Disinformation and Civic Tech Research

Code for All Playbook: “”The Disinformation and Civic Tech Playbook is a tool for people who are interested in understanding how civic tech can help confront disinformation. This guide will help you successfully advocate for, and implement disinfo-fighting tools, programs, and campaigns from partners around the world.

In order to effectively fight misinformation at a societal scale, three stages of work must be completed in sequential order:

  1. Monitor or research media environment (traditional, social, and/or messaging apps) for misinformation
  2. Verify and/or debunk
  3. Reach people with the truth and counter-message falsehoods

These stages ascend from least impactful to most impactful activity.

Researching misinformation in the media environment has no effect whatsoever on its own. Verifying and debunking falsehoods have limited utility unless stage three is also achieved: successfully reaching communities with true information in a way that gets through to them, and effectively counter-messaging the misinformation that spreads so easily.

Unfortunately, the distribution of misinformation management projects to date seems to be the exact inverse of these stages. There has been an enormous amount of work to passively monitor and research media environments for misinformation. There is also a large amount of energy and resources dedicated to verifying and debunking misinformation through traditional fact-checking approaches. Whether because it’s the hardest one to solve or just third in the consecutive sequence, relatively few misinformation management projects have made it to the final stage of genuinely getting through to people and experimenting with effective counter-messaging and counter-engagement (see The Sentinel Project interview for further discussion)…(More)”.

The Secret Solution To Increasing Resident Trust

Report by CivicPlus: “We surveyed over 16,000 Americans to determine what factors most impacted community members in fostering feelings of trust in their local government. We found that residents in communities with digital resident self-service technology are more satisfied with their local government than residents still dependent on analog interactions to obtain government services. Residents in technology-forward communities also tend to be more engaged civic participants…(More)”.

Interoperability Can Save the Open Web

Interview by Michael Nolan: “In his new book The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, author Cory Doctorow presents a strong case for disrupting Big Tech. While the dominance of Internet platforms like TwitterFacebook, Instagram, or Amazon is often taken for granted, Doctorow argues that these walled gardens are fenced in by legal structures, not feats of engineering. Doctorow proposes forcing interoperability—any given platform’s ability to interact with another—as a way to break down those walls and to make the Internet freer and more democratic….

Doctorow: At its root, it’s just the ability to use one thing with something else. Use any ink in your printer with any paper, use any socks with your shoes, anyone’s gasoline in your car, put any lightbulb in your light socket. There’s voluntary, mandatory interoperability, where a group of stakeholders get together and they say, “This is the goal we want all of our products to achieve, and we are going to design a framework so that we can make sure that every lightbulb lights up when you stick it in a light socket.” Then there’s the stuff where they’re indifferent: Car companies don’t stop you from putting a little cigarette-lighter-to-USB adapter into your car.

Companies can grow very quickly because tech has got these great network effects, but they also have, because of interoperability, really low switching costs.—Cory Doctorow

Then there’s the third kind of interop, the kind of chewy, interesting, lots-of-rich-Internet-history interop, which is adversarial interoperability, which in the book we call “comcom,” short for competitive compatibility. It’s the interop that’s done against the wishes of the original equipment manufacturer: scraping, reverse engineering, bots, all of that gnarly stuff done in the face of active hostility. This would be like Apple reverse-engineering Microsoft Office and making the iWork suite—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—so that anyone with a Mac could read any Windows-based office file without having to buy any software from Microsoft.

There are so many examples of this from technology’s history. It’s really the engine of technology…(More)”. 

Reimagining Our High-Tech World

Essay by Mike Kubzansky: “…Channeling the power of technology for the good of society requires a shared vision of an ideal society. Despite the country’s increasing polarization, most Americans agree on the principles of a representative democracy and embrace the three quintessential rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom and individual liberty, including freedom of speech, religion, and assembly and the right to privacy, are fundamental to most people’s expectations for this country, as are equality for all citizens, a just legal system, and a strong economy. Widespread consensus also exists around giving children a strong start in life; ensuring access to basic necessities like health care, food, and housing; and taking care of the planet.

