Let’s Tax the Collection and Storage of Personal Information

The effects of data theft have been enormous this past year, but the situation is likely to get worse.

Why? Because right now we are looking at the theft of only slivers of fairly traditional information. But we now live in a world where every device and service you consume is collecting data on you. That data can help others rob your house, hijack your bank account, destroy your reputation, and spy on your children. It can out your teenage child as gay, or reveal your psychological issues. It can help others punt you out of a job, or blackmail you over things you did, or things that can be made to look as if they were done by you. Pull multiple sources together and you’ll find that companies store near perfect surveillance of you throughout your day. In turn this information can be leveraged into access which allows others to be able to do things on your behalf, whether it’s activating anti-theft on your car or posting anti-semetic comments to all your friends. Or nude pictures from your Amazon Look.

And if (as?) the government tracks towards authoritarian rule, this information all goes to a state that can punish you for whatever crimes the current regime deems criminal. You realize that Google and Apple keep a near perfect record of who visited Planned Parenthood in a pattern that indicates an abortion, right? That that DNA testing agency you used to see if you were Scottish knows all your pre-exisiting conditions, right? That the affair you and your wife worked through privately is meticulously documented by Uber?

Think about it: 2016 was the year of ransomware,  where malicious software was used to lock up people’s computers unless they paid a small fee. Future ransomware will not lock up your computer — it will lock up your life, threatening to destroy it pending payment or a promise to not be making trouble for the wrong people.

Tax the Data

In light of this social threat, you’d think that companies might reduce the amount of risk they pass onto you by limiting the amount of information they collect. But the ad-fueled surveillance model of the modern web has pushed them in the other direction.

To halt this trend, we could regulate data collection, and we could punish data loss to theft more harshly. We should explore both options. But I would like to propose another option as well.

Tax the data.

Tax, yearly, the data that these companies hold on you. Put a sales tax, payable by the companies, on the data they collect from you. Tax them yearly for holding on to that data.

This may sound absurd, but it shouldn’t. Companies have admitted that data is their greatest asset. And data is actually what we are paying for these systems instead of cash. We give them our personal data, they give us services.

Now I’m not a tax genius. But I know that if I did consulting work for you and you paid me with a car, that car is income. It’s taxable. It’s also potentially taxable as property. If at the end of the year I have a bunch of cars sitting around from clients, that’s profit. The IRS doesn’t say, well these are cars, they are not payment. So why when I give Google my personal data in exchange for services is that not income?

So tax it. And because it has worse effects on society than holding on to money, tax it at a higher rate, and in more ways.

Taxing personal data collected from individuals would force companies to make decisions about what data to collect and keep with the externalities priced in. We could imagine pricing data on individuals at about $10/MB, and taxing it yearly at 10%. To remind you: a megabyte is quite a lot of data. The entire text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is less than a fifth of a megabyte. If Google and Equifax won’t pay $1 a year to hold a megabyte on you, then clearly the social risks of holding that data outweigh the benefits. No one doubts that holding a megabyte of data on someone confers more more social risk than a dollar a year. If that data is not worth that to them, they should let it go.

Will it make tech more expensive? Maybe. But it will make it expensive in the right ways. It will force tech to account for the massive risks they are pushing back on society. And it would fairly tax assets that have flown below the radar of traditional public policy.


How the Independent created a fake news Facebook card out of a real story

Here’s a thing going around Facebook today: Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel banned Trump from Chicago!

So did Rahm just go Rahm-bo? Did he ban Trump from the city? Clicking through and seeing the headline on the actual article suggests a less dramatic story:

And the quote in context?

[Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel] added: “Chicago, our schools, our neighborhoods, our city, as it relates to what President Trump said, will be a Trump-free zone. You have nothing to worry about. And I want you to know this, and I want your families to know this. And rest assured, I want you to come to school … and pursue your dreams.” [italics mine]

So in other words, the Facebook headline is a complete lie. Emmanuel was simply saying he was not going to spend resources to enforce federal law in Chicago. Trump himself has not been banned from anything at all.

So where did that initial headline come from? The clickbait one on Facebook which tells a flat-out lie? Was it made by Facebook? Or added by a deceitful user?

Nope. It was written by the Independent.

Let me repeat that. The Independent wrote the fake headline.

So why do we not see it on the Independent site? Well, a little known fact about newspapers and other websites is they embed code in invisible HTML “meta” tags that provide different headlines to different platforms, when the content is shared. And if we look in those meta tags we see that someone at the Independent coded the false headline in the meta tags, even though they would never dare publish such a headline on their web site.

