The Hype Machine


Book by Sinan Aral on “How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health–and How We Must Adapt”: “Drawing on two decades of his own research and business experience, Aral goes under the hood of the biggest, most powerful social networks to tackle the critical question of just how much social media actually shapes our choices, for better or worse. Aral shows how the tech behind social media offers the same set of behavior-influencing levers to both Russian hackers and brand marketers—to everyone who hopes to change the way we think and act—which is why its consequences affect everything from elections to business, dating to health. Along the way, he covers a wide array of topics, including how network effects fuel Twitter’s and Facebook’s massive growth to the neuroscience of how social media affects our brains, the real impact of fake news, the power of social ratings, and the effect of social media on our kids.

In mapping out strategies for being more thoughtful consumers of social media, The Hype Machine offers the definitive guide to understanding and harnessing for good the technology that has redefined our world overnight…(More)”.

Data Privacy Increasingly a Focus of National Security Reviews


Paper by Tamara Ehs, and Monika Mokre: “The yellow vest movement started in November 2018 and has formed the longest protest movement in France since 1945. The movement provoked different reactions of the French government—on the one hand, violence and repression; on the other hand, concessions. One of them was to provide a possibility for citizens’ participation by organizing the so-called “Grand Débat.” It was clear to all observers that this was less an attempt to further democracy in France than to calm down the protests of the yellow vests. Thus, it seemed doubtful from the beginning whether this form of participatory democracy could be understood as a real form of citizens’ deliberation, and in fact, several shortcomings with regard to procedure and participation were pointed out by theorists of deliberative democracy. The aim of this article is to analyze the Grand Débat with regard to its deliberative qualities and shortcomings….(More)”.

‘Telegram revolution’: App helps drive Belarus protests


Daria Litvinova at AP News: “Every day, like clockwork, to-do lists for those protesting against Belarus’ authoritarian leader appear in the popular Telegram messaging app. They lay out goals, give times and locations of rallies with business-like precision, and offer spirited encouragement.

“Today will be one more important day in the fight for our freedom. Tectonic shifts are happening on all fronts, so it’s important not to slow down,” a message in one of Telegram’s so-called channels read Tuesday. “Morning. Expanding the strike … 11:00. Supporting the Kupala (theater) … 19:00. Gathering at the Independence Square.”

The app has become an indispensable tool in coordinating the unprecedented mass protests that have rocked Belarus since Aug. 9, when election officials announced President Alexander Lukashenko had won a landslide victory to extend his 26-year rule in a vote widely seen as rigged.

Peaceful protesters who poured into the streets of the capital, Minsk, and other cities were met with stun grenades, rubber bullets and beatings from police. The opposition candidate left for Lithuania — under duress, her campaign said — and authorities shut off the internet, leaving Belarusians with almost no access to independent online news outlets or social media and protesters seemingly without a leader.

That’s where Telegram — which often remains available despite internet outages, touts the security of messages shared in the app and has been used in other protest movements — came in. Some of its channels helped scattered rallies to mature into well-coordinated action.

The people who run the channels, which used to offer political news, now post updates, videos and photos of the unfolding turmoil sent in from users, locations of heavy police presence, contacts of human rights activists, and outright calls for new demonstrations — something Belarusian opposition leaders have refrained from doing publicly themselves. Tens of thousands of people all across the country have responded to those calls.

In a matter of days, the channels — NEXTA, NEXTA Live and Belarus of the Brain are the most popular — have become the main method for facilitating the protests, said Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian analyst and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council….(More)”.

Coronavirus Compels Congress to Modernize Communication Techniques


Congressional Management Foundation: “The Future of Citizen Engagement: Coronavirus, Congress, and Constituent Communications” explores how Members of Congress and their staff engaged with citizens while navigating the constraints posed by COVID-19, and offers examples of how Congress can substantively connect with constituents using modern technology against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

The report addresses the following questions:

  • How did congressional offices adapt their communications strategies to meet the immediate needs of their constituents during the onset of COVID-19?
  • What techniques did Members use to diversify their constituent outreach?
  • What methods of engagement is Congress using now, and likely to use in the future?

