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 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


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

Why Disney+ Will Win the Streaming Wars

Here is my end of 2019 prediction (caution: not a hot take – a lukewarm take?): Disney+ is going to be one of the winners of the streaming wars and will likely overtake Netflix.

And the reason, surprisingly, is not Baby Yoda.

Baby Yoda Meme. From


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Why Disney+ Will Win the Streaming Wars

Snapchat: Putting the media back in social media

Today, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel announced in a CNBC interview that Snapchat has a plan to fact check political ads in an effort to curb misinformation problems currently plaguing many social media sites. Snap will not run ads that its fact checkers have determined are fake, and they’ve banned “political advertising that intends to mislead, deceive, or violate the company’s terms of service”. For those who have been following along, this represents a sharp departure from Facebook’s recently stated policy of allowing all political advertising to run without the hassle of fact checking, as a means of promoting what they say is free speech on the platform. And last week, Twitter announced a sort of middle ground political ad policy in which certain advertisers are banned and issue ads are strictly governed.



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Snapchat: Putting the media back in social media

Elxn 43 wrap up: Last night on Twitter

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

The most mentioned users Oct 21, 2019 from #cdnpoli. Collected with Tweet Archivist


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

Most popular hashtags associated with the election hashtag #cdnpoli. Collected with Tweet Archivist


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

Most mentioned users affiliated with the hashtag #elxn43 on Oct 21, 2019. Data collected from Tweet Archivist

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

The top hashtags affiliated with elxn43 on October 21, 2019. Collected from Tweet Archivist

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?

Well.. maybe?

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.

Elxn 43 wrap up: Last night on Twitter

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

What if finding your online community hurts others?

The beauty of participatory and social media has always been its ability to connect people. That is also the great evil of these platforms.

Social media allows what Barry Wellman calls networked individualism. In contrast to geographic or familial communities where we are brought together through accidents of fate like where or with whom we were born, networked individuals are not forced to conform to community norms to fit in. Instead, they can use network technologies to maintain their individual quirks and find others who share their unique interests and ideals in online communities. This is a beautiful and terrifying vision.

“Frankenstein” by Britta Frahm is licensed under CC by 2.0

A year ago today, 10 people were killed and 16 injured when a young man rented a van and drove it onto the sidewalk. The perpetrator engaged in this action, as part of an “incel” or “involuntarily celebate” rebellion. The incel group is a group of men online who openly express misogyny and claim that they should be “given” women to have sex with. The attack targeted women. Incel communities on the internet celebrated following the attack.

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What if finding your online community hurts others?

The Private Turn

Is social media becoming less social?

In early 2018, Facebook users were stunned to learn that Cambridge Analytica had used a loophole in Facebook’s API to harvest data from millions of users who had not given free and informed consent for the use of their data. Prior to this reveal, people around the world were already growing concerned about the spread of fake news and misinformation on social media and how this information may influence elections. This event sent apprehensions into overdrive and even sparked a #DeleteFacebook online movement, of sorts.

Elon Musk backs #DeleteFacebook, and Tesla's and SpaceX's Facebook pages vanish
“Elon Musk backs #DeleteFacebook, and Tesla’s and SpaceX’s Facebook pages vanish” by marcoverch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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The Private Turn

Don’t Trust #CdnMedia – how anti news discourses spread during the last election

Popular opinion is that fake news and distrust of the mainstream media was mostly a problem during the 2016 US election and the ill-fated Brexit vote in the UK. However, before either of these things happened, we actually saw anti-news sentiment in small pockets of Canadian social media chatter. During our last election in 2015 people were beginning to use the hashtag #CdnMedia to criticize mainstream media sources and accuse journalists of working for the Liberal government. As we enter another election year, we may want to learn from what happened before, as I suspect this type of chatter will only become a bigger player in 2019.

Vizrt Kurdsat 1 News @ 6 HD Graphics.
“Vizrt Kurdsat 1 News @ 6 HD Graphics.” by arshan khan is licensed under CC by-nc-nd 4.0

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Don’t Trust #CdnMedia – how anti news discourses spread during the last election

New Online Resource: About Online Harassment

For the past 18 months, I have been part of a research team that looks at the effects of online harassment for researchers and scholars who need to be on social media for the purposes of their work.

Words Stigmitize: an image of angry heads with tongues pointing at a small sad person in the cornder
“Words Stigmitize” by Antonis Margaronis is licensed under CC by-nc-nd 4.0

This  project relates to my general research program of understanding how information that is in the public interest can be spread online, and what the barriers are to the spread of information in this context.

Working on the question of online harassment has given me the opportunity to work with a fantastic team of super smart and caring people. We’ve interviewed scholars and researchers, launched a large scale survey, and produced papers, conference presentations, op-eds and YouTube explainer videos. Now we’re very excited to launch a website intended to showcase our research on this project to date, and also serve as a resource for scholars and researchers who use online tools to promote themselves or their work.


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New Online Resource: About Online Harassment

You Have Been Hacked

In a recent article by Tristan Harris, this design ethicist and former magician lays out the various ways that our psychological limitations have been taken advantage of by technology companies in order to create a compulsive media environment.

a person who has fallen asleep at their computer
“Sleepy hacker” by thomasbonte is licensed under CC by 2.0

These companies make money by ensuring we spend as much time on their platforms as possible so they use various tricks like creating an illusion of choice, hijacking our natural tendencies as social animals, and producing the compelling draw of variable rewards to capture and hold our attention. In his article, Harris makes suggestions for why each of these tactics is problematic for people, community, and society, and he also suggests different ways we could design and approach technology in our lives. I’d like to build on his ideas specifically with respect to weaponized misinformation and propaganda. Harris doesn’t really get into this in his article, but I’d like to suggest why I think the hacking of the human mind has left us far more vulnerable to this type of message manipulation.

Propaganda is not new, nor is the attempt of foreign powers to sow the seeds of division among the population of a country against which they are engaging in information ops. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, Russia helped to support the burgeoning human rights movement as a way to sow deep division and distrust of power. It’s a complicated relationship, and one that likely had both intended and unintended outcomes.

When social media platforms hack our brains for attention, they have also super charged the propaganda, misinformation and black ops tactics that were already being deployed at a slower grassroots scale. Just as we are wired to seek variable rewards from social media notifications, we are wired to respond to emotionally charged (particularly negative) posts. The human mind, evolutionary speaking, is optimized to ignore the mundane but attend to threats to ourselves or our tribes. Thus when we see a viral video showing a confrontation between two groups, one of whom we identify with, we will be likely to pay attention to the video and then share it with our tribe without thinking critically about what is not shown on the video.

This type of uncritical engagement with media is not particularly new either. As anyone who has taken a media studies class can tell you, we tend to trust what we see with our own eyes, which is why video is so successful a medium for building and reinforcing cultural norms. But as social media platforms use popularity and auto play to hold our attention, they also facilitate the spread of video, increasing the global scale at which they can effectively influence people’s views.

So as Harris points out, we are all being hacked for our attention. And as the companies hack our brains, they pave the way for propagandists to do so as well. This adds additional weight to Harris’ call for a social media bill of rights, and I would add, suggests that we need to carefully think through the question of regulation for platforms and whether we need to develop an international and enforceable standard of practice.

You Have Been Hacked