12/5/2017 – Student Presentations I

This week we do part I of student presentations. Blog comments may address one or more of the excerpts assigned if you are not already assigned to a specific book for commenting in this session. The schedule of presented readings is as follows:

7:30 Jennifer Granick, American Spies: Modern Surveillance, Why You Should Care, and What to Do About It (2017)

7:45 Jon Ronson Riverhead, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015)

8:00 Zoe Quinn, Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate (2017)

8:15 Eric Topol, The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine Is in Your Hands (2015) [4 mini-excerpts in the attachment- pgs. 4-8.5, 51-52.5, 152.5-157.5, and 271.5-274.5 – for a total of ~14-14.5 pages]

8:30 Daniel J. Levitin, Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era (2016)

8:45 BREAK

8:50 Nicholas Carr, Utopia Is Creepy, and Other Provocations (2016) [“The Amorality of Web 2.0”, and “The Boys of Mountain View”]

9:05 Shanto Iyengar, Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, Third Edition (2015)

9:20 Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (2017)

9:35 Robert W. McChesney, Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy (2014)



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16 responses to “12/5/2017 – Student Presentations I

  1. RE: Jon Ronson Riverhead, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015)

    I thought that through this excerpt I would learn to be sympathetic to those who had been publicly shamed, that the author would humanize these individuals to a degree I had never perceived before. Instead, I found myself more irritated by people like Justine Sacco, a woman who was “attacked” in 2013 by the internet in response to one of her tweets. She is most infamous for her tweet: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’, which perpetuates racial stereotypes in jest (p. 64).

    What angered me the most was Sacco’s self-victimization. She says it was no more than “a joke about a situation that exists” and that it didn’t sit well only because she is “not a character on South Park or a comedian” (p. 69). The narrator furthers the idea of Sacco-the-victim by saying that her audience “willfully misunderstand” her lousy joke (p. 70). Somehow her offensive joke is now the problem of the audience’s poor interpretation skills.

    Sacco goes on to laughably lament the death of her romantic life, saying “it’s not like I can date because we google everyone we might date” (p. 75). Was she not aware that her romantic prospects would read her tweets and “misinterpret” them like over a million other had? Overall, it’s Sacco’s lack of ownership over her mistake that boils my blood. Her error stems from her narcissistic tendencies, not from the misinterpretation of the masses. People like Sacco do need to be called out for their inappropriate behavior, as they seem to be blinded by their self-obsession.

  2. Harry Elliott

    Pp.5-6 present the grandiose claim that mass surveillance has limited “intimate relationships” and people who “challenge the status quo”. Aside from the empirical fact that political activism and personal freedom in relationships are probably at all-time highs, I find this hypothetical principled claim analytically weak. Granick is right to say we were “grossly [misled]” about the billions of surveillance programs listed in the early pages of the book, but even if the spying that occurred was not fully democratically consented to, there is no enormous harm explained from people having their emails read.

    Perhaps Granick cites elsewhere examples of people wrongly detained via surveillance, but such incidents are rare (especially given the low base rate). Aside from that, I fail to see how knowing a machine is scanning your message for potentially criminal activity meaningfully deters people from communication: in everyday life, the effect is not substantial. IRS abuse was politically disastrous for the agency, so I doubt other agencies will dare extend the “mission creep” described on p.52; ditto, the NSA could not have stronger incentives to stop rogue agents, and in any event rogue activity will only ever affect a minuscule number of people.

    On the other hand, the harm from uncaught criminal activity is enormous. Granick cites the low prevalence of terrorism, which is misleading: first, even a small number of deaths can have a paralysing effect on communities (see 9/11); and second, PRISM presumably also helps with petty crimes, murder, and so on.

    Thus, even if Granick is right that “unchecked power inevitably corrupts”, the book appears to lack the critical link as to how that corruption makes the average American worse off. For failing to do that, I fear the book will fall into the same preaching-to-the-converted bucket as most current anti-surveillance literature.

