Call for provocations – Technology and The Environment Workshop

Every day, consumers around the world utilise digital technology with unprecedented convenience, but at what environmental cost?

The Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is examining the environmental impact of digital technology to acquire and disseminate an informed, independent assessment of the planetary consequences of the industry’s continued rate of expansion.

Using the resources of leading academic research, we want to expose the tremendous environmental impact of our relationship with digital technology. For example, what is the carbon footprint of a Google search? What are the real-world ramifications for our communities and our planet of the click-to-delivery process of an Amazon order? How does tech ‘progress’ drive planned obsolescence in the smartphone market?

Call for provocations – Technology and the Environment workshop –17th June – 12pm BST (7pm AWST/7AM EDT)

The Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is calling for participants to provide provocations for a workshop to further explore the ‘cost of convenience’ and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

The workshop aims to provide a forum for emerging researchers to enter into speculation, critique, exchange, and dialogue on the topic. Although it is primarily aimed at international academic researchers and PhD students, the workshop is also open to journalists, tech workers and those pursuing research outside an academic context. 

Apply now by email – Technology and the Environment workshop

Applicants are asked to produce a 150-word provocation on a topic across the environmental impact of technology/the political economy of the environment/technology nexus, that they would like to discuss at the workshop.

To submit a 150 word provocation or to ask any questions aheads of application, please email: minderoo@crassh.cam.ac.uk

Applications are accepted until May 15.

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.

Silencing Trump and authoritarian tech power

John Naughton:

It was eerily quiet on social media last week. That’s because Trump and his cultists had been “deplatformed”. By banning him, Twitter effectively took away the megaphone he’s been masterfully deploying since he ran for president. The shock of the 6 January assault on the Capitol was seismic enough to convince even Mark Zuckerberg that the plug finally had to be pulled. And so it was, even to the point of Amazon Web Services terminating the hosting of Parler, a Twitter alternative for alt-right extremists.

The deafening silence that followed these measures was, however, offset by an explosion of commentary about their implications for freedom, democracy and the future of civilisation as we know it. Wading knee-deep through such a torrent of opinion about the first amendment, free speech, censorship, tech power and “accountability” (whatever that might mean), it was sometimes hard to keep one’s bearings. But what came to mind continually was H L Mencken’s astute insight that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong”. The air was filled with people touting such answers.

In the midst of the discursive chaos, though, some general themes could be discerned. The first highlighted cultural differences, especially between the US with its sacred first amendment on the one hand and European and other societies, which have more ambivalent histories of moderating speech. The obvious problem with this line of discussion is that the first amendment is about government regulation of speech and has nothing whatsoever to do with tech companies, which are free to do as they like on their platforms.

A second theme viewed the root cause of the problem as the lax regulatory climate in the US over the last three decades, which led to the emergence of a few giant tech companies that effectively became the hosts for much of the public sphere. If there were many Facebooks, YouTubes and Twitters, so the counter-argument runs, then censorship would be less effective and problematic because anyone denied a platform could always go elsewhere.

Then there were arguments about power and accountability. In a democracy, those who make decisions about which speech is acceptable and which isn’t ought to be democratically accountable. “The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on Potus’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances,” fumed EU commissioner Thierry Breton, “is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organised in the digital space.” Or, to put it another way, who elected the bosses of Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter?

What was missing from the discourse was any consideration of whether the problem exposed by the sudden deplatforming of Trump and his associates and camp followers is actually soluble – at least in the way it has been framed until now. The paradox that the internet is a global system but law is territorial (and culture-specific) has traditionally been a way of stopping conversations about how to get the technology under democratic control. And it was running through the discussion all week like a length of barbed wire that snagged anyone trying to make progress through the morass.

All of which suggests that it’d be worth trying to reframe the problem in more productive ways. One interesting suggestion for how to do that came last week in a thoughtful Twitter thread by Blayne Haggart, a Canadian political scientist. Forget about speech for a moment, he suggests, and think about an analogous problem in another sphere – banking. “Different societies have different tolerances for financial risk,” he writes, “with different regulatory regimes to match. Just like countries are free to set their own banking rules, they should be free to set strong conditions, including ownership rules, on how platforms operate in their territory. Decisions by a company in one country should not be binding on citizens in another country.”

