Bookmarked Power, Polarization, and Tech by Chris (Hypervisible Exchange)
Tech platforms, in their majestic equality, allow both rich and poor alike to marshal digital tools to drown out dissenting voices, suppress votes, and spread falsehoods.
Chris Gillard explains that polarisation is always about power:

Polarization can and does occur according to class, gender and gender identity, geography, nationality…but when and where it occurs, it tends to be in service of the powerful and the status quo, not as some “natural” occurrence, but as result of dedicated efforts to create it.

It is a means of engagement and attention.

Polarization keys engagement, and engagement/attention are the what keep us on platforms.

In many respects, social media and silicon valley promotes polarisation for its own good.

Digital technology in general, and platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter specifically, exist to promote polarization and maintain the existing concentration of power.
The segregated ground of Silicon Valley is both the literal and figurative foundation for the platforms we use, and the design of these platforms, well-aligned with their racist history, promotes notions of free speech and community that are designed to protect the folks in society who already benefit from the most protections.

This is best understood by considering who is protected by these spaces.

Protected category + Protected category = Protected category

Protected category + Unprotected category = Unprotected

This is often a reflection on the inequality within these organisations.

If we had social media and rules for operating on platforms made by black women instead of bros, what might these platforms look like? What would the rules be for free speech and who gets protected? How would we experience online “community” differently than we do now? Would polarization be a bug instead of a feature?

Bookmarked The Problem With Facts (Tim Harford)
Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.
Tim Harford explains that the solution for fake news is not simply facts, rather we need to foster an attitude of curiousity. For as he demonstrates through a number of examples, even when armed with the supposed truth, we cannot escape the engaging influence of the lie:

Facts, it seems, are toothless. Trying to refute a bold, memorable lie with a fiddly set of facts can often serve to reinforce the myth. Important truths are often stale and dull, and it is easy to manufacture new, more engaging claims.

This comes back to a point that Barthes’ made in regards to mythologies and advertising. The strength lies in the power of first impressions, to manipulate individual preconceptions of a sign. It does not matter than after the initial contact a more rational meaning be found, a myths power to distort still remains and does not diminish. For

Myth is imperfectible and unquestionable, time or knowledge will not make it better or worse.

Sometimes it pays off to think small. Think next door, down the hall, at the next meeting. Act large in small spaces. Notice who’s speaking and who isn’t. Practice not knowing and being curious. Be kind. Welcome warmly and mean it.

Sherri Spelic


This microcast is my response to the pop-up MOOC, Engagement in a Time of Polarization, currently running. I have been following proceedings, but have struggled to contribute. After trying to write a more comprehensive reflection, but not knowing where to start, I decided to ‘think small’ and just share a short microcast. For so long I thought ‘engagement’ involved measuring the number of tweets etc, but I have come to respect lurking more and more as a legitimate (in)action.

Bookmarked The Digital Poorhouse by Virginia Eubanks (Harper's magazine)
Think of the digital poorhouse as an invisible web woven of fiber-optic threads. Each strand functions as a microphone, a camera, a fingerprint scanner, a GPS tracker, a trip wire, and a crystal ball. Some of the strands are sticky. Along the threads travel petabytes of data. Our activities vibrate the web, disclosing our location and direction. Each of these filaments can be switched on or off. They reach back into history and forward into the future. They connect us in networks of association to those we know and love. As you go down the socioeconomic scale, the strands are woven more densely and more of them are switched on.
Virginia Eubanks compares the restrictive nature of the poorhouses of the nineteenth century with the digital spaces of today:

The differences between the brick-and-mortar poorhouse of yesterday and the digital one of today are significant. Containment in a physical institution had the unintended result of creating class solidarity across the lines of race, gender, and national origin. If we sit at a common table to eat the same gruel, we might see similarities in our experiences. But now surveillance and digital social sorting are driving us apart, targeting smaller and smaller microgroups for different kinds of aggression and control. In an invisible poorhouse, we become ever more cut off from the people around us, even if they share our suffering.

The digital poorhouse has a much lower barrier to expansion. Automated decision-making systems, matching algorithms, and predictive risk models have the potential to spread quickly.

In conclusion, Eubanks suggests that we need to work together to build a solution:

If there is to be an alternative, we must build it purposefully, brick by brick and byte by byte.

This reminds me of the point Brent Simmons made in regards to Micro.blogs:

We’re discovering the future as we build it.

Bookmarked Why we need to understand misinformation through visuals by Hannah Guy (First Draft News)
Following the London Westminster terrorist attack in March of this year, an image representing the strength and solidarity of Londoners emerged on Twitter. It’s not uncommon for workers on the London Underground to write messages of national unity on tube signs following tragic events, and the March terrorist attack seemed no different. The image proceeded …
Hannah Guy discusses the impact of images on misinformation. This is not just about fake photographs, but graphics too. She provides a particular focus on memes, something danah boyd also covered.
Bookmarked Why Less News on Facebook Is Good News for Everyone by Will Oremus (Slate Magazine)
To what extent Facebook’s disruption of the media facilitated the political upheaval and polarization we’ve seen over the past several years is a question that researchers will be debating and investigating for some time. But it seems clear they’re related. And it was Facebook’s takeover of the news that gave Russian agents the tools to influence elections and civil discourse in democracies around the world.
Will Oremus discusses Facebook’s flip to prioritise the personal over corporation. This will have a significant impact on the way that news is portrayed on the site. It comes on the back of a series of changes in which Facebook has broken the back of digital news coverage:

First, by encouraging people to get news from all different sources in the same place, Facebook leveled the playing field among publishers.

Second, whereas human editors used to be trained to select and emphasize stories based on their news value, Facebook’s news feed algorithm optimized for clicks, views, likes, and shares.

This move isn’t to repair the damage done to democracy, but rather to limit the damage done to its users.

Bookmarked that doesn't mean dumbing it down by Anne Helen Petersen (TinyLetter)
My advice to the group of academics, then, was two-fold. First: recognize that both sides need to be more flexible. Understand that journalists have to have somewhat reductive headlines, and that they operate on deadlines. But also assert, at the beginning, that you are unwilling to provide a soundbite — and want, above all else, to insert nuance, instead of a flat argument, and if they can't deal with that (even if it's just three sentences of complication, instead of one declarative sentence) then you will not do the interview. It's not that academics should request quote approval, it's more that they should be able to reach an agreement with the journalist about the sort of argument to which they're affixing their good name.
Anne Helen Petersen explains how to work with and in journalism to extend the reach of academic ideas.