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.
This looks like a very worthwhile coalition, advocating for open access to aggregate social media data for research purposes (not necessarily only for academics and journalists), while emphasizing a duty of independence in research and upholding standards and oversight. The coalition is US-focused, but its efforts dovetail with draft legislation currently making its way through the European institutions that seeks to guarantee similar rights of access. Inasmuch as large platforms lay a claim to embodying the contemporary public sphere, such calls for openness will only persist and intensify.
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.
Michael Den Tandt suggested recently in a CIGI blog post that the international moment called for a high-level mobilization of the best minds in a multilateral venture aimed at guaranteeing a stable information regime at a global level. The parallel Den Tandt mentioned historically is the Bretton Woods conference that set up the postwar international economic order at the end of the Second World War. It is interesting, it should be observed in passing, that contemporary discussions of bold internationalist projects tend to use economic regime creation as an archetype, rather than the arguably more universalist political settlements that bracketed them (you rarely hear calls for a new Dumbarton Oaks…).
There are, prima facie, two fundamental problems with the proposal. The first is that the call for a new round of regime building fundamentally misinterprets the historical moment: Bretton Woods was made possible by the imminence of Allied victory in WWII, while our own time is seeing the rise, not (yet) the dénouement, of fundamental antagonisms and Great Power rivalries. The type of lasting settlement Den Tandt envisions will be up to the victor in these struggles. The second problem concerns the balance of power not among States but between the public and the private sector. The framework of international economic development that was set up by the Bretton Woods system –which has been described by John Gerard Ruggie as embedded liberalism– was decisively smashed by the currency crises of the early 1970s. Many see that passage as the birth of neoliberalism, a new paradigm of public policy that has become hegemonic in the past half century. Under this current dispensation, the State, even the internationally hegemonic State, does not possess the ability to guide macroeconomic development, or to steer technological innovation decisively. Even if the political will for an international consensus at the highest level could be found, it is highly improbable that it could be implemented on a recalcitrant global market.
The disfunctions in the information sphere that Den Tandt decries are undeniable; such problems, however, will not be resolved by simply conjuring into existence a global regulatory regime for which the historical preconditions do not currently exist.
A review by Paul Dicken published online a week ago in The New Atlantis is representative of a certain kind of argument in contemporary social critiques of high tech. The piece discusses a book by Ben Schneiderman entitled Human-Centered AI, which came out earlier this year for Oxford UP, and mainly reads as an exposé of a benighted scientism that at best is hopelessly naïve about its potential to effect meaningful emancipatory social change and at worst is disingenuous about the extractive and exploitative agendas that underwrite its deployment.
One would not wish to deny that Schneiderman makes for a good target: computer scientists as a sociological class are hardly more self-reflexive or engagé than any other similarly-defined professional group, and divulgative AI-and-management texts seldom present incisive and counterintuitive social commentary. Nonetheless, it is hard to miss a certain symmetry between the attacks on the political self-awareness of the author in question (how could he have missed the damning social implications??) and the peans to progress through techno-solutionism which characterized public debate on Web2.0 before the techlash.
The fact itself that Dicken refers back to Charles Babbage as a precursor of contemporary AI research and its dark side should suggest that the entwinement of technological advancement with political economy might be a long-run phenomenon. What is different is that in the present conjuncture would-be social critics seem to harbor absolutely no faith that the political and social ills upstream from technological development can be righted, and no plan to do so. New technology changes affordances, and this shift makes certain social dynamics more visible. But in the absence of specifically political work, such visibility is ephemeral, irrelevant. Hence, the exposé of political cluelessness risks becoming the master trope of the techlash, essentially a declaration of social impotence.