughton

Notes on a discussion of two readings

  1. Paul Nemitz: “Constitutional democracy and technology in the age of artificial intelligence”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 15 October 2018. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2018.0089
  2. Daniel Hanley: “How Antitrust Lost its Bite”, Slate, April 6, 2021 – https://tinyurl.com/2ht4h8wf

I had proposed these readings because (a) Nemitz’s provided a vigorous argument for resisting the ‘ethics-theatre’ currently being orchestrated by the tech industry as a pre-emptive strike against regulation by law; and (b) the Hanley article argued the need for firm rules in antitrust legislation rather than the latitude currently offered to US judges by the so-called “rule of reason”.

Most of the discussion revolved around the Nemitz article. Here are my notes of the conversation, using the Chatham House Rule as a reporting principle.

  • Nemitz’s assertion that “The Internet and its failures have thrived on a culture of lawlessness and irresponsibility” was challenged as an “un-nuanced and uncritical view of how law operates in the platform economy”. The point was that platform companies do of course ignore and evade law as and when it suits them, but they also at a corporate level rely on it and use it as both ‘a sword and a shield’; law has as a result played a major role in structuring the internet that now exists and producing the dominant platform companies we have today and has been leveraged very successfully to their advantage. Even the egregious abuse of personal data (which may seem closest to being “lawless”) largely still runs within the law’s overly permissive framework. Where it doesn’t, it generally tries to evade the law by skirt around gaps created within the law, so even this seemingly extra-legal processing is itself shaped by the law (and cannot therefore be “lawless”). So any respect for the law that they profess is indeed, as you say, disingenuous, but describing the internet as a “lawless” space – as Nemitz does – misses a huge part of the dynamic that got us here and is a real problem if we’re going to talk about the potential role of law in getting us out. Legal reform is needed, but if it’s going to work then we have to be aware of and account for these things.
  • This critique stemmed from the view that law is both produced by society and in turn reproduces society, and in that sense always functions essentially as an instrument of power — so it has historically been (and remains) a tool of dominance, of hierarchy, of exclusion and marginalisation, of capital and of colonialism. In that sense, the embryonic Silicon Valley giants slotted neatly into that paradigm. And so, could Nemitz’s insistence on the rule of law — without a critical understanding of what that actually means — itself be a problem?

“They [tech companies] employ the law when it suits them and do so very strategically – as both a ‘sword’ and a ‘shield’ – and that’s played a major role in getting the platform ecosystem to where it is now.”

  • On the one hand, laws are the basic tools that liberal democracies have available for bringing companies under democratic (i.e. accountable) control. On the other hand, large companies have always been adept (and, in liberal democracies, very successful) at using the law to further their interests and cement their power.
  • This point is particularly relevant to tech companies. They’ve used law to bring users within their terms of service and thereby to hold on to assets (e.g. exabytes of user data) that they probably wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. They use law to enable the pretence that click-through EULAs are, in fact, contracts. So they employ the law when it suits them and do so very strategically — as both a ‘sword’ and a ‘shield’ — and that’s played a major role in getting the platform ecosystem to where it is now.
  • Also, law plays a big role in driving and shaping technological development. Technologies don’t emerge in a vacuum, they’re a product of their context and law is a major part of that context. So the platform business models and what’s happening on the internet aren’t outside of the law; they’re constructed through, and depend upon, it. So it’s misleading when people argue (like Nemitz??) that we need to use law to change things — as if the law isn’t there already and may actually be partially enabling things that are societally damaging. So unless we properly understand the rule of law in getting us to our current problematique, talking about how law can help us is like talking about using a tool to fix a problem without realising that the tool is itself is part of the problem.

“It’s the primacy of democracy, not of law that’s crucial.”