In those terms, HSBC may be a “global” bank, but when it’s operating in the UK it has to obey British regulations. Similarly, when operating in the US, it follows that jurisdiction’s rules. Translating that to the tech sphere, it suggests that the time has come to stop accepting the tech giant’s claims to be hyper-global corporations, whereas in fact they are US companies operating in many jurisdictions across the globe, paying as little local tax as possible and resisting local regulation with all the lobbying resources they can muster. Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter can bleat as sanctimoniously as they like about freedom of speech and the first amendment in the US, but when they operate here, as Facebook UK, say, then they’re merely British subsidiaries of an American corporation incorporated in California. And these subsidiaries obey British laws on defamation, hate speech and other statutes that have nothing to do with the first amendment. Oh, and they should also pay taxes on their local revenues.

Review: What Tech Calls Reading

A Review of FSG x Logic Series

by Alina Utrata


Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) and the tech magazine Logic teamed up to produce four books that capture “technology in all its contradictions and innovation, across borders and socioeconomic divisions, from history through the future, beyond platitudes and PR hype, and past doom and gloom.” In that, the FSG x Logic series succeeded beyond its wildest imagination. These books are some of the most well-researched, thought-provoking and—dare I say it—innovative takes on how technology is shaping our world. 

Here’s my review of three of the four—Blockchain Chicken Farm, Subprime Attention Crisis and What Tech Calls Thinking—but I highly recommend you read them all. (They average 200 pages each, so you could probably get through the whole series in the time it takes to finish Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism.)


Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside

Xiaowei Wang

“Famine has its own vocabulary,” Xiaowei Wang writes, “a hungry language that haunts and lingers. My ninety-year-old great-uncle understands famine’s words well.” Wang writes as beautifully as they think, effortlessly weaving between ruminations on Chinese history, personal and family anecdotes, modern political and economic theory and first-hand research into the technological revolution sweeping rural China. Contradiction is a watchword in this book, as is contrast—they describe the difference between rural and urban life, of the East and the West, of family and the globe, of history and the present and the potential future. And yet, it all seems familiar. Wang invites us to think slowly about an industry that wants us to think fast—about whether any of this is actually about technology, or whether it is about capitalism, about globalization, about our politics and our communities—or, perhaps, about what it means to live a good life.

On blockchain chicken farms:

“The GoGoChicken project is a partnership between the village government and Lianmo Technology, a company that applies blockchain to physical objects, with a focus on provenance use cases—that is, tracking where something originates from. When falsified records and sprawling supply chains lead to issues of contamination and food safety, blockchain seems like a clear, logical solution. . . These chickens are delivered to consumers’ doors, butchered and vacuum sealed, with the ankle bracelet still attached, so customers can scan the QR code before preparing the chicken . . .”

On a Blockchain Chicken Farm in the Middle of Nowhere, pg 40

“A system of record keeping used to be textual, readable, and understandable to everyone. The technical component behind it was as simple as paper and pencil. That system was prone to falsification, but it was widely legible. Under governance by blockchain, records are tamperproof, but the technical systems are legible only to a select few. . . blockchain has yet to answer the question: If it takes power away from a central authority, can it truly put power back in the hands of the people, and not just a select group of people? Will it serve as an infrastructure that amplifies trust, rather than increasing both mistrust and a singular reliance on technical infrastructure? Will it provide ways to materially organize and enrich a community, rather than further accelerating financial systems that serve a select few?”

On a Blockchain Chicken Farm in the Middle of Nowhere, pg 48

On AI pig farming:

“In these large-scale farms, pigs are stamped with a unique identity mark on their bodies, similar to a QR code. That data is fed into a model made by Alibaba, and the model has the information it needs to monitor the pigs in real time, using video, temperature, and sound sensors. It’s through these channels that the model detects any sudden signs of fever or disease, or if pigs are crushing one another in their pens. If something does happen, the system recognizes the unique identifier on the pig’s body and gives an alert.”

When AI Farms Pigs, pg 63

“Like so many AI projects, ET Agricultural Brain naively assumes that the work of a farmer is to simply produce food for people in cities, and to make the food cheap and available. In this closed system, feeding humans is no different from feeding swaths of pigs on large farms. The project neglects the real work of smallholder farmers throughout the world. For thousands of years, the work of these farmers has been stewarding and maintaining the earth, rather than optimizing agricultural production. They use practices that yield nutrient-dense food, laying a foundation for healthy soils and rich ecology in an uncertain future. Their work is born out of commitment and responsibility: to their communities, to local ecology, to the land. Unlike machines, these farmers accept the responsibility of their actions with the land. They commit to the path of uncertainty.”