By deliberately building a digital tech system guided by these values, society has an opportunity to advance its interests and future-proof the digital tech system for better outcomes.

Such collective action requires a broad conversation about what kind of society Americans want and how digital technology fits into that vision. To initiate this discussion, I suggest five questions philanthropists, technologists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, academics, advocates, movement leaders, students, consumers, investors, and everyone else who has a stake in the nation’s future need to start asking—now….(More)”.

Supporting Safer Digital Spaces

Report by Suzie Dunn, Tracy Vaillancourt and Heather Brittain: “Various forms of digital technology are being used to inflict significant harms online. This is a pervasive issue in online interactions, in particular with regard to technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) and technology-facilitated violence (TFV) against LGBTQ+ people. This modern form of violence perpetuates gender inequality and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and has significant impacts on its targets.

As part of a multi-year research project Supporting a Safer Internet (in partnership with the International Development Research Centre) exploring the prevalence and impacts of TFGBV experienced by women, transgender, gender non-conforming and gender-diverse people, as well as TFV against LGBTQ+ individuals, an international survey was conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). The survey examined the influence of gender and sexual orientation on people’s experiences with online harms, with a focus on countries in the Global South. Data was collected from 18,149 people of all genders in 18 countries.

The special report provides background information on TFGBV and TFV against LGBTQ+ people by summarizing some of the existing research on the topic. It then presents the quantitative data collected on people’s experiences with, and opinions on, online harms. A list of recommendations is provided for governments, technology companies, academics, researchers and civil society organizations on how they can contribute to addressing and ending TFV…(More)”

(Read the Supporting Safer Digital Spaces: Highlights here.; Read the French translation of the Highlights here.)

Digital Freedoms in French-Speaking African Countries

Report by AFD: “As digital penetration increases in countries across the African continent, its citizens face growing risks and challenges. Indeed, beyond facilitated access to knowledge such as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to leisure-related tools such as Youtube, and to sociability such as social networks, digital technology offers an unprecedented space for democratic expression. 

However, these online civic spaces are under threat. Several governments have enacted vaguely-defined laws, allowing for random arrests.

Several countries have implemented repressive practices restricting freedom of expression and access to information. This is what is known as “digital authoritarianism”, which is on the rise in many countries.

This report takes stock of digital freedoms in 26 French-speaking African countries, and proposes concrete actions to improve citizen participation and democracy…(More)”

Elon Musk Has Broken Disaster-Response Twitter

Article by Juliette Kayyem: “For years, Twitter was at its best when bad things happened. Before Elon Musk bought it last fall, before it was overrun with scammy ads, before it amplified fake personas, and before its engineers were told to get more eyeballs on the owner’s tweets, Twitter was useful in saving lives during natural disasters and man-made crises. Emergency-management officials have used the platform to relate timely information to the public—when to evacuate during Hurricane Ian, in 2022; when to hide from a gunman during the Michigan State University shootings earlier this month—while simultaneously allowing members of the public to transmit real-time data. The platform didn’t just provide a valuable communications service; it changed the way emergency management functions.

That’s why Musk-era Twitter alarms so many people in my field. The platform has been downgraded in multiple ways: Service is glitchier; efforts to contain misleading information are patchier; the person at the top seems largely dismissive of outside input. But now that the platform has embedded itself so deeply in the disaster-response world, it’s difficult to replace. The rapidly deteriorating situation raises questions about platforms’ obligation to society—questions that prickly tech execs generally don’t want to consider…(More)”

Technology over the long run: zoom out to see how dramatically the world can change within a lifetime

Article by Max Roser: “The big visualization offers a long-term perspective on the history of technology.

The timeline begins at the center of the spiral. The first use of stone tools, 3.4 million years ago, marks the beginning of this history of technology. Each turn of the spiral then represents 200,000 years of history. It took 2.4 million years – 12 turns of the spiral – for our ancestors to control fire and use it for cooking.3

To be able to visualize the inventions in the more recent past – the last 12,000 years – I had to unroll the spiral. I needed more space to be able to show when agriculture, writing, and the wheel were invented. During this period, technological change was faster, but it was still relatively slow: several thousand years passed between each of these three inventions.

