Dark Patterns and Data Mobs

Tricky sites unmasked; who's winning the house party race; and much more


  • This is civic tech: A team of researchers at Princeton University led by Arunesh Mathur, a doctoral student, have released the first study of its kind to document how commercial websites use “dark patterns” to manipulate users into doing things they might not otherwise choose to do, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries reports for The New York Times. They found that 11.2% of a sample of 10,000 e-commerce sites are guilty of the practice.

  • Here’s a list of “TrickySites,” based on the Princeton report, built by a team led by Nathan Matias. It ties each pattern of trickiness, like “Low-Stock Notification” (which pressures shoppers with claims that inventory is low) or “ConfirmShaming” (steering shoppers to certain choices using shame and guilt) to sites that use it. Some of the name-brand retails sites you’ll find on the list: Walmart, Nordstrom, and Samsung.

  • Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation is out with a new report written by Lorelei Kelly called Modernizing Congress, which focuses on ways to accelerate the progress being made improving the institution’s technological capacity. She focuses on how “civic voice” reaches Congress, noting that today it “often looks like an unstructured data mob,” but argues that “As Congress moves into the future, it will have the option to structure this input for use inside the legislative and deliberative workflow.”

  • Sean MacDonald, whose idea for “data trusts” made it into Sidewalk Labs’ “Master Innovation and Development Plan” (MIDP) for its Quayside project in Toronto, takes to Medium to write that Sidewalk’s “proposal is among the shortest, least developed, and virtually unchanged parts of the MIDP. In and of itself, that’s a fairly bleak indication of how seriously Sidewalk Labs takes privacy, digital fairness, and data governance in Quayside. Substantively, their data governance proposal is more of a workflow for granting licenses to collect data without public consent, than a credible steward of the public’s interest amidst a massive increase in surveillance.”

  • Civic Hall senior researcher Matt Stempeck spoke recently at the Civic Tech Toronto Meetup, sharing the story of the Civic Tech Field Guide. Here’s the video of his talk; don’t mind the foggy focus!

  • Tech and politics: Facebook and Twitter say they are taking extra steps to battle disinformation online as the first Democratic presidential debates get underway, Cat Zakrzewski reports for The Washington Post.

  • Facebook announced that it is expanding its transparency tools for ads about social issues, elections or politics to more countries, starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina.

  • Reddit has “quarantined” the subreddit called “The_Donald,” one of the most trafficked pro-Trump sites on the web, for months of allowing or encouraging “rule-breaking behavior” including the “encouragement of violence toward police officers,” Drew Harrell and Craig Timberg report for The Washington Post. The action demotes the forum, restricting how its content appears across Reddit and blocking it from appearing in searches or recommendations.

  • Nathan Woodhull of ControlShift shares some fresh work his team is doing developing a work-flow to help groups do the most with distributed organizing.

  • Speaking of distributed organizing, the folks at Acronym (which builds digital infrastructure for progressives), manually counted up the number of watch parties nine of the leading Democratic candidates had in place ahead of last night and today’s presidential debates. The top four: Bernie Sanders with 850+, Elizabeth Warren with 570+, Pete Buttigieg with 270+ and Joe Biden with 170.

  • Food for thought: In the attention economy, the most emotionally gripping spectacles tend to win, and as Nathan Heller reports for The New Yorker, the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe has become a kind of “wishing well” for people in need—but only the people with the best storytelling skills win.

  • Internet of Shit: A programmer has created a “deep fake” software called “DeepNude” which only works on images of women, Samantha Cole reports for Motherboard. “This is absolutely terrifying,” Katelyn Bowden, founder and CEO of revenge porn activism organization Badass, told Motherboard. “Now anyone could find themselves a victim of revenge porn, without ever having taken a nude photo. This tech should not be available to the public.”

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