  • There was quite a lot of critical discussion of the GDPR on two fronts — its ‘neoliberal’ emphasis on individual rights; and things that are missing from it. Those omissions and gaps are not necessarily mistakes; they may be the result of political choices.
  • One question is whether there is a deficit of law around who owns property in the cloud. If you upload a photo to Facebook or whatever it’s unclear if you have property rights over or if the cloud-computing provider does. General consensus seems to be that that’s a tricky question! (Questions about who owns your data generally are.)
  • Even if laws exist, enforcement looks like a serious problem. Sometimes legal coercion of companies is necessary but difficult. And because of the ‘placelessness’ of the internet, it seems possible that a corporation or an entity could operate in a place where there’s no nexus to coerce it. Years ago Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith’s book recounted how Yahoo discovered that they couldn’t just do whatever they wanted in France because they had assets in that jurisdiction and France seized them. Would that be the case that with say, Facebook, now? (Just think of why all of the tech giants have their European HQs in Ireland.)
  • It’s the primacy of democracy, not of law that’s crucial. If the main argument of the Nemitz paper is interpreted as the view that law will solve our problems, that’s untenable. But if we take as the main argument that we need to democratically discuss what the laws are, then we all agree with this. (But isn’t that just vacuous motherhood and apple pie?)
  • More on GDPR… it sets up a legal framework in which we can regulate the consenting person that is, that’s a good thing that most people can agree on. But the way that GDPR is constructed is extremely individualistic. For example, it disempowers data subjects in even in the name of giving them rights because it individualises them. So even the way that it’s constructed actually goes some way towards undermining its good effects. It’s based on the assumption that if we give people rights then everything will be fine. (Shades of the so-called “Right to be Forgotten”.)

As for the much-criticised GDPR, one could see it as an example of ‘trickle-down’ regulation, in that GDPR has become a kind of gold standard for other jurisdictions.

  • Why hasn’t academic law been a more critical discipline in these areas? The answer seems to be that legal academia (at least in the UK, with some honourable exceptions) seems exceptionally uncritical of tech, and any kind of critical thinking is relatively marginalised within the discipline compared to other social sciences. Also most students want to go into legal practice, so legal teaching and scholarship tends to be closely tied to law as a profession and, accordingly, the academy tends to be oriented around ‘producing’ practising lawyers.
  • There was some dissent from the tenor of the preceding discourse about the centrality of law and especially about the improbability of overturning such a deeply embedded cognitive and professional system. This has echoes of a venerable strand in political thinking which says that in order to change anything you have to change everything and it’s worse to change a little bit than it is to change everything — which means nothing actually changes. This is the doctrine that it’s quite impossible to do any good at all unless you do the ultimate good, which is to change everything. (Which meant, capitalism and colonialism and original sin, basically!) On the other hand, there is pragmatic work — making tweaks and adjustments — which though limited in scope might be beneficial and appeal to liberal reformers (and are correspondingly disdained by lofty adherents to the Big Picture).
  • There were some interesting perspectives based on the Daniel article. Conversations with people across disciplines show that technologists seem to suggest a technical solution for everything (solutionism rules OK?), while lawyers view the law as a solution for everything. But discussions with political scientists and sociologists mostly involve “fishing for ideas” which is a feature, not a bug, because it suggests that minds are not set in silos — yet. But one of the problems with the current discourse — and with these two articles — is that the law currently seems to be filling the political void. And the discourse seems to reflect public approval of the judicial approach compared with the trade-offs implicit in Congress. But the Slate article shows the pernicious influence or even interference of an over-politicised judiciary in politics and policy enforcement. (The influence of Robert Bork’s 1978 book and the Chicago School is still astonishing to contemplate.)
  • The Slate piece seems to suffer from a kind of ‘neocolonial governance syndrome’ — the West and the Rest. We all know section 230 by heart. And now it’s the “rule of reason” and the consumer welfare criterion of Bork. It’s important to understand the US legal and political context. But we should also understand: the active role of the US administration; what happened recently in Australia (where the government intervened, both through diplomatic means and directly on behalf of the Facebook platform); and in Ireland (where the government went to the European Court to oppose a ruling that Apple had underpaid tax to the tune of 13 billion Euros). So the obsession with the US doesn’t say much about the rest of the world’s capacity to intervene and dictate the rules of the game. And yet China, India and Turkey have been busy in this space recently.
  • And as for the much-criticised GDPR, one could see it as an example of ‘trickle-down’ regulation, in that GDPR has become a kind of gold standard for other jurisdictions. Something like 12 countries have adopted GDPR-like legislation, and this includes many countries in Latin America Chile. Chile, Brazil, South Africa and South Africa, South Africa, Japan, Canada and so on so forth.

