Bringing Truth to the Internet


Article by Karen Kornbluh and Ellen P. Goodman: “The first volume of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report notes that “sweeping” and “systemic” social media disinformation was a key element of Russian interference in the 2016 election. No sooner were Mueller’s findings public than Twitter suspended a host of bots who had been promoting a “Russiagate hoax.”

Since at least 2016, conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon have flourished online and bled into mainstream debate. Earlier this year, a British member of Parliament called social media companies “accessories to radicalization” for their role in hosting and amplifying radical hate groups after the New Zealand mosque shooter cited and attempted to fuel more of these groups. In Myanmar, anti-Rohingya forces used Facebook to spread rumors that spurred ethnic cleansing, according to a UN special rapporteur. These platforms are vulnerable to those who aim to prey on intolerance, peer pressure, and social disaffection. Our democracies are being compromised. They work only if the information ecosystem has integrity—if it privileges truth and channels difference into nonviolent discourse. But the ecosystem is increasingly polluted.

Around the world, a growing sense of urgency about the need to address online radicalization is leading countries to embrace ever more draconian solutions: After the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, the government shut down access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms. And a number of countries are considering adopting laws requiring social media companies to remove unlawful hate speech or face hefty penalties. According to Freedom House, “In the past year, at least 17 countries approved or proposed laws that would restrict online media in the name of fighting ‘fake news’ and online manipulation.”

The flaw with these censorious remedies is this: They focus on the content that the user sees—hate speech, violent videos, conspiracy theories—and not on the structural characteristics of social media design that create vulnerabilities. Content moderation requirements that cannot scale are not only doomed to be ineffective exercises in whack-a-mole, but they also create free expression concerns, by turning either governments or platforms into arbiters of acceptable speech. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, content moderation has become justification for shutting down dissident speech.

When countries pressure platforms to root out vaguely defined harmful content and disregard the design vulnerabilities that promote that content’s amplification, they are treating a symptom and ignoring the disease. The question isn’t “How do we moderate?” Instead, it is “How do we promote design change that optimizes for citizen control, transparency, and privacy online?”—exactly the values that the early Internet promised to embody….(More)”.

Number of fact-checking outlets surges to 188 in more than 60 countries


Mark Stencel at Poynter: “The number of fact-checking outlets around the world has grown to 188 in more than 60 countries amid global concerns about the spread of misinformation, according to the latest tally by the Duke Reporters’ Lab.

Since the last annual fact-checking census in February 2018, we’ve added 39 more outlets that actively assess claims from politicians and social media, a 26% increase. The new total is also more than four times the 44 fact-checkers we counted when we launched our global database and map in 2014.

Globally, the largest growth came in Asia, which went from 22 to 35 outlets in the past year. Nine of the 27 fact-checking outlets that launched since the start of 2018 were in Asia, including six in India. Latin American fact-checking also saw a growth spurt in that same period, with two new outlets in Costa Rica, and others in Mexico, Panama and Venezuela.

The actual worldwide total is likely much higher than our current tally. That’s because more than a half-dozen of the fact-checkers we’ve added to the database since the start of 2018 began as election-related partnerships that involved the collaboration of multiple organizations. And some those election partners are discussing ways to continue or reactivate that work— either together or on their own.

Over the past 12 months, five separate multimedia partnerships enlisted more than 60 different fact-checking organizations and other news companies to help debunk claims and verify information for voters in MexicoBrazilSweden,Nigeria and the Philippines. And the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network assembled a separate team of 19 media outlets from 13 countries to consolidate and share their reporting during the run-up to last month’s elections for the European Parliament. Our database includes each of these partnerships, along with several others— but not each of the individual partners. And because they were intentionally short-run projects, three of these big partnerships appear among the 74 inactive projects we also document in our database.

Politics isn’t the only driver for fact-checkers. Many outlets in our database are concentrating efforts on viral hoaxes and other forms of online misinformation — often in coordination with the big digital platforms on which that misinformation spreads.

We also continue to see new topic-specific fact-checkers such as Metafact in Australia and Health Feedback in France— both of which launched in 2018 to focus on claims about health and medicine for a worldwide audience….(More)”.

Can tracking people through phone-call data improve lives?