Here’s the title you’ll see in your browser bar or tab (and the title that used to be shared with sharing services) as it appears in the HTML:

<title>Chicago mayor declares city ‘Trump-free zone’ after US President declares he will scrap DACA immigration programme | The Independent</title>

Here’s the title that people see, again, as it sits in the HTML on the actual page:

<h1 itemprop=”headline” class=” “>Chicago mayor declares city ‘Trump-free zone’ after US President declares he will scrap DACA immigration programme</h1>

And here is where the HTML tells Twitter and Facebook what to use:

<meta property=”og:title” content=”Chicago just banned Donald Trump from the city” />

<meta name=”twitter:title” content=”Chicago just banned Donald Trump from the city” />

The only places in that code where the Independent even mentions a “ban” are visible in Facebook and Twitter but not on the site, so the site can publish clickbait into social platforms while still retaining a shred of respectability on its website. And if people complain about the Facebook headline, they can always point to the headline on their site as being more or less valid (although it’s still horrible, tbh).

Does this sort of deception work? Why, yes it does. This story has been shared on Facebook almost half a million times in 24 hours. That likely makes it one of the top shares, if not the top share of the day. And they accomplish this by abuse of the platform-specific headline codes. The whole thing is shameful, and an insult to the good work that the Independent’s reporters do. And it’s time for it to stop.


Normally I don’t offer bullet-pointed solutions to things. But the solutions are almost ridiculously simple here. It’s just a matter of will, ethics, and incentives to get them done:

  • Papers: stop doing this. Apply procedures and oversight to meta tags.
  • Facebook: stop tolerating it. Scanning the semantic difference between og:title and <h1> title is an easy fact check. Write code to do that and flag offenders. This is Spam 101.
  • People: Click through before you share. Always. And demand better from established papers. The “reverse mullet” headline (party in the front, business in the back) must die, once and for all.




HIV “Dissidents” and Demand-Side Conspiracy

“HIV dissidents” or “denialists” are people who doubt or reject the fact that AIDS is caused by HIV. This view often results in the death or illness of its believers, and occasionally in the deaths of children who have no say in the matter.

One of the fascinating things about HIV denialism is that the primary cause is not irrationality, or rhetoric, or fear of institutions. When researchers looked at why people deny, the overwhelming reason was that people didn’t want to accept the personal implications of the truth. The other stuff – global conspiracy, corrupt medical industry, etc. comes as a result of needing to do or believe something else that is incompatible with the truth.

An example? Well, there are a lot of people that have HIV and have had unprotected sex with others, sometimes partners. HIV is less contagious than we originally thought, but it is still contagious, and to believe HIV is the cause is to come to terms you have put people you love at risk — even if you are being safe now. Similarly, some people don’t want to undergo retroviral treatment because of side effects and so need to convince themselves that they don’t really need to go on meds; they tell themselves that being HIV-positive means nothing.

You’ll see this pattern in a lot of places. My wife’s stepdad passed away recently. He was a smoker, and he believed in all these crazy supplements. Why? Because he wanted to believe there was a way to counteract the ill effects of smoking without quitting smoking. Vaccine denial comes easy to parents who worry that they may have done something wrong during pregnancy or early life that triggered autism, or that the genetics of one of the parents may have played a role – a vaccine link calms that fear and puts it on the medical industry. I’m even willing to bet that some of the Sandy Hook deniers were moved deeply by those class photos of smiling and now dead kids over those horrible days (even now, typing this, I still shudder and tear up, remembering). But that emotion is perceived as incompatible with a belief in looser gun control laws, so something has to go.

Once you adopt a tenuous belief for pragmatic reasons, conspiracy quickly follows. Here’s an old testimonial from an “HIV Dissident” from the turn of the 20th century:

I can still remember the night (these things always seem to happen when it’s dark out) when I realized that if I, a regular person with no particular scientific training, could figure out there was something terribly wrong with the HIV-AIDS paradigm, then the people at the top had to know, too. I mean the people that fudge the numbers so it seems like the problem is always growing, the people who know that the antibody tests are not specific and that scientists have never used actual isolation to affirm their accuracy, the people who obscure the side effects of the drugs…

Take a look at the order of operations there. A person is diagnosed with HIV, and doesn’t want to get on the drugs (demand). They look online and find communities (even then) that say this is a myth (supply). That’s the rationale they need. The adoption of the conspiracy comes last, as they realize their newfound belief requires a conspiracy to stand up.