When AI Farms Pigs, pg 72

“After all, life is defined not by uncertainty itself but by a commitment to living despite it. In a time of economic and technological anxiety, the questions we ask cannot center on the inevitability of a closed system built by AI, and how to simply make those closed systems more rational or “fair.” What we face are the more difficult questions about the meaning of work, and the ways we commit, communicate, and exist in relation to each other. Answering these questions means looking beyond the rhetoric sold to us by tech companies. What we stand to gain is nothing short of true pleasure, a recognition that we are not isolated individuals, floating in a closed world.”

When AI Farms Pigs, pg 72

Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet

Tim Hwang

Subprime Attention Crisis

In Subprime Attention Crisis, Tim Hwang argues that the terrifying thing about digital platforms is not how effective they are at manipulating behavior—it’s that they might not be very effective at all. Hwang documents, with precise and technical detail, how digital advertising markets work and how tech giants may be deliberately attempting to inflate their value, even as the actual effectiveness of online ads declines. If you think you’ve seen this film before, Hwang draws parallels to the subprime mortgages and financial systems that triggered the 2008 financial crash. He makes a compelling case that, sooner or later, the digital advertising bubble may burst—and the business model of the internet will explode overnight (not to mention all the things tech money subsidizes, from philanthropy to navigation maps to test and trace). Are Google and Facebook too big to fail? 

On potential systems breakdown:

“Whether underwriting a massive effort to scan the world’s books or enabling the purchase of leading robotics companies, Google’s revenue from programmatic advertising has, in effect, reshaped other industries. Major scientific breakthroughs, like recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, have largely been made possible by a handful of corporations, many of which derive the vast majority of their wealth from online programmatic advertising. The fact that these invisible, silent programmatic marketplaces are critical to the continued functioning of the internet—and the solvency of so much more—begs a somewhat morbid thought experiment: What would a crisis in this elaborately designed system look like?”

The Plumbing, pg 25

“Intense dysfunction in the online advertising markets would threaten to create a structural breakdown of the classic bargain at the core of the information economy: services can be provided for free online to consumers, insofar as they are subsidized by the revenue generated from advertising. Companies would be forced to shift their business models in the face of a large and growing revenue gap, necessitating the rollout of models that require the consumer to pay directly for services. Paywalls, paid tiers of content, and subscription models would become more commonplace. Within the various properties owned by the dominant online platforms, services subsidized by advertising that are otherwise unprofitable might be shut down. How much would you be willing to pay for these services? What would you shell out for, and what would you leave behind? The ripple effects of a crisis in online advertising would fundamentally change how we consume and navigate the web.”

The Plumbing, pg 27

On fraud in digital advertising:

“One striking illustration is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit around claims that Facebook made in 2015 promoting the attractiveness of video advertising on its platform. At the time, the company was touting online video—and the advertising that could be sold alongside it—as the future of the platform, noting that it was “increasingly seeing a shift towards visual content on Facebook.” . . . But it turned out that Facebook overstated the level of attention being directed to its platform on the order of 60 to 80 percent. By undercounting the viewers of videos on Facebook, the platform overstated the average time users spent watching videos. . . . These inconsistencies have led some to claim that Facebook deliberately misled the advertising industry, a claim that Facebook has denied. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Facebook say that, in some cases, the company inflated its numbers by as much as 900 percent. Whatever the reasons for these errors in measurement, the “pivot to video” is a sharp illustration of how the modern advertising marketplace can leave buyers and sellers beholden to dominant platform decisions about what data to make available.”

Opacity, pg 70

On specific types of ad fraud:

“Click fraud is a widespread practice that uses automated scripts or armies of paid humans in “click farms” to deliver click-throughs on an ad. The result is that the advertising captures no real attention for the marketer. It is shown either to a human who was hired to click on the ad or to no one at all. The scale of this problem is enormous. A study conducted by Adobe in 2018 concluded that about 28 percent of website traffic showed “non-human signals,” indicating that it originated in automated scripts or in click farms. One study predicted that the advertising industry would lose $19 billion to click fraud in 2018—a loss of about $51 million per day. Some place this loss even higher. One estimate claims that $1 of every $3 spent on digital advertising is lost to click fraud.”

