Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Trolls, Mastodons, Wikipedians, and the Condition of Our Communications

We've been watching the drama playing out with Twitter, in particular since it was taken over by the world's richest man.  In the search for alternatives, Mastodon is in the news a lot lately.  Meanwhile, if you do a search on Google for the inventor of the electric toaster, the fourth link down will tell you about the guy who set up a hoax page on Wikipedia about it having been invented by a Scottish guy, and the fifth link down is a serious website promoting Scotland, including a serious story about the nonexistent Scottish inventor of the appliance. 

Far more worryingly, for me, anyway, among a lot of other inaccuracies on the Wikipedia page about a guy named David Rovics, is that he is apparently accused of antisemitism and Holocaust denial due to having interviewed the wrong people on his YouTube channel.  The accusation that David talking to the wrong people on his YouTube channel makes him an antisemitic Holocaust-denier is backed up by the citation of a link to an anonymously-written article in an online publication that has no editor, but which apparently meets Wikipedia's terms as a legitimate source.

Under the rule of viral retweets and YouTube videos, online disinformation campaigns conducted by intelligence agencies and freelancers alike, and algorithms oriented towards promoting anything sensational -- algorithms that don't even have the capacity to judge the accuracy of what is being promoted -- increasing numbers of people are realizing that we are in the midst of an information dystopia of terrifying proportions.  With profit-driven corporations completely in control, people are looking for alternatives, and not finding them.

There has never been a golden age for effective grassroots communication that I know of, and the idea of creating a perfect framework in which this could happen is very complicated and fraught with myriad pitfalls.  But it's pretty easy to see what kinds of factors tend towards facilitating meaningful discourse and effective organizing among people using different means of communicating with each other -- one-on-one and more broadly -- and which factors tend towards sowing confusion and conflict.  And as the corporate comms landscape continually evolves, it seems helpful to take stock of some relevant aspects of how things were before, where we are now, and the potential directions in which we're headed.

For anyone my age, or anyone who has studied the history of the latter half of the twentieth century, why I say there was never a golden age is obvious.  Prior to the internet, communications were carried out by a wide variety of other means, both mass and very local.  There were the big, corporate propaganda outlets that we know and despise today, and then there was also a wide array of local media -- local commercial and community radio stations, local print publications, etc.

Anyone who has been involved with journalism at all, and has worked with an editor, knows that editors can, and often do, play a crucially important role in the process of doing good journalism of any kind.  By the same token, people who have worked for corporate-owned outlets can easily tell what kind of influence the corporate owners have on decisions made by editors about content, which investigations get funded and which don't, and so on.  Any editor who says they're truly, completely independent of their publication's corporate owner is simply lying.  (Ask them after they retire, and you might get a more honest answer.)

Through a combination of deregulatory reforms and changing technology, the last two decades of the twentieth century saw the collapse of local print and radio journalism.  Before, local reporters might do terribly biased coverage of local events, but then they lost their jobs, and now in so many cases if anyone is going to hear about something that happens somewhere, it will at least at first be from someone's cell phone video posted on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or in recent years, TikTok.  Then the various forces at work on those platforms do what they do, with some videos getting a lot of attention, and then getting spun in different ways for different reasons by different players on the communication landscape, with other videos just sitting there, barely viewed, commented on, or spun at all, whether by nefarious actors or well-intentioned people.

As we reflect on the pros and cons of the past and present media and social media landscapes in an effort to hopefully forge a less dystopic future, I think it's worth dwelling for a moment on the late 1990's, not as a period that can or should be exactly reproduced, but as a moment in time when the internet had become a popular thing, in very widespread use, but the Big Tech companies and their platforms had not yet become dominant.

What was significant about this period, especially, was the ubiquity of the moderated email list.  Prior to what we now all know of as the social media news feed, the email list ruled supreme.  If you were around and organizing anything, whether a protest or a festival or a concert tour or whatever else, prior to 1995 or after 1995, you know what I'm talking about.  Prior to 1995, before most people had email addresses and were checking their email more or less daily, if you wanted to reach people, your main options were getting the attention of a media outlet -- increasingly difficult with the collapse of local media already well underway -- or you could spend a lot of money on postage stamps and a lot of time writing addresses (or printing, peeling, and affixing stickers with addresses) on envelopes and postcards.

When email, and email announcement lists, came along, most of us stopped doing these expensive mailouts, pretty much overnight, and we never really looked back.  But there was a reason for this -- the well-run email list could completely replace the expensive, time-consuming mailouts.  It worked pretty much just as well, but it was basically free.  But now, in addition to having your own email list, there was also the phenomenon of email lists moderated by other people who you could send relevant announcements to, and once the moderator checked to make sure it was a legitimate post, they'd let it go out to the list.

