As we begin a new year and head back (at least virtually) to work and school, we might be thinking about personal things we would like to improve. Some people resolve to exercise more, stick to a budget or cut out sugar from their diet. Others resolve to write that book, use social media less or volunteer in their communities. These are all great ideas, and I’d like to add another one.
Though we all made our New Year’s resolutions on Jan. 1, I respectfully suggest a January resolution that would, if we each committed to it, produce a large positive impact on society. This year, I resolve — and would like to encourage others to resolve — to stop the spread of misinformation at the individual level.
Well it’s official. Across North America and most of Western Europe, the Christmas holidays are going to look very different this year. Since the second wave of the pandemic hit, we’ve been told to use virtual tools to connect with our loved ones for some holiday cheer. In fact, we may all find ourselves declining to participate in in-person holiday gatherings in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 prior to the release of a vaccine.
Unfortunately, however, we’ve already been doing almost everything digitally from our couches for months, and most of us are getting really tired of the whole thing, with good reason.
So do we write off the holidays altogether? Or do we try to find new ways to make things memorable? My research on digital literacy shows ways we can connect this holiday season, even as we stay physically apart.
The first few months of the pandemic was filled with Zoom fever. People were zooming work, happy hour, board game nights and other events as well. Then many people felt like they hit a wall. Zoom fatigue is real. And recent research suggests that all the efforts to connect using video chat platforms (Zoom, Skype, Teams and similar) might actually be wearing us down.
So while you consider how to spread holiday cheer, you want to find ways to step away from doing everything via video chat. Instead, learn from the ways digital natives use digital communication tools, and celebrate the season using a variety of platforms, as I’ll outline below.
This kind of engagement with digital technology makes sense for everyone. If you use Zoom for work, you may want to experiment with other technologies to connect with family and friends, For example, you could use an app like Rave, Airtime or Teleparty to watch movies synchronously with friends. Or you could visit friends and family virtually in a game like Animal Crossing, World of Warcraft, or Minecraft.
Get digitally creative
There are many other ways you can connect with loved ones to spread some holiday cheer. The sky, and your creativity, are the limit, but here are a few of my favorites:
Host a virtual New Year’s cèilidh on YouTube: A Christmas cèilidh is a Scottish holiday tradition where family and friends get together and share songs, stories and dancing. You can create a virtual cèilidh with those you love by using a site like YouTube. Each participant can upload a video of themselves singing a song, telling a story, reciting a poem or playing a musical instrument. Then you can curate the videos into a playlist that the group can enjoy while eating their Christmas cookies. After all, research shows that YouTube is place where communities are created, as well as a place where videos are shared.
Tune in, turn on, then cop out
Holidays are stressful, and you will feel tempted to accept every virtual invitation, but you also need to spend some time disconnecting from digital devices. Some universities recommend that their doctoral students build in digital detox times in order to combat Zoom fatigue.
Sometimes you’ll really want to use a videoconferencing platform to recreate a holiday dinner or cocktail party, so make sure you combat Zoom fatigue by balancing your video chatting with the other ways to connect described above.
By now, we’re all familiar with the problems of an open communication network which allows global reach. It’s easy to game our reptile brains to spread misinformation, hate speech and propaganda. It allows countries to interfere in the democratic communication processes in other countries. At best it serves as a kind of opiate for the masses, providing distractions that take people out of their communities. It’s a tool for capitalistic expansion and the control of knowledge and information flows. And to top it all off, the ads it serves are terrible.
What are you paying attention to? What do you scroll past on social media, or tune out when someone else is speaking?
A new study published in the journal Vaccine looks at the way different groups responded when confronted with vaccination arguments. In this work, authors Helge Giese, Hansjörg Neth, Mehdi Moussaïd, Cornelia Betsch, and Wolfgang Gaissmaier from the University of Konstanz, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and the University of Erfurt (all in Germany) refute a common assumption held by those who study the communication of sensitive or political topics. The widely-held understanding is that exposure to a message negating a person’s existing point of view, will create a rebound effect that will move their opinion even farther away from the message than where it started. This study contradicts the rebound effect hypothesis, suggesting instead that selective attention means that exposure to a contradictory message has little impact on the person hearing it.
Selective attention can mean ignoring the message entirely, or surrounding oneself with others who do not believe the message. Selective attention can also mean tuning out contradictory messages and only tuning into to messages that confirm existing points of view. We are what we pay attention to.
This message is not new per se, and has existed in some ancient schools of thought, such as buddhism, which suggest that mindfulness has power to shape reality. In this line of thinking, we are both what we pay attention to, and are disempowered when we fail to pay attention. Enlightenment is somewhere close to full attention.
In the case of misinformation spread and polarization, I think we all need to ask ourselves what we’re paying attention to, and what we dismiss because it doesn’t fit our conceptions of the world. We need to pay special attention to what we dismiss. In this case, a little dose of mindfulness directed at our own response to contradictory information will help reduce each one of our tendencies towards polarization and group-think.
The internet of things: It can help us manage our energy use even when we’re away from home, it can help you let people into your house remotely or make receiving packages easier. It can help you monitor your own family, home security issues or grocery use.. and it can help others monitor you.
A recent Gizmodo investigation, for example, revealed that Amazon’s smart doorbell/home security system Ring had major security vulnerabilities even despite a company pledge to protect user privacy. Gizmodo was able to uncover the locations of thousands of ring devices within a random Washington DC area. While only the Ring users who chose to use the Neighbors app were revealed, this still represents a major vulnerability which is ripe for exploitation.