Subprime Attention, 85

What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley

Adrian Daub

What Tech Calls Thinking

What Tech Calls Thinking is “about the history of ideas in a place that likes to pretend its ideas don’t have any history.” Daub has good reason to know this, as a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University (I never took a class with him, a fact I regretted more and more as the book went on). His turns of phrase do have the lyricism one associates with a literature seminar—e.g. “old motifs playing dress-up in a hoodie”—as he explores the ideas that run amok in Silicon Valley. He exposes delightful contradictions: thought leaders who engage only superficially with thoughts. CEOs who reject the university (drop out!), then build corporate campuses that look just like the university. As Daub explains the ideas of thinkers such as Abraham Maslow, Rene Girard, Ayn Rand, Jurgen Habermas, Karl Marx, Marshall McLuhan and Samuel Beckett, you get the sense, as Daub says, that these ideas “aren’t dangerous ideas in themselves. Their danger lies in the fact that they will probably lead to bad thinking.” The book is a compelling rejection of the pseudo-philosophy that has underpinned much of the Valley’s techno-determinism. “Quite frequently,” Daub explains, “these technologies are truly novel—but the companies that pioneer them use that novelty to suggest that traditional categories of understanding don’t do them justice, when in fact standard analytic tools largely apply just fine.” Daub’s analysis demonstrates the point well. 

On tech drop outs:

“You draw a regular salary and know what you’re doing with your life earlier than your peers, but you subsist on Snickers and Soylent far longer. You are prematurely self-directed and at the same time infantilized in ways that resemble college life for much longer than almost anyone in your age cohort. . . .  Dropping out is still understood as a rejection of a certain elite. But it is an anti-elitism whose very point is to usher you as quickly as possible into another elite—the elite of those who are sufficiently tuned in, the elite of those who get it, the ones who see through the world that the squares are happy to inhabit . . .  All of this seems to define the way tech practices dropping out of college: It’s a gesture of risk-taking that’s actually largely drained of risk. It’s a gesture of rejection that seems stuck on the very thing it’s supposedly rejecting.”

Dropping Out, pg 37

On platforms versus content creation:

“The idea that content is in a strange way secondary, even though the platforms Silicon Valley keeps inventing depend on it, is deeply ingrained. . . . To create content is to be distracted. To create the “platform” is to focus on the true structure of reality. Shaping media is better than shaping the content of such media. It is the person who makes the “platform” who becomes a billionaire. The person who provides the content—be it reviews on Yelp, self-published books on Amazon, your own car and waking hours through Uber—is a rube distracted by a glittering but pointless object.”

Content, pg 47

On gendered labor:

“Cartoonists, sex workers, mommy bloggers, book reviewers: there’s a pretty clear gender dimension to this division of labor. The programmers at Yelp are predominantly men. Its reviewers are mostly female . . . The problem isn’t that the act of providing content is ignored or uncompensated but rather that it isn’t recognized as labor. It is praised as essential, applauded as a form of civic engagement. Remunerated it is not. . . . And deciding what is and isn’t work has a long and ignominious history in the United States. They are “passionate,” “supportive” volunteers who want to help other people. These excuses are scripts, in other words, developed around domestic, especially female, labor. To explain why being a mom isn’t “real” work. To explain why women aren’t worth hiring, or promoting, or paying, or paying as much.”

Content, pg 51

On gendered data:

“There is the idea that running a company resembles being a sexual predator. But there is also the idea that data—resistant, squirrelly, but ultimately compliant—is a feminine resource to be seized, to be made to yield by a masculine force. . . .To grab data, to dispose of it, to make oneself its “boss”—the constant onslaught of highly publicized data breaches may well be a downstream effect of this kind of thinking. There isn’t very much of a care ethic when it comes to our data on the internet or in the cloud. Companies accumulate data and then withdraw from it, acting as though they have no responsibility for it—until the moment an evil hacker threatens said data. Which sounds, in other words, not too different from the heavily gendered imagery relied on by Snowflake. There is no sense of stewardship or responsibility for the data that you have “grabbed,” and the platform stays at a cool remove from the creaturely things that folks get up to when they go online and, wittingly or unwittingly, generate data.”