Eventually, by the early 2000's, the Big Tech platforms we're familiar with today came into existence, and took over.  They did this intentionally and methodically.  Their method was the same as the methods of other monopolistically-inclined corporate behemoths of our times, and prior times.  First, with massive financial resources, they operate at a loss if necessary in order to offer a very useful service, for free.  This way, they kill off competing services or methods of communication or methods of organizing.  Then, once they've taken over the spaces they were looking to dominate, they start charging, in any number of ways, some of which are obvious only to some and not to most users, and this is also part of the strategy of control they're practicing.

So, for example, at first the Facebook news feed, when it came into existence, was a chronological feed of posts from your friends or people you followed.  This made it extremely useful for anyone using Facebook as a means of organizing anything.  The more followers or friends on the platform you had, the more likely more people were to see your posts.  If they thought whatever you were sharing was interesting, each time there was a good chance of your post getting shared a lot, to folks who weren't even following you on the platform.

As a result of the Facebook feed being so incredibly useful for folks like me back then, many of us (not including me) abandoned our email lists entirely.  Many people who used to spend most of their time online reading and writing emails were now spending most of their time on one or more corporate-owned platforms like Facebook or YouTube.  

Once they got us all roped in, they changed everything, dramatically, overnight, but again, only some people noticed.  If you had a lot of followers and were using the platform to promote events, tours, songs, etc., you noticed right away.  Suddenly it was crickets out there.  If you were, however, like the vast majority of Facebook users, just following friends and posting random stuff, you probably didn't notice anything change.  Perhaps at some point you might think, hm, I seem to be seeing fewer posts from Rovics these days, but then, you'd be seeing lots of other posts of interest from other people you knew, so it wouldn't be so obvious.  And then soon, maybe again you were seeing posts from those musicians you were following, and maybe you didn't notice that the reason you were now seeing their posts again might be because of the fact that it was "sponsored."

Of course, it remains tantalizingly the case that posts can still go viral on any of these platforms, and this can be a very good thing for people involved, if what's going viral involves the promotion of an event or a new book or something, for example.  But it became overwhelmingly the case that now, with the advent of Facebook and the rest, you were now paying to promote posts, much the same way you had to pay to send out postcards to people on your mailing list, pre-internet.  The fear many people had that the government was going to start taxing us per email sent or received never materialized, but Facebook figured out how to do it, through the back door.

Each of the other major corporate platforms that have managed to keep a big chunk of the attention of a large portion of the world's population have their particular attractions and problems.  Twitter's attraction is that it continues to be a chronological news feed, more or less, and the one that everybody else interested in that specific phenomenon continues to use.  If Facebook and Instagram are where most people keep track of what their friends are up to, Twitter is where people keep track of what the journalists, politicians, activists and celebrities are putting out there.  Anyone in any space that used to have any interest in press releases put out by anyone is today on Twitter.

The upside of a chronological feed like Twitter for people with a big following is they will be heard by a lot of people.  This has obvious benefits for promoting or organizing anything, without spending a lot of money.  But if you developed your large following on Twitter by spouting sensationalistic disinformation and you have a cult of worshippers eager to retweet everything you put out there, whether you're doing this on your own volition or being secretly paid by the KGB, no one is really moderating anything.  

Or, to put it another way, there was, at least until Musk, some degree of monitoring of content from certain accounts, which even involved flagging or banning on occasion.  But the extent to which consistently-produced and well-made content from popular accounts can get attention always seems to overwhelm any efforts at moderating content.  Combine these problems with the ease that an account with few followers can have at gaining the attention of anyone looking at a Twitter thread of interest, in order to sow doubt about a person, organization, or idea, and you have a massive societal problem, a platform which is just ridiculously easy to hijack for the purposes of smear campaigning and spreading disinformation, whether you're an independent actor or a foreign intelligence agency or whoever else.

YouTube, in search of the highest profit margin, tries to keep people watching as long as possible.  The formula is sensationalism, provoking emotional reactions from viewers, with no regard to the veracity of any of the material the platform automatically plays for anyone who goes there looking for a particular video.  Whatever the start point is, the next videos may or may not be related to the last one, but they will be connected algorithmically -- they'll be videos that YouTube's algorithms think will keep you watching longer.  This means generally that within a few videos of watching whatever content you started out with, if it was related to climate change, a few videos along you'll be seeing one about how climate science is a hoax.

As Twitter seems to be suffering a meltdown, Mastodon has gained a million new members.  This is still small potatoes, and nowhere near the kind of numbers needed to become a new sort of gathering place for society.  As imperfect a space as the major platforms are, this is what they have become.  A sort of corporate commons.