  3. tamara2205

    The “Logical Fallacies” excerpt from “Weaponized Lies” seems to focus on explaining very basic psychological concepts regarding human irrationality: biases and heuristics. Quite clearly, the excerpt discusses how slyly-framed pseudo-facts can lead us to mishandle data and make terrible decisions. However, it does not suggest what exactly we should do about these lies: how might we go about catching them, and how should we change our behavior once we do?

    Indeed, the lies that Levitin mentions lurk from all around: some are self-deceptions caused by our miserly attempts to save mental effort, others are artfully crafted by the attention merchants who recognize our fallacies. While both types of deception happen because of our own cognitive stinginess, we are much more likely to defend against others’ trickery (e.g. data misframed by marketers) than we are to recognize our own (e.g. overestimating coincidences in our own life). Of course, it is easier to catch others in a lie than it is to catch ourselves. According to Levitin, however, it seems equally dangerous to fail to recognize both: thinking it is an incredible coincidence to run into our friend at the Louvre is equally detrimental to our truthful experience of the world as it is to purchase an artfully marketed (yet ineffective) home surveillance system. This opinion seems quite controversial: while both distort our knowledge of the truth, the motivations behind others’ trickery are often negative (e.g exploiting our fallacies for profit), while our own are more of an “honest mistake” and a way of organizing our psychological experience. I thus do not believe that all truth distortions are created equal. Knowing life as absolute truth is not only philosophically challenging, but also practically impossible; thus, Levitin should be more nuanced in suggesting which truths are worth fighting for.

  4. Meg Verity Elli Saunders

    Utopia Is Creepy – Nicholas Carr

    In this excerpt of Utopia is Creepy, Carr offers a critical viewpoint on companies such as Google, which, born from the rise of the internet, presents itself as a young, hip and idealistic company, with a philosophy that states that “You can be serious without a suit” and “You can make money without doing evil.”

    However, Carr points out some of the flaws of this almost obnoxiously meritocratic organisation, the first of which he describes as its “narrow perspective and an insular culture” which is limited to the confines of the subject of technology and numbers. He states the need for Google’s executives to broaden their perspective and engage in more worldly matters such as art, policy, and pop culture, claiming that “it’s lack of social skills threatens to become a major competitive liability.”

    Carr also addresses a problem within the psyche of Google’s leaders which can almost be described as hubris: it is their contemptuous attitude towards anything they regard as orthodox or antiquated, and their arrogant dismissal of anyone who criticises them. As Carr puts it, “Any outsider who dares to question Google’s motives…is a ‘bastard.’” This attitude is best summed up in Edwards’ book when Page enquires with “a befuddled expression on his face… ‘When were we ever wrong?’”

    It seems that Carr is keen to question, with some skepticism, the idealistic, evil-free style of business of the so-called progressive silicon valley tech companies such as Google. His criticism leads one to question the whole idea of utopia: since it seems there are flaws in even the most idealistic organisations, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the perfection we are always seeking to attain is, in fact, impossible, and we must simply accept that all organisations and systems will have their flaws.

  5. SM201

    In the excerpt from So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson explores the potential for bullying on social-media platforms. After trashing Twitter’s handling of bullies, Ronson praises the developers of League of Legends, who implemented NLP to penalize players whose speech habits are associated with verbal abuse. “The report found that as a result of these efforts, ‘verbal abuse has dropped by more than 40 percent'” (142)

    Although League of Legends might be an innocuous example of mitigating abuse, this capability may potentially be perverted for more high-stakes scenarios. For example, it isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario in which one political party manipulates this technique to suspend the accounts of the other party’s supporters. Certainly, there has already been much furor over the Russians’ political meddling via targeted Facebook ads. As NLP improves, this may become an arms-race between experts seeking to curb verbal abuse, and the bullies who attempt to circumvent them.

    Ronson is certainly aware of this flaw, noting that “algorithms that can be manipulated to falsely smear someone must be resistant to being gamed and ideally have the ability to be manually overridden in extreme cases” (144) He further notes that Google made concrete efforts in this way towards combatting revenge porn.

