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Monthly Archives: December 2017

Facebook and democracy, reasons to be fearful

M said “facebook is ending democracy”. It’s a common fear. But how, exactly, could this be happening? Let’s try and breakdown the possibilities:

Because facebook somehow over-rides our free will? Engineer and former Facebook VP of user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, says this (video, report), as do others, but it is not a coherent accusation.

Because facebook creates echo-chambers?. The evidence on this is ambiguous. One study found that people are more likely to connect with people with dissimilar views over facebook than offline.

Distraction? Social media as a cathartic substitute for political engagement? In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam blames television and commuting for a large part of a loss of trust and participation in social organisations. Is Facebook displacing valuable social and political actions, rather than catalysing them?

Related, does social media’s excellence at bite-sized information mean that context, nuance and argument are now disadvantaged in a way they weren’t before?

Misinformation? Fake news, propaganda, weaponised hoaxes, the whole boatload of lies and half-truths. But surely this is not new. Something about the lack of transparency, and the ability to insert misinformation so it is transmitted along our social networks, the same kind of currency as news of their pets and holiday photos, adds a terrifying velocity to misinformation.

False consensus – creating the impression that something is universally viewed at true or important, when it isn’t. See also filter bubbles. Distinguished from echo chambers, but algorithmically curated blindness to counterpoints.

Erosion of common ground – loss of common knowledge and frames of reference. If we don’t know why other people believe what they believe, how can we start to engage them

Monopoly powers – facebook has 2 billion+ monthly users. That’s too much power for a single media entity to have without a truckload of regulatory oversight or democracy control.

Any evidence bearing on the factors I list? Any factors I missed? Comments are open!

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Quick thoughts about Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , a compelling, charming exploration of the ‘great renaissance of public shaming’, its mob psychology and the individual stories of the people involved:

– lots of the negative consequences of public shaming described in the book would be mitigated if it was harder for US corporations to fire people.

– i think part of what makes internet shaming hard to wrap your head around (and which I don’t think Ronson ever really deals with) is the scale – both how many people get involved, and the disproportion between the individual actions (the shameful tweet, the individual shaming responses) and how the consequences. People kill themselves, or get fired, but no single act is the cause (“no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche”). It is hard to make sense of the this world where unimportant actions generate massively important reactions.

– Is Ronson being a bit disingenuous when he says he is interested in shaming because he has been a perpetrator? Maybe he’s called someone out online, but I doubt he’s ever sent the kind of abuse he describes in book (death and rape threats etc).

– Who are those guys, anyway? I understand that he didn’t want to write a book about trolling, but they seem like an integral part of the story. I don’t meet anybody who speaks like that offline (and rarely online). Who are these people? And if they are us, why are they like this online?

– There wasn’t enough talk about specific platforms, and the choices they’ve made that enable the dynamics discussed. Let’s face it, when we talk about social media we mostly mean facebook and twitter. Both are really good at letting complex chains of speech/action be taken out of context, and at generating outrage around that. The internet doesn’t have to be this way. Why is it?

– Not enough about politics, and related moral tribalism. The outrages (memorably labelled in the book ‘a cathartic substitute for social justice’) are moral outrages, often with an explicit political agenda (e.g. anti-racism). Paging Jon Haidt

– I would love to hear more analysis of public pressure, and why specific actors feel the need to bow to it (or not). It seem that when one of the corporations in the book fires someone because of a badly worded tweet, they aren’t making a judgement about the truth of the claim that the person is sexist (or whatever), but rather that the truth of that claim has become irrelevant. The victim needs to be fired because everyone says they need to be fired. How do you get out of situations like that?


Guardian excerpt of the book: ‘Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone

Jon Ronson on twitter:

Don’t trust your sense of fascination

When a researcher tells me their research topic is fascinating, I get a sinking feeling, like when someone announces they are going to tell me about the dream they had last night. Here’s something I’ve learnt in my time as a scholar: finding something fascinating isn’t a good guide to what actually is fascinating.

There are plenty of questions which I used to find fascinating. Topics which, for years, I would have said fascinated me, but which now I think are of little interest. That feeling that something was a deep question, that it promised – somehow – to help reveal the secrets of the universe, wasn’t to be trusted. With a bit more thought, or experience, my fascination in a topic turned out to be a dead end. Now I think those topics are not productive to research, they don’t promise to reveal anything. What appeared to be a mysterious contradiction was just a blunt fact, a universal symbol turned out to be boring particular.

I’m not going to give you an example, because I don’t want to focus on a specific case, but on that feeling of fascination which drives our curiosity, which must in some form be the foundation of a research programme.

Personal fascination is a poor guide to a good research topic, but it has also been the guide for the research I’ve done of which I’m most proud, and which I think makes the most important contributions.

The trick is to not to blindly trust your fascination, but to draw it out. Can you explain why something is so fascinating? Can you show the connections to wider topics? Can you show that suggested explanations are inadequate?

Without action all you have is a feeling, which has as much currency with other people as when you try and explain one of your dreams. You may feel deeply involved, but there’s no compelling reason for other people to be.

Fascination you can’t share is just self-indulgence.

(Obligatory reference to Davis’ 1971 paper on the sociology of being interesting in sociology: Davis M. S. (1971). That’s interesting! Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology. Philosophy of the social sciences, 1(2), 309-344.)