The shadow works of Raphael and Hella

Apologies, firstly, to any artists reading this who know what I’m talking about more than I do. This August I saw two exhibitions, three days and five hundred years apart, that made me feel I have finally learned something quite profound about visual art. On Tuesday I went to see Breathing Colour at the Design Museum in London, featuring  Hella Jongerius. It got me noticing and thinking in a whole new way. I saw a great Raphael exhibition once (not to be confused with any more recent artistic namesake) so on Friday I went to see Drawings by Raphael at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Colour and Line

You’d think these works by Hella of Holland and Raphael of Urbino might have little in common. One is all about colour and experiments with colour, the other about experiments with line and features only pen and ink,  brown or red chalk or charcoal drawings, but I found them deeply connected. Hella Jongerius creates ‘colour catchers’ , like this:

ColourCatcher2

They are objects with intricate folds made of paper or card, in a single colour, but the shaping, folding and positioning next to other coloured objects gives rise to many subtly different shades. Like this:

ColourCatcher

She calls them her canvases, and explains that while we’ve got used to the ‘flat’ industrial palette of colours, in life colour isn’t like that as it is always being affected by changing light according to the time of day, proximity to other colours (metamerism), by shadows, and by our own vision.  I came out gazing at objects on the street and seeing how everything was, in its own way, full of shadows changing flat colours into rich three dimensional objects. This is surely obvious to any trained artist now, but centuries ago there were plenty of artistic styles that didn’t use shadow. In Peckham Rye Park I noticed the grass wasn’t just green, and the earth wasn’t just brown. They were greens plus light and shadow, or browns plus light and shadow, like this (the industrial palette of pixels of course gives only an approximation).

At the Ashmolean, I found I was looking at the Raphael drawings with shadows in mind – shadows on bodies, and shadows in faces. Here’s one of the earliest works in the show. It’s possibly a self portrait, and possibly from 1500 when he would have been 17.

SelfPortrait2

There’s some shadow, but not a lot. Here’s a much later drawing from his final years, in 1519 or 1520.

RaphaelDrawings

Raphael uses light and shadow as much as Hella Jongerius, and while her work experiments with colour and perception,  Raphael’s explores light and shadow as they reveal human emotion through bodily expression. It was extraordinary going round the exhibition to see how he developed his techniques, repositioning faces and people to get different effects. Each drawing got me looking to see what direction the light was coming from. Like a musician who always knows where the beat is, Raphael always knows where the light is, and he knows how faces and bodies cast their own intimate shadows, like any object with intricate folds. Hella of Holland’s light is northern European, and that’s most obvious in her sequence of textile hangings that take you through from dawn to night. Raphael’s was a stronger Mediterranean light and his scenes usually outdoors. I liked the twisty, wriggly babies too. His sketches for Madonna and Child paintings experiment with positions – babies who look at their mothers and ones who don’t, relaxed babies, escaping babies, babies more interested in other children. One drawing, ‘Charity’, shows three infants grabbing at the same woman. If any of these were life drawings his studio must have been a riot.

Oak gall ink and Mosul

I found a surprising link with Mosul at the Raphael exhibition. The ink he used was made from oak galls. Iron gall ink was in common use throughout Europe for writing and drawing from the 5th to the 20th centuries. Sarah Shield’s study of Mosul’s trade before the creation of Iraq as a nation state, Mosul Before Iraq: Like Bees Making Five-Sided Cells, describes how gall nuts were collected from the mountainous Kurdish regions around the city to supply the tanning industry, because leather working and tanning were Mosul’s most important commercial activities. Oak galls, sometimes called oak apples (formed by parasites on oak trees) were used for dyes and inks.

Oak galls

Most of the leather was used for making shoes. The most traditional and cheapest style was a backless slipper, in red, yellow or black. When I remember my grandmother from Mosul, I can recall her backless black slippers. They stuck in my mind as a child because they were unlike any other shoes I’d seen.

There were between 30 and 40 dye houses in Mosul at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Shields, synthetic chemical dyes were brought to Mosul by German merchants in 1909. My grandfather’s chemist shop must have traded in dyestuffs. At his suggestion my father started to import and export dye from London after WW2 when everything was scarce. Magenta was my favourite word when I was very young as it was so unusual, and I still think it’s an amazing colour. Schooled by Hella Jongerius, who called her book ‘I don’t have a favourite colour‘, I won’t say it’s still my favourite colour though I’ve used it for the heading above.

Both exhibitions are on until September if you get a chance to see them. Highly recommended, and amazingly for London in August, the Design Museum had no queues or crowds.

The shadow works of Raphael and Hella

Mosul, music and citizens in an age of terror

The final liberation of Mosul from IS is being regularly announced now and one of these days it will actually be true.  Three years ago IS used the ancient and highly symbolic al-Nuri mosque to declare its  so-called caliphate. A few days ago they blew up the mosque, before it could be recaptured, and have taken to sending out teenage girls as suicide bombers from their last few hold-outs in the old city. Around a million people from the Mosul area have been forced to flee for their lives. It’s unimaginable. It’s as if a city the size of Birmingham had been occupied by a death cult that destroyed its concert halls and libraries, murdered, raped and tortured entire communities and banned everything human, all artistic endeavours, everything that didn’t conform to their own ultra ‘pure’ version of religious conformity.

I’ve posted about Mosul’s history before in this blog, and here I want to commemorate three things: Mosul’s one time diversity from the days when culturally and religiously plural societies were a normal feature of the entire area, music from Mosul, and ordinary citizens choosing to keep track of events in Mosul and communicate to the rest of the world. Those citizen experts are anything but ordinary.