    However, it still remains unclear exactly how invincible these algorithms can become, or the full extent to which Google has incentive (beyond ethics) to make their algorithms accountable – keeping in mind the opportunity cost of not pursuing more profit-oriented tasks. Ronson would likely acknowledge and agree with this.

    From my perspective, there seems to be a need for greater investment in anti-bullying technology. This can be coupled with stronger governmental policy forcing companies to be more accountable for criminally malicious users, and making sure that the tech itself isn’t perverted for unethical motives.

  6. Caroline Cin-kay Ho

    In Utopia Is Creepy, Carr claims that Google “is hampered by a narrow perspective and an insular culture… Page and Brin seem oblivious to the world beyond technology, taking little interest in art or policy making or even popular culture” (282). He points to Google Books as a failure resulting from such a worldview, noting that it “has run into a wall of litigation, due in part to Page’s arrogance in rushing to scan copyrighted books without considering their owners’ interests” (283). This reminded me more broadly of Silicon Valley culture – it seems that a variety of tech companies proclaim it their mission to promote social good while either being enormously tone-deaf to the true problems facing people or blindly applying tech as an automatic cure-all. For example, the founders of venture-backed startup Bodega, which raised $2.5 million in its first round, hoped that their product (a shelf serving as an automated store) would enable “centralized shopping locations [to no longer] be necessary” (a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist) and were “not particularly concerned about [the possibility that it would come off as culturally insensitive]” [1]. In order to do genuine good, it seems the necessary first step is to increase the diversity of the valley; with more people in tech from backgrounds outside the typical “techie” mold, companies would be able to at the very least identify the real problems (both inside and outside the area) which must be solved and recognize the potential dangers (or benefits) of any given tech-oriented approach to such problems. Certainly, if the founders of Bodega had worked with engineers from neighborhoods with actual bodegas, they likely wouldn’t have conceptualized the existence of such stores as a problem which needs to be solved.

    [1] “How Bodega typifies Silicon Valley’s cultural ignorance”, https://www.engadget.com/2017/09/15/how-bodega-typifies-silicon-valley-s-cultural-ignorance/

  7. The excerpt from Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publically Shamed” outlines the immediate demise of Justine Sacco, who after publishing a tongue-in-cheek “joke” on Twitter prior to boarding an international flight to South Africa, went viral, was retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, and lost her “dream job” as a PR rep at IAC. Among dissenting comments were remarks that Sacco was a racist and a bigot – claims that can’t be objectively judged, but were denied by Sacco herself, who claimed that her tweet was a self-reflexive joke poking fun at the societal “bubble” that comes with “living in America.” (69)

    Regardless of the validity of either of these perspectives, there is much to be said about the ease with which users can incite virality and cause its creator to face the non-virtual consequences via a platform such as Twitter. The initial re-tweeter, Sam Biddle of Gawker, later explained in his public apology to Sacco: “I didn’t think about whether or not I might be ruining Sacco’s life.Twitter is a fast machine that almost begs for misunderstanding and misconstrual—deliberate misreading is its lubricant…Jokes are complicated, context is hard. Rage is easy.” (Biddle)

    Are the harmful, perhaps unwarranted, impacts of virality highlighted by Sacco’s story attributable to mishaps in human judgment, or to the rapid-share platform? It seems that both work in tandem. Immediate moral judgment, when combined with the “online disinhibition effect” (Suler), forms something reminiscent of O’Neill’s WMDs. Operating using a rather opaque model, without the full context and subtext behind a mere retweet, scalable, as social media and immediate emotional gratification encourage massive sharing, and causing real unjustified harm to a select few outliers affected by (potentially) unwarranted shaming, this WMD is unique in the sense that our collective online public contributes to its application.

    Biddle, Sam. “Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came To Peace With Her.” Gawker, 20 Dec. 2014, gawker.com/justine-sacco-is-good-at-her-job-and-how-i-came-to-pea-1653022326.
    Ronson, Jon. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
    Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & behavior, 7(3), 321-326.

