My forthcoming piece on Ethan Zuckerman’s Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them for the Italian Political Science Review.
The recent, decisive defeat of the unionization drive in Amazon’s fulfillment facility of Bessemer, Alabama can be understood to teach many lessons, not necessarily mutually complementary. First of all, specifically local conditions were in play, which can call into question the overall strategy of attempting to start the U.S. unionization of Amazon from the Deep South. The outcome, however, can equally be read as a sign that, in the current crisis economy, workers are prepared to put up with more or less any employer practices and work conditions whatsoever in order not to jeopardize their employment status, especially for jobs with efficiency wages. It can, alternatively, be seen as confirmation that giant tech companies, for all their claims to discontinuity and disruption, have mastered the traditional playbook of pugilistic industrial relations developed by old-economy businesses in the past fifty years. It can be interpreted as a statement that the progressive electoral coalition that swept the Democratic Party back into power at the federal level between November and January has not effected a sea-change in public opinion with regard to labor rights and representation. It can further be considered, in conjunction with the easy passage of Prop. 22 in California last Fall, as evidence that there is scant public belief that the ills of the soft underbelly of the tech economy can be righted by means of twentieth-century policy solutions.
Whatever the lessons learned, the unavoidable conclusion is that, in the United States at least, the power of Big Tech will not be reined in by organized labor alone (despite the fact that industrial militancy in the Amazon workforce continues, in less conventional and institutionalized ways). Nonetheless, recent media attention focused on Amazon workplace practices has created a series of PR embarrassments for the company: it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately cement a certain organizational reputation, and if such a reputation in turn can have regulatory or, especially, financial implications down the line (as has recently been the case in other jurisdictions).
An interesting report in Medium (via /.) discusses the PRC’s new pervasive surveillance program, Sharp Eyes. The program, which complements several other mass surveillance initiatives by the Chinese government, such as SkyNet, is aimed especially at rural communities and small towns. With all the caveats related to the fragmentary nature of the information available to outside researchers, it appears that Sharp Eyes’ main characteristic is being community-driven: the feeds from CCTV cameras monitoring public spaces are made accessible to individuals in the community, whether at home from their TVs and monitors or through smartphone apps. Hence, local communities become responsible for monitoring themselves (and providing denunciations of deviants to the authorities).
This outsourcing of social control is clearly a labor-saving initiative, which itself ties in to a long-run, classic theme in Chinese governance. It is not hard to perceive how such a scheme may encourage social homogeneization and irregimentation dynamics, and be especially effective against stigmatized minorities. After all, the entire system of Chinese official surveillance is more or less formally linked to the controversial Social Credit System, a scoring of the population for ideological and financial conformity.
However, I wonder whether a community-driven surveillance program, in rendering society more transparent to itself, does not also potentially offer accountability tools to civil society vis-à-vis the government. After all, complete visibility of public space by all members of society also can mean exposure and documentation of specific public instances of abuse of authority, such as police brutality. Such cases could of course be blacked out of the feeds, but such a heavy-handed tactic would cut into the propaganda value of the transparency initiative and affect public trust in the system. Alternatively, offending material could be removed more seamlessly through deep fake interventions, but the resources necessary for such a level of tampering, including the additional layer of bureaucracy needed to curate live feeds, would seem ultimately self-defeating in terms of the cost-cutting rationale.
In any case, including the monitored public within the monitoring loop (and emphasizing the collective responsibility aspect of the practice over the atomizing, pervasive-suspicion one) promises to create novel practical and theoretical challenges for mass surveillance.
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.
With the inauguration of a new Administration, speculation is rife on the chances of moving on from the more toxic aspects of the political media ecosystem of the past half decade. An op-ed by Rob Faris and Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center (Harvard Kennedy School) spells out these aspirations concretely: with Biden in the White House, conservative media such as Fox News have the opportunity to distance themselves decisively from the more fringe disinformation beliefs of the conservative base, and return political discussion to a debate of ideas rather than the reinforcement of antagonistic social realities. In their own words,
The only way out of this hole is to rediscover a collective understanding of reality and to reinstall the mechanisms of accountability in media where they are missing, to ensure that accuracy and objectivity are rewarded and disinformation is not given the space to metastasize.
I think there is good reason not to be particularly sanguine about these goals. Faris and Donovan’s proposed solutions read more as a restatement of the intractability of the problem. For one thing, their discussion is very top-down, focusing on what the upper echelons of the Republican Party, the conservative-leaning media, and their financial backers can do. The trouble with US political disinformation, I would argue, is that at this point in the cycle it is largely demand-driven: there is a strong appetite for it in the (GOP) electorate at large, to the point that one could speak of a general social antagonism in search of arguments. Hence, focusing on the infrastructure of production of disinformation is merely going to elicit creative responses, such as the flight to alternative social media platforms, which will be viable given the size, means, capabilities, and diversity of the public involved.
The alternative, however, is equally fraught. Focusing on the transformation of mass beliefs in order to discourage the demand for disinformation amounts, in essence, to a domestic ‘hearts and minds’ mission. The historical record for such attempts is hardly promising. The trouble, of course, is that political adversaries cannot at the same time be treated as respectable dissenters in the common task of running the commonwealth and also as fundamentally wrong in their factual beliefs: respecting and correcting struggle to coexist in the same interpersonal relationship.
One of the problems with such an approach is that it is incomplete to say that the US media ecosystem is fragmented and siloed:
Since its inception, conservative media in America has operated under different rules […] The outcome: a cleavage in the U.S. public sphere and a schism in the marketplace of ideas. The news media of the center and left, with all its flaws and faults, operates in a milieu in which fact checkers have influence and the standards and practices of objectivity and accuracy still hold sway.In other words, conservatives have largely seceded from the traditional, 20th-century unified media sphere of print and broadcast outlets, toward a smaller, insular, homogeneous but culturally dominated one of their own. The rump ‘mainstream media’ has maintained its old ‘fourth estate’ ethos, but not its bipartisan audience. Hence, its loss of cross-party authoritativeness.
The accountability void created by this partisan segregation of US public opinion offers concrete inducements to ambitious populist politicians, which will prove hard to resist. The belief that the system contains self-correcting mechanisms appears ill-founded. Yet, it is unclear that the current administration has the stomach for the protracted effort necessary to change mass beliefs, or that it would be supported consistently by external power centers, especially in the business community, in doing so.