Amy Maxmen in Nature: “After an earthquake tore through Haiti in 2010, killing more than 100,000 people, aid agencies spread across the country to work out where the survivors had fled. But Linus Bengtsson, a graduate student studying global health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, thought he could answer the question from afar. Many Haitians would be using their mobile phones, he reasoned, and those calls would pass through phone towers, which could allow researchers to approximate people’s locations. Bengtsson persuaded Digicel, the biggest phone company in Haiti, to share data from millions of call records from before and after the quake. Digicel replaced the names and phone numbers of callers with random numbers to protect their privacy.

Bengtsson’s idea worked. The analysis wasn’t completed or verified quickly enough to help people in Haiti at the time, but in 2012, he and his collaborators reported that the population of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, dipped by almost one-quarter soon after the quake, and slowly rose over the next 11 months1. That result aligned with an intensive, on-the-ground survey conducted by the United Nations.

Humanitarians and researchers were thrilled. Telecommunications companies scrutinize call-detail records to learn about customers’ locations and phone habits and improve their services. Researchers suddenly realized that this sort of information might help them to improve lives. Even basic population statistics are murky in low-income countries where expensive household surveys are infrequent, and where many people don’t have smartphones, credit cards and other technologies that leave behind a digital trail, making remote-tracking methods used in richer countries too patchy to be useful.

Since the earthquake, scientists working under the rubric of ‘data for good’ have analysed calls from tens of millions of phone owners in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya and at least two dozen other low- and middle-income nations. Humanitarian groups say that they’ve used the results to deliver aid. And researchers have combined call records with other information to try to predict how infectious diseases travel, and to pinpoint locations of poverty, social isolation, violence and more (see ‘Phone calls for good’)….(More)”.

Platforms that trigger innovation


Report by the Caixa Foundation: “…The Work4Progress programme thus supports the creation of “Open Innovation Platforms for the creation of employment in Peru, India and Mozambique” by means of collaborative partnerships between local civil society organisations, private sector, administration, universities and Spanish NGOs.

The main innovation of this programme is the incorporation of new tools and methodologies in: (1) listening and identification of community needs, (2) the co-creation and prototyping of new solutions, (3) the exploration of instruments for scaling, (4) governance, (5) evolving evaluation systems and (6) financing strategies. The goal of all of the above is to try to incorporate innovation strategies comprehensively in all components.

Work4Progress has been designed with a Think-and-Do-Tank mentality. The
member organisations of the platforms are experimenting in the field, while a group of international experts helps us to obtain this knowledge and share it with centres of thought and action at international level. In fact, this is the objective of this publication: to share the theoretical framework of the programme, to connect these ideas with concrete examples and to continue to strengthen the meeting point between social innovation and development cooperation.

Work4Progress is offered as a ‘living lab’ to test new methodologies that may be useful for other philanthropic institutions, governments or entities specialising in international development….(More)”.

The Geopolitics of Information


Paper by Eric Rosenbach and Katherine Mansted: “Information is now the world’s most consequential and contested geopolitical resource. The world’s most profitable businesses have asserted for years that data is the “new oil.” Political campaigns—and foreign intelligence operatives—have shown over the past two American presidential elections that data-driven social media is the key to public opinion. Leading scientists and technologists understand that good datasets, not just algorithms, will give them a competitive edge.

Data-driven innovation is not only disrupting economies and societies; it is reshaping relations between nations. The pursuit of information power—involving states’ ability to use information to influence, decide, create and communicate—is causing states to rewrite their terms of engagement with markets and citizens, and to redefine national interests and strategic priorities. In short, information power is altering the nature and behavior of the fundamental building block of international relations, the state, with potentially seismic consequences.

Authoritarian governments recognize the strategic importance of information and over the past five years have operationalized powerful domestic and international information strategies. They are cauterizing their domestic information environments and shutting off their citizens from global information flows, while weaponizing information to attack and destabilize democracies. In particular, China and Russia believe that strategic competition in the 21st century is characterized by a zero-sum contest for control of data, as well as the technology and talent needed to convert data into useful information.

