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 EU Wants to Build One of the World’s Largest Biometric Databases. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


Grace Dobush at Fortune: “China and India have built the world’s largest biometric databases, but the European Union is about to join the club.

The Common Identity Repository (CIR) will consolidate biometric data on almost all visitors and migrants to the bloc, as well as some EU citizens—connecting existing criminal, asylum, and migration databases and integrating new ones. It has the potential to affect hundreds of millions of people.

The plan for the database, first proposed in 2016 and approved by the EU Parliament on April 16, was sold as a way to better track and monitor terrorists, criminals, and unauthorized immigrants.

The system will target the fingerprints and identity data for visitors and immigrants initially, and represents the first step towards building a truly EU-wide citizen database. At the same time, though, critics argue its mere existence will increase the potential for hacks, leaks, and law enforcement abuse of the information….

The European Parliament and the European Council have promised to address those concerns, through “proper safeguards” to protect personal privacy and to regulate officers’ access to data. In 2016, they passed a law regarding law enforcement’s access to personal data, alongside General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR.

But total security is a tall order. Germany is currently dealing with multipleinstances of police officers allegedly leaking personal information to far-right groups. Meanwhile, a Swedish hacker went to prison for hacking into Denmark’s public records system in 2012 and dumping online the personal data of hundreds of thousands of citizens and migrants….(More)”.


Black Wave: How Networks and Governance Shaped Japan’s 3/11 Disasters


Book by Daniel Aldrich: “Despite the devastation caused by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 60-foot tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, some 96% of those living and working in the most disaster-stricken region of Tōhoku made it through. Smaller earthquakes and tsunamis have killed far more people in nearby China and India. What accounts for the exceptionally high survival rate? And why is it that some towns and cities in the Tōhoku region have built back more quickly than others?

Black Wave illuminates two critical factors that had a direct influence on why survival rates varied so much across the Tōhoku region following the 3/11 disasters and why the rebuilding process has also not moved in lockstep across the region. Individuals and communities with stronger networks and better governance, Daniel P. Aldrich shows, had higher survival rates and accelerated recoveries. Less connected communities with fewer such ties faced harder recovery processes and lower survival rates. Beyond the individual and neighborhood levels of survival and recovery, the rebuilding process has varied greatly, as some towns and cities have sought to work independently on rebuilding plans, ignoring recommendations from the national governments and moving quickly to institute their own visions, while others have followed the guidelines offered by Tokyo-based bureaucrats for economic development and rebuilding….(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)”.

The global South is changing how knowledge is made, shared and used


Robert Morrell at The Conversation: “Globalisation and new technology have changed the ways that knowledge is made, disseminated and consumed. At the push of a button, one can find articles or sources from all over the world. Yet the global knowledge economy is still marked by its history.

The former colonial nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – the rich countries of Europe and North America which are collectively called the global North (normally considered to include the West and the first world, the North contains a quarter of the world’s population but controls 80% of income earned) – are still central in the knowledge economy. But the story is not one simply of Northern dominance. A process of making knowledge in the South is underway.

European colonisers encountered many sophisticated and complex knowledge systems among the colonised. These had their own intellectual workforces, their own environmental, geographical, historical and medical sciences. They also had their own means of developing knowledge. Sometimes the colonisers tried to obliterate these knowledges.

In other instances colonisers appropriated local knowledge, for instance in agriculture, fisheries and mining. Sometimes they recognised and even honoured other knowledge systems and intellectuals. This was the case among some of the British in India, and was the early form of “Orientalism”, the study of people and cultures from the East.

In the past few decades, there’s been more critique of global knowledge inequalities and the global North’s dominance. There have also been shifts in knowledge production patterns; some newer disciplines have stepped away from old patterns of inequality.

These issues are examined in a new book, Knowledge and Global Power: Making new sciences in the South (published by Wits University Press), which I co-authored with Fran Collyer, Raewyn Connell and Joao Maia. The focus is especially on those areas where old patterns are not being replicated, so the study chooses climate change, gender and HIV and AIDS as three new areas of knowledge production in which new voices from the South might be prominent….(More)”.

China, India and the rise of the ‘civilisation state’


Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times: “The 19th-century popularised the idea of the “nation state”. The 21st could be the century of the “civilisation state”. A civilisation state is a country that claims to represent not just a historic territory or a particular language or ethnic-group, but a distinctive civilisation.

It is an idea that is gaining ground in states as diverse as China, India, Russia, Turkey and, even, the US. The notion of the civilisation state has distinctly illiberal implications. It implies that attempts to define universal human rights or common democratic standards are wrong-headed, since each civilisation needs political institutions that reflect its own unique culture. The idea of a civilisation state is also exclusive. Minority groups and migrants may never fit in because they are not part of the core civilisation.

One reason that the idea of the civilisation state is likely to gain wider currency is the rise of China. In speeches to foreign audiences, President Xi Jinping likes to stress the unique history and civilisation of China. This idea has been promoted by pro-government intellectuals, such as Zhang Weiwei of Fudan university. In an influential book, The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State, Mr Zhang argues that modern China has succeeded because it has turned its back on western political ideas — and instead pursued a model rooted in its own Confucian culture and exam-based meritocratic traditions. Mr Zhang was adapting an idea first elaborated by Martin Jacques, a western writer, in a bestselling book, When China Rules The World. “China’s history of being a nation state”, Mr Jacques argues, “dates back only 120-150 years: its civilisational history dates back thousands of years.” He believes that the distinct character of Chinese civilisation leads to social and political norms that are very different from those prevalent in the west, including “the idea that the state should be based on familial relations [and] a very different view of the relationship between the individual and society, with the latter regarded as much more important”. …

Civilisational views of the state are also gaining ground in Russia. Some of the ideologues around Vladimir Putin now embrace the idea that Russia represents a distinct Eurasian civilisation, which should never have sought to integrate with the west. In a recent article Vladislav Surkov, a close adviser to the Russian president, argued that his country’s “repeated fruitless efforts to become a part of western civilisation are finally over”. Instead, Russia should embrace its identity as “a civilisation that has absorbed both east and west” with a “hybrid mentality, intercontinental territory and bipolar history. It is charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely. Just as a half-breed should be.” In a global system moulded by the west, it is unsurprising that some intellectuals in countries such as China, India or Russia should want to stress the distinctiveness of their own civilisations.

What is more surprising is that rightwing thinkers in the US are also retreating from the idea of “universal values” — in favour of emphasising the unique and allegedly endangered nature of western civilisation….(More)”.

The Role of Big Data Analytics in Predicting Suicide


Chapter by Ronald C. Kessler et al: “…reviews the long history of using electronic medical records and other types of big data to predict suicide. Although a number of the most recent of these studies used machine learning (ML) methods, these studies were all suboptimal both in the features used as predictors and in the analytic approaches used to develop the prediction models. We review these limitations and describe opportunities for making improvements in future applications.

We also review the controversy among clinical experts about using structured suicide risk assessment tools (be they based on ML or older prediction methods) versus in-depth clinical evaluations of needs for treatment planning. Rather than seeing them as competitors, we propose integrating these different approaches to capitalize on their complementary strengths. We also emphasize the distinction between two types of ML analyses: those aimed at predicting which patients are at highest suicide risk, and those aimed at predicting the treatment options that will be best for individual patients. We explain why both are needed to optimize the value of big data ML methods in addressing the suicide problem….(More)”.

See also How Search Engine Data Enhance the Understanding of Determinants of Suicide in India and Inform Prevention: Observational Study.