Joel Wing

You might have caught Joel Wing being interviewed on BBC radio news recently. He is an expert on what’s happening in Iraq but his background is extraordinary. He runs the Musings on Iraq blog and updates it constantly with news about what’s happening in Iraq, currently mostly the battle to retake Mosul. Joel Wing’s blog has become fairly well known and his expertise is trusted by a lot of journalists and analysts.  It turns out he’s a history teacher from Oakland, California who decided back in 2008 that since the US was involved in Iraq people ought to know what was happening, and became an expert through sheer continuous dedication and hard work. He collates news from English and Arabic language sources and presents clear summaries, along with reminders via Twitter of what happened on the same date in past years going back to at least 1991 (the war following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait). His latest post, as I’m writing this, tells us that Iraqi officials are going to announce final victory today over IS in Mosul, but they’ve made similar impatient announcements before and it’s unlikely that IS will be totally defeated today. Plenty of commentators including Wing are pointing out that ridding Mosul of IS presence won’t mean that IS is finished. Controlling cities or large stretches of territory is  only one of their strategies and they’ll continue to spread their ideology, hatred and violence – predominantly towards other Muslims – by other means.

Also today, there are estimates that it will cost a billion dollars to rebuild Mosul but as for repairing the harm done to the people of the city, especially children who have lived through three years of terror, there are no estimates. It will take a long time. UNHCR and UNICEF, Save the Children and no doubt lots of other NGOs are launching appeals.

The Mosul Eye and Mosul music

The Mosul Eye blog is heartbreakingly optimistic. It was set up by an Iraqi historian based in Mosul who has planned reconciliation events, a bring-a-book festival to help restore Mosul’s libraries, and an astonishing violin recital among the ruins to make the point that music can now return to the city in the face of terror. Like the Taliban and the jihadists who took over in Mali, IS banned music and threatened the lives of musicians. The Mosul Eye blogger arranged for a few Mosuli musicians to return and play in one of the ancient Nineveh sites IS tried to destroy. You can hear Ameen Mukdad, the violinist, here with explosions and gunfire in the background.

I played on a track on the Rivers of Babylon Treasures CD, Eliyyahu Eliyahu,  which is in the Mosul tradition of Iraqi Jewish music going back at least eighty years but probably much further. It’s the only existing recording as far as I know. It took me a long while to work out that some of the notes don’t exist in Western musical scales because they’re the notes in between those other notes. I recorded my father singing it when he was in his 80s and that’s when I realised I had transposed some of the tune into a more familiar sounding key in my memory, and had to flatten the notes back to where they should go. I always thought of the song as wistful, and about hoping for a better future when the prophet Elijah eventually shows up.

Next week I’m going to see Songhoy Blues again, a band formed by Malian musicians in exile. They played in London in 2015 alongside the showing of a film, They will have to kill us first,  about musicians daring to return to Timbuktu to give a free concert and inspire local people to hope for a return to normality. Their new album is called Resistance.

Old Mosul communities

This photo is of a Christian monastery near Mosul, St Elijah’s or Mar Elias

(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)

512px-Saint_Elijah's_Monastery_1_Mosul

It was the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq, dating back to around 600 CE. It was destroyed by IS probably in 2014. Mosul used to have the highest proportion of churches of anywhere in Iraq – Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, and probably others I don’t know about. My father remembered going inside churches as a child and seeing what he described as ‘big dolls’ (statues presumably). At one time there were at least twenty churches, not to mention the five synagogues and nearby Yezidi shrines. It’s an understatement to say that communities didn’t always live amicably together in the past but even so, Mosul’s long history is one of many diverse groups living side by side, including many Kurds. From the 1970s the Ba’athists started a Stalinist-style deportation campaign, removing Kurds from northern Iraq and dumping them in southern deserts. It’s estimated that 300,000 may have been killed. This transfer policy also involved settling Ba’athist supporters in the north.

This news story describes Muslims in a liberated area of Mosul helping to rebuild a destroyed Chaldaean church as a gesture of solidarity, but it’s not certain that Christians will feel safe enough to return.  Kurdistan is now seeking a referendum on independence. Relations with the government in Baghdad are pretty tense and although Kurds have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and have lost many of their own fighters. it’s been without much help from Baghdad. There’s an all-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan with a  website here  and there was a Commons debate on Tuesday which discussed the medical and psychological help needed following Mosul’s liberation and what the UK can do –  the proceedings are now available. The Kurdish referendum issue is going to be fraught.

I’ve been recommending experts in this blog (see here and here ) as well as occasionally writing about Mosul. If you’re interested in following news from Iraq, I’d recommend Joel Wing as a real expert, of the responsible citizen type.

[Blog housekeeping note: the menu in the top righthand corner shows up OK on some devices and platforms but not others. If you can’t see a menu of links to previous posts try expanding the set of lines at the top and they should turn into a menu. I’ve been trying to find out how to fix that and make them more visible but it seems a general WordPress design problem.]

 

Mosul, music and citizens in an age of terror

Are we nodes or are we noodles?

The new Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, Philip Howard, gave his inaugural lecture last week. It’s now available online but to save your time, I watched it and summarised what I thought were the most interesting bits, for the fourth of these posts on fake news (previous posts here, here and here). There was a certain amount of flummery at the start – not the soft pudding type – that you can skip if you decide to watch it.

flummery Flummery pudding, also known as mahalabia

Also of course, some daft clothes. But despite the Oxfordy business the OII is a useful place to know about and has done good research ever since it started. I went to the launch conference back in 2002 when I was researching internet related stuff for a doctorate. I liked their ethnographic style, thought it looked promising then and think it’s delivered since, for instance with regular surveys of British users and non-users of the internet, critical studies of Wikipedia, and a strong focus on ethical issues. The launch was at the Said Business School, the building with the ziggurats near the railway station, as the Institute itself is housed in a small building on St Giles near Balliol with no space for large events.

oii logo

Fifteen years ago at the OII launch the conference ran a session on ‘Participation and Voice’, asking whether the technology would improve or worsen the democratic process. This month Phil Howard asked something similar: Is social media killing our democracy?

He began by arguing that ‘the Internet’ is misnamed as there are now multiple internets. There’s a Snapchatty Yik-yakky one for under-17s that people like him don’t use. Far right conspiracy theorists get together on another one.  China has its own internet, built from the ground up as an instrument for social control and surveillance. Some argue that Russia and Iran have the same thing – a distinct internet. The cultures of use are so different it’s tough for researchers to study them all. The Prof then briefly narrated the development of his research by showcasing some of his publications, as he’d been coached that was the right thing to do in an inaugural lecture.