The findings are based on a survey of senior congressional staffers, comprising over 120 responses provided to CMF between May 26 and June 19, 2020. Additionally, CMF conducted 13 follow-up interviews with survey respondents who indicated they were willing to speak further about their office operations and constituent communications during COVID-19….(More)”.

How urban design can make or break protests


Peter Schwartzstein in Smithsonian Magazine: “If protesters could plan a perfect stage to voice their grievances, it might look a lot like Athens, Greece. Its broad, yet not overly long, central boulevards are almost tailor-made for parading. Its large parliament-facing square, Syntagma, forms a natural focal point for marchers. With a warren of narrow streets surrounding the center, including the rebellious district of Exarcheia, it’s often remarkably easy for demonstrators to steal away if the going gets rough.

Los Angeles, by contrast, is a disaster for protesters. It has no wholly recognizable center, few walkable distances, and little in the way of protest-friendly space. As far as longtime city activists are concerned, just amassing small crowds can be an achievement. “There’s really just no place to go, the city is structured in a way that you’re in a city but you’re not in a city,” says David Adler, general coordinator at the Progressive International, a new global political group. “While a protest is the coming together of a large group of people and that’s just counter to the idea of L.A.”

Among the complex medley of moving parts that guide protest movements, urban design might seem like a fairly peripheral concern. But try telling that to demonstrators from Houston to Beijing, two cities that have geographic characteristics that complicate public protest. Low urban density can thwart mass participation. Limited public space can deprive protesters of the visibility and hence the momentum they need to sustain themselves. On those occasions when proceedings turn messy or violent, alleyways, parks, and labyrinthine apartment buildings can mean the difference between detention and escape….(More)”.

Digital diplomacy: States go online


Philipp Grüll at Euractiv: “When Germany takes over the European Council Presidency on 1 July, Berlin will have plenty to do. The draft programme seen by EURACTIV Germany focuses on the major challenges of our time: climate change, digitisation, and the coronavirus.

Berlin wants to establish ‘European Digital Diplomacy’ by creating a ‘Digital Diplomacy Network’ to exist alongside the ‘Technospheres USA and China’.

This should not only be about keeping European industries competitive. After all, the term “digital diplomacy” is not new.

Ilan Manor, a researcher at Oxford University and author of numerous papers on digital diplomacy, defines it as “the use of digital tools to achieve foreign policy goals.”

This definition is intentionally broad, Manor told EURACTIV Germany, because technology can be used in so many areas of international relations….

Manor divides the development of this digital public diplomacy into two phases.

In the first one, from 2008 to 2015, governments took the first cautious steps. They experimented and launched random and often directionless online activities. Foreign ministries and embassies set up social media accounts. Sweden opened a virtual embassy in the online video game “Second Life.”

It was only in the second phase, from 2015 to the present, that foreign ministries began to act more strategically. They used “Big Data” to record public opinion in other countries, and also to track down online propaganda against their own country.

As an example, Manor cites the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom, which is said to have deliberately disseminated anti-EU narratives prior to the Brexit referendum, packaged in funny and seemingly innocent Internet memes that spread rapidly….(More)”.

Open Data from Authoritarian Regimes: New Opportunities, New Challenges


Paper by Ruth D. Carlitz and Rachael McLellan: “Data availability has long been a challenge for scholars of authoritarian politics. However, the promotion of open government data—through voluntary initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership and soft conditionalities tied to foreign aid—has motivated many of the world’s more closed regimes to produce and publish fine-grained data on public goods provision, taxation, and more. While this has been a boon to scholars of autocracies, we argue that the politics of data production and dissemination in these countries create new challenges.

Systematically missing or biased data may jeopardize research integrity and lead to false inferences. We provide evidence of such risks from Tanzania. The example also shows how data manipulation fits into the broader set of strategies that authoritarian leaders use to legitimate and prolong their rule. Comparing data released to the public on local tax revenues with verified internal figures, we find that the public data appear to significantly underestimate opposition performance. This can bias studies on local government capacity and risk parroting the party line in data form. We conclude by providing a framework that researchers can use to anticipate and detect manipulation in newly available data….(More)”.

