Scowling Down

New resources on media & democracy; Zuck bucked; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Say hello to MediaWell, a new hub for “live research from the digital edges of democracy,” curated by the Social Science Research Council.
  • A new study from UCLA has found that on Election Day 2016, voters in predominantly black neighborhoods waited to vote 29% longer, on average, than those in predominantly white neighborhoods, Daniel Garisto reports for Scientific American. Researchers matched anonymous location data from 10 million smartphones to 93,000 polling places. They also found that voters in predominantly black neighborhoods were about 74% more likely to wait a half-hour or more to vote. A 2014 report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration set forth a standard that “No citizen should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.” There are multiple reasons for long lines, but one stands out—voter ID laws requiring voters without ID to fill out provisional ballots.
  • Apply: California is looking for people who want to be part of a team reimagining the state’s CA.gov website.
  • Apply: The Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, in partnership with Wired magazine, is seeking applications for its inaugural Tech Spotlight awards, seeking to recognize “products, initiatives, and policies that embrace principles such as privacy, security, safety, transparency, accountability, and inclusion—and that aim to minimize technological harms.”
  • Life in Facebookistan: Yesterday, the president of Facebookistan appeared before a congressional panel of one of the largest provinces in his empire and things did not go well for him. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) questioned Mark Zuckerberg very effectively about the contradictions in his approach to political speech. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) did an equally strong job questioning Zuckerberg about his company’s civil rights practices. And here’s Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) failing to get Zuckerberg to say if a political candidate who was a member of the American Nazi Party would be allowed to spread hate speech on his platform.
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t do much better handling some unusually tough questions from Katie Couric at the annual Vanity Fair New Establishment summit, as Variety’s Matt Donnelly reports.
  • Sarah Emerson reports for Motherboard on “The Facebook Unit,” a privately funded branch of the Menlo Park police force. The police have acknowledged misgivings about the arrangement, noting that “to have a company fund a public entity, specifically law enforcement, can draw skepticism with concerns of preferential treatment.” Meanwhile, residents of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven, two poor communities abutting Facebook’s campus, have been chafing over “growing concerns that police were targeting young people of color for riding Facebook’s bicycles,” Emerson reports.
  • Brave new world: Top corporations like Hilton, Unilever, and Goldman Sachs have begun using an AI hiring system to screen potential employees, Drew Harwell reports for The Washington Post. “Designed by the recruiting-technology firm HireVue,” he writes, “the system uses candidates’ computer or cellphone cameras to analyze their facial movements, word choice and speaking voice before ranking them against other applicants based on an automatically generated ‘employability’ score…. After a new candidate takes the HireVue test, the system generates a report card on their ‘competencies and behaviors,’ including their ‘willingness to learn,’ ‘conscientiousness & responsibility’ and ‘personal stability, the latter of which is defined by how well they can cope with irritable customers or co-workers.’” Some AI critics, like Meredith Whitaker of AI Now Institute, called HireVue’s system “pseudoscience…[and] a license to discriminate” but Unilever’s chief human relations office say the system had boosted the company’s “diversity hires” by 16%.
  • Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist who studies emotion, told Harwell she was “strongly skeptical” that HireVue’s system can actually make accurate judgments about human emotions. “Look at scowling, Barrett said: A computer might see a person’s frown and furrowed brow and assume they’re easily angered — a red flag for someone seeking a sales associate job. But people scowl all the time, she said, ‘when they’re not angry: when they’re concentrating really hard when they’re confused when they have gas.’” Indeed, I am scowling right now, and please do not take that the wrong way.
  • What sharing economy? Conservative writer Jonathan Last writes for The Bulwark that what is happening at WeWork, where the company’s founder is getting a huge payout to leave while 2,000 workers are laid off without severance, “is why people are open to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.”

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