Content, pg 55

On disruption:

“There is an odd tension in the concept of “disruption,” and you can sense it here: disruption acts as though it thoroughly disrespects whatever existed previously, but in truth it often seeks to simply rearrange whatever exists. It is possessed of a deep fealty to whatever is already given. It seeks to make it more efficient, more exciting, more something, but it never wants to dispense altogether with what’s out there. This is why its gestures are always radical but its effects never really upset the apple cart: Uber claims to have “revolutionized” the experience of hailing a cab, but really that experience has stayed largely the same. What it managed to get rid of were steady jobs, unions, and anyone other than Uber’s making money on the whole enterprise.”

Desire, pg 104

Public networks instead of social networks?

We need state-owned, interoperable, democratically governed online public networks. From the people for the people.

posted by Julia Rone

The conversation so far

The following comments on Trump being banned from Twitter/ the removal of Parler from Android and iOS stores were, somewhat aptly, inspired by two threads on Twitter itself: the first by the British-Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow and the other by Canadian scholar Blayne Haggart. The point of this post ideally is to start the conversation from where Doctorow and Haggart have left it and involve more people from our team. Ideally, nobody will be censored in the process :p

Doctorow insists that the big problem with Apple and Android removing Parler is not so much censorship – ultimately different app stores can have different rules and this should be the case – but rather the fact that there are no alternative app stores. Thus, the core of his argument is that the US needs to enforce anti-trust laws that would allow for a fair competition between a number of competitors. The same argument can be extended to breaking up social media monopolists such as Facebook and Twitter. What we need is more competition.

Haggart attacks this argument in three ways:

First, he reminds that “market regulation of the type that @doctorow wants requires perfect competition. This is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons (e.g, low consumer understanding of platform issues, tendency to natural monopoly)”. Thus, the most likely outcome becomes the establishment of “a few more corporate oligarchs”. This basically leaves the state as a key regulator – much to the disappointment of cyber-libertarians who have argued against state regulation for decades.

The problem is, and this is Haggart’s second key point, that “as a non-American, it’s beyond frustrating that this debate (like so many internet policy debates) basically amounts to Americans arguing with other Americans about how to run the world. Other countries need to assert their standing in this debate” . This point had been made years ago also in Martin Hardie’s great paper “Foreigner in a free land” in which he noticed how most debates about copyright law focused on the US. Even progressive people such as Larry Lessig built their whole argumentation on the basis of references to the US constitution. But what about all of us – the poor souls from the rest of the world who don’t live in the US?

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet, Amazon, etc. are all US tech companies. But they do operate globally. So even if the US states interferes in regulating them, the regulation it imposes might not chime well with people in France or Germany, let’s say. The famous American prudence with nudity is the oft quoted example of different standards when it comes to content regulation. No French person would be horrified by the sight of a bare breast (at least if we believe stereotypes) so why should nude photos be removed from the French social media. If we want platform governance to be truly democratic, the people affected by it should “have a say in that decision”. But as Haggart notes “This cannot happen so long as platforms are global, or decisions about them are made only in DC”.

So what does Haggart offer? Simple: break social media giants not along market lines but along national lines. Well, maybe not that simple…

If we take the idea of breaking up monopolies along national lines seriously…

This post starts from Haggart’s proposal to break up social media along national lines, assuming it is a good proposal. In fact I do this not for rhetorical purposes or for the sake of setting a straw man but because I actually think it is a good proposal. So the following lines aim to take the proposal seriously and consider different aspects of it discussing what potential drawbacks/problems should we keep in mind.

How to do this??

The first key problem is: who on Earth, can convince companies such as Facebook/Twitter to “break along national lines”. These companies spend fortunes on lobbying the US government and they are US national champions. Why would the US support breaking them up along national lines? (As a matter of fact, the question of how is also a notable problem in Deibert’s “Reset” – his idea that hacktivism, civil disobedience, and whistleblowers’ pressure can make private monopolists exercise restraint is very much wishful thinking). There are historical precedents for nationalization of companies but they seem to have involved either a violent revolution or a massive indebtedness of these companies making it necessary for the state to step in and save them with public money. Are there any precedents for nationalizing a company and then revealing how it operates to other states in order to make these states create their respective national versions of it? Maybe. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone in the US would want to do this.

Which leaves us with the rather utopian option two: all big democratic states get together and develop interoperable social media. The project is such a success that people fed up with Facebook and Google decide to join and the undue influence of private monopolists finally comes to an end. But this utopian vision itself opens up a series of new questions.