Last time everyone was talking about deleting Facebook, Reddit was the talked-about alternative.  Facebook Groups are fashioned after Reddit's Subreddit system of organization.  My own experience since joining Reddit several years ago is once you find a well-moderated Subreddit that's oriented around something you're into, the system of upvoting and downvoting content results in a lot of people seeing higher-quality content, once they're tuned in to Subreddits of interest.  But both the Subreddits and the Facebook Groups rely on volunteer moderators who can become easily overwhelmed if there is any organized trolling going on on the groups they're trying to monitor, which is often talked about by Redditors, for good reason.

This same phenomenon is clearly in evidence with Wikipedia, as well-intentioned a project as it is, with its network of volunteer editors around the world.  Organized efforts on the part of ill-intentioned actors who want to smear the reputation of an individual with a page can be effective.  Without even looking beyond the page about me on there, this is evident.  Most of the content on the page was clearly written around 2005, some of it is misleading and very out-of-date.  Without any volunteer editors updating much of the page for the past 15 years or so, it's not hard to imagine how easy it would have been for people wanting to smear someone with nonsense about antisemitism to do so -- "citation needed" is the most common phrase you'll see on Wikipedia, but what constitutes a legitimate citation includes publications with anonymous authors and no editors, which are really nothing more vetted than someone's blog.

Within the realm of entities we have come to call social media we can also include music streaming platforms like Spotify.  Or maybe I just mean Spotify, which has become the dominant music streaming platform -- the space for music -- much as Twitter is the space for the news feed, and Facebook/Instagram the space for finding and keeping up with most of your friends, both actual and virtual.  Spotify is where people, especially younger people, curate and listen to and share their music.  It's a big deal, and from the vantage point of a user, it's easy to see why.  Pretty much all the music of the world is now on there for free listening, and the platform's algorithms, by which they queue up the next song in the playlists they create based on the musical selection you started the Spotify session with, are amazing.  The dramatic lowering of the payouts to musicians per song streamed has been a phenomenon led by Spotify and copied by most of their competitors, but it has allowed the platform to become the place where people now listen to music -- another monopoly, basically.

We have lost control of our comms, and given them over to vulture capitalists, who have handed us back some profit-driven, conflict- and disinformation prone semblance of what we were looking for.

Describing the present, disastrous state of affairs is a lot easier than doing something about it, to be sure.  But it's also essential to know where things are at, in order to begin to consider what needs to be done about it.  One of the aspects, at this point, in terms of where things are at, is despite what people like Mark Zuckerberg are fond of saying repeatedly, it's not true that there are little platforms waiting in the wings to become Facebook or Spotify or Google's next major challenger.  In most cases, competitors will be bought or copied.

Facebook/Instagram are the living room, at this point, it's a monopolistic entity.  The stereo in the living room is run by Spotify.  The geezer sitting on the couch is reading Twitter, and watching YouTube.

Starting a platform that might challenge what these corporations have come to represent is about like trying to convince your friends and family to move to a different country.  Some adventurous types will be raring to go, but most will wish you luck and stay where all the rest of their friends and family are.

In another world, the social media monopolies could be regulated for the common good, and run transparently, rather than by secret algorithms.  If this negatively impacts the corporation's bottom line, that's fine, of course, if we're talking about the common good, not corporate profit, being the bottom line.  

It's not possible to overstate the negative impact on society, and on us as individuals, when so much of what we see online is determined by secret algorithms.  Whether we hear about local events or mainly see pictures of our friends' babies and pets mixed in with the latest massacre, whether we stumble across intelligent commentary or bathing suit pictures or antisemitic conspiracy theories, day after day, is ultimately too important to leave to a secret, for-profit corporate algorithm.

Many other forms of regulation are in order, in a remade world.  Looking back at the age of local media, it's easy to see that the bias of media owners and the drive to appeal to advertisers had a very negative impact, generally, but the existence of journalists covering local events otherwise had many merits, as did the existence of editors verifying facts presented by reporters and those they interviewed.  Could we not have a society with plenty of local journalists and editors, who aren't working for profit-driven corporations?  We can, in fact.  Such societies actually already exist.  

And if we can do that, then why not democratically decide what a news feed algorithm should look like, or if there should be one at all?  And a video recommendation algorithm, and music recommendation algorithm as well?  And payout rates for content creators even, perhaps?  Why not have this all be concrete and transparent, and not designed to promote sensationalist disinformation so much of the time?  Why not a payout system that is designed for the long-term survival of content creators, rather than the growth of the corporations that are trying to monopolize the world's eyes and ears?

Making Facebook or YouTube's algorithms transparent, or reforming Twitter, Reddit or Wikipedia to make them less prone to trolling still won't eliminate organized smear campaigning conducted by well-resourced governments, corporations, etc.  Human involvement which probably doesn't just rely on volunteer labor is essential, whatever that might look like.  AI is no replacement for all the unemployed journalists and editors of the world.  

But if we were, very hypothetically, going to start somewhere, I'd suggest we start with the algorithms.  If we can't get control of the algorithms, there is no question at all that they will continue to control us.

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