From 1800 onwards, I stretched out the timeline even further to show the many major inventions that rapidly followed one after the other. 

The long-term perspective that this chart provides makes it clear just how unusually fast technological change is in our time. 

You can use this visualization to see how technology developed in particular domains. Follow, for example, the history of communication: from writing, to paper, to the printing press, to the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, all the way to the Internet and smartphones.

Or follow the rapid development of human flight. In 1903, the Wright brothers took the first flight in human history (they were in the air for less than a minute), and just 66 years later, we landed on the moon. Many people saw both within their lifetimes: the first plane and the moon landing.

This large visualization also highlights the wide range of technology’s impact on our lives. It includes extraordinarily beneficial innovations, such as the vaccine that allowed humanity to eradicate smallpox, and it includes terrible innovations, like the nuclear bombs that endanger the lives of all of us.

What will the next decades bring? 

The red timeline reaches up to the present and then continues in green into the future. Many children born today, even without any further increases in life expectancy, will live well into the 22nd century. 

New vaccines, progress in clean, low-carbon energy, better cancer treatments – a range of future innovations could very much improve our living conditions and the environment around us. But, as I argue in a series of articles, there is one technology that could even more profoundly change our world: artificial intelligence (AI).

One reason why artificial intelligence is such an important innovation is that intelligence is the main driver of innovation itself. This fast-paced technological change could speed up even more if it’s not only driven by humanity’s intelligence, but artificial intelligence too. If this happens, the change that is currently stretched out over the course of decades might happen within very brief time spans of just a year. Possibly even faster.

I think AI technology could have a fundamentally transformative impact on our world. In many ways, it is already changing our world, as I documented in this companion article. As this technology is becoming more capable in the years and decades to come, it can give immense power to those who control it (and it poses the risk that it could escape our control entirely).

Such systems might seem hard to imagine today, but AI technology is advancing very fast. Many AI experts believe there is a real chance that human-level artificial intelligence will be developed within the next decades, as I documented in this article….(More)”.

Longterm timeline of technology
A long-term timeline of technology

Semantic Media: Mapping Meaning on the Internet

Book by Andrew Iliadis: “Media technologies now provide facts, answers, and “knowledge” to people – search engines, apps, and virtual assistants increasingly articulate responses rather than direct people to other sources. 

 Semantic Media is about this emerging era of meaning-making technologies. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft organize information in new media products that seek to “intuitively” grasp what people want to know and the actions they want to take. This book describes some of the insidious technological practices through which organizations achieve this while addressing the changing contexts of internet searches, and examines the social and political consequences of what happens when large companies become primary sources of information…(More)”.

Universal Access and Its Asymmetries

Book by Harmeet Sawhney and Hamid R. Ekbia: “Universal access—the idea that certain technologies and services should be extended to all regardless of geography or ability to pay—evokes ideals of democracy and equality that must be reconciled with the realities on the ground. The COVID-19 pandemic raised awareness of the need for access to high-speed internet service in the United States, but this is just the latest in a long history of debates about what should be made available and to whom. Rural mail delivery, electrification, telephone service, public schooling, and library access each raised the same questions as today’s debates about health care and broadband. What types of services should be universally available? Who benefits from extending these services? And who bears the cost?

Stepping beyond humanitarian arguments to conduct a clear-eyed, diagnostic analysis, this book offers some surprising conclusions. While the conventional approach to universal access looks primarily at the costs to the system and the benefits to individuals, Harmeet Sawhney and Hamid Ekbia provide a holistic perspective that also accounts for costs to individuals and benefits for systems. With a comparative approach across multiple cases, Universal Access and Its Asymmetries is an essential exploration of the history, costs, and benefits of providing universal access to technologies and services. With a fresh perspective, it overturns common assumptions and offers a foundation for making decisions about how to extend service—and how to pay for it…(More)”.