His first book, New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen (2005) was an ethnography of  the Gore and Bush US election campaigns. The people he studied and got to know were the first of a new breed of e-politics consultants.  He discovered that ‘a small group of people – 24 or 25 – make very significant design decisions that have an impact on how all of you experience democracy’. These people formed a small community, socialised together and worked   ‘across the aisles’ for Republicans or Democrats as needed.  At the end of the campaign several of them went off to work in the UK, Canada, Australia and various other countries,  to take the tricks they had developed in public opinion manipulation, funded by big money, to apply them in democracies around the world. His conclusion was that this is how innovation in political manipulation now circulates, i.e. via these kinds of roaming consultants with expertise for hire.

Next up, he turned to investigating the consequences of internet access in 75 mainly Muslim countries in a book that, amazingly, you can download for free . His idea was to see how things worked out in societies where censorship and surveillance are permitted and encouraged as a means of cultural protection; countries that liked to participate in the global economy but in constrained ways. He observed significant changes in gender politics, in where people went to learn about religious texts, and above all young people using information technologies to figure out that they shared grievances. He found a clear arc from the mid-2000s to the ‘Arab Spring’.  So while his first book was about political elites and the manipulation of democracy, the second was about catching the elites off guard.

His work on ‘the internet of things’ , Pax Technica, was more predictive and although the book wasn’t well received he was insistent that it’s necessary to pay attention, look back at what has already happened to online privacy and look forward to guard against what could happen next.  He reckons the privacy fight is already lost as far as the current internet(s) are concerned so we need to think ahead. To quote:

The internet of things is the next internet, the one you will not experience through a browser. It will track you in almost everything you do. For a variety of reasons it will generate almost perfect behavioural data that will be useful to social scientists but also governments and security services. In the next few years we have to wrestle with who gets this data, and why, and when…

By 2020 50 billion wireless sensors will be distributed around the world – there will be many more devices than people, to say nothing of satellites, drones and smartphones that people carry. There will be vast amounts of behavioural data on consumption habits, and in democracies any lobbyists who can will try to play with this data…

The average smartphone has 23 apps. The average app generates one location point per minute – little bits of evidence of where we are in physical space…few organisations have the analytical capacity to play with this data – Facebook does. Few do much with it – advertising firms do. Some apps read each other’s data. It’s fodder for an immense surveillance industry that’s about providing you with better consumer goods, identifying your location in space, providing data brokers [with info on us]…

His new programme of research at the OII is looking at social media, fake news, and computational propaganda, or in other words, algorithms and lies. Here are a couple of tasters. How to identify a bot: there are some giveaways. Bots tend to do negative campaigning. They don’t report positive policy ideas or initiatives.

Anger, moral judgments, pictures of politicians taken at a ridiculous angle ‘saying’ things they probably never said. Bots migrate from another topic to another e.g. latching on to Brexit after years tweeting about something else. A small handful of accounts after working on Brexit then became interested in the US election and were pro-Trump. A small number then became interested in the Italian referendum and the French elections and now back to the UK. Just a s there was a cycle of expertise from human subjects in the US who took the craft of political manipulation across multiple domains, multiple  regime types, there are now users who have humans behind them, social media accounts which have humans behind them, user accounts that craft political messages, moving from target to target, meddling in particular domains, as needed and one of the great research questions that faces us now is who are these people and to some degree how do we inoculate our democracies against their ill effects? 

Howard prefers to call them highly automated accounts because there is always a human behind them. They do not look like this.

computerBot

These automated accounts are not up and running all the time. They get turned off after an election. They have noticeable changes of strategy in response to events, for instance spikes in activity at particular moments to coincide with debates.  Howard thinks all this presents us with real problems and that social media has made democracy weak. ‘It has a compromised immune system. We’ve gone through that learning curve from social media as exciting opportunity for activists to tools for dictators.’ To make matters worse, people are selectively exposing themselves to secondhand sources of information that intensify what they already believe in a process that might be called elective affinity, so any bias doesn’t meet with much challenge.

We need to figure out what the opposite of selective exposure is.  Diversified exposure? We don’t even have a phrase. Randomised encounters? Empathic affinity? Process that allows people to encounter a few new pieces of information, candidates that they haven’t met before or faces they don’t recognise. Whatever those processes are we have to find them and identify them and encourage them.

Before reporting any more of what Howard thinks I should allow for some diversified exposure here and point out that there are other academics who might disagree. Here’s Daniel Kreiss,  who has studied political campaigning, taking a markedly different view. He says basically it’s more important to look at the history of how conservatism has been growing in the US than at social media. As for the UK, other academics agree that ‘whether done by bots or human influencers, that people may be surreptitiously emotionally engaged in online debates is deeply worrying’ and there’s plenty more rather tentative comment here.

Going back to the lecture, Howard ends with proposals for how this abundance of data on all of us might be regulated. He has a list.

  1. Report the ultimate beneficiary. You should have the right to find out who is benefiting from data being collected by an item you buy.
  2. It should be possible to add civic beneficiaries to benefit from the data.
  3. Tithes of data. 10% of the bandwidth, processing power and data should be made available to civil society organisations as a way of restoring some balance. Facebook has a monopoly platform position on public life in most countries. That should stop.
  4. A non profit rule of data mining. The range of variables that are exempt from profit should grow.

It’s not surprising to see Facebook’s data monopoly appearing here. He’s said elsewhere that researchers can only use a small percentatge of Twitter data, because that’s what is made accessible, and can’t properly research Facebook even though that’s where a lot of the political conversation – and manipulation – is happening. Facebook doesn’t share.