The “Social” Side of Big Data: Teaching BD Analytics to Political Science Students


Case report by Giampiero Giacomello and Oltion Preka: “In an increasingly technology-dependent world, it is not surprising that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates are in high demand. This state of affairs, however, has made the public overlook the case that not only computing and artificial intelligence are naturally interdisciplinary, but that a huge portion of generated data comes from human–computer interactions, thus they are social in character and nature. Hence, social science practitioners should be in demand too, but this does not seem the case. One of the reasons for such a situation is that political and social science departments worldwide tend to remain in their “comfort zone” and see their disciplines quite traditionally, but by doing so they cut themselves off from many positions today. The authors believed that these conditions should and could be changed and thus in a few years created a specifically tailored course for students in Political Science. This paper examines the experience of the last year of such a program, which, after several tweaks and adjustments, is now fully operational. The results and students’ appreciation are quite remarkable. Hence the authors considered the experience was worth sharing, so that colleagues in social and political science departments may feel encouraged to follow and replicate such an example….(More)”

Conceptualizing the Impact of Digital Interference in Elections: A Framework and Agenda for Future Research


Paper by Nahema Marchal: “Concerns over digital interference in elections are widespread. Yet evidence of its impact is still thin and fragmented. How do malicious uses of social media shape, transform, and distort democratic processes? And how should we characterize this impact? Existing research into the effects of social media manipulation has largely focused on measuring its purported impact on opinion swings and voting behavior. Though laudable, this focus might be too reductive. Drawing on normative theories of liberal democracy, in this paper I argue that the threat of digital interference does not lie in its capacity to change people’s views but rather in its power to undermine popular perceptions of electoral integrity, with potentially far-reaching consequences for public trust. Following this assessment, I formulate a preliminary research agenda and highlight previously overlooked relationships that could be explored to better understand how malicious uses of social media might shape such attitudes and to what effect….(More)”.

New privacy-protected Facebook data for independent research on social media’s impact on democracy


Chaya Nayak at Facebook: “In 2018, Facebook began an initiative to support independent academic research on social media’s role in elections and democracy. This first-of-its-kind project seeks to provide researchers access to privacy-preserving data sets in order to support research on these important topics.

Today, we are announcing that we have substantially increased the amount of data we’re providing to 60 academic researchers across 17 labs and 30 universities around the world. This release delivers on the commitment we made in July 2018 to share a data set that enables researchers to study information and misinformation on Facebook, while also ensuring that we protect the privacy of our users.

This new data release supplants data we released in the fall of 2019. That 2019 data set consisted of links that had been shared publicly on Facebook by at least 100 unique Facebook users. It included information about share counts, ratings by Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers, and user reporting on spam, hate speech, and false news associated with those links. We have expanded the data set to now include more than 38 million unique links with new aggregated information to help academic researchers analyze how many people saw these links on Facebook and how they interacted with that content – including views, clicks, shares, likes, and other reactions. We’ve also aggregated these shares by age, gender, country, and month. And, we have expanded the time frame covered by the data from January 2017 – February 2019 to January 2017 – August 2019.

With this data, researchers will be able to understand important aspects of how social media shapes our world. They’ll be able to make progress on the research questions they proposed, such as “how to characterize mainstream and non-mainstream online news sources in social media” and “studying polarization, misinformation, and manipulation across multiple platforms and the larger information ecosystem.”

In addition to the data set of URLs, researchers will continue to have access to CrowdTangle and Facebook’s Ad Library API to augment their analyses. Per the original plan for this project, outside of a limited review to ensure that no confidential or user data is inadvertently released, these researchers will be able to publish their findings without approval from Facebook.

We are sharing this data with researchers while continuing to prioritize the privacy of people who use our services. This new data set, like the data we released before it, is protected by a method known as differential privacy. Researchers have access to data tables from which they can learn about aggregated groups, but where they cannot identify any individual user. As Harvard University’s Privacy Tools project puts it:

“The guarantee of a differentially private algorithm is that its behavior hardly changes when a single individual joins or leaves the dataset — anything the algorithm might output on a database containing some individual’s information is almost as likely to have come from a database without that individual’s information. … This gives a formal guarantee that individual-level information about participants in the database is not leaked.” …(More)”