Traces #31: Mobile Misinformation

First published Nov. 10, 2017 at TinyLetter

Free Speech Is Like Free Markets. Broken.

A New York courtroom gave every detained immigrant a lawyer. The results were staggering. This piece from Vox is about the sixth amendment of the U.S. constitution (the right to a lawyer) but is a good lens for the first amendment as well. In the U.S., all people have the right to a lawyer, but for a long time people didn’t have access to a lawyer due to monetary reasons. We’ve rectified that bit by bit, and this article shows the massive and shocking impacts that access provides.

Free speech (the first amendment right of Americans) can be read the same way. People have theoretical rights to free speech, but it is ridiculously easy for people with money to render that right worthless. I’m not arguing here for any specific intervention, but for us to enlarge our thinking about free speech the way we enlarged our thinking about legal representation. Stop freaking out about “slippery slopes” long enough to think about what concern about actual access to free speech might look like, both in terms of running a place like Twitter and in regulating the influence of money in media. (Start by looking at politibots which suppress the speech of actual humans but are often defended by free speech libertarians.)

1984, Inc.

Amy Collier writes on the why and how of tweet deletion. I’m happy for she’s joined the deletionists (we’re showing her the secret handshake this afternoon!). There are so many good reasons to delete old tweets that I won’t go into here, but one on the big ones for me is everything in the Twitter UI tries to prevent you from doing so, so screw that. When you notice all the exits are locked, start looking for a way out. Click the link to learn how to become a deletionist, and remember that there’s a job open at Middlebury working with Amy you should look at.


As others have noted there’s nothing surprising about Facebook founder Sean Parker saying that Facebook was designed to do exactly what it’s doing to our attention and society and democracy. The point of Facebook is to create an addiction to reckless sharing and inefficient engagement. That’s its core business model. We talked about this in Traces #3, under the name Webo-plasmosis.

You saw this on display, BTW, during the recent Twitter change to 280. Wait a second, 280 defenders said, people were all angry about the hearts, but they increased likes by a billion!

This (“increased likes by a billion!”) is said by an actual employee of Twitter as if it means something, but it means nothing. Clicking on a heart is not some inherent good like increasing exercise, or upping the amount of fiber in your diet, or decreasing poverty. It’s a decision to provide Twitter with more data. That’s it.

The truth is many people working these jobs are so far into the machine they don’t see the difference between platform engagement (clicking on hearts) and civic and personal engagement (enjoying life more fully, thinking about things more deeply, empathizing more broadly, imagining and building a better world). They upped the click rate on a heart which is good for marketing. They are food scientists trying to tweak a flavor profile to get people to consume thirteen more Doritos a day. And in their branded world they never think about whether people are well served by Doritos engineered to make you binge. More Doritos eqauls more happiness, right? Everything that has happened, EVERYTHING, is pretty much predictable given just this orientation toward engagement and data.

Your Autocracy Will Be Laundered

InfoWars isn’t a Russian front, it just republishes hundreds of RT articles verbatim. I’ve looked at user perceptions around syndication in my media literacy work, and the fact is that almost nobody spots syndication indicators, which means that people on the site were consuming Russian state media with no awareness they were doing so. (h/t Audrey Watters)

Shameless Self-Promotion

I put together a proposal for an Amazon Catalyst project to produce online materials and activities around our “web literacy for fact-checkers” model. Here’s the seven minute video pitch. I work on this issues of online information literacy using a small portion of work time and a larger portion of free time (this letter, for example, is how I am spending Veteran’s Day off. But I think my Vietnam Vet of a father would have approved). In any case, I mention this because if you think we should submit to somewhere other grant program let me know. WSU and AASCU/ADP would like to get the funding to be able to make this work more of a full-time project. I think with the right funding we could benefit our WSU students while making our model sustainable in the broader community.

Global Potemkin Village

The Columbia Journalism Review outlines how WeChat, a large social network popular in China, is structured, and in particular how Official Accounts (a sort of Facebook page-ish platfrom that anyone can start) distribute news. Because public feed-based publishing is minimized, the dissemination of news sounds more similar to the email-based forwarding chains of the 1990s and early 2000s with some extra social affordances. The brief article also examines how misinformation and politically undesirable speech are handled. The upshot is without transparency we don’t really know, which is of course disturbing in a country with China’s free speech record.


A fabulous podcast by Storyful on the information disorder issues in India. Worth 30 minutes of your time. But one big takeaway is this: India suffers from being a country which consumes much of its information through cheap mobile phones instead of laptops or high-end phones. This gives people tools to consume massive amounts of information but no tools to investigate what they are fed.

I have talked about this dozens of times, but mobile phones are bad for learning, bad for investigation, bad for synthesis and critical analysis. The 2013 social media misinformation explosion in the U.S. corresponds with the addition of the share button on mobile. And let me point out – they knew at the time that this might lead to deleterious effects, but did it anyway.

And it gets worse – this model of cheap phones and crippled access to the Internet is the model behind neo-colonial initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics program. It’s a marketer’s dream, but a social nightmare. And we are pushing it into countries that often have weaker social institutions than our own. It’s not right, and it will end in tragedy.

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