The Master’s Tools: Putting Social Media in its Place

This week Zuckerberg put his foot in his mouth yet again when he said that Facebook’s new approach to free expression was going to ‘piss off a lot of people’ thereby standing up for trolls and bullies rather than creating a safe place for free expression.

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.

“nuit blanche” by martingautron.com is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

 

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The Master’s Tools: Putting Social Media in its Place

We Are What We Attend To

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.

What are you attending to? What do you dismiss?

We Are What We Attend To

Innovation first, then security

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.

Reflecting the density of Ring cameras that have been used to share footage on Neighbors over the past 500 days. Screenshot: Gizmodo

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Innovation first, then security

Great Moments in Scholarly Communication

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.

There are a few reasons why I can’t stop thinking about this thread as a fantastic example of research or science communication – both in general and on social media. I’ll list them here:

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Great Moments in Scholarly Communication

Unintended Consequences

Researchers at MIT, who are at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology, have noticed that paradoxically when a little bit of assistive technology is added to a car, drivers become less safe. In other words, when people feel like technology is behind they wheel they are more likely to be more distracted drivers and thus many of the autonomous technologies that are intended to make people more safe actually do the opposite.

This is a classic unintended consequence of technology, like the ones described by Edward Tenner in his 1997 book Why Things Bite BackTo combat this issue, the smart folks at MIT decided to put a human facing camera in a vehicle, which would look for distracted driving and compensate accordingly, as seen in this YouTube video. Rather than asking, what are the social and psychological reasons that drive people to engage in distracted driving, so that these reasons might be minimized, instead the best solution was determined to be adding another layer of technological assistance to the issue. Technology to solve the problem created by technology.

A screen capture from the MIT Human-Centered Autonomous Vehicle demo video, available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoC8oH0CLGc

 

 

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Unintended Consequences

This Week In Tech News: Orwellian Doublethink

The last week has been filled with announcements from big tech firms:

Facebook tells us “the future is private“.

Google tells us they’re “here to help“.

Amazon tell us it’s a friend to small businesses.

"War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery Ignorance is Strength"  by Nney is licensed under  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery Ignorance is Strength” by Nney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In developers’ conferences and earnings calls, the biggest of the big tech companies are trying to develop unique value propositions that paint them as friendly, responsive, and attuned to the needs of their customers. Then the mainstream technology media (often overworked, understaffed and reliant on the good graces of big tech for continued access to stories), generally reports these messages at face value. News in the last week focused on Facebook’s pivot toward community groups, Google’s exciting universal translator or Amazon’s claim that small and medium sized business partners made on average 90K last year through their platform.

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This Week In Tech News: Orwellian Doublethink

Sunlight: The Promises and Perils of Open Government

Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” as the saying goes, meaning that transparency, or openness is always preferred over the alternative. Whether in business, government, or science. It is often assumed that open information is always better, or as the hacker ethic states “information wants to be free.”

But is open by default really the best approach? Particularly in the area of government? Can we not conceive of information that really should not be freed? Whether for national security purposes, or personal privacy, or even efficiency’s sake?

Light Up The Open

“Light Up The Open”by cogdogblog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sunlight: The Promises and Perils of Open Government

Language matters: The carbon tax edition

Today is the day the carbon tax takes effect in Canada, and I can’t help but notice it’s also April Fool’s day.

But the carbon tax is not a joke. Instead it’s an attempt, backed by solid economics research (article paywall), to cut greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on the burning of fossil fuels.

Shell Gas Station
“Shell Gas Station” by Mike Mozart is licensed under CC by 2.0

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Language matters: The carbon tax edition

Traveling under water – without leaving land

Coral reefs are among the most beautiful and complex ecosystems in the world. However, most people will never experience moving through one because unless you are in the right location and have specialized training and equipment, it is physically impossible to visit a coral reef.

So how can most people relate to something they cannot directly ecperience themselves? How do we work to develop an awareness of the beauty and need to protect coral reefs around the world? Or to put it another way, how do we make something like that accessible to a larger number of people?

This image shows large rocks around which various succulents have been planted to mimic the topology of a coral reef
A picture of the succulent garden coral reef (taken by author)

 

 

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Traveling under water – without leaving land

Visualizing policy

In my sustainability communication work, I’m always interested in the new and innovative methods that are being developed to teach people about climate change science and policy. Recently the Canadian Energy Policy Solutions Simulator came across my desk. This simulator, developed by the Pembina Institute, allows the user to see the emissions savings of different policy instruments that the government could introduce, and how close these different policies may or may not help Canada get to our emissions reduction targets.

A screen capture of the Pembina Institute Energy Policy Solutions landing page
A screen capture of the Pembina Institute Energy Policy Solutions landing page. The image shows the Canadian Parliament buildings at night

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Visualizing policy