Clubhouse in China shows that even “harmless” apps may put individuals in harm’s way

by Alina Utrata

Up until last week, most people hadn’t heard of the voice chatroom app Clubhouse—popular mostly with LA celebrities and Silicon Valley elites (and venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz has invested tens of millions of dollars in the platform). The reason the app gave off such an air of exclusivity was because not just anyone could join—new users required an invite from a current user in order to sign up. Clubhouse growth has increased recently, especially after Elon Musk tweeted about it, with some invites being auctioning off for up to $125. But the recent uptick in user growth has underscored a privacy nightmare that is almost certainly putting Clubhouse users and non-users at risk—and in some cases even putting them in danger. 

The problem centers around Clubhouse invites. In order to invite someone onto the platform, you must allow the app access to your contact list. The app then uploads your entire contact list—and lets you know how many Clubhouse users also have your contacts in their phone’s contacts. Because of Clubhouse’s aggressive contact list collection policy (you literally cannot be invited onto the app unless one of your contacts has allowed Clubhouse access to their contacts) the app has has the capacity to quickly accumulate a “social graph.”

Some, like Will Oremus, have pointed out that this is a little bit “creepy.” You can suddenly see how many people have your therapist (or drug dealer) in their contact list, revealing networks or connections that were previously invisible. This “invite a friend” practice is also, as Alexander Hanff pointed out, almost certainly illegal under GDPR. By providing your contact list to Clubhouse, you have shared your contact’s personal information with the company without their consent. And while you may know that a friend shared your phone number with Clubhouse if you received an invite, Clubhouse also knows how many of its users have your phone number in their contacts—whether you are on the app at all. 

For places where GDPR does not apply, it is unclear whether this type of non-consensual data collection is illegal. As a California resident, I have the right to request that companies delete my personal information under California’s Consumer Privacy Act of 2018—and I wrote to the company to specifically request that Clubhouse delete my phone number that other users have shared. Clubhouse (or its parent company, Alpha Exploration Co) have 45 days to respond or request a 90 day extension.

While I personally find this type of data collection irritating, it may literally be a matter of life or death for others. Just this week, some articles have triumphantly proclaimed that “Clubhouse cracked the Great Firewall.” Chat rooms entitled “Does Xinjiang have concentration camps?” and “Friends from Tibet and Xinjiang, we want to invite you over for a chat” appeared on the platform, and were supposedly attended by individuals from mainland China (who downloaded the app via VPN, as Clubhouse is not available in China’s Apple app store). Clubhouse has since been shut down by China’s censors.

However, a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory pointed out that there are major security flaws in the Clubhouse app that almost certainly have put Chinese users and non-users of the app at risk. The SIO report found multiple problems with Clubhouse’s security—including lack of encryption for sensitive information; the use of a back-end infrastructure software located in Shanghai, which may therefore be legally obligated to share information with the Chinese government; and unclear policies surrounding Clubhouse’s storage and retention of chatroom audio. The report noted that “in at least one instance, SIO observed room metadata being relayed to servers we believe to be hosted in the PRC, and audio to servers managed by Chinese entities and distributed around the world via Anycast. It is also likely possible to connect Clubhouse IDs with user profiles.”

Clubhouse has almost certainly put attendees of those discussions who live in or have connections to mainland China at risk of retaliation from the Chinese government. It may also, by implication, have put non-Clubhouse users at risk, depending on how securely the users’ contact list data was stored. Even individuals who did not join the app or participate in the chatrooms may find themselves implicated if their phone number is found in the contact lists of individuals who are now associated with politically sensitive issues by virtue of participating in the Clubhouse chatrooms. 

This issue extends beyond the China context. As Dr Matt Mahmoudi discussed with me on my most recent podcast episode—data collection can be a death sentence. If individuals who work with undocumented immigrants, for instance, join Clubhouse, the network affects of their combined contact lists can reveal phone numbers and therefore the identity of undocumented individuals—and, if shared or demanded by ICE, lead to deportations. 

In the wake of the Stanford Internet Observatory report, Clubhouse has said that they are reviewing their data protection practices. But the fact remains that this comes only after individuals have already been put at risk because of Clubhouse’s poor data practices. These issues were easily predicted and prevented, underscoring the need for a duty of care and risk assessment for even seemingly “harmless” apps. And—as a rule of thumb—the less data collected, the better.