This isn’t a total narrative of the way people come to these things, of course. Not hardly. There are many reasons why people come to conspiracies, and why people stay in them. And it is the case that people with a lot to lose engage in online activism that impacts people with very little to lose (e.g. parents with autistic kids pull parents of non-autistic kids into the anti-vax community). I’ve talked about some of those other reasons before. So I don’t want to overemphasize. But the truth is that many people believe in conspiracies because the truth of the matter has a big, not small, impact on their life. They adopt these because the outcome is more personal to them, not less. And what the researchers found with HIV dissidents is as soon as that route of action they were defending became untenable (their symptoms got too bad, and retrovirals were necessary) the conspiracy fell away. The conspiracy died when you killed demand by making peace with the outcomes.

What does this tell us here? Eh. I don’t know. But its a reminder that the demand side of conspiracies is worth looking at. People believe in global warming conspiracies because they don’t want to give up their SUVs, health conspiracies because they don’t want to give up smoking, Sandy Hook conspiracies because they don’t want to see that a gun culture that they love can have terrible consequences on people for which they feel a deep and painful empathy. The conspiracy for these people is an attempt to be rational while making a pretty heavy lift against the science or inconvenient facts.

What the research into HIV denialism suggests, in part, is that to prevent conspiracy adoption, you have to deal with people’s fear of change and their guilt. Tell people that most people on retrovirals are actually quite happy. Put them in contact with happy people on retrovirals so they can see that. Minimize the fear of the impact. Tell people who may have infected others that it wasn’t the smartest thing, but it happens, and what’s important is what you do today. Reduce demand for the conspiracy by showing the other options are more palatable.

I’ll say that while I was a smoker, I was very prone to denialism myself. I had to be. So for a while I believed that smoking wasn’t as bad as it was said to be, that secondhand smoke didn’t harm my wife, and those secondhand smoke studies were cooked up, and that smoking cigarettes without chemical additives (Natural Spirit) dramatically reduced chances of cancer compared to other cigarettes. That was the demand. On the supply side, Big Tobacco supplied me with enough media stories and research showing doubt that I could continue to not come to terms with my actions. The biggest thing that turned me around was the birth of my first daughter, but the rhetoric that helped me the most was those commercials which said things like “One year after smoking, your heart attack risk is almost back to normal” etc. (I can’t remember the exact claims). It allowed me, for a period of time, to embrace change rather than fall into depression about what I had done to my body for ten years. And once I quit, all the denialism fell away within a year or two (though interestingly, not immediately).

Similarly, allowing a lot of people to say they were “duped” by the government on Iraq’s WMDs allowed people to accept the fact those weapons weren’t there, even though that route was a bit of a cop-out. Many people guessed right on the WMD issue of course; if you were duped, you partially duped yourself. But if what matters is going forward, letting go of the guilt, temporarily, can be useful. Years after I quit smoking, I could finally say that I had been an idiot. But it took time to accept that guilt.

It’s something to think about with other forms of conspiracy. Supply-side is incredibly important. But address the fear of change or the guilt, and you cut the demand side of the equation as well.

“Students as Creators” and the Theology of the Attention Economy

I was so struck this week by Benjamin Doxtdator’s latest post on showing students how to engage with social media in a way that subverts its purposes. On listening as an act of resistance. Of getting past glorifying connection as an end to that important question of purpose.  I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts it brought to mind, all of them far less organized and insightful than Benjamin’s work. It also draws on work by Chris Gilliard and Amy Collier. I hope to offer it as just a piece of what I hope is an emerging critique of how connectivism and constructivism has been practiced and sold in past years, and how we might reorient and reposition it knowing what we know now.

The particular brick I want to hammer at today is our decade-long infatuation with “students as creators”.

I have become deeply skeptical over the past four or five years about the “students as creators” rhetoric. It’s not that I don’t believe that students shouldn’t create – my best and most rewarding projects have always been about students creating public work on the web that makes the lives of others better. I’ve also seen the immense joy and motivation that a maker lab can provide students. And my new push for info-environmentalism is centered in producing things that make the web a better place. I believe in making stuff, and still align myself with constructivism as a philosophy, most days of the week.

But the rhetoric around “students as creators” is unbelievably bad. It parrots all of capitalism’s worst theology: we want to make “makers, not takers”, we value “doers, not thinkers.” As I said a few years back, the idea that universities should value “producers” and push our students towards “production” is actually the least subversive idea you could possibly have at a university. The most subversive idea you could have at a university these days is that you might think a few connected thoughts without throwing them into either publication or the attention economy. That you might think about things for the purpose of being a better human, without an aim to produce anything at all.

