Category Archives: Information and the public sphere

Future publishing on disinformation

My chapter abstract entitled “Censorship Choices and the Legitimacy Challenge: Leveraging Institutional Trustworthiness in Crisis Situations” has been accepted for publication in the volume Defending Democracy in the Digital Age, edited by Scott Shackelford (of Indiana University) et al., to appear with Cambridge UP in 2024.

In other news, I am writing a book review of the very interesting grassroots study by Francesca Tripodi entitled The Propagandists’ Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy (Yale UP) for the Italian journal Etnografia e Ricerca Qualitativa.

Excess skepticism and the media trust deficit

An interesting presentation at the MISDOOM 2022 conference earlier this week: Sacha Altay (Oxford) on the effectiveness of interventions against misinformation [pre-print here].

Altay lays out some established facts in the academic literature that at times get lost in the policy debate. The main one is that explicit disinformation, i.e. unreliable news such as that generated on propaganda websites that run coordinated influence operations, represents a minuscule segment of everyday people’s media consumption; however, the public has been induced to be indiscriminately skeptical of all news, and therefore doubts the validity even of bona fide information.

Thus, it would appear that a policy intervention aimed at explaining the verification techniques employed by professional journalists to vet reliable information should be more effective, all else being equal, than one that exposes the workings of purposeful disinformation. On the other hand, as Altay recognizes, misinformation is, at heart, a mere symptom of a deeper polarization, an attitude of political antagonism in search of content to validate it. But while such active seeking of misinformation may be fringe, spontaneous, and not particularly dangerous for democracy, generalized excess skepticism and the ensuing media trust deficit are much more serious wins for the enemies of open public discourse.

More interesting cybersecurity journalism (finally)

A study (PDF) by a team led by Sean Aday at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs (commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation) sheds light on the improving quality of the coverage of cybersecurity incidents in mainstream US media. Ever since 2014, cyber stories in the news have been moving steadily away from the sensationalist hack-and-attack template of yore toward a more nuanced description of the context, the constraints of the cyber ecosystem, the various actors’ motivations, and the impactof incidents on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens.

The report shows how an understanding of the mainstream importance of cyber events has progressively percolated into newsrooms across the country over the past half-decade, leading to a broader recognition of the substantive issues at play in this field. An interesting incidental finding is that, over the course of this same period of time, coverage of the cyber beat has focused critical attention not only on the ‘usual suspects’ (Russia, China, shadowy hacker groups) but also, increasingly, on big tech companies themselves: an aspect of this growing sophistication of coverage is a foregrounding of the crucial role platform companies play as gatekeepers of our digital lives.

Barlow as Rorschach test

An op-ed by Joshua Benton on the first quarter-century of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on the Nieman Lab website.

Unpacking the different facets of Barlow’s personality and worldview goes a long way toward mapping out early internet ideology: most everyone finds parts to admire as well as intimations of disasters to come. The protean nature of the author of the Declaration helps in the process. Was Barlow Dick Cheney’s friend or Ed Snowden’s? Was he a scion of Wyoming cattle ranching royalty or a Grateful Dead lyricist? Was he part of the Davos digerati or a defender of civil rights and founder of the EFF? All of these, of course, and much besides. Undeniably, Barlow had a striking way with words, matched only by a consistent ability to show up “where it’s at” in the prevailing cultural winds of the time (including a penchant for association with the rich and famous).

Benton does a good job highlighting how far removed the techno-utopian promises of the Declaration sound from the current zeitgeist regarding the social effects of information technology. But ultimately we see in Barlow a reflection of our own hopes and fears about digital societies: as I previously argued, there is no rigid and inescapable cause-effect relationship between the ideas of the ’90s and the oligopolies of today. Similarly, a course for future action and engagement can be set without espousing or denouncing the Declaration in its entirety.

Free speech and monetization

Yesterday, I attended an Electronic Frontier Foundation webinar in the ‘At Home with EFF’ series on Twitch: the title was ‘Online Censorship Beyond Trump and Parler’. Two panels hosted several veterans and heavyweights in the content moderation/trust & safety field, followed by a wrap-up session presenting EFF positions on the topics under discussion.

Several interesting points emerged with regard to the interplay of market concentration, free speech concerns, and the incentives inherent in the dominant social media business model. The panelists reflected on the long run, identifying recurrent patterns, such as the economic imperative driving infrastructure companies from being mere conduits of information to becoming active amplifiers, hence inevitably getting embroiled in moderation. While neutrality and non-interference may be the preferred ideological stance for tech companies, at least publicly, editorial decisions are made a necessity by the prevailing monetization model, the market for attention and engagement.

Perhaps the most interesting insight, however, emerged from the discussion of the intertwining of free speech online with the way in which such speech is (or is not) allowed to make itself financially sustainable. Specifically, the case was made for the importance of the myriad choke points up and down the stack where those who wish to silence speech can exert pressure: if cloud computing cannot be denied to a platform in the name of anti-discrimination, should credit card verification or merch, for instance, also be protected categories?

All in all, nothing shockingly novel; it is worth being reminded, however, that a wealth of experience in the field has already accrued over the years, so that single companies (and legislators, academics, the press, etc.) need not reinvent the wheel each time trust & safety or content moderation are on the agenda.