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)”.

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)”.

Pitfalls of Aiming to Empower the Bottom from the Top: The Case of Philippine Participatory Budgeting


Paper by Joy Aceron: “… explains why and how a reform program that opened up spaces for participatory budgeting was ultimately unable to result in pro-citizen power shifts that transformed governance. The study reviews the design and implementation of Bottom-Up Budgeting (BuB), the nationwide participatory budgeting (PB) program in the Philippines, which ran from 2012 to 2016 under the Benigno Aquino government. The findings underscore the importance of institutional design to participatory governance reforms. BuB’s goal was to transform local government by providing more space for civil society organizations (CSOs) to co-identify projects with the government and to take part in the budgeting process, but it did not strengthen CSO or grassroots capacity to hold their Local Government Units (LGUs) accountable.

The BuB design had features that delivered positive gains towards citizen empowerment, including: (1) providing equal seats for CSOs in the Local Poverty Reduction Action Team (LPRAT), which are formally mandated to select proposed projects (in contrast to the pre-existing Local Development Councils (LDCs), which have only 25 percent CSO representation); (2) CSOs identified their LPRAT representatives themselves (as opposed to local chief executives choosing CSO representatives, as in the LDCs); and (3) LGUs were mandated to follow participatory requirements to receive additional funding. However, several aspects of the institutional design shifted power from local governments to the central government. This had a “centralizing effect”…

This study argues that because of these design problems, BuB fell short in achieving its main political reform agenda of empowering the grassroots—particularly in enabling downward accountability that could have enabled lasting pro-citizen power shifts. It did not empower local civil society and citizens to become a countervailing force vis-à-vis local politicians in fiscal governance. BuB is a case of a reform that provided a procedural mechanism for civil society input into national agency decisions but was unable to improve government responsiveness. It provided civil society with ‘voice’, but was constrained in enabling ‘teeth’. Jonathan Fox (2014) refers to “voice” as citizen inputs, feedback and action, while “teeth” refer to the capacity of the state to respond to voice.

Finally, the paper echoes the results of other studies which find that PB programs become successful when complemented by other institutional and state democratic capacity-building reforms and when they are part of a broader progressive change agenda. The BuB experience suggests that to bolster citizen oversight, it is essential to invest sufficient support and resources in citizen empowerment and in creating an enabling environment for citizen oversight….(More)”.

Nagging misconceptions about nudge theory


Cass Sunstein at The Hill: “Nudges are private or public initiatives that steer people in particular directions but that also allow them to go their own way.

A reminder is a nudge; so is a warning. A GPS device nudges; a default rule, automatically enrolling people in some program, is a nudge.

To qualify as a nudge, an initiative must not impose significant economic incentives. A subsidy is not a nudge; a tax is not a nudge; a fine or a jail sentence is not a nudge. To count as such, a nudge must fully preserve freedom of choice.

In 2009, University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and I co-wrote a book that drew on research in psychology and behavioral economics to help people and institutions, both public and private, improve their decision-making.

In the 10 years since “Nudge” was published, there has been an extraordinary outpouring of new thought and action, with particular reference to public policy.

Behavioral insight teams, or “nudge units” of various sorts, can be found in many nations, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Singapore, Japan and Qatar.

Those teams are delivering. By making government more efficient, and by improving safety and health, they are helping to save a lot of money and a lot of lives. And in many countries, including the U.S., they don’t raise partisan hackles; both Democrats and Republicans have enthusiastically embraced them.   

Still, there are a lot of mistakes and misconceptions out there, and they are diverting attention and hence stalling progress. Here are the three big ones:

1. Nudges do not respect freedom. …

2. Nudges are based on excessive trust in government...

3. Nudges cannot achieve a whole lot.…(More)”.

Five myths about whistleblowers


Dana Gold in the Washington Post: “When a whistleblower revealed the Trump administration’s decision to overturn 25 security clearance denials, it was the latest in a long and storied history of insiders exposing significant abuses of public trust. Whistles were blown on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Watergate coverupEnron’s financial fraud, the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of domestic electronic communications and, during the Trump administration, the corruption of former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt , Cambridge Analytica’s theft of Facebook users’ data to develop targeted political ads, and harm to children posed by the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Despite the essential role whistleblowers play in illuminating the truth and protecting the public interest, several myths persist about them, some pernicious.

MYTH NO. 1 Whistleblowers are employees who report problems externally….