Democracies remain fundamentally unprepared for strategic competition in the Information Age. For the United States in particular, as the importance of information as a geopolitical resource has waxed, its information dominance has waned. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s supremacy in information technologies seemed unassailable—not least because of its central role in creating the Internet and overall economic primacy. Democracies have also considered any type of information strategy to be largely unneeded: government involvement in the domestic information environment feels Orwellian, while democracies believed that their “inherently benign” foreign policy didn’t need extensive influence operations.

However, to compete and thrive in the 21st century, democracies, and the United States in particular, must develop new national security and economic strategies that address the geopolitics of information. In the 20th century, market capitalist democracies geared infrastructure, energy, trade, and even social policy to protect and advance that era’s key source of power—manufacturing. In this century, democracies must better account for information geopolitics across all dimensions of domestic policy and national strategy….(More)”.

So­cial me­dia data re­veal where vis­it­ors to nature loca­tions provide po­ten­tial be­ne­fits or threats to biodiversity


University of Helsinki: “In a new article published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, a team of researchers assessed global patterns of visitation rates, attractiveness and pressure to more than 12,000 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), which are sites of international significance for nature conservation, by using geolocated data mined from social media (Twitter and Flickr).

The study found that Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas located in Europe and Asia, and in temperate biomes, had the highest density of social media users. Results also showed that sites of importance for congregatory species, which were also more accessible, more densely populated and provided more tourism facilities, received higher visitation than did sites richer in bird species.

 “Resources in biodiversity conservation are woefully inadequate and novel data sources from social media provide openly available user-generated information about human-nature interactions, at an unprecedented spatio-temporal scale”, says Dr Anna Hausmann from the University of Helsinki, a conservation scientist leading the study. “Our group has been exploring and validating data retrieved from social media to understand people´s preferences for experiencing nature in national parks at a local, national and continental scale”, she continues, “in this study, we expand our analyses at a global level”. …

“Social media content and metadata contain useful information for understanding human-nature interactions in space and time”, says Prof. Tuuli Toivonen, another co-author in the paper and the leader of the Digital Geography Lab at the University of Helsinki. “Social media data can also be used to cross-validate and enrich data collected by conservation organizations”, she continues. The study found that the 17 percent of all Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) that were assessed by experts to be under greater human disturbance also had higher density of social media users….(More)”.

Africa must reap the benefits of its own data


Tshilidzi Marwala at Business Insider: “Twenty-two years ago when I was a doctoral student in artificial intelligence (AI) at the University of Cambridge, I had to create all the AI algorithms I needed to understand the complex phenomena related to this field.

For starters, AI is a computer software that performs intelligent tasks that normally require human beings, while an algorithm is a set of rules that instruct a computer to execute specific tasks. In that era, the ability to create AI algorithms was more important than the ability to acquire and use data.

Google has created an open-source library called TensorFlow, which contains all the developed AI algorithms. This way Google wants people to develop applications (apps) using their software, with the payoff being that Google will collect data on any individual using the apps developed with TensorFlow.

Today, an AI algorithm is not a competitive advantage but data is. The World Economic Forum calls data the new “oxygen”, while Chinese AI specialist Kai-Fu Lee calls it the new “oil”.

Africa’s population is increasing faster than in any region in the world. The continent has a population of 1.3-billion people and a total nominal GDP of $2.3-trillion. This increase in the population is in effect an increase in data, and if data is the new oil, it is akin to an increase in oil reserve.

Even oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia do not experience an increase in their oil reserve. How do we as Africans take advantage of this huge amount of data?

There are two categories of data in Africa: heritage and personal. Heritage data resides in society, whereas personal data resides in individuals. Heritage data includes data gathered from our languages, emotions and accents. Personal data includes health, facial and fingerprint data.

Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google are data companies. They trade data to advertisers, banks and political parties, among others. For example, the controversial company Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data to influence the presidential election that potentially contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections.

The company Google collects language data to build an application called Google Translate that translates from one language to another. This app claims to cover African languages such as Zulu, Yoruba and Swahili. Google Translate is less effective in handling African languages than it is in handling European and Asian languages.

Now, how do we capitalise on our language heritage to create economic value? We need to build our own language database and create our own versions of Google Translate.

An important area is the creation of an African emotion database. Different cultures exhibit emotions differently. These are very important in areas such as safety of cars and aeroplanes. If we can build a system that can read pilots’ emotions, this would enable us to establish if a pilot is in a good state of mind to operate an aircraft, which would increase safety.