Likewise, I sometimes think we’ve convinced ourselves that the attention economy, when implemented on top of open source, is liberating. And so we celebrate with the class when students get comments from outsiders, or have had their posts go viral. We talk about building identity, portfolios, public persona, getting noticed. We don’t realize that we begin to sound more and more like a LinkedIn marketing drone.

And I’ve come to think that, in today’s world, one of the most valuable lessons we can give to students is not “how to build their identity on the web,” but how to selectively obscure it. How to transcend it. How to personally track it. How to make a difference in the world while not being fully public. To teach students not just to avoid Google, but to use Google safely (or as safely as possible). To have them look at their information environments not as vehicles of just self-expression, but as ways to transcend their own prejudices. To read and listen much much more than we speak. And to see what is needed through the lens of privilege – teaching the beauty of deference to the students with self-confidence and social capital, while teaching marginalized students to find communities that can provide them with the self-confidence they need.

And in different contexts, of course, the same student may need both types of instruction.

This post is a bit stream of consciousness, and so I want to pose a question here. Which experience do you think is more educational:

  • A student runs a blog on open source software that expresses their opinions on selected chapters of Ready Player One – and gets a comment by author Ernest Cline!!!
  • A heterosexual cis student resolves (individually) to follow 20 trans leaders on Twitter and retweet two things they say a week (with the student possibly using a pseudonymous account not tied to their identity). Other students examine their own bubbles and do similar things.

Story number one is the sort of story I used to tell ten years ago at conferences (albeit about different books). But that was before the attention economy swallowed democracy and everything else. Today I’m far more interested in story two, a story that is about not producing, and staying relatively invisible.

Attention (and knowledge of how to get that attention) is still important, of course. But attention for what? For what purpose? I’ve moved from the question of “How do we express ourselves on the internet?” to “How do we be better people on the internet?”  Or maybe most importantly, “How do we use the internet to become better people?” Sometimes that involves creating, of course. But if we wish to do more than reinforce the rhetoric of the attention economy, we have to stop seeing that as some sort of peak activity. These skills aren’t a pyramid you climb, and creation is not a destination. Graduating a few more students who understand that will likely make the world a better place for everyone.


The Fake Headlines (September 1, 2017)

I still don’t know quite what I’m doing with my newsletter, twenty weeks in. I’ve been writing quite a bit there. But should I also put that stuff on the web?

Usually I do a series of long pieces and quick hits for it. But yesterday I did a quick round up of news from the past few days and sent it out. I figured I’d put it here and see if it’s worth publishing here as well.

The headlines below aren’t “fake” — it’s a reference to a New Pornographers song from 2000. Andrew Bird covers it here.  It ends: “I filled the whole front page / With the catchiest words I could find / Fake headlines, believe me come back / Fake headlines, believe them come back.”

Now our stories.

Fake polls are a real problem. We’re on the road to fake everything, apparently.

Corporate-funded medical journals are leading innovators in fake research.

Bot armies may (stress on “may”) be targeting journalists, trying to knock them off Twitter, by using openly bot-like behavior in support of them that gets the journalists banned. The bot behavior triggers spam protections in Twitter, locking the journalist out of their account. This isn’t proven, and is highly speculative but is something to watch.

Citing a need to build a team with a “digital first” mindset, the L.A. Times ousted its only person of color on the masthead, as well as a number of other veterans. Here’s hoping that new digital-first team will also be a diversity-first team.

WhatsApp has rolled out verified badges. We need to start thinking about media literacy with WhatsApp, which is going to ultimately touch more people than Twitter, at least directly. WhatsApp is already a source of misinformation and hoaxes in IndiaMalaysiaHaitiKenyaSpain, and Indonesia. In the U.S. WhatsApp could be a vector of disinformation for a segment of teens and emerging adults who have started to abandon daily reading of Facebook. Maybe in 2018?

Speaking of fake news in other countries, AltNews tracks and debunks fake news in India. Follow them to get a more global perspective.

Why doesn’t Instagram get flooded with fake news? Well, there’s no groups, and reposting is not part of the basic interface. Some people think that was intentional. There are lessons here.

Headline from 2010: Facebook Introduces Community Pages, Hopes To Make Them “Best Collections Of Shared Knowledge. What happened to this vision? Anyone know?

You need to read the Unleashed article by Cass Sunstein. More on this later but read it now.

Researcher Kate Starbird notes that FEMA is dealing with Harvey rumors on their front page, and asking people to correct them online. This is important because rumors in crisis events quite literally get people killed.