MYTH NO. 2 Whistleblowers are either disloyal or heroes….

MYTH NO. 3 ‘Leaker’ is another term for ‘whistleblower.’…

MYTH NO. 4 Remaining anonymous is the best strategy for whistleblowing….

MYTH NO. 5 Julian Assange is a whistleblower….(More)”.

Crowdsourced reports could save lives when the next earthquake hits


Charlotte Jee at MIT Technology Review: “When it comes to earthquakes, every minute counts. Knowing that one has hit—and where—can make the difference between staying inside a building and getting crushed, and running out and staying alive. This kind of timely information can also be vital to first responders.

However, the speed of early warning systems varies from country to country. In Japan  and California, huge networks of sensors and seismic stations can alert citizens to an earthquake. But these networks are expensive to install and maintain. Earthquake-prone countries such as Mexico and Indonesia don’t have such an advanced or widespread system.

A cheap, effective way to help close this gap between countries might be to crowdsource earthquake reports and combine them with traditional detection data from seismic monitoring stations. The approach was described in a paper in Science Advances today.

The crowdsourced reports come from three sources: people submitting information using LastQuake, an app created by the Euro-Mediterranean Seismological Centre; tweets that refer to earthquake-related keywords; and the time and IP address data associated with visits to the EMSC website.

When this method was applied retrospectively to earthquakes that occurred in 2016 and 2017, the crowdsourced detections on their own were 85% accurate. Combining the technique with traditional seismic data raised accuracy to 97%. The crowdsourced system was faster, too. Around 50% of the earthquake locations were found in less than two minutes, a whole minute faster than with data provided only by a traditional seismic network.

When EMSC has identified a suspected earthquake, it sends out alerts via its LastQuake app asking users nearby for more information: images, videos, descriptions of the level of tremors, and so on. This can help assess the level of damage for early responders….(More)”.

Data-driven models of governance across borders


Introduction to Special Issue of FirstMonday, edited by Payal Arora and Hallam Stevens: “This special issue looks closely at contemporary data systems in diverse global contexts and through this set of papers, highlights the struggles we face as we negotiate efficiency and innovation with universal human rights and social inclusion. The studies presented in these essays are situated in diverse models of policy-making, governance, and/or activism across borders. Attention to big data governance in western contexts has tended to highlight how data increases state and corporate surveillance of citizens, affecting rights to privacy. By moving beyond Euro-American borders — to places such as Africa, India, China, and Singapore — we show here how data regimes are motivated and understood on very different terms….

To establish a kind of baseline, the special issue opens by considering attitudes toward big data in Europe. René König’s essay examines the role of “citizen conferences” in understanding the public’s view of big data in Germany. These “participatory technology assessments” demonstrated that citizens were concerned about the control of big data (should it be under the control of the government or individuals?), about the need for more education about big data technologies, and the need for more government regulation. Participants expressed, in many ways, traditional liberal democratic views and concerns about these technologies centered on individual rights, individual responsibilities, and education. Their proposed solutions too — more education and more government regulation — fit squarely within western liberal democratic traditions.

In contrast to this, Payal Arora’s essay draws us immediately into the vastly different contexts of data governance in India and China. India’s Aadhaar biometric identification system, through tracking its citizens with iris scanning and other measures, promises to root out corruption and provide social services to those most in need. Likewise, China’s emerging “social credit system,” while having immense potential for increasing citizen surveillance, offers ways of increasing social trust and fostering more responsible social behavior online and offline. Although the potential for authoritarian abuses of both systems is high, Arora focuses on how these technologies are locally understood and lived on an everyday basis, which spans from empowering to oppressing their people. From this perspective, the technologies offer modes of “disrupt[ing] systems of inequality and oppression” that should open up new conversations about what democratic participation can and should look like in China and India.

If China and India offer contrasting non-democratic and democratic cases, we turn next to a context that is neither completely western nor completely non-western, neither completely democratic nor completely liberal. Hallam Stevens’ account of government data in Singapore suggests the very different role that data can play in this unique political and social context. Although the island state’s data.gov.sg participates in global discourses of sharing, “open data,” and transparency, much of the data made available by the government is oriented towards the solution of particular economic and social problems. Ultimately, the ways in which data are presented may contribute to entrenching — rather than undermining or transforming — existing forms of governance. The account of data and its meanings that is offered here once again challenges the notion that such data systems can or should be understood in the same ways that similar systems have been understood in the western world.