The Computational Propaganda project at the OII has just released its first case study series, covering nine countries, available here. It’s been covered in a few news articles (Wired, the BBC, Guardian and so forth). A brief snippet to give you the idea what’s in it:

The team involved 12 researchers across nine countries who, altogether, interviewed 65 experts, analyzed tens of millions posts on seven different social media platforms during scores of elections, political crises, and national security incidents. Each case study analyzes qualitative, quantitative, and computational evidence collected between 2015 and 2017 from Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Poland, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

Computational propaganda is the use of algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks.

That’s enough lecturing. I called this post Are you a node or a noodle? for a reason. Clearly, we’re all noodles as we’re all likely to be suckered at some point by fragments of the fakery that’s all over whichever internet we’re using. In one of Howard’s books that I’ve actually read or at least skimmed, he surveys the work of one of my favourite experts Manuel Castells. Castells and the media is really an introductory reader for students who haven’t yet read Castells, which is fair enough as reading Castell’s own work is a real undertaking. (I’m aiming to add him to my experts series on this blog soon.) Howard summarises one of Castell’s key theories about the network society as ‘People may think they are individuals who join, but actually they are nodes in networks‘.

We’re all nodes as well as noodles. My takeaway message is to be careful about what we’re circulating. Every large scale tragedy or atrocity now seems to attract lies, myths and propaganda that get wide circulation through deliberate manipulation but also via unwitting noodle-nodes (us, or some of us). Howard suggests (it is a textbook after all) that readers undertake an exercise in visualising their own digital networks. I’m not going to bother with the exercise but some of the other recommendations were good ones, such as:

  • be aware of your data shadow (yes it is following you)
  • use diverse networks
  • be critical of sources and try to have several
  • be aware of your own position in digital networks
  • remember that people in other cultures have different technology habits, and that networks can perpetuate social inequality
  • understand that you are an information broker for other people.

Thanks Phil. Enjoy your new job.

 

 

Are we nodes or are we noodles?

A fake news flow tracker

‘The Russians were pioneers. They understood that social media could be manipulated long before other people did.’

In a recent interview, available as a podcast here, Anne Applebaum explained why fake news in the context of the US elections isn’t really news, because there’s no country in Europe that doesn’t have a similar story about it. Russia has been purposefully and systematically disseminating fake news memes for at least a couple of years.  It’s a long interview and you may not have time, but she gets on to how fake news is made to flow from about 36 minutes in. She makes a lot of important, and worrying, statements about the impact these disinformation campaigns have already had in Europe, for example in support of the far right in Hungary.  I’ve previously recommended Applebaum as an expert worth following and here I can’t do better than quote from the Sam Harris podcast. It adds a lot more substance to the fake news discussion I reported on in a previous post.

She warns that [in relation to the Trump campaign’s Russian links] the danger is that the FBI investigation won’t find a smoking gun and then people will say it’s all right. But we don’t need a smoking gun. We can see it.

It’s a pattern of politics that they [the Putin regime] follow…they seek out extreme groups and movements that they support sometimes quite openly…they support the far right in Hungary…sometimes it’s with money, sometimes contacts, social media campaigns…there’s a pattern to it, it works the same in every country. They adjust it depending on the politics. Sometimes they support the far left, sometimes the far right. Sometimes they support business people. But in every country they do the same thing…done deliberately…they create the themes then an enormous network of trolls and bots…repeated on dozens and dozens of conspiracy sites…not an accident…a deliberate tactic

look at what happens in other countries, then you can see that it’s a pattern…For Americans it’s new, it’s not new for Europeans…most of the time, Russian interference in foreign elections takes the same forms that it did in the United States. Russian websites operating openly (Russia Today, Sputnik) or under other names spin out false rumors and conspiracy theories; then trolls and bots, either Russian or domestic, systematically spread them.

tree 2 copy

In another article written late last year, Applebaum gives a few examples of Russian interference on behalf of Le Pen in the French elections, and also describes an experience of her own when she became a target .

it was eye-opening to watch the stories move through a well-oiled system, one that had been constructed for exactly this sort of purpose…WikiLeaks — out of the blue — tweeted one of the articles to its 4 million followers… As I watched the story move around the Web, I saw how the worlds of fake websites and fake news exist to reinforce one another and give falsehood credence. Many of the websites quoted not the original, dodgy source, but one another…many of their “followers” (maybe even most of them) are bots — bits of computer code that can be programmed to imitate human social media accounts and told to pass on particular stories

tree 1

In a future post I’ll be looking at what’s being done in response and what’s recommended that we do ourselves so we don’t end up being fooled or worse, unwitting colluders.

 

 

A fake news flow tracker

You Twitfaces Round Two

Twitter, Facebook and Google (collectively known here as You Twitfaces, with acknowledgements to Benny A) have all been attacked in the old media lately.  There have been so many critical news stories and comment pieces that it’s hard to keep track of what the real issues are, who’s involved and what might happen next. What’s behind all this, especially as none of the issues is even new? Here I’m disentangling the four – as I think there are four – key concerns, puting them into some kind of timeline and pointing to a few useful sources or experts worth checking out. I’ve already flagged up some in previous posts on social media and Internet research here and here. Along the way I’ll be explaining my trip to the Royal Institution. We’re looking at hate speech, fake news, data collection and surveillance, and content theft.

First up, the Home Affairs committee, a select committee of the UK House of Commons, started investigating hate crimes and social media last year prompted largely by the murder of Jo Cox MP. The committee is now suspended because an election was called, so they had to rush out their report Hate crime: abuse, hate and extremism onlineIt was published on May 1st. As these things go it is readable and not incredibly long, and if you look it up you will get a flavour of how angry the cross-party MPs were with the corporate spokesmen (yes, they were all men) and their feeble excuses.  Witnesses who gave evidence, both individuals and organisations, are listed separately with links to the written evidence. Oral evidence is minuted. The Social Data Science Lab at Cardiff University submitted detailed well-grounded evidence based on large-scale research projects into hate crime in the UK.  They noted that most online hate speech research has been conducted on social media platforms (mainly Twitter and Facebook) but there’s a need to examine hate on emerging platforms and online gaming. They recommended more research into the relationship between hate speech online and offline hate crime.

