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Community Supported Propaganda

I’ve been thinking about things that we as small groups and individuals can do to temper and eventually turn the frightening political front that the US (and, indeed, others) are seeing at this moment. We know that media plays an outsized role, even compared to the recent past, in the general thoughts and feelings of much of the country and the world. Media companies are corporations, first and foremost (some exceptions exist) and are interested primarily in a continued, profitable existence. With the extreme changes in the media landscape over the last two decades, this is not a certainty for most media corporations and, therefore, they have become much more risk-averse than in the past. This can translate into business strategies much more focused on attracting and maintaining audiences than in reporting fair and accurate news. You can’t be the only outlet not reporting on the scandal of the day lest you loose eyeballs and, therefore, revenue.

However, media – primarily video content – is not about to lose its influence in our daily lives. What I think that we as concerned individuals must do is device new ways to have media work for us, and to spread the messages we feel are important rather than leaving that choice up to profit-motivated newsrooms.

You have likely heard of a “CSA” before – usually meaning “Community Supported Agriculture” but expanded to include “Aquaculture,” and, particularly relevant to this concept, “Art.” In my community, I can participate in a Community Supported Art group which allows about 150-200 people each quarter to pay into a pool which is then distributed among a juried group of local artists, each of whom must create an art object for each of the supporters. I think we can look to this model for inspiration in getting small, targeted bits of media in front of the people who most need to hear our messages.

This is, on the surface, a simple concept:

  • Social media ads are pretty cheap (or at least have a low barrier to entry)
  • Targeting tools on those platforms are creepily specific
  • We have so many creative people who want to do something to help
  • We can crowdfund the running of ad spots targeting those who most need to hear our messages

I envision a group who evaluates submissions from the community on a variety of criteria and then manages the running of the submissions in appropriate targeted groups on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and more. Supporters pay into the pool on a regular basis (similar to Patreon) and receive updates about which ads were run and potentially engagement reports from interactions with those ads. I would hope that such situations were able to provide some compensation and/or production assistance to those creating the media content as necessary and possible.

In short, we as regular individuals could come together to put small-creator-made ads in front of hundreds of thousands of people who need to hear from anyone outside their echo chamber. We would, in effect, open up those chambers and inject our own little bit of reverb into the echoes.

There are some potential pitfalls. Any tool can be used for good and evil, and there is great potential for harmful mis-use of this concept. In fact, I would be surprised if this isn’t already happening. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, a group running ads targeting LGBT+ youth with messages encouraging self-harm, or one offering assistance to undocumented immigrants which actually handed over their information to authorities. But, while tempting, it doesn’t help to try to keep tactics secret. When used openly, everyone can better understand how they work and can use them, and devise antidotes to them, more effectively.

For my case, I would want to see ads that humanize those who are under the heaviest persecution at the moment and make it difficult for far-right conservatives to other them. I would support messages of unity and warmth, but also a lot of messages of facts –  the kinds of facts that make strong conservatives question the stories we are getting from our current administration. (Honest, creative presentation of those facts are key to encourage the necessary engagement.)

I would not personally support groups running aggressive messaging that is more likely to cause a backlash effect than a critical evaluation of beliefs. But that is a choice, not a requirement for such a thing. It makes me wonder whether contributors should have a say in which ads are run and whether voting on a juried selection may be feasible.

The media is a weapon at this point, and I see no way to stuff it back in the bottle, so let’s at least make things as even as we can.

 


Speaking up: Corporate edition

I am really impressed and proud of Lyft this morning. A private company, one that has potentially much to lose under a Trump administration, has sent and email to (all?) customers denouncing the ethically bankrupt actions of Trump with his recent immediate ban on refugees. It’s a deplorable move, and one that embarrasses me as an American. I really think we need many, many more companies to start stepping up and denouncing these actions. After all, corporations are people too, and it seems the only ones the administration will listen to. (The email came with announcement of a generous donation to the ACLU too!)

[Text reads:

Defending Our Values

Hi William,

We created Lyft to be a model for the type of community we want our world to be: diverse, inclusive, and safe.

This weekend, Trump closed the country’s borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.

We know this directly impacts many of our community members, their families, and friends. We stand with you, and are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution. We ask that you continue to be there for each other – and together, continue proving the power of community.

John & Logan
Lyft Co-Founders]

 

Nicely done, Lyft. I hope you inspire others.