Social Media Disinformation and Vaccine Hesitancy: It’s more complicated than that

Julia Rone:

So I got my Astra Zeneca jab on Thursday morning. After a tough Thursday evening with 38.8 fever and a headache, a missed flight and feeling tired on Friday, I feel much better today even though I still try to be careful. The possibility for a fever was explained in the information sheet I got together with the vaccine and it’s an indication my immune system has responded to the vaccine. So no big surprises there even though of course I would have preferred not to feel the vaccine at all, which has been the case with many people I talked to.

In fact, it was the night before taking the vaccine that was tough for me. I didn’t sleep at all and it is this night that I want to reflect on in the current post which is to some extent auto-ethnography but is also the result of my long interest in disinformation, which I have studied mostly when it comes to politics. Of course, I had followed publications discussing the role of social media in spreading disinformation that in turn fuels vaccine hesitancy. A big N-study recently came out that analysed “the effect of social media and online foreign disinformation campaigns on vaccination rates and attitudes towards vaccine safety”. To do that the study used among others geolocated Tweets, polling data on whether people find vaccines unsafe, actual vaccination rates, as well as own survey data on foreign disinfo and extent of using online media to mobilize.

Yet, being familiar with these studies is one thing, and taking the personal decision to get vaccinated is a completely different thing. All the discussions after I took this decision (I immediately agreed when it was offered to me) convinced me that vaccine hesitancy cannot be explained away with online disinfo alone. I want to discuss in this post four key points that I think are often overlooked: 1) differences in national media discourses 2) the still existing lack of sufficient empirical information 3) the importance of general trust in fellow citizens and in the government; 4) geopolitical games.

The importance of national media discourses

Several caveats before I begin: I am Bulgarian, I had taught a short elective course in Sofia University last year and I was in Sofia now to deal with an insurance I could not postpone anymore. Two days before I had to leave, I got a call from the University that I was eligible for vaccination and I could get the vaccine the next day – it was a ‘now or never’ choice. It was amazing luck so I quickly said yes. And that’s when the drama began. In the evening before I got vaccinated I received 2 phone calls – one from my aunt whom I deeply respect (I am named after her), the second – from a doctor friend who has a PhD in neuroscience. The doctor was very skeptical and my aunt directly urged me not to vaccinate. Both calls made me so worried I couldn’t sleep. So what was going on there?

Taking the vaccine seemed completely obvious to me when I agreed. My Dutch biologist boyfriend told me I am extremely lucky and so did a German and a Czech friend, one of whom even suggested I should reject the vaccine out of generational solidarity. Yet the only reason why I and other younger people were offered the vaccine was because a lot of elderly professors had refused to get it. No wonder. The media discourse in Bulgaria when it comes to vaccination has been highly contradictory. Rather than contributing to a coordinated push for vaccination, most mainstream media have emphasized doubts and uncertainties about the vaccine. Just before I started writing this piece, the Bulgarian National Television BNT (the Bulgarian equivalent to the BBC) organized a debate on whether to get the vaccine, with one of the participants insisting a person gets much better immunity if they actually get sick.

Bulgarian media’s obsession with ‘balanced reporting’ and listening to all possible opinions explains also why for months after the start of the pandemic all key Bulgarian mainstream media invited doctors who insisted that the virus is a simple flu, masks don’t help, we need to reach herd immunity, etc. This was further made possible by the fact that the government established two competing expert bodies in the beginning of the pandemic. As we argued with my journalist colleague Georgi Hristov in a piece for Euractiv, it has been Bulgarian mainstream media and the government itself that were the key to blame for disinfo in the first months of the pandemic. Of course, social media matters. But my aunt Julia (who due to her job had to deal with the earliest computers in the late 1980s) hates computers and never goes online. Instead, she follows extremely carefully all debates on national TV and in print media. That is why when she learned I am going to get vaccinated, she called me to actively discourage me claiming that the long term consequences of this new vaccine are unknown, the Covid risk for a younger person like me is small, and that the vaccine had been developed extremely quickly.

