Tag Archives: Profiling

Fear > Loathing: a broader net for dangerous speech online

The Psychology of Technology Institute reports on research conducted by Professor Kiran Garimella of Rutgers on content moderation and the design of online platforms.

Specifically, Garimella studied ‘fear speech’, a type of online activity that has many of the negative connotations of ‘hate speech’ but, by eschewing the latter’s inflammatory tone and ad hominem attacks, is much harder to counter, both in terms of devising automated systems to identify and remove it, and in discursive terms to expose and debunk it. The spread of false, misinformed, or decontextualized statements (generally, but not exclusively, pertaining to some stigmatized group) does not automatically result in the naming and shaming of responsible parties or in calls to action (or violence), but it sets the stage, forms or reinforces a general climate of opinion, comforts an audience in its prejudices and normalizes extreme assessments of states of fact on which further extremist appeals may be built.

One of the reasons fear speech bypasses many of the roadblocks we have erected to the spread of hate speech is that its rhetorical form is one we are extremely familiar and comfortable with in our heavily technological and risk-laden societies. What is unique to fear speech is its ability to mix the epistemic thrill of conspiracy theory with the practical, down-to-earth, and seemingly neutral tone of the PSA. After all, this is not much of a novelty: prejudice has often been couched in prudential terms— “not all members of a stigmatized group may be nefarious and vicious, but when in doubt…”.

The implication of Garimella’s research is that, if we are serious about removing dangerous speech from our online environments, it is necessary to cast a wider net, focusing not only on the narrow band of clearly and openly aggressive hate speech, but addressing its precursors as well, the false, baseless and irrational fears out of which hate grows, and its mongers. This position, in turn, dovetails with the Psychology of Technology Institute’s own contention that design should be the focus of information governance, rather than downstream content moderation.

This position is closely argued, prima facie reasonable, and clearly germane to the struggles many organizations, big and small, private and public, have with speech content. I fail, nonetheless, to be completely convinced. For one thing, freedom of speech concerns become salient as soon as obvious threats and incitement are taken out of the equation. In order to label fears as false or groundless, it would become necessary to lean even more heavily into fact-checking, a process not without its own political pitfalls. Moreover, the unequal distribution of risk propensities on different issues within a polity surely must be a legitimate basis for political sorting, organization, and choice. However we may feel normatively about it, fear is a longstanding mechanism for political mobilization, and furthermore certain scholars (such as George Lakoff, for example) have claimed that its use is not symmetrical along the political spectrum, which would lend these proposals a (presumably unwelcome) partisan slant.

I believe that in considering fear speech and its possible limitations, it is helpful to begin with the motivations of the three parties: the speaker, the audience, and the information overseer. Specifically, what is the goal pursued in attempts to curtail fear speech? Is it to silence bad actors / stigmatize bad behaviors? Is it to prevent mutual discovery and community-building between people already convinced of beliefs we find objectionable? Or is it to shield the malleable, the unwary, the unattentive from misleading information that may lead them eventually to embrace objectionable beliefs? Empirically, information overseers (a national government, say, or a social media platform) may well hold all three, perhaps subsumed by the overriding imperative to preserve the reputation of the forum. But analytically it is important to distinguish the motivations, so as to understand what a proposed remedy portends for each, how it affects the incentives of each type of speaker and each segment of audience. And the key consideration in this respect is how it impacts their likelihood of voice and/or exit, visible protest vs. the redirection of communication in another forum. Only on this basis is it possible to evaluate the feasibility or desirability of curbs to online fear speech.

A.utomated I.dentity?

An interesting, thoughtful article by Michelle Santiago Cortés in The Cut last week looks at affective relationships with algorithms and their role in shaping our identities.

Three parts of the analysis specifically stood out to me. The first revolves around our typical lack of knowledge of algorithms: Cortés’ story about

some YouTube alpha male […] out there uploading videos promising straight men advice on how to “hack” the Tinder algorithm to date like kings

is clearly only the tip of a gigantic societal iceberg, a cargo-culture-as-way-of-life involving pretty much everyone in the remotest, most diverse walks of life. The ever-evolving nature of these algorithms compounds the obfuscation effect, making end-users’ strategic attempts, whether exploitation- or resistance-focused, generally appear puerile.

Second, the clarity with which Cortés encapsulated the main tradeoff in the relationship was truly apt:

[w]e are, to varying degrees, okay with being surveilled as long as we get to feel seen.

The assertion of visibility and assurance of recognition are two of the key assets algorithmic systems offer their users, and their value can hardly be minimized as mere late-consumerist narcissism.

Finally, the comparison between algorithmic portraits of personality and astrology was extremely telling: closing the behavioral loop from algorithmic interaction to the redefinition of one’s own identity on the basis of the algorithm’s inevitably distorting mirror is still a matter of choice, or rather, a sensibility that can be honed and socialized regarding the most empowering and nurturing use of what is ultimately a hermeneutic tool. Of course, such a benign conclusion rests on the ambit of application of such technologies: music videos, entertainment, dating. As soon as our contemporary astrological devices are put in charge of directing outcomes in the field of political economy and public policy, the moral calculus rapidly shifts.

Rightwing algorithms?

A long blog post on Olivier Ertzscheid’s personal website [in French] tackles the ideological orientation of the major social media platforms from a variety of points of view (the political leanings of software developers, of bosses, of companies, the politics of content moderation, political correctness, the revolving door with government and political parties, the intrinsic suitability of different ideologies to algorithmic amplification, and so forth).

The conclusions are quite provocative: although algorithms and social media platforms are both demonstrably biased and possessed of independent causal agency, amplifying, steering, and coarsening our public debate, in the end it is simply those with greater resources, material, social, cultural, etc., whose voices are amplified. Algorithms skew to the right because so does our society.

Digital Welfare Systems

An extremely interesting series of talks hosted by the Digital Freedom Fund: the automation of welfare system decisons is where the neoliberal agenda and digitalization intersect in the most socially explosive fashion. All six events look good, but I am particularly looking forward to the discussion of the Dutch System Risk Indication (SyRI) scandal on Oct. 27th. More info and free registration on the DFF’s website.

Limits of trustbuilding as policy objective

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.