[UPDATE: Apple too: http://www.macrumors.com/2017/01/28/tim-cook-on-immigration-order/]


Gamification of Ideological Exposure


Much is being written about ideological echo chambers. In particular, I’m enjoying Ethan Zukerman’s REWIRE, published in 2013, in advance of this seemingly sudden revelation after the 2016 US presidential election. Zukerman perfectly predicts (maybe it’s more accurate to say he observed) the phenomenon years ago. The idea that the great wondrous world of the internet has actually shrunk the points of view and differing ideals many of us are exposed to is counterintuitive, frustrating, and initially seems shocking. But it also makes perfect sense. We know that, left to our own devices, most of us seek out comfort, not challenge. We choose familiar ideas instead of ones that run contrary to our own. In short, we choose the easy path, not the hard one.

This is not unique to the media we consume, the people we follow on social media, or the neighborhoods we choose to live in. It also occurs when we look at the efforts put into political engagement (low), actions to mitigate climate change (low), and, perhaps most personally, the work most of us put into our own health and fitness. That latter category has had a great amount R&D devoted to it by researchers – mostly employed by, corporations who felt there was a way to make money by addressing this need. Weight-loss and fitness have been perennial money makers for generations, after all. When companies realized there was a way to add expensive tech to an established business model, the marketing campaigns practically wrote themselves.
Fitness trackers have boomed over the last few years. At their core, they serve as an easier way to quantify and visualize our physical activity over a given amount of time. Certainly they have helped me to better realize some of my bad habits, and to keep me more honest about the patterns in my exercise routine. This quantification is, most often, presented as a goal to reach each day/week/month and the awarding of virtual prizes and praise is nearly ubiquitous in these models. This is, clearly, the gamification of fitness. While the long-term effects are unclear, it is undeniable that some have benefited from this model.

I wonder what will happen if we apply this concept of gamifying a behavior that we generally dislike to encourage exposure to media that presents ideologies that we may not subscribe to ourselves?
The general idea behind a lot of gamification is to make an unpleasant activity fun, or at least to provide motivation for performing the activity. There are a great number of ways that rewards and motivations can present, but they are obviously effective for some. Getting in our step goal for the day, for instance, can result in a flashy animation and message of congratulations from our fitness apps, and even virtual medals for specific achievements. Even if the activity never becomes fun, if we can be motivated by these progress trackers, we can make progress towards our goals.
When it comes to exposure to dissimilar ideologies, goals are not nearly so clear or easy to quantify as for fitness. While I think that echo chambers are bad for everyone, I think it’s unlikely for most people to move too far beyond, say, a “reverb room” of ideological exposure very quickly. However, even that much of a move on the part of even a moderate portion of the population could have profound effects on our civic society. So, if our goals cannot be specific, how do we gamify exposure to ideologies? I think that measuring activity against a set of anti-goals may be useful. While it’s hard to say that “50% of your weekly reading should be outside your reverb room” it’s easier to say “less than 100% of your reading should come from within it.” It’s the extreme of the echo chamber that we need to avoid, not necessarily a perfect balance in all exposure.
But how do we even measure such things? That’s tough, to be sure. We have a general idea that some news sources lean one way or another (if you want to use the simplistic liberal/conservative spectrum for a measure) and we could, simply, categorize all stories from a specific outlet to be some percentage left or right of center. (see here and here) We could also use crowdsourcing to evaluate articles, provided enough people participating rate a specific story to avoid mischief. We could even use machine learning systems, trained on pre-scored corpora of material to evaluate individual news stories. (Seethe work of Marek Rei. I’m frustrated trying to find another researcher who trained a machine learning system to evaluate conservative vs liberal sources. I’ll update when I eventually find her again!)
If we have a reasonable way to score arbitrary content between the (again, much simplified but still useful) conservative and liberal extremes, then, much like counting steps and calories burned, we can tabulate an average for any set of stories. This could certainly be implemented in the form of a browser plugin, and could likely take other forms as well. For a responsible citizen of the US, making sure their browser bar contains, say, a purple dot, rather than a blue or red one, could become a personal goal.
We know that, for most of us, it is human nature to avoid hard things, especially when it seems we are the only ones to suffer from that avoidance. But accountability is an extremely important motivator, as are rewards. An automated system that tracks what we read, and gives us a reasonable estimate of its diversity, could assist a great many people in opening up their echo chambers, even if it is just a simple first step.


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