The corporate spokesmen questioned by the committee were Peter Barron, Vice President, Communications and Public Affairs, for Google,   Simon Milner, Policy Director for the UK, Middle East and Africa, for Facebook, and Nick Pickles, Senior Public Policy Manager, Twitter. The report is scathing about their answers and evidence (available in the minutes for 14 March , and it’s eye-opening). They can’t defend the examples of hate speech, child pornography or illegal extremist content they are presented with, and don’t try. Instead they fall back on their community ‘standards’, relying on users to flag content, and on trying to improve their algorithms. They refuse to say how many human moderators they employ or how much they spend on making sure content that is illegal or violates their terms gets removed. The committee points out that when content breaches copyright, it seems to get removed much faster so they obviously have the means and they certainly have the money. A flavour of the report as a word cloud:

CommitteeReport

There are many extraordinary, wriggly exchanges. Peter Barron tries to defend Google allowing David Duke’s antisemitic videos to stay up on YouTube (which Google owns). He says their own lawyers decided the content wasn’t actually illegal. The chair points out that their own guidelines say they don’t support hate speech. Barron then tries to fall back on an alternative free expression argument which shreds any idea that their community standards mean anything.  In other exchanges Nick Pickles tries to defend Twitter’s failure to deal with volumes of abusive racist tweets directed at MPs. Simon Milner tries to defend holocaust denial material on Facebook on the grounds that it attracts a few counter-comments. The MPs make their disgust pretty plain, especially when they finally force the spokesmen to admit that whether they want to or not, their companies do in fact make money out of malicious, hateful and even illegal content.

The constant excuse that they rely on users to report abuses doesn’t go down well with the MPs. In the report’s words, ‘They are, in effect, outsourcing the vast bulk of their safeguarding responsibilities at zero expense. One MP tells them he would be ashamed to make his money the way they do. They really don’t like being told that and they seem to think that saying they work with ‘trusted flaggers’ such as specialist police units will work in their favour. That backfires. The report points out that if these social media companies earning billions in annual operating profits are relying on a publicly funded service to do their work, they should repay the cost.

So what does the report recommend? Briefly:

  • that all social media companies introduce clear and well-funded arrangements for proactively identifying and removing illegal content—particularly dangerous terrorist content or material related to online child abuse.
  • Government should now assess whether the continued publication of illegal material and the failure to take reasonable steps to identify or remove it is in breach of the law, and how the law and enforcement mechanisms should be strengthened in this area.
  • Government should consult on adopting similar principles online to those used for policing football matches —for example, requiring social media companies to contribute to the Metropolitan Police’s CTIRU for the costs of enforcement activities which should rightfully be carried out by the companies themselves.
  • social media companies currently face almost no penalties for failing to remove illegal content. There are too many examples of social media companies being made aware of illegal material yet failing to remove it, or to do so in a timely way. Government should consult on a system of escalating sanctions to include meaningful fines for social media companies which fail to remove illegal content within a strict timeframe.
  • social media companies should review with the utmost urgency their community standards and the way in which they are being interpreted and implemented, including the training and seniority of those who are making decisions on content moderation, and the way in which the context of the material is examined.
  • social media companies should publish quarterly reports on their safeguarding efforts, including analysis of the number of reports received on prohibited content, how the companies responded to reports, and what action is being taken to eliminate such content in the future.  If they refuse, the Government should consult on requiring them to do so.
  • Google is currently only using its technology to identify illegal or extreme content in order to help advertisers, rather than to help it remove illegal content proactively. They should use their existing technology to help them abide by the law and meet their community standards.
  • Government should review the entire legislative framework governing online hate speech, harassment and extremism and ensure that the law is up to date. It is essential that the principles of free speech and open public debate in democracy are maintained—but protecting democracy also means ensuring that some voices are not drowned out by harassment and persecution, by the promotion of violence against particular groups, or by terrorism and extremism.

After the election, the committee will move on to considering fake news. In a BBC Panorama programme broadcast on May 8 you can see clips of the committee hearings and comment from MPs, ex-Facebook employees and others. The interview with Simon Milner from Facebook is excruciating: he keeps repeating the same bland unconvincing statements rather than answer the questions. A disaffected ex-colleague of Mark Zuckerberg, Antonio Garcia Martinez, comes out with what he thinks Facebook really thinks about all the fuss (my transcript): You know what’s naive? The thought that a European bureaucrat who’s never managed so much as a blog could somehow in any way get up to speed or even attempt to regulate the algorithm that drives literally a quarter of the Internet in the entire world. That’s never going to happen in any realistic way. A more fully developed version of this arrogant claim and what it’s based on can be read here. It amounts to little more than We’re super-rich, you losers, so we’re above the law. So yes, the social media outfits have lots of data on us, can manoevre around different legal restrictions because of their global reach, point to their supreme algorithms and fall back on defending free speech. But ultimately they are basically just vast advertising companies, and what does hurt them is advertisers cancelling contracts. That did start to happen after a few recent revelations. Their free speech argument doesn’t work any longer once it is pointed out that they are making money out of racism, terrorist recruitment sites and child pornography, by running ads alongside such nasty content,  and are also tainting reputable organisations and businesses by linking their ads to it. Free speech has nothing to do with that.

Facebook had to deal with charges that they allowed fake news to influence the US presidential elections. They responded first with denials,  from Zuckerberg personally, but there was too much evidence to ignore so they’ve moved on to Plan B, blaming the users. It’s our fault. On May 8, Facebook ran ads in the old media telling us what to do, following on from news stories that they’re hiring 3,000 more people as content checkers and are yet again tweaking their algorithms. It should all have been great PR but their advice on spotting fake news was unaccountably mocked. Here’s another word cloud based on Facebook’s kindly advice to us all.