  8. rhwang2

    In this excerpt of Weaponized Lies, the author presents a series of logical fallacies in order to guide the reader in spotting them in day to day life. After reading the excerpt, I remembered reading an old article from one of Stanford’s papers on why the author thought that people all need statistics education to spot misleading articles, papers, politicians etc.. My thoughts with the overall approach of trying to educate people to become more conscientious evaluators of information is that it may only really help with what is in my mind the small subset of the population that is already rather conscientious and skeptical. Many people may be able to understand how the logical fallacies work from an intellectual standpoint, but it’s much harder to implement the lessons in day-to-day life. After all, people commit many of these logical fallacies because of the innate nature of how human cognition works. You can’t just reverse the evolutionary programming on a large scale by having everyone read a book or take a class on logical fallacies. Worse yet, educating people in these matters could give people a false sense of confidence in their conclusions when they are really committing large logical fallacies. After reading such books, it’s tempting to have a false sense of immunity from these logical fallacies/psychological biases. The question then is whether there is really a good solution to reducing the potential of weaponized lies especially given that everybody gets one vote, no matter how conscientious or rational.

  9. Julia Thompson

    Throughout Weaponized Lies, Levitin discusses a variety of ways in which people manipulate the truth to promote an idea. Many of the “lies” he mentions, however, are not complete lies, however, but distortions of the truth, which can be more dangerous. For instance, one of his main focuses in Part One: Evaluating Numbers is deceptive tactics used when making graphs. They use real numbers but use visual distortions to promote an agenda. For instance, in 2012, Fox News displayed a graph comparing a 35% tax rate with a 39.6% rate (29). The scale of the Y-axis, though, started at 34%, giving the visual impression of a sixfold increase in the tax rate. The agenda behind the graphs was to mislead viewers, but the graph was not a lie. The numbers did exist, but the axis was manipulated to imply a false idea.
    However, other tactics, like persuasion by association, are more clearly lies. This involves mixing in some false statements with a larger number of true ones (176). The audience believes the true ones and begins to trust the source, which means trusting the lies that the source has mixed in. I think that this is different because, with the graphs, while the truth was not represented impartially, it was still included, so the viewer would be able to tell just from the original graph what the truth behind it was. In the case of persuasion by association, the truth is not included in any way with the lies that are included. The audience would likely not recognize the deception in either case, but the truth is at least part of the first one.

  10. sandipsrinivas1

    Chapter five of Zeynep Tufekci’s “Twitter and Tear Gas” deals with the complex relationship between technology and people in social movements. The dilemma Tufekci poses in this chapter is best encapsulated when she writes, “In academic circles, there is often concern about not falling into the trap of ‘technodeterminism’–the simplistic and reductive notion that after Twitter and Facebook were created, their mere existence somehow caused revolutions to happen” (119).
    Tufekci’s interactions with social activists demonstrate that many of them feel that too much of the success of social revolutions such as those in the Arab spring is put on technology as opposed to the people behind the movements.
    It’s easy to find proof for these claims simply by thinking about the usage of the term “Twitter revolution.” However, it’s a difficult line to toe, because there is also plenty of evidence for how new technology aided in the revolutions themselves.
    Perhaps the best example of this comes at the beginning of the chapter, in which Tufekci shares an anecdote of using Twitter to coordinate an airport ride and how it made much more sense than any sort of non-digital method. This example gets at the crux of the human-technology dichotomy: while technology does certainly improve the ability for people to organize, this technology is useless without knowledge of how to utilize it. For instance, although Twitter provides the infrastructure of hashtags that people can search for, it takes a creative person to realize that they can employ such a hashtag to find a ride to the airport.
    Therefore, even though it may be a bit more reductive than the reasoning Tufekci uses for the rest of the chapter, I believe that in order to avoid technodeterminism, we must think of people as the driving force behind revolutions.