Okay, assuming we can have state platforms operating along national lines..

Inscribing values in design is not always as straight-forward as it seems, as discussed in the fascinating conversation between Solon Barocas, Seda Gurses, Arvind Narayanan and Vincent Toubiana on decentralized personal data architectures. But, assuming that states can build and maintain (or hire someone to build and maintain) such platforms that don’t crash, are not easy to hack and are user friendly, the next question is: who is going to own the infrastructure and the data?

Who will own the infrastructure and the data?

One option would be for each individual citizen to own their data but this might be too risky and unpractical. Another option would be to treat the data as public data – the same way we treat data from surveys and national statistics. The personal data from current social media platforms is used for online advertising/ training machine learning. If states own their citizens’ data, we might go back to a stage in which the best research was done by state bodies and universities rather than what we have now – the most cutting edge research is done in private companies, often in secret from the public. Mike Savage described this process of increased privatization of research in his brilliant piece The Coming Crisis of Empirical sociology. If anything, the recent case with Google firing AI researcher Timnit Gebru reveals the need to have independent public research that is not in-house research by social media giants or funded by them. It would be naive to think such independent academics can do such research in the current situation when the bulk of interesting data to be analysed is privately owned.

How to prevent authoritarian censorship and surveillance?

Finally, if we assume that states will own their own online public networks – fulfilling the same functions such as Facebook, but without the advertising, the one million dollar question is how to prevent censorship, overreach and surveillance. As Ron Deibert discusses in “Reset”, most states are currently involved in some sort of hacking and surveillance operations of foreign but also domestic citizens. What can be done about this? Here Haggart’s argument about the need for democratic accountability reveals its true importance and relevance. State-owned online public networks would have to abide by standards that have been democratically discussed and to be accountable to the public.

But what Hagart means when discussing democratic accountability should be expanded. Democracy and satisfaction with it have been declining in many Western nations with more and more decision-making power delegated to technocratic bodies. Yet, what the protests from 2010s in the US and the EU clearly showed is that people are dissatisfied with democracy not because they want authoritarianism but because they want more democracy, that is democratic deepening. Or in the words of the Spanish Indignados protesters:

“Real democracy, now”

Thus, to bring to conclusion the utopia of state public networks, the decisions about their governance should be made not by technocratic bodies or with “democratic accountability” used as a form of window-dressing which sadly is often the case now. Instead, policy decisions should be discussed broadly through a combination of public consultations, assemblies and in already existing national and regional assemblies in order to ensure people have ownership of the policies decided. State public networks should be not only democratically accountable but also democratically governed. Such a scenario would be one of what I call “democratic digital sovereignty” that goes beyond the arbitrariness of decisions by private CEOs but also escapes the pitfalls of state censorship and authoritarianism.

To sum up: we need state-owned interoperable online public networks. Citizen data gathered from the use of these media would be owned by the state and would be available for public academic research (which would be open access in order to encourage both transparency and innovation). The moderation policies of these public platforms would be democratically discussed and decided. In short, these will be platforms of the people and for the people. Nothing more, nothing less.

Is the UK really going to innovate in regulation of Big Tech?

On Tuesday last week the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) outlined plans for an innovative way of regulating powerful tech firms in a way that overcomes the procedural treacle-wading implicit in competition law that had been designed for an analogue era.

The proposals emerged from an urgent investigation by the Digital Markets Taskforce, an ad-hoc body set up in March and led by the CMA with inputs from the Information Commissioner’s Office and OFCOM, the telecommunications and media regulator. The Taskforce was charged with providing advice to the government on the design and implementation of a pro-competition regime for digital markets. It was set up following the publication of the Treasury’s Furman Review on ‘Unlocking digital competition’ which reported in March 2019 and drew on evidence from the CMA’s previous market study into online platforms and digital advertising.

This is an intriguing development in many ways. First of all it seems genuinely innovative. Hitherto, competition laws have been framed to cover market domination or monopolistic abuse without mentioning any particular company, but the new UK approach for tech companies could set specific rules for named companies — Facebook and Google, say. More importantly, the approach bypasses the sterile arguments we have had for years about whether antique conceptions of ‘monopoly’ actually apply to firms which adroitly argue that they don’t meet the definition — while at the same time patently functioning as monopolies. Witness the disputes about whether Amazon really is a monopoly in retailing.