FacebookAdvice

How much of a problem is fake news? Last week there was a debate at the Royal Institution,  Demockery and the media in a ‘post-factual’ age, hosted by Sussex University, with a panel of journalists from various organisations. I guess the panellists were meant to represent a range of media as well as provide gender balance and as seems to be too often the case, the balance didn’t work. Kerry-Anne Mendoza from The Canary, and Ella Whelan from spiked-online, were under-informed and relied too much on assertion and opinion. Neil Breakwell from Vice News, a former Newsnight deputy editor, and Ivor Gaber, Professor of Journalism and a former political journalist, simply knew a lot more and so were more interesting. This unbalanced ‘balance’ happens too often and I’m going to call it out every time.

Asked about fake news, Mendoza didn’t even want to use the term as she claimed it had been tainted by Trump. (She also claimed that The Canary was a left-wing alternative for an audience who would otherwise be reading right-wing tabloids. The other panellists thought that claim about its readership was pretty unlikely, and she had no evidence for who its readers actually are.)   Whelan in true spiked contrarian style disputed there was even an issue because it would be patronising to suggest anyone was influenced by fake news. Gaber made the most serious and telling point, that it’s not about quibbling over truth or accuracy but it’s about intent.  That’s the real reason we should care about fake news. Unfortunately the discussion as a whole didn’t pursue that enough, surprisingly given the salience of current investigations into attempts by the far right and Putin’s regime to interfere with and disrupt democratic elections in the USA and France (at the very least). Mendoza, Breakwell and Whelan seemed mostly concerned to establish their own credentials as reliable sources with good editorial fact-checking practices. There was an intriguing moment when they all ganged up against Buzzfeed for putting last year’s leaked allegations about Trump and Russia online without any corroboration. The chair, Clive Myrie, stopped that as Buzzfeed weren’t present. Given the event’s own blurb, which included this quotation from the World Economic Forum: The global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of governance, the discussion hardly matched up.

Now let’s have another word cloud. This one is from Facebook’s own document published at the end of April, Facebook and Information Operations v1. We can probably take it that the timing of this document, days before the select committee report, was not much of a coincidence. Carrying videos of actual crimes including murder on Facebook Live hasn’t helped their case much either.

Facebook cloud

(I’m making word clouds partly to lighten this long post with some images but I’m also finding they do help show up different emphases in the sources I’ve cited.) The document explains what they are trying to do, and it’s all so bland and  minimal you can’t see why they are not already doing that stuff. But Facebook really, really doesn’t want to get into censoring (as they would see it) online content, even though that is what they do some of the time. Their rhetoric uses the language of ‘community’ and ‘shared responsibility’. Here’s what some other commentators have to say about that.

Sam Levin: Zuckerberg has refused to acknowledge that Facebook is a publisher or media company, instead sticking to the labels of “tech company” and “platform”.

Jane Kirtley: It’s almost like these are kids playing with a toy above their age bracket. We surely need something more than just algorithms. We need people who are sentient beings who will actually stop and analyze these things.

Jim Newton: Facebook wants to have the responsibility of a publisher but also to be seen as a neutral carrier of information that is not in the position of making news judgments. I don’t know how they are going to be able to navigate that in the long term.

Edward Wasserman: If they are in the news business, which they are, then they have to get into the world of editorial judgment.

Jonathan Taplin: Facebook and Google are like black boxes. Nobody understands the algorithms except the people inside.

Paradoxically, the quotations above were to do with Facebook actually censoring, rather than failing to censor content. The row blew up last year when Facebook took down the famous photograph of a Vietnamese child running naked in terror after a napalm attack on her village. In Taplin’s words, ‘It was probably [censored by] a human who is 22 years old and has no fucking idea about the importance of the [napalm] picture’. After this particular row Facebook stopped using human censors and began relying on its algorithms which allowed through floods of fake news content. Because they collect so much data on users and deploy it via their famous, but secret, algorithms, those streams of fake news were also targeted. So it’s easy to see that now Facebook doesn’t only not know what it’s doing, it doesn’t know how to defend what it’s doing. Easier to (1) blame the users, although the word they would use is ‘educate’, (2) say we’re so big you can’t touch us and anyway it’s far too complicated.

Taplin, quoted above, has a new book out that’s just been well reviewed, Move fast and break things. I’d like to read it but as it has a critique of Amazon as well as the social media companies, I’m going to have to wait.

Taplin is particularly concerned about the effect huge companies such as Google and Amazon have had on smaller businesses around the world that they’ve crushed or swallowed up, and their wholesale theft of the creative products of others.  I should own up here that the cartoon above is from xkcd.

What’s to be done, and what can any of us do? Lawmakers despite what Martinez has to say could start to act if they feel their own safety is threatened, or elections are being heavily influenced. The far right social media connection to the murder of an MP, and evidence coming from France and the USA about deliberate interference, can’t be ignored completely. Anne Applebaum (one of the experts I recommended here) was the victim of a smear campaign after she wrote about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and has described how the fake news channels work and how effective they can be.  Over at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), there’s a research project on Algorithms, Computational Propaganda, and Digital Politics  tracking political bots. It has scrutinised what happened with the French presidential elections as well as in the USA.  Philip Howard, the new Pofessor of Internet Studies at the OII, and Helen Margett, the Institute’s Director, have both complained recently that the giant social media companies, who have collected so much data on us, are not releasing it to independent academics so that it can be properly researched and we can get a handle on what’s going on. Howard even calls it a sin.

Social media companies are taking heat for influencing the outcomes of the U.S. presidential election and Brexit referendum by allowing fake news, misinformation campaigns and hate speech to spread.

But Facebook and Twitter’s real sin was an act of omission: they failed to contribute to the data that democracy needs to thrive. While sitting on huge troves of information about public opinion and voter intent, social media firms watched as U.S. and UK pollsters, journalists, politicians and civil society groups made bad projections and poor decisions with the wrong information.

The data these companies collect, for example, could have told us in real-time whether fake news was having an impact on voters. Information garnered from social media platforms could have boosted voter turnout as citizens realized the race was closer than the polls showed – and that their votes really would matter. Instead, these companies let the United States and UK tumble into a democratic deficit, with political institutions starved of quality data on public opinion.