  11. In this excerpt of Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century, McChesney outlines the key strategies that can be used to effectively reform the media to be a system that “does justice to the democratic needs of a self-governing people.” He points out that a self-governing democracy requires an informed citizenship, and this then precipitates the need for free and equitable access to information through the media.

    At its core, the current media system is dysfunctional because it is a profit-motivated system created through subsidies by a government that is beholden to commercial interests. Furthermore, the incentives for efficient journalism are often lacking, which underlines the importance of studying the legacy of the current system and understanding how it can be changed for the better in the future. In that context, four distinct but interrelated strategies are discussed: policy, media education, media critique, and media producers. Policy is argued to be one of the highest impact strategy because the media is essentially a large public subsidy that is made in the “public’s name but without the public informed consent”. Essentially, reforming current policies directly attempts to change social and political organizing.

    McChensey specifically argues, through a discussion of the work of Walter Lippman, that a truly objective journalism cannot exist in the current sphere of commercial media. He seems to be suggesting that publicly funded journalism is a viable alternative for this current system, to “protect for the public interest that which all the special interests in the world are most anxious to corrupt” (168). While he does not provide a way to get to this goal, he states that the effectiveness of the media reform comes down not to win a major fight but to win many individual ones, fought by a “loud and persistent” public (167).

  12. In her book, Crash Override, Zoë Quinn argues that social media platforms might not be considering all of the implications of their privacy policies. In particular, she focuses on Facebook’s policy of requiring one’s “real name” and Twitter’s verification requirement of legal identification for access(139). Quinn explains how these policies, while well-meaning, might be problematic. For example, she mentions that potential trans users might not be in possession of identification that accurately portrays their self-identity. Furthermore, some potential users might lack official identification altogether, a problem that equally manifests in voter ID controversies. Other individual, while being in possession of legal identification, might have personal reasons for desiring anonymity on social media.
    For the sake of dialectic, I wish to push back against the idea that it is necessary for services to allow complete anonymity on their services. First of all, the majority of internet trolls and abusers are protected by this online anonymity: it enables their deplorable actions and prevents any sort of accountability. Additionally, lack of verification has allowed for the proliferation of foreign propaganda capable of swaying public opinion, as demonstrated by growing evidence that Russian troll factories are undermining our stateside political climate. There is a place for anonymity on the internet, championed by services such as Reddit and Tumblr, among others. Such environments, as Quinn has argued, must become better moderated in order to prevent them from becoming hateful backwaters of the internet, and I laud the efforts of Quinn, Ellen Pao, and others to ensure such standards. However, there is also a place for “real name”-based communities like Facebook and Twitter. The burden of better access to legal identification rests on the government’s shoulders, not these service’s, and thus we ought to put pressure on our lawmakers to expedite such reforms.

  13. RE: A Citizen’s Guide

    Iyengar argues that, as “homogenous gated communities . . . the blogosphere is no breeding ground for democratic citizenship” (132). I thought this was an odd conclusion, given the grounds he laid out previously in the chapter. I think we need to better contextualize the degree of partisan polarization in the blogosphere.

    For one, blogs cater very well to issue public selection, even if the largest blog sites aggregate a range of topics under a single umbrella. While Iyengar dismisses the blogosphere as “two isolated echo chambers,” he ignores the storm of debate raging under the surface (including topics such as trans-exclusionary feminism or “pan-“ ethnic groups). That the blogosphere has managed to collect itself into just two distinct groups, despite itself, probably reflects more about the dominance of the two-party system in American politics than an instinctive desire to align “liberal” or “conservative.” Blogs simply cross-link to larger communities that share their political goals and ideals, and no two groups loom larger in the public consciousness than Democrats and Republicans.

    Most importantly, “the audience for political blogs is relatively small” compared to the rest of the media-consuming public (131). So, what we have is a small group of motivated individuals who hold specific views on niche, oft-ignored topics. By banding together and lending support to similar communities, they have a stronger collective voice – enough to feature in “major news stories” and draw the attention of the apolitical.