Of course, all this is to some extent true. But in countries such as Britain the media coverage does emphasize not uncertainties but the big benefits of vaccinating as many people as possible, starting from the most vulnerable groups. This is being emphasized by mainstream media and crucially also in the tabloid press. It is unclear whether the tabloids with their huge reach would have been so supportive of the campaign had their been a Labour government. But dealing with counter-factuals is never productive. The fact now is that the main discussions in the UK context have to do with how quickly the vaccines are administered, who can get a vaccine, etc. For people coming from such a context the very doubt whether one should take the vaccine sounds ridiculous. But in a media context such as the Bulgarian one where the uncertainties surrounding these new vaccines are consistently discussed, skepticism (rather than outright disinfo such as conspiracy theories) is prevalent and contributes significantly to vaccine hesitancy. As of February 2nd, 43 % of Bulgarians didn’t want to get vaccinated. Which brings us to the second important factor contributing to vaccine hesitancy. The fact that indeed we lack some empirical data.

Lack of Empirical Data

Lack of empirical data is particularly important when it comes to people above 65 but also when it comes to pregnant women and people with autoimmune diseases. The uncertainty about people above 65 is not the case for all vaccines. Notoriously, the data was not sufficient to make a certain assessment of the efficacy of Astra Zeneca vaccine. This does not mean the vaccine does not provide immunity for people above 65 but simply that we don’t know whether it does. Still, the insufficient data so far was a reason enough for several countries to adopt a cautious approach:  Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and Poland only recommend it for people under 65, and Italy and Belgium for those under 55. And in an unexpected recent development French President Emanuel Macron – European liberals’ sweetheart – caused a stir with his claim the vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for people above 65.

This wrong claim was rebuffed by Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK, where more than 10 million people have been vaccinated with Astra Zeneca. The World Health Organization also defended Astra Zeneca claiming it can be used for people above 65. Furthermore the WHO argued that the recent study showing that Astra Zeneca was not effective against the South African strain had a very small sample and was not peer reviewed. Still, the reputation of the vaccine has suffered a strong blow. Italy’s main teachers union even protested against receiving Astra Zeneca. Rather than online disinfo what we have here is insufficient (yet) empirical information which was misinterpreted by Macron. The lack of information can be approached with caution, as in the German case, or, with some good faith, considered non-problematic, as we see in the UK. In fact, there have been voices that not recommending Astra Zeneca for the elderly is unethical and risks the lives of the most vulnerable.

The situation is even more complicated when it comes to the long-term consequences of mRNA vaccines where we simply need to wait and see. One does not receive much comfort from reading Moderna’s press releases on their vaccine containing sentences such as the following: “The forward-looking statements in this press release are neither promises nor guarantees, and you should not place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements because they involve known and unknown risks, uncertainties, and other factors, many of which are beyond Moderna’s control and which could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by these forward-looking statements.”

Ultimately, science is based on empirical data and when there is not enough data, science cannot say things with certainty. When new data is available, scientists are ready to correct previous errors thus incrementing knowledge. Science has never been about absolute certainty. Nor has it pretended to be. That is its strength. But this does not sound very reassuring when one needs to take a personal decision affecting one’s own health. ‘Do you want to become a lab mouse?’ – my aunt asked me during our phone call that left me so distressed. This is not a nice question to be confronted with. Ultimately, the personal decision about the vaccines in the current stage is a decision based on weighing different personal risks – what is my chance of getting unknown long-term side effects from the vaccine Vs what is my chance of getting Covid soon vs. what is my chance of dying from Covid. But crucially the decision about the vaccine also has a societal dimension: if taking the vaccine can help stop the pandemic, I can also protect other people – thus it also involves weighing risks about society and affecting other people. But do other people also think of their fellow citizens?

Trust

In a country with a well-established immunization cycle such as Bulgaria, a lot of Bulgarians who don’t get currently want to get vaccinated with any vaccine against Covid are not anti-vaxers. They just want to ‘wait and see’. That means they want to wait and see what will happen to other people who do take the vaccine. This is a personally rational choice (provided they don’t get sick with Covid while waiting) — but societally a completely irrational one since the pandemic still rages, people lose their lives and the economy has taken a big hit.