In Canada, we survived our 43rd election, with the incumbent liberal government securing a minority parliament after a roller coaster 40 day campaign. Many election watchers were glued to their television sets, streaming video, or news websites last night in order to experience the results as they slowly rolled in. But how did voting day play out on Twitter? I tracked the two most popular election related hashtags: #elxn43 and #cdnpoli on Tweet Archivist to find out.
#cdnpoli most mentioned users
As can be seen in the wordcloud above, opposition leader Andrew Scheer was more often mentioned in conjunction with the hashtag #cdnpoli than incumbent Justin Trudeau, or the other party leaders, Jagmeet Singh or Elizabeth May. Parody website The Beaverton was mentioned more often than other news sites. Notably, the Bloc Quebecois was the seventh most popular user mentioned in association with the hashtag #cdnpoli. This may be a reflection of the growing popularity of the Bloc, which manifested in the Quebec centric party winning more seats than expected this election.
#cdnpoli trending hashtags
Of course, the election specific hashtag #elxn43 was most often associated with the #cdnpoli hashtag, as well as expected tags like #canadavotes, #vote, and #canadaelection. More surprising is the presence of #ableg – the hashtag for the Alberta provincial legislature, which was the 15th most popular hashtag. And Denmark, which seems to be driven by retweets of a specific tweet about renewable energy in Denmark, posted by a user affiliated with Greenpeace who was urging people to vote for clean energy.
#elxn43 most mentioned users
Looking at the #elxn43 hashtag, Jagmeet Singh, NDP leader was the most mentioned user. Followed by the other leaders, with opposition leader Andrew Scheer getting a few more mentions than incumbent Trudeau. The parody news site The Beaverton was still the most mentioned news outlet. Other frequently mentioned users include candidates for each party, and the names of some of the political parties. Included are also Jason Kenney, who is the leader of the provincial conservatives in Alberta, and the user @FairQuestions who is a Vancouver writer who has accused environmental groups of being against the oil and gas industry in a deceitful way.
#elxn43 trending hashtags
for #elxn43, #cdnpoli was the top most mentioned co-occurring hashtag. Outside of election specific hashtags like #canadavotes, #electionscanada, and #canadvotes2019, notable hashtags include #trudeaumustgo, which was the 6th most popular hashtag, and #trudeaulesstuesday, which was the 10th most popular hashtag. Also notable? #alberta was in the top 20.
Did Twitter Activity Suggest the “Blue Wave”?
While the incumbent liberal government maintained official governing status this election, albeit with a minority instead of majority government, some pundits suggest that a blue wave of conservative voting swept through the prairie provinces allowing the conservative government to pick up several seats more than they had going into the election. Given the alberta and conservative party focus on Twitter during election night, can we say that Twitter presaged a blue wave?
about 42% of Canadians are on Twitter, but fewer than that are regularly active on the site. We don’t know if Canadian Twitter users are more likely to vote than non-Twitter users, but we do know that journalists and political candidates tend to be more active on Twitter than regular users. It could be that journalists and political candidates with insider information were amplifying sentiment in Alberta and the other prairie provinces which was an accurate reflection of feelings on the ground. Or it could be somewhat of a coincidence that conservative sentiment was so prevalent on these hashtags during election night.
If we were judging by number of mentions alone, it certainly seems like the conservatives would have been the winning party. Interestingly enough, conservatives did get a slightly higher proportion of the popular vote than the incumbent liberals did, though it’s difficult to say how much of this is accurately reflected on Twitter, and whether the connection is due to more than chance alone.
What we can say is this: Twitter and other social media accounts have been accused of a left wing bias. If the Twitter activity on election night was any indication, this claim is unfounded. In fact, one could say that those opposed to what they see as left leaning policy are getting more traction on the platform if we look at trending mentions and hashtags co-occurring with popular election hashtags. Like other claims of a “left wing media” the idea that social platforms penalize users with right or conservative messages seems unfounded.
Yesterday, I was asked to appear on a CBC lunchtime call in show to discuss the issue of fake news during election time. Apparently, Vancouver-based polling firm Research Co recently conducted a poll in which two out of five Canadians reported that they had seen “fake news” online. In this case, Research Co defined “fake news” as “stories about current affairs that were obviously false”.
Now we can take Research Co to task for their imprecise definition of fake news here. Many Donald Trump supporters, for example, think that mainstream and reputable news outlets report stories that are “obviously false” and unfortunately, truth seems to rest in the eye of the beholder these days. However, that’s a much longer discussion for another blog post.
What I’d like to do today, is assume that we are seeing false, exaggerated, or misleading news more often than we used to, and I’d like to look at one important driver of misinformation during this particular Canadian election, using the recent rumours about Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister as a sort of case study of the ways media manipulators try to bait established media outlets to spread rumour and innuendo.
Today I want to highlight a really stunning example of Scholarly Communication on Twitter. Chelsea Vowel, Twitter handle @apihtawikosisan has set the bar high, taking a talk that she has put together, and reproducing it as a Twitter thread, for the reason, she says of initiating a broader conversation. I’ve embedded the first tweet here, please read the whole thread – it’s worth it.
I've been giving a talk lately that I'm going to go ahead and share with you here, because we need to have these discussions. I call it "Law For the Apocalypse: Kinship out of Fracture."