    The blogosphere is not a marketplace of ideas in itself, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, the blogosphere enriches the political environment with concerted discourse, unified movements, and recognition of nuances. It leverages things we normally consider problems to a democracy to combat political apathy. It is a seed which flares into fiery discussion, and that’s great for democratic citizenship.

  14. Topol’s image of the future of medicine seems amazing. However, it’s unclear to me how these sensors would be used, if they are so easily explainable that accurate readings are most likely when devices are used, and what settings these would be most helpful in. The airplane example maybe could be extrapolated to a boat or something of the likes, but seems like an acute example of something that should be able to be taken care of by more substantial equipment in this case. How do these innovations most help the healthcare system on a day by day basis?

    It also seems like his description of doctors seems like some sort of commoditization of doctors and healthcare system. This brings up the important question of how data would be centralized before the commoditization of healthcare would take place so that it could applied to these new innovations.

    In the next passage about more open exposure to knowledge and news relevant in the health industry, he points out many of the problems in the existing health system and the diverse and creative medical apps that have been developed to help. Again, it brings up the question of what breakthroughs and features would, have there been, to be strong enough to push the market into a position where the industry has must change.

    Finally, as Topol discusses the possibility that better price transparency for medical services may not actually reduce prices and that consumers are generally misguided about judging between medical costs, the importance of the legal processes surrounding medical services comes to mind. Even if Topol’s predictions were to happen, would these innovations make healthcare cheaper, easier, and more comfortable for the users or for those providing the medical services.

  15. Bradley Richard Knox

    In reading your excerpt from So You’ve Been Publicly shamed, I just found the whole situation incredibly sad in the sense that one stupid moment from one person enabled a huge mob of people who did not even know her to completely ruin her life. I know that her tweet was stupid, but it was not life-ruiningly stupid. There is a difference between being called out for something like this, where you have the opportunity to learn a lesson and be better for it, and then there is large-scale shaming, where probably her best course of action is to change her name, disappear, and pretend like it never happened.
    The first thing that came to my head when hearing the story of Justine Sacco was Steve Bartman, who famously interfered with a fly ball in a Cubs playoff game. The TV camera kept cutting to him as other fans were tormenting him, and eventually he was escorted away for his own safety. The mob mentality destroyed Steve Bartman’s life, in a situation where thousands of other fans in the stadium would have also tried to catch that fly ball. Even years later, when everyone has come to their senses and realized how unfairly they treated him, Bartman will still not show his face in a public setting, even to accept an apology from the Cubs organization. Although his story is less offensive than that of Justine Sacco, what it shows is how shaming someone in the moment can truly get out of hand, and how dangerous a mob mentality can be when it comes to influencing innocent peoples’ lives. Something like this is an absolute nightmare, and the fact that it can happen to normal people is terrifying.

  16. Alex Gill

    Reading through this excerpt of Crash Override, I can’t help but draw numerous parallels between the online abuse mentioned in this passage and the targets of public shaming addressed in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Along with the “regular” Twitter users who engage in public shamings, inevitably in any case a significant cohort of “trolls” or excessively abusive internet users join in with death threats and other horrors that Quinn mentions her clients experience.

    In SYBPS, Ronson interviews an avid 4chan user, Mercedes, who explains some of the thinking behind Internet trolls, and some of the insights shared in that interview could certainly apply to Crash Override clients. Mercedes claims, “4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired they lose masculinity point (Jonson 121).”

    I can’t help but wonder if The Crash Override Network could use these known patterns of aggression to their advantage. When consulting a user dealing with abuse, Crash Override activists could warn victims of the types of abuse they are likely to see, based upon demographics such as gender. Once victims have a better understanding of the strategies online trolls are employing in order to degrade them, they may feel more empowered in knowing what to expect. Online abuse is certainly a complicated issue and one that will require a multitude of strategies to combat, but as we learn more about the motives behind the abusers, perhaps we could use that information to protect victims.

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