If systems such as Aadhaar, “social credit,” and data.gov.sg profess to make citizens and governments more visible and legible, Rolien Hoyngexamines what may remain invisible even within highly pervasive data-driven systems. In the world of e-waste, data-driven modes of surveillance and logistics are critical for recycling. But many blind spots remain. Hoyng’s account reminds us that despite the often-supposed all-seeing-ness of big data, we should remain attentive to what escapes the data’s gaze. Here, in midst of datafication, we find “invisibility, uncertainty, and, therewith, uncontrollability.” This points also to the gap between the fantasies of how data-driven systems are supposed to work, and their realization in the world. Such interstices allow individuals — those working with e-waste in Shenzhen or Africa, for example — to find and leverage hidden opportunities. From this perspective, the “blind spots of big data” take on a very different significance.

Big data systems provide opportunities for some, but reduce those for others. Mark Graham and Mohammad Amir Anwar examine what happens when online outsourcing platforms create a “planetary labor market.” Although providing opportunities for many people to make money via their Internet connection, Graham and Anwar’s interviews with workers across sub-Saharan Africa demonstrate how “platform work” alters the balance of power between labor and capital. For many low-wage workers across the globe, the platform- and data-driven planetary labor market means downward pressure on wages, fewer opportunities to collectively organize, less worker agency, and less transparency about the nature of the work itself. Moving beyond bold pronouncements that the “world is flat” and big data as empowering, Graham and Anwar show how data-driven systems of employment can act to reduce opportunities for those residing in the poorest parts of the world. The affordances of data and platforms create a planetary labor market for global capital but tie workers ever-more tightly to their own localities. Once again, the valances of global data systems look very different from this “bottom-up” perspective.

Philippa Metcalfe and Lina Dencik shift this conversation from the global movement of labor to that of people, as they write about the implications of European datafication systems on the governance of refugees entering this region. This work highlights how intrinsic to datafication systems is the classification, coding, and collating of people to legitimize the extent of their belonging in the society they seek to live in. The authors argue that these datafied regimes of power have substantively increased their role in the regulating of human mobility in the guise of national security. These means of data surveillance can foster new forms of containment and entrapment of entire groups of people, creating further divides between “us” and “them.” Through vast interoperable databases, digital registration processes, biometric data collection, and social media identity verification, refugees have become some of the most monitored groups at a global level while at the same time, their struggles remain the most invisible in popular discourse….(More)”.

Data Trusts as an AI Governance Mechanism


Paper by Chris Reed and Irene YH Ng: “This paper is a response to the Singapore Personal Data Protection Commission consultation on a draft AI Governance Framework. It analyses the five data trust models proposed by the UK Open Data Institute and identifies that only the contractual and corporate models are likely to be legally suitable for achieving the aims of a data trust.

The paper further explains how data trusts might be used as in the governance of AI, and investigates the barriers which Singapore’s data protection law presents to the use of data trusts and how those barriers might be overcome. Its conclusion is that a mixed contractual/corporate model, with an element of regulatory oversight and audit to ensure consumer confidence that data is being used appropriately, could produce a useful AI governance tool…(More)”.

Using street imagery and crowdsourcing internet marketplaces to measure motorcycle helmet use in Bangkok, Thailand


Hasan S. Merali, Li-Yi Lin, Qingfeng Li, and Kavi Bhalla in Injury Prevention: “The majority of Thailand’s road traffic deaths occur on motorised two-wheeled or three-wheeled vehicles. Accurately measuring helmet use is important for the evaluation of new legislation and enforcement. Current methods for estimating helmet use involve roadside observation or surveillance of police and hospital records, both of which are time-consuming and costly. Our objective was to develop a novel method of estimating motorcycle helmet use.

Using Google Maps, 3000 intersections in Bangkok were selected at random. At each intersection, hyperlinks of four images 90° apart were extracted. These 12 000 images were processed in Amazon Mechanical Turk using crowdsourcing to identify images containing motorcycles. The remaining images were sorted manually to determine helmet use.

After processing, 462 unique motorcycle drivers were analysed. The overall helmet wearing rate was 66.7 % (95% CI 62.6 % to 71.0 %). …

This novel method of estimating helmet use has produced results similar to traditional methods. Applying this technology can reduce time and monetary costs and could be used anywhere street imagery is used. Future directions include automating this process through machine learning….(More)”.