Robert Fanney is a great follow on climate change on Twitter, and recently expressed frustration with the idea that we can’t discuss the cause of disasters in the wake of them, the “now is not the time to say I-told-you-so about climate change” Harvey argument. A holistic treatment of disinformation needs not only to look at how misinformation spreads, but also how good information is suppressed. Tragedy policing is one of the ways that is accomplished and deserves serious study and attention.

Kris Shaffer runs the Disinformer newsletter, which combines a focus on misinformation and propaganda with digital humanities. Read it.

I wrote this post on teaching students to read Google searches. Its big contribution is probably my 300+ item Google question bank. These are questions you can plug into Google, and have students evaluate the results.

Also I should mention – we’re running 10 sections using Digipo at WSU Vancouver alone. This has taken off like wildfire, with the controlling idea now info-environmentalism.

So does this stuff belong in the newsletter or on the site or both? Let me know.




Activity: Choose the Best Source of the Top Google Results

Here’s a simple activity you can try in your class: Have students execute a Google search that is a question. Then have the students look at the top five results, and using lateral reading pick the source that is most likely to be authoritative and the source they think is least authoritative. Have them talk through their reasoning.

For example, take this set of results to “Can magnets cure cancer?”:


We might note the first page comes from a fringe site that sells “therapeutic” magnets, and is quoting from an out-of-print magazine from the 1980s called “Magnets in Your Future” (that’s the name of the magazine, not the article). A similar critique could be made of the MagnetiCare product site.

On the other hand the two results on the bottom make a good pair. The scientific paper is cited by 25 papers, and shows in some lab conditions magnetic therapy (somewhat different than magnets) slowed progression of a specific cancer in mice. The Sloan Kettering article, however, says there is no evidence that supports the use of magnets to treat cancer. How do we weight these against one another?

It’s weird, because you would think what is reliable here would be obvious, but if you hear students talk through their thought process I guarantee you will hear things that surprise you. It may be obvious to you, for example, that a natural remedies website is less reliable than a research hospital at summarizing treatment efficacy, but to some students these may just be two different sites pitching different things — one magnets, another traditional care.

Likewise, a person with some health research literacy will know that the single study should not outweigh more general surveys of treatment efficacy, but many students will conceptualize this wrongly, not understanding that (in general) new studies serve to qualify old studies, not replace them.

You might also show the students how you think about choosing a search result yourself (assuming you’re doing it effectively!). Walk through what you do with “Does fracking cause earthquakes?”, and explain why you jump to the USGS link instead of the Forbes one, as well as why you might not see the USGS as the final word.

Need some questions to ask Google? I’ve written up over 300 for you to choose from, from ones about obvious hoaxes to ones that require a deep dive into areas where even experts conflict.

They are here.

I find pumping a wide variety of questions like this into Google helps me think about what students need when flipping through search results. Let me know if they help you do the same. Many are chosen from trending stories and a lot were generated by playing around with Google auto-suggest. I’d love at some point to rate the questions for difficulty, but right now they are just alphabetical.



Assignment: Sourcing a Quote

So this is not a photo assignment (reverse image search will get you nowhere!). But here’s a photo anyway, for aesthetic reasons:


It’s a quote from current U.S. Defense Secretary General Mattis emblazoned on a coffee mug:

“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading you with tears in my eyes: if you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”

So the question are:

  • Did he say this?
  • Who heard him say this?
  • When and where did he say it?
  • What publication was the original reporting source for this quote?

So let me say a few things about tracking down quotes (and about novice behavior when tracking down quotes). What a novice will do is this: they’ll do a web search like this for [[Mattis “i come in peace”]]:


And they’ll find a good solid publication that sources the quote:


And maybe that’s enough for daily use, but it’s not what we need here for this assignments. Quotes are some of the most bungled information on the planet. Back about ten years ago, in fact, I showed how a Washington Post story complaining about the web getting quotes wrong actually had it reversed — the web was right and the Post was wrong. (Incidentally, reviewing that post I find that it articulates pretty much what I am pushing today about web literacy — I’d forgotten how long I’d been beating this drum).

My advice for getting quotes right is the same as for everything else. Your two choices are:

  • Get as close as you can to the time and place of the quote. The original reporting, or the first reporting of the reporting. For the most part, the further you get from a quote the more it changes.
  • Alternatively, get a not just solid, but rock-solid source (such as Quote Investigator, a reputable monthly like The Atlantic, or a scholarly/major book publisher) that you know does the hard work of tracking a quote to an original source.

In case you haven’t noticed, these two options map to two of our moves:

  1. Check for previous work, and
  2. Go upstream

Anyway, go to it. Get as far upstream as you can, or to a source you consider to be rock-solid.