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.
Yesterday, I attended a virtual event hosted by CIGI and ISPI entitled “Digital Technologies: Building Global Trust”. Some interesting points raised by the panel: the focus on datafication as the central aspect of the digital transformation, and the consequent need to concentrate on the norms, institutions, and emerging professions surrounding the practice of data (re-)use [Stefaan Verhulst, GovLab]; the importance of underlying human connections and behaviors as necessary trust markers [Andrew Wyckoff, OECD]; the distinction between content, data, competition, and physical infrastructure as flashpoints for trust in the technology sphere [Heidi Tworek, UBC]. Also, I learned about the OECD AI Principles (2019), which I had not run across before.
While the breadth of different sectoral interests and use-cases considered by the panel was significant, the framework for analysis (actionable policy solutions to boost trust) ended up being rather limiting. For instance, communal distrust of dominant narratives was considered only from the perspective of deficits of inclusivity (on the part of the authorities) or of digital literacy (on the part of the distrusters). Technical, policy fixes can be a reductive lens through which to see the problem of lack of trust: such an approach misses both the fundamental compulsion to trust that typically underlies the debate, and also the performative effects sought by public manifestations of distrust.
Belatedly finished reading James Bridle’s book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso, 2018). As the title suggests, the text is systemically pessimist about the effect of new technologies on the sustainability of human wellbeing. Although the overall structure of the argument is at times clouded over by sudden twists in narrative and the sheer variety of anecdotes, there are many hidden gems. I very much enjoyed the idea, borrowed from Timothy Morton, of a hyperobject:
a thing that surrounds us, envelops and entangles us, but that is literally too big to see in its entirety. Mostly, we perceive hyperobjects through their influence on other things […] Because they are so close and yet so hard to see, they defy our ability to describe them rationally, and to master or overcome them in any traditional sense. Climate change is a hyperobject, but so is nuclear radiation, evolution, and the internet.
One of the main characteristics of hyperobjects is that we only ever perceive their imprints on other things, and thus to model the hyperobject requires vast amounts of computation. It can only be appreciated at the network level, made sensible through vast distributed systems of sensors, exabytes of data and computation, performed in time as well as space. Scientific record keeping thus becomes a form of extrasensory perception: a networked, communal, time-travelling knowledge making. (73)
Bridle has some thought-provoking ideas about possible responses to the dehumanizing forces of automation and algorithmic sorting, as well. Particularly captivating was his description of Gary Kasparov’s reaction to defeat at the hands of AI Deep Blue in 1997: the grandmaster proposed ‘Advanced Chess’ tournaments, pitting pairs of human and computer players, since such a pairing is superior to both human and machine players on their own. This type of ‘centaur strategy’ is not simply a winning one: it may, Bridle suggests, hold ethical insights on patways of human adaptation to an era of ubiquitous computation.
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.