Margetts, in Political Turbulence, makes the point that such research is still feasible now but with the advent of the Internet of Things it could become completely impossible in future, and politically we would be moving into chaotic times.

After all this it might be a relief to end with a bit of optimism, so here are a handful of possible reasons. The political bots research unit doesn’t think attempts to influence the French elections really worked this time. Ivor Gaber reckons that because the UK (print) news media is so biased and sensationalist, fake news has less influence here because readers don’t believe what they read anyway. Taplin reckons that the younger digital tycoons – he’s thinking of Zuckerberg – care about their public images enough to want to make changes so they are not seen as evil-doers. (Google famously had ‘Do no evil’ as their original mission statement but that was last century.) Matthew Williams and Pete Burnap, of the Social Data Science Lab mentioned above, gave the select committee some evidence that other users confronting racists on Twitter did seem to have an effect. I’ll quote it in full, as it’s couched as useful advice.

Extreme posts are often met with disagreement, insults, and counter-speech campaigns. Combating hate speech with counter speech has some advantages over government and police responses: it more rapid, more adaptable to the situation and pervasive; it can be used by any internet user (e.g. members of the public, charities, the media, the police); and it draws on nodal governance and responsibilsation trends currently prominent in the wider criminal justice system.  The following typology of counter hate speech was identified:

Attribution of Prejudice

e.g “Shame on #EDL racists for taking advantage of this situation”

Claims making and appeals to reason

e.g. “This has nothing to do with Islam, not all Muslims are terrorists!”

Request for information and evidence

e.g. “How does this have anything to do with the colour of someone’s skin??”

Insults

e.g. “There are some cowardly racists out there!”

Initial evidence from ongoing experiments with social media data show that counter speech is effective in stemming the length of hateful threads when multiple unique counter speech contributors engage with the hate speech producer.  However, not all counter speech is productive, and evidence shows that individuals that use insults against hate speech producers often inflame the situation, resulting in the production of further hate speech.

There’s a lot to keep an eye on. I’ll be catching up with You Twitfaces again in a while. Meanwhile here’s Google shyly hiding again.
google6

 

You Twitfaces Round Two

Fighting on the Internet

This week I’m taking down Google and annoying Mac users (not intending to annoy but I reckon it will happen). Here’s Google looking shy.

google6

It’s a longer post as so much fighting over the Internet happened in March.  First up, on March 1st the government published the latest UK digital strategy. It got little coverage because, well, Trump and Brexit. Was it any good? Not really. The shadow minister for digital everything is Louise Haigh, who hasn’t had the job long, but long enough to take an informed view.  She called it recycled and meagre. There are lists of marvellous things that have already happened and the Govt would like to take credit for. There’s hopeful, wishy-washy stuff about things the government would like to happen but isn’t taking responsibility for. So they are giving consumers the right to request fast broadband. That’s not quite the same as saying it will happen, and that there’s an actual plan. Almost one in five (spun in the strategy as just over 80% who DO as that sounds so much better) of SMEs don’t have access to fast broadband.  Meanwhile, BT’s Openreach has just been fined £42 million for  commercial malpractice over fast broadband provision. I heard BT defending their position at a conference fifteen years ago, on the grounds that it was unfair for them to be forced to sort out broadband access throughout the country when their competitors might benefit. They were handed the grid’s local loops and a massive advantage when they were privatised and have been getting away with it for a very long time. This week, they committed to 95% cover but that leaves 5% who can’t all be volunteers on  reality TV shows and happy to live a slow or off-grid life. I know a couple of people who are happily like that some of the time, but then again, it also drives them crazy.

Then the ‘strategy’ has more hopeful stuff about the gender skills gap, and on digital skills training,  already outsourced to a bunch of organisations including banks (those Barclays ads) . Last year £35 million went to various outsourced providers, or in govt spending terms around half a peanut. The strategy pats itself on the back for all the great work done in libraries by staff along with volunteers  to provide Internet access and digital skills training. Meanwhile over in another universe, funding is getting cut and libraries are closing. One in 10 adults, according to the strategy, has never used the Internet. (The Oxford Internet Institute has been bringing out regular reports on the digital access gap for years.) I don’t think the ministers responsible for this strategy have a clue. I ran classes for Internet beginners in Peckham Library for a couple of years starting in 2000 and I’m sure it would cost more than a fiver each person to sort out problems of access, confidence, understanding and skills.

LibraryPicture

On March 10 the row involving Google was already simmering and at an advertising industry event, Martin Sorrell came out with this attack which got loud cheers from the audience:

The fundamental issue is that you [Google] have to take responsibility for this as a media company. You are not a passive digital engineer tightening the digital pipes with your digital spanner and not responsible for the flow through of content of those pipes, you are responsible for it. You have to step up and take responsibility. You have the resources, your margins are enormous, you have control of the algorithms, you don’t explain to people how those algorithms work. You have to change.

Google – who now own YouTube, were being criticised for letting racists, terrorist organisations, and hate-mongers of all stripes make money out of adverts on YouTube as well as making money themselves from the same ads. They were pretty slow to react. MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee had another go on March 14, when David Winnick pretty much called Peter Barron (Google), Simon Winnick (Facebook) and Nick Pickles (Twitter) pimps. He said that they were engaged in little more than “commercial prostitution” and that he would be ashamed to earn his money in the way they did. Here’s Google’s lovely new London HQ again, in the lovely new Pancras Square with its lovely corporate fountains and  trees. It’s basically a large four-cornered smoker’s corner with a few coffee, sushi and sandwich joints.

google3

 

It’s taken Google a long time to admit that it’s an advertising company, one of the world’s largest. It might not even really admit that yet with its continuing claims – see the YouTube policy info – that it is up to users to report breaches. Facebook hasn’t admitted it either. Like CocaCola only wants to bring the world together rather than sell sugary drinks, Facebook wants to build global community. Why would another vast advertising company want to do that, exactly?