To capitalise on the African emotion database, we should create a data bank that captures emotions of African people in various parts of the continent, and then use this database to create AI apps to read people’s emotions. Mercedes-Benz has already implemented the “Attention Assist”, which alerts drivers to fatigue.

Another important area is the creation of an African health database. AI algorithms are able to diagnose diseases better than human doctors. However, these algorithms depend on the availability of data. To capitalise on this, we need to collect such data and use it to build algorithms that will be able to augment medical care….(More)”.

Citizen, Science, and Citizen Science


Introduction by Shun-Ling and Chen Fa-ti Fan to special issue on citizen science: “The term citizen science has become very popular among scholars as well as the general public, and, given its growing presence in East Asia, it is perhaps not a moment too soon to have a special issue of EASTS on the topic. However, the quick expansion of citizen science, as a notion and a practice, has also spawned a mass of blurred meanings. The term is ill-defined and has been used in diverse ways. To avoid confusion, it is necessary to categorize the various and often ambiguous usages of the term and clarify their meanings.

As in any taxonomy, there are as many typologies as the particular perspectives, parameters, and criteria adopted for classification. There have been helpful attempts at classifying different modes of citizen science (Cooper and Lewenstein 2016Wiggins and Crowston 2012Haklay 2012). However, they focused primarily on the different approaches or methods in citizen science. Ottinger’s two categories of citizen science—“scientific authority driven” and “social movement based”—foreground the criteria of action and justification, but they unnecessarily juxtapose science and society; in any case, they may be too general and leaving out too much at the same time.1

In contrast, our classification will emphasize the different conceptions of citizen and citizenship in how we think about citizen science. We believe that this move can help us contextualize the ideas and practices of citizen science in the diverse socio-political conditions found in East Asia and beyond (Leach, Scoones, and Wynne 2005). To explain that point, we’ll begin with a few observations. First, the current discourse on citizen science tends to glide over such concepts as state, citizen, and the public and to assume that the reader will understand what they mean. This confidence originates in part from the fact that the default political framework of the discourse is usually Western (particularly Anglo-American). As a result, one often easily accepts a commonsense notion of participatory liberal democracy as the reference framework. However, one cannot assume that that is the de facto political framework for discussion of citizen science….(More)”.

Democracy in Retreat: Freedom in the World 2019


Freedom House: “In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.

In states that were already authoritarian, earning Not Free designations from Freedom House, governments have increasingly shed the thin façade of democratic practice that they established in previous decades, when international incentives and pressure for reform were stronger. More authoritarian powers are now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remain. Meanwhile, many countries that democratized after the end of the Cold War have regressed in the face of rampant corruption, antiliberal populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law. Most troublingly, even long-standing democracies have been shaken by populist political forces that reject basic principles like the separation of powers and target minorities for discriminatory treatment.

Some light shined through these gathering clouds in 2018. Surprising improvements in individual countries—including Malaysia, Armenia, Ethiopia, Angola, and Ecuador—show that democracy has enduring appeal as a means of holding leaders accountable and creating the conditions for a better life. Even in the countries of Europe and North America where democratic institutions are under pressure, dynamic civic movements for justice and inclusion continue to build on the achievements of their predecessors, expanding the scope of what citizens can and should expect from democracy. The promise of democracy remains real and powerful. Not only defending it but broadening its reach is one of the great causes of our time….(More)”.

Data Protection and Digital Agency for Refugees


Paper by Dragana Kaurin: “For the millions of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution every year, access to information about their rights and control over their personal data are crucial for their ability to assess risk and navigate the asylum process. While asylum seekers are required to provide significant amounts of personal information on their journey to safety, they are rarely fully informed of their data rights by UN agencies or local border control and law enforcement staff tasked with obtaining and processing their personal information. Despite recent improvements in data protection mechanisms in the European Union, refugees’ informed consent for the collection and use of their personal data is rarely sought. Using examples drawn from interviews with refugees who have arrived in Europe since 2013, and an analysis of the impacts of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal on migration, this paper analyzes how the vast amount of data collected from refugees is gathered, stored and shared today, and considers the additional risks this collection process poses to an already vulnerable population navigating a perilous information-decision gap….(More)”.