Not trusting the government nor one’s fellow citizens is in fact a final important factor for being hesitant about the vaccine regardless of whether one uses social media or not. A qualitative study from Bradford found that “The more confused, distressed and mistrusting participants felt about their social worlds during the pandemic, the less positive they were about a vaccine“. While my aunt was calling me on the phone, the electricity of the whole region where she was at the moment was cut off due to a storm. This was not the first time this happened. After a year of protests against the government embroiled in a series of corruption and rule of law scandals, it’s not a big surprise Bulgarian citizens are not overly inclined to trust any government campaign or their fellow citizens. Many people also question why Bulgaria has imported much larger quantities of Astra Zeneca compared to the Moderna and Pfizer ones. A potential doubt is related to the fact that the representative of Astra Zeneca for Bulgaria is the mother of an MEP from the ruling party. The Ministry of Health has denied these rumours citing the lower price of the vaccine as a main consideration, which sounds reasonable enough. Still, doubts persist. People could ignore vaccine skepticism and uncertainty if they trusted the government. But those who don’t, have one reason less to put their doubts aside.

Geopolitical games

Lack of trust also plays out on a general more geopolitical level. Ultimately, developing a vaccine has a particular prestige to it. As late as December 10 2020, the Council of Foreign Relations blog published an article claiming that Russian state information promoting the Sputnik vaccine was “foreign disinformation”. The blog contained statements such as “Putin is front-and-center in the disinformation campaign because his cult of personality helps quell dissent from the scientific community.” While at the time of writing the CFR blog, the Russian vaccine had indeed not passed Phase III trials, the problem with such coverage was the complete lack of good faith. Similar Sputnik-skeptical reports could be found in British media, which, unsurprisingly, have been readier to show good faith for Astra Zeneca (and rightly so considering the dimensions of the current pandemic). After the results of the Phase III trials of the Russian vaccine became available, Western media dramatically shifted their discourse with regard to Sputnik: on February 8, Fortune claimed that ‘Countries are lining up for Russia’s once-scorned Sputnik vaccine after strong efficacy results ‘ and the Washington Post asked ‘Did we underestimate Russia’s vaccine’.

What all this comes to show is that vaccines did become politicized by both liberals who first decried supposed Russian disinformation about the vaccine (all too readily) and then by populist provocateurs such as Victor Orban who did order and approve first in the EU the Russian vaccine out of practical concerns but certainly also as a political gesture. In Bulgaria, the far right Alpha TV which stared a campaign against vaccination suspiciously remained silent about the Russian vaccine. Thus, a fraction of the Bulgarian far right seems adamant to wait for Sputnik. What we see here, both on the liberal side ad the far right side, has been a prime example of politicization and involving Cold War rhetoric and fears.

Such politicization has been observed even among close European allies with Macron having to explain “he is not a sore loser on the vaccine race with the UK” and commentators suggesting on the EU Confidential podcast that Brexit might have been a good decision considering the problems the EU Commission has faced in delivering the vaccine. Developing and administering the vaccine has become a game of prestige and international status competition.

**

So what is my conclusion from all this? Despite my sleepless night I took the vaccine and I am happy to have done so even though after one dose I will continue observing all measures since I can still get infected. On a personal level, I realized that digital disinformation on vaccination, as important as it is, should not be overestimated when trying to address vaccine hesitancy. As a scholar of disinfo, I have been particularly careful when encountering online information on vaccines. Yet much of the conflicting information I was faced with and the ensuing hesitancy for one sleepless night can be explained only if we take a more complex approach to hesitancy.

First of all, we need to take into account that digital disinfo thrives or doesn’t thrive depending on how it is embedded in broader media ecologies. Mainstream media play a huge role in all vaccine discussions. Furthermore, it matters whether people have a good understanding of how science works. Ultimately, in the absence of good empirical data (still), we need to weigh personal and societal risks and do what’s best for us and for everyone. This of course is easier if we live in a context where we believe other people will do the same and the government wishes us best. It’s much more difficult to trust the government on vaccines if we don’t trust it on other issues. Finally, in a situation in which the vaccine race has become very political, both mainstream and alternative media, liberal and far right, have to different extent fallen prey to Cold War discourses and nationalist competition narratives. In a situation when there are so few vaccines still, leaders and think tanks pitting ‘our vaccine’ against ‘their vaccine’ unsurprisingly invite considerations about the vaccines different form the purely scientific ones.

