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

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

It’s Not You, Or Me!

Pop quiz: What do climate change and social media privacy have in common?

“Stop Global Warming” by Piera Zuliani is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

If you said, “a distracting and inaccurate focus on individual actions” you’re correct! Congratulations! Pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a congratulatory beer, glass of wine, coffee, or soda.

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It’s Not You, Or Me!

Hello Shadow

Note: This post is for Laura, by request – hi Laura!

Note 2: This post is far more philosophical than I normally go, but I thought, what the heck, why not have fun with it?

“shadow” by mandaloo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Your online Shadow.

Everyone has one. Even if you take care to not use platforms like Facebook, it’s highly likely that you have a shadow profile following you around the internet.

Platforms like Facebook and Google do it best. They collect all the data you and your friends or colleagues give them when you use their free services (But Google maps is SO CONVENIENT!) and they combine that with collected data about the other sites you visit (even after you log out) or where you’re logging in from, or whether you’re on a mobile device or a computer. They combine all of this data, and start to make predictions about you, which are either confirmed or adjusted depending on your online habits, and the habits of those you are connected to. This is precisely why so many people think their phones are secretly listening to them – and then delivering ads based on something they said. Your phone is not listening to you. It’s more troubling than that. Your shadow profile has revealed your secrets (she’s not very discrete!).

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Hello Shadow

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

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

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

Information Design is Needed Now More Than Ever

an image of a footpath warn through grass, beside a sidewalk. A sign says "please use sidewalk" but it is clear people are not obeying the sign.
Design vs. experience: by Dale Calkins on Twitter:

Information alone is not enough to change behavior. As the image above shows, if people have good reason to behave a certain way (in this case to cut the corner across a grassy lawn rather than taking a purpose built path on the sidewalk), they will keep behaving in that way, even if told otherwise (please use sidewalk).

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Information Design is Needed Now More Than Ever

Why are we so shocked?

So, in the news last week, it turns out Facebook behaved like many other large and not particularly ethical companies. Sheryl Sandberg is implicated in the hiring of a right-wing PR firm known for it’s “black ops” style engagement. This firm created messages suggesting that anti-Facebook activists had ties to George Soros (a known Republic dog whistle tactic). It has also been suggested that Sandberg wanted to suppress information about Russian election meddling (even the information which originated from Facebook’s own security people. All this and more is detailed in a recent New York Times article that commentators are saying shocked, and I mean, SHOCKED! the world.


A picture of a warning sign indicating danger of electric shocks
“Shocking” by Sooo0 is licensed under CC by-nc-sa 2.

Or maybe, on second thought, it’s not so shocking after all. In fact, I would ask why, after all of the countless apologies made by Zuckerberg over the years (see here, here and here, for just a few examples), why we are shocked by this? Furthermore, I would ask us to consider similarly why we’re so shocked when Amazon mistreats employees, or when Google is implicated in government censorship in other countries.

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Why are we so shocked?

Why it’s not so easy to #QuitFacebook

Yes, it’s true, Facebook has been implicated in some incredible abuses of power. From Cambridge Analytica to Facebook’s role in the uprisings in Myanmar, to censorship in China and beyond, Facebook has some ‘splaining to do. And consumers (FB users) should just “vote with their feet” and leave the platform once and for all or Facebook will never be held accountable.

"don't quit" by Sarah Page is licensed under CC by 2.0
“don’t quit” by Sarah Page is licensed under CC by 2.0

I agree with most of the #QuitFacebook arguments. And also, I don’t agree that everyone can just stop using Facebook. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

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Why it’s not so easy to #QuitFacebook