But there’s no question, the issues of fake news, politicians ticking them off and the not at all fake fact that companies are cancelling adverts are getting them a little rattled.  Zuckerberg gave us a fine example of a geek’s worldview with his new manifesto. It was sweet, almost. It reminded me of a symposium I went to in Seattle, Shaping the network society, in 2002. I realised there’s a worldview (some) geeks apparently develop. At a certain point, having been totally immersed along with people like themselves in Internet technology, they start to notice other kinds of problems – social, economic, political, environmental. They then offer their worldwide technology-based solutions, as they’ve never noticed there are already other people studying and trying to deal with all those world problems. They’re totally unaware of their own ignorance. In all seriousness, they propose that their next task is to build a global community and sort all that hard stuff out. Good luck, Mark. Are you going to drop all the adverts now that you’re saving the world and not an advertising company any more?

Tim Berners-Lee’s take on alarms about fake news, bots, algorithms and data was more grounded although the Guardian gave it the stupid sub-heading ‘I invented the Internet’. He didn’t quite write that. He did write ‘I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today.’ He argues for control of personal data, pushing back against misinformation, transparency and more understanding in relation to political advertising. The Web Foundation started by Berners-Lee reckons there is currently a worldwide 12% gender gap in access to the Internet. I started my PhD research back in 1999 provoked by the statistic that there was, at the time, a 9% gender gap in the UK, for no good reason.

The UK strategy is supposed to address the gender gap. Maybe the brand new All Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, launched last week, will help sort that out too. They’re keen on improving digital everything. Here they are.

APPG4thIR_launch

Time for some good news. The Indian state of Kerala has decreed that Internet access is a basic human right so all citizens should get free wifi access. And reading Harry Potter may help defeat Trump. You don’t even need a wand. Seriously, a study last year showed that reading Harry Potter lowers Americans’ opinions of Donald Trump.  It sounds unlikely but Diana Mutz is a real expert in political science and reported an evidence base of 1100 odd respondents. I liked this next bit as I’d wondered if she’d thought about the religious Right banning Potter books, but she’s properly bossed those variables already (my bold):

… I include control variables in all models in order to take into account potentially spurious causes of both Trump support and exposure to Harry Potter.  All models included gender (females were expected to rate Trump poorly), education (expected to negatively predict Trump support), age (expected to positively predict Trump support), and evangelical self-identification (expected to discourage both tolerance of Muslims and gays, and consuming stories about wizards).

So finally, Mac users. At those Internet research conferences I went to, it was normal to hear Bill Gates referred to as the Great Satan, quite genuinely and not all that humorously. Gates certainly didn’t have any kind of hero status. Steve Jobs did, and as a result of Apple’s brilliant marketing , Mac users were encouraged to position themselves as smarter, more creative, better. Their advertising made that explicit. Now Apple gets a cut every time anyone buys an app for their iPhone or iPad. The same goes for Android (Google again) apps, but you can get software for pcs without Microsoft getting any cut. I know what Bill and Melinda Gates have done, and are doing, with their billions. Where did Steve Job’s fortune go? Does anybody know? (Raf, if you’re reading this, you may remember the AoIR conference. After the closing speeches and thanks you said they should have thanked Bill Gates aka Satan without whom none of their Powerpoint presentations, or the conference, would have been possible.) How does it work, this division of tech billionaires into good guys and bad guys?

 

Fighting on the Internet

Tweeting to Power

You’ll be awake if you’re reading this but are you also woke?
Today’s experts in my recommended list research how politicians in the USA have made use of Twitter. They are Jason Gainous and Kevin Wagner, who published Tweeting to Power: the social media revolution in American politics.
Because they’ve done a lot of serious research and analysis, inevitably this is about older elections and not the presidential election in 2016. They studied the 2012 one and other previous elections so their data sets are not the most recent but it takes a lot of time to collect and analyse data, and it will be a while before there are proper, evidenced analyses of what happened in 2016. Gainous and Wagner don’t only have the numbers but looked in depth and who was doing what and how.
Their conclusions are important because they are evidence-based and help explain that what’s going on now isn’t a sudden change but a continuation. For instance, they show, depressingly, that Republicans were ahead of the game as far back as 2010. They used Twitter more to campaign, to attack opponents, to go negative, to tweet about personal stuff to put themselves in a positive light, and to tweet about policy-related issues. They did the groundwork for years, basically.
G & W also look at both sides of what they term information flows on Twitter. While politicians and their activist supporters are courting voters, voters are actively allowing themselves to be courted. Tools within Twitter such as hashtags and the ability to reach your followers’ other networks increase the reach and intensify the effect, and some politicians learnt how to use those while their opponents were stuck at the stage of thinking it was a message board. (Plenty of organisations, and I’m thinking of academic ones too, still treat Twitter that way as if what people actually want is to read corporate announcements all day long on social media.) So tags, jokes and provocations we might think are silly, childish or unprofessional could really be a sign of more knowledgeable and sophisticated control of information flows. Unfair!
(In an interview this week Gainous says Trump is a master of language.) On the consumer side G & W look at how the targets – voters – help create the information bubbles they end up with on social media, both because it’s psychologically more comfortable if you don’t have to face disagreement and because they choose to receive unmediated messages direct from politicians (or whoever crafts their tweets). A couple of chilling quotes:
‘It is in the elevation of the political actors to the role of unmediated information provider that the most lasting and substantial effect may be occurring’ and ‘people are consuming one-sided information based on their predispositions and when this information is added to the existing information, the result is crystallisation of the bias. Thus, heightened information consumption via social media should lead to more extreme attitudes.’ Tweeting to Power was published in 2014 and remember, it deals with previous elections.
Also recommended, a brief article by Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg discussing Facebook information bubbles and why they might be your own fault.
And now to cheer us up, March is a good month for going out early to hear the birds singing, if the weather isn’t too bad. I went on a guided dawn chorus walk one March on One Tree Hill and was told the smallest birds start singing first as they need more hours to feed themselves. Lazy pigeons join the chorus last. To begin with you can distinguish individual songs but later, when someone asked which birds were tweeting, the guide told us it was General Cheeping. Here are some general tweeters:

sparrows

Tweeting to Power