Ultimately, I had all these considerations only after I was vaccinated. I will not pretend I rationally went through the whole thought process recorded in this blog. When I was called, I made a quick emotional decision and stuck to it despite my ensuing sleepless night. Still, I am amazed to know there are contexts in which people don’t even think for a second whether to get vaccinated and no one tries to dissuade them after they have decided. For other contexts, such as mine, we need more complex models to explain what’s going on rather than simply blaming social media disinfo. It’s not simply a matter of ‘the rational us’ Vs ‘the irrational them – the conspiracy theory anti-vaxers from Q-Anon’. Understanding better what drives vaccines hesitancy is crucial. I hope this post helps at least a bit for this.

 

With the risk of sounding stylistically like a certain company’s press releases, I must note that everything I wrote here is my own personal opinion and has nothing to do with any official position or the position of anyone else associated with the blog. I was just thinking aloud on a matter that is very important to me and many other people and would love to hear your opinion as well.

Mail-In Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign

John Naughton:

Yochai Benkler and a team from the Berkman-Klein Centre have published an interesting study which comes to conclusions that challenge conventional wisdom about the power of social media.

“Contrary to the focus of most contemporary work on disinformation”, they write,

our findings suggest that this highly effective disinformation campaign, with potentially profound effects for both participation in and the legitimacy of the 2020 election, was an elite-driven, mass-media led process. Social media played only a secondary and supportive role. This chimes with the study on networked propaganda that Yochai, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts conducted in 2015-16 and published in 2018 in  Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. They argued that the right-wing media ecosystem in the US operates fundamentally differently than the rest of the media environment. Their view was that longstanding institutional, political, and cultural patterns in American politics interacted with technological change since the 1970s to create a propaganda feedback loop in American conservative media. This dynamic has, they thought, marginalised centre-right media and politicians, radicalised the right wing ecosystem, and rendered it susceptible to propaganda efforts, foreign and domestic.

The key insight in both studies is that we are dealing with an ecosystem, not a machine, which is why focussing exclusively on social media as a prime explanation for the political upheavals of the last decade is unduly reductionist. In that sense, much of the public (and academic) commentary on social media’s role brings to mind the cartoon of the drunk looking for his car keys under a lamppost, not because he lost them there, but because at least there’s light. Because social media are relatively new arrivals on the scene, it’s (too) tempting to over-estimate their impact. Media-ecology provides a better analytical lens because it means being alert to factors like diversity, symbiosis, feedback loops and parasitism rather than to uni-causal explanations.

(Footnote: there’s a whole chapter on this — with case-studies — in my book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg — published way back in 2012!)

The flight from WhatsApp

John Naughton:

Not surprisingly, Signal has been staggering under the load of refugees from WhatsApp following Facebook’s ultimatum about sharing their data with other companies in its group. According to data from Sensor Tower Signal was downloaded 8.8m times worldwide in the week after the WhatsApp changes were first announced on January 4. Compare that with 246,000 downloads the week before and you get some idea of the step-change. I guess the tweet — “Use Signal” — from Elon Musk on January 7 probably also added a spike.

In contrast, WhatsApp downloads during the period showed the reverse pattern — 9.7m downloads in the week after the announcement, compared with 11.3m before, a 14 per cent decrease.

This isn’t a crisis for Facebook — yet. But it’s a more serious challenge than the June 2020 advertising boycott. Evidence that Zuckerberg & Co are taking it seriously comes from announcements that Facebook has cancelled the February 8 deadline in its ultimatum to users. It now says that it will instead “go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.”  As Charles Arthur has pointed out, the contrast between the leisurely pace at which Facebook has moved on questions of hate speech posted by alt-right outfits and it’s lightning response to the exodus from WhatsApp is instructive.  It shows what really matters to the top brass.

Signal seems an interesting outfit, incidentally, and not just because of its technology. It’s a not-for-profit organisation, for one thing. Its software is open source — which means it can be independently assessed. And it’s been created by interesting people. Brian Acton, for example, is one of the two co-founders of WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014 for $19B. He pumped $50m of that into Signal, and no doubt there’s a lot more where that came from. And Moxie Marlinspike, the CEO, is not only a cryptographer but also a hacker, a shipwright, and a licensed mariner. The New Yorker had a nice profile of him a while back.