Rather than being lured down that particular rabbit-hole, the CMA proposes instead to focus attention on firms with what it calls ‘Strategic Market Status’ (SMS), i.e. firms with dominant presences in digital markets where there’s not much actual competition. That is to say, markets where difficulty of entry or expansion by potential rivals is effectively undermined by factors like network effects, economies of scale, consumer passivity (i.e. learned helplessness), the power of default settings, unequal (and possibly illegal) access to user data, lack of transparency, vertical integration and conflicts of interest.

At the heart of the new proposals is the establishment of a powerful, statutory Digital Markets Unit (DMU) located within the Competition and Markets Authority. This would have the power to impose legally-enforceable Codes of Conduct on SMS firms. The codes would, according to the proposals, be based on relatively high-level principles like ‘fair trading’, ‘open choices’ and ‘trust and transparency’ — all of which are novel ideas for tech firms. Possible remedies for specific companies (think Facebook and Google) could include mandated data access and interoperability to address Facebook’s dominance in social media or Google’s market power in general search.

It would be odd if, in due course, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft don’t also fall into the SMS category of “strategic”. Indeed it’s inconceivable that Amazon would not, given that it has morphed into critical infrastructure for many locked-down economies.

The government says that it going to consult on these radical proposals early next year and will then legislate to put the DMU on a statutory basis “when Parliamentary time allows”.

Accordingly, we can now look forward to a period of intensive corporate lobbying from Facebook & Co as they seek to derail or emasculate the proposals. Given recent history and the behaviour of which these outfits are capable, it would be prudent for journalists and civil society organisations to keep their guard up until this stuff is on the statute book.

The day after the CMA proposals were published (and after a prolonged legal battle) the Bureau of Investigative Journalists were finally able to publish the Minutes of a secret meeting that Matt Hancock had with the Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg, in May 2018. Hancock was at that time Secretary of State for DCMS, the department charged with combating digital harms. According to the Bureau’s report, he had sought “increased dialogue” with Zuckerberg, so he could “bring forward the message that he has support from Facebook at the highest level”. The meeting took place at the VivaTech conference in Paris. It was arranged “after several days of wrangling” by Matthew Gould, the former culture department civil servant that Hancock later made chief executive of NHS X. Civil servants had to give Zuckerberg “explicit assurances” that the meeting would be positive and Hancock would not simply demand that the Facebook boss attend the DCMS Select Committee inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which he had refused to do).

The following month Hancock had a follow-up meeting with Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s top lobbyist, who afterwards wrote to the minister thanking him for setting out his thinking on “how we can work together on building a model for sensible co-regulation on online safety issues”.

Now that the UK government is intent on demonstrating its independence from foreign domination, perhaps the time has come to explain to tech companies a couple of novel ideas. Sovereign nations do regulation, not ‘co-regulation’; and companies obey the law.

……………………..

A version of this post was published in the Observer on Sunday, 13 December, 2020.

Great expectations: the role of digital media for protest diffusion in the 2010s

The decade after the 2008 economic crisis started with great expectations about the empowering potential of digital media for social movements. The wave of contention that started from Iceland and the MENA countries swept also Europe, where hundreds of thousands Spanish protesters took part in the Indignados protests in 2011 and a smaller but dedicated group organized Occupy London – the British version of the US Occupy movement that shook US politics for years to come. Protesters during the Arab Spring were often carrying posters and placards with the logos and names of Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms or were even spraying them as graffiti on walls.

It was a period of ubiquitous enthusiasm with some scholars even claiming that the Internet is a necessary and sufficient condition for democratizaton. What is more, a number of scholars saw in the rise of digital platforms a great opportunity for the diffusion of protests within nations and transnationally at an unprecedented speed – leading political journalists and researchers noted that digital media had a key role in ‘Occupy protests spreading like wildfire’ and in spreading information during the Arab Spring.

Photo by Essam Sharaf

Already back in the early 2010s, the beginning of this techno-utopian decade, researchers emphasized that in Egypt, protests and information about them in fact spread in more traditional ways – through the interpersonal networks of cab drivers, labour unions, and football hooligans, among others. What is more, protests in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis spread much more slowly than the 1848 Spring of the Peoples protests due to the need of laborious cultural translation from one region to another. Ultimately, in spite of the major promises of social media, most protest mobilization and diffusion still depends on face-to-face interactions and established protest traditions.

