Brobilization

How digital technologies went from helpful to harmful, TechCongress looking for congressional innovation fellows, & more


  • This is civic tech: Here’s a great profile of the origins and work of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (aka PublicLab), written by Emmalina Glinskis for The Nation. (Disclosure: I serve on Public Lab’s board.)

  • Environmental crusader is using Countable’s new action center feature to organize her supporters in her fight against Pacific Gas & Election, Hannah Norman reports for the San Francisco Business Times.

  • Writing for Apolitical, Renata Avila of the Web Foundation and Ciudadano Inteligente warns that as more of politics takes place online, people who aren’t online are being left out of democracy.

  • Apply: TechCongress is looking for its fourth class of congressional innovation fellows, with applications due by September 9. It’s also offering a diversity referral award, following the lead of groups like the Kapor Center, and will pay $500 to anyone who nominates a candidate from an underrepresented community who applies and is accepted into the program.

  • Tech and politics: Internet deep diver Andrew Kacynski, who made a name for himself well before being hired by CNN for his ability to unearth embarrassing or discrediting information about public figures buried all over the web, is profiled by Paul Farhi of The Washington Post.

  • In California, where voting machines aren’t connected to the Internet but voter registration rolls are, state officials are on guard against potential hacking of this year’s election, George Skelton reports for The Los Angeles Times.

  • Google has added a new section to its Transparency Report, exposing more information about political advertising on its platform, showing how much money is being spent across states and congressional districts and by top keywords.

  • Life in Facebookistan: In Myanmar, Facebook is trying to tamp down on deadly hate speech aimed at the country’s Rohingya minority, but as Steve Stecklow reports in a special investigation for Reuters, it’s not hard to find anti-Rohingya poison on the site, with some posts as old as six years. “Even now,” he reports, “Facebook doesn’t have a single employee in the country of some 50 million people” and it has no plans to hire anyone local. As of June, a content monitoring effort outsourced to Accenture had about 60 people reviewing reports of hate speech posted by the country’s 18 million Facebook users. The company was warned by researchers and civil society groups going back to 2013, but as its director of Asia Pacific policy, Mia Garlick, admitted to Reuters, “We were too slow to respond to the concerns raised by civil society, academics and other groups in Myanmar.” David Madden, the founder of civic tech hub Phandeeyar in Yangon, tried to convince company officials to take action many times, but comments, “The central problem is that the mechanisms that they have to pull down hate speech in a timely way, before it does real world harm, they don’t work.” It’s worth noting that Myanmar was one of several countries where Facebook Zero, also known as Internet.org, the company’s self-interested effort to hook users by bundling it for free with a mobile providers, was heavily promoted.

  • Twitter is considering adding new features to promote alternative viewpoints in user timelines and also labeling bot accounts, CEO Jack Dorsey tells Tony Room and Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post.

  • More than 50,000 Twitter users have joined with Grab Your Wallet founder Shannon Coulter in installing a custom block list she built of nearly 500 companies that advertise on Twitter, in order to pressure the company into fully dropping racist conspiracy mongerer Alex Jones.

  • Important reminder from NYTimes tech reporter John Herrman: “It is not a given that a centrally run social platform can nurture healthy communities, even if vibrant, powerful and empowering communities have, against the odds, found one another there.”

  • Must-read: Our friend Zeynep Tufekci on how digital technologies went from being instruments for spreading democracy to weapons for attacking it, in MIT’s Technology Review. Among her insights:

    First, the weakening of old-style information gatekeepers (such as media, NGOs, and government and academic institutions), while empowering the underdogs, has also, in another way, deeply disempowered underdogs. Dissidents can more easily circumvent censorship, but the public sphere they can now reach is often too noisy and confusing for them to have an impact. Those hoping to make positive social change have to convince people both that something in the world needs changing and there is a constructive, reasonable way to change it. Authoritarians and extremists, on the other hand, often merely have to muddy the waters and weaken trust in general so that everyone is too fractured and paralyzed to act. The old gatekeepers blocked some truth and dissent, but they blocked many forms of misinformation too.

    Second, the new, algorithmic gatekeepers aren’t merely (as they like to believe) neutral conduits for both truth and falsehood. They make their money by keeping people on their sites and apps; that aligns their incentives closely with those who stoke outrage, spread misinformation, and appeal to people’s existing biases and preferences. Old gatekeepers failed in many ways, and no doubt that failure helped fuel mistrust and doubt; but the new gatekeepers succeed by fueling mistrust and doubt, as long as the clicks keep coming.

    Third, the loss of gatekeepers has been especially severe in local journalism. While some big US media outlets have managed (so far) to survive the upheaval wrought by the internet, this upending has almost completely broken local newspapers, and it has hurt the industry in many other countries. That has opened fertile ground for misinformation.

  • What sharing economy? Let’s all learn a new word: to “brobilize.” That’s what Caroline O’Donovan of BuzzFeed News calls the the phenomenon of tech companies using their platforms to mobilize their users to lobby on their behalf, which scooter company Bird is doing right now to try to fend off municipal regulation. Here in NYC, we remember well how Uber brobilized their customers to oppose Bill de Blasio‘s early attempt to cap their growth, with a special tab on their app attacking the mayor. Bonus to the story: Civic Hall researcher Matt Stempeck, an expert on the topic, gets the closing quote.

  • End times, Brexit-style.