Yet, the trend of expecting too much from digital media is countered by an equally dangerous trend – claiming they haven’t changed anything in the world of mobilization. The media ecology approach of Emilano Trere and Alice Mattoni escapes the pitfalls of both approaches by studying how activists use digital media in combination and interaction with a number of other types of media in hybrid media ecologies.

In a book that I just published, I apply the media ecology approach to study the diffusion of Green and left-wing protests against austerity and free trade in the EU after 2008. One of the greatest things about trying to focus on other media beyond Facebook and Twitter is the multiple unexpected angles it gives to events we all thought we knew well. While both activists and researchers alike have been fascinated with the promise of digital media, looking at the empirical material with unbiased eyes revealed so much about the key role of other types of media for protest diffusion.

To begin with: books! The very name of the Indignados protests came from the title of Stéphane Hessel’s book “Indignez-vous!”. But the books by authors such as Joseph Stiglitz, Wolfgang Streeck, Ernesto Laclau and Yannis Varoufakis have been no less important for spreading ideas and informing protesters across the EU. In his recent book “Translating the Crisis”, Spanish scholar Fruela Fernandez notes the boom of publishing houses translating political books in Spain in the period surrounding the birth and eruption into public space of the Indignados movement.

Similarly, mainstream media have been of crucial importance for spreading information on protests, protest ideas and tactics across the EU in the last decade. Mainstream media such as The Guardian, BBC, El País, etc. reported in much detail on the use of digital media by social movements such as Occupy or Indignados, even sharing Twitter and Facebook hashtags, links to Facebook groups and live-streams in articles. Mainstream media thus popularized the message (and media practices) of protesters further than they could have possibly imagined. In fact, mainstream media’s fascination with the digital practices of new social movements goes a long way to explain their largely favourable attitude to the protests of the early 2010s, Such a favorable coverage by mainstream media indeed contradicts most expectations of social movement scholars that media would largely ignore or misrepresent protesters.

Another type of protest diffusion that has remained woefully neglected but played a key role in the spread of progressive economic protests in the EU was face-to-face communication and, as simple as it may sound, walking! During the Spanish Indignados protests hundreds of protesters marched from all parts of Spain to gather in Madrid. A small part of them continued marching to Brussels where they staged theater plays and discussions and then headed to Greece. These marches took weeks and involved protesters stopping in villages and cities on the way and engaging local people in discussions. Sharing a physical space and sharing food have been among the most efficient ways to diffuse a message and reach more people with it. Of course, the marchers kept live blogs and diaries of their journeys (which in themselves constitute rich materials for future research), but it is the combination of diffusion through traveling, meeting people in person, and using digital media which is the truly interesting combination.

In my book, I give many more examples of how progressive protesters used various types of media to spread protest. Beyond providing a richer and more accurate picture of progressive economic protests in the 2010s, the book can hopefully serve also as a useful reminder for researchers of the radical right. The 2010s that started with research on social movements and democratization end with a major academic trend for studying the far right, and especially the way the far right has blossomed in the digital sphere.

If there is one thing to be learned from my book, it is that digital media are not the only tool activists use to spread protest. Thus, if one needs to understand the diffusion of far right campaigns and ideas, one needs to focus also on the blossoming of far right publishing houses, the increasing mainstreaming of far right ideas in mainstream press, and last but not least, the ways in which far right activists make inroads into civil society organizations and travel to share experiences – it is well-known, for example, that during the refugee crisis far right activists from Western Europe made several joint actions with activists from Eastern Europe to patrol borders together.

Understanding how protests, protest ideas and repertoires diffuse is crucial for activists who want to help spread progressive causes, but also for those who are worried about the spread of dangerous and anti-democratic ideas. After a decade of great expectations about the potential of digital media to democratize our societies, we find ourselves politically in an era of backlash. Yet, at least analytically we are now past the naive enthusiasm of the early 2010s and have a much better instrumentarium to understand how protest diffusion works. To rephrase Gramsci, we are now entering a period of pessimism of the will and optimism of the intellect.

It is not what we wished for. But shedding our illusions and utopian expectations about the potential of digital media is an important step for moving beyond techno-fetishism and understanding better the processes of mobilization that currently define our society.

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