Self-Licking

Tech for narrative change; User-testing's limits; and the Afghanistan Papers; and much more.


This is civic tech: Here’s a useful summary of the state of “narrative tech” by Ted Fickes of the Narrative Initiative. They define narrative tech as “the tools, platforms, and infrastructure that can be used to assist and accelerate the shifting and/or maintenance of dominant narratives. This includes technologies that can baseline, listen to, test, and respond to media and online discourse at scale.”
 
Civic tech veteran Daniel X. O’Neil has written a new preface to the third edition of the Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) manual, and he doesn’t mince words about the state of things. He writes: “The systematic breaking of local laws by mobility companies to gain market share, the use of social media by foreign intelligence agencies to manipulate our election system, and the increase in surveillance products to deepen their store of data are accelerating trends of dehumanization in tech. These trends were all present in 2014 when the CUTGroup methodology was published, and long before then. I just have to admit that I wasn’t in tune with it. I wasn’t willing to accept it.” He goes on to argue that user-centered methods, while valuable, are “merely playing around the edges” of a tech industry that is focused on spreading “systems of mass dehumanization.” And he concludes: “If we the people aren’t a part of the major software that runs people’s lives, it’s not only useless but downright dangerous to think that the tender actions we take will make life substantially better for people.”
 
Another civic tech veteran, Jeff Warren, one of the co-founders of Public Lab, has announced that after nearly ten years he will be moving into a part-time role with the organization as lead code community organizer, in order to pursue other interests and collaborations.
 
Games for change: The good folks at DemLabs have launched a Kickstarter campaign for Dirty Tricks, an educational card game about voter suppression and other tactics that campaigns sometimes use to cheat their way into power. Looks like fun!
 
Apply: TICTeC 2020 (the annual Impacts of Civic Tech conference hosted by mySociety) has opened its call for proposals for this year’s gathering, which will be in Reykjavik March 24-25.
 
Life in Facebookistan: Fifty-two prominent advocacy groups working on LGBTQ rights are publicly attacking Facebook for putting people’s lives at risk by allowing the spread of misleading ads about anti-AIDS drugs, Tony Romm reports for The Washington Post. The personal injury lawyers paying for many of these ads claim that they are merely informing people about the risks in medication, but the advocacy groups say they are seeing declining usage of life-saving drugs like Truvada as a result. They want Facebook to force changes in the language and photos being used in the ads, but the company has so far refused to engage with them on the issue.
 
Tech and campaigns: Privacy activists in the UK are threatening legal action against all three major political parties as Thursday election approaches, claiming that they are processing their personal data illegally, Carole Cadwalladr reports for The Guardian.
 
Privacy, shmivacy: Gizmodo’s Dell Cameron and Dhruv Mehrotra have reverse engineered more than 65,000 posts shared on Ring’s Neighbors app, showing that it is possible to determine the precise location of thousands of Ring users. “There’s no question, if most people were followed around 24/7 by a police officer or a private investigator it would bother them and they would complain and seek a restraining order,” commented Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If the same is being done technologically, silently and invisibly, that’s basically the functional equivalent….What would J. Edgar Hoover have done with this kind of capability?” he asked.
 
RAICES, a Texas-based non-profit that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrant families and refugees, said on Thursday that it was removing the Ring devices from its offices in Texas. “Throw your Ring in the trash,” it tweeted.
 
Food for thought: Finally, an item about a topic that you may think has nothing to do with civic tech—but it has everything to do with civic responsibility. Afghanistan is America’s longest war, but not one that is talked about much, despite the fact that we have spent more than a trillion dollars there and suffered the loss of more than 6,000 soldiers and contractors. The Washington Post’s new blockbuster, called The Afghanistan Papers, ought to change that. Using the Freedom of Information Act to pry open the work of an internal government evaluation of the war effort, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), reporter Craig Whitlock details how three successive White House administrations lied to the public about its supposed progress, and how data and metrics were used to obscure the reality on the ground. For example, in 2009, President Obama declared, “Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.” In fact, “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said one Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.” Despite recurring presidential promises to avoid “nation-building” in Afghanistan, the US has spent more than $133 billion to build up Afghanistan, more than was spent, adjusted for inflation, on the Marshall Plan in Europe after WWII. Most of that aid fostered corruption, according to SIGAR, causing Afghans to sour on “democracy” and turn towards the Taliban to restore law and order. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has called on the Armed Services Committee to hold hearings on the Washington Post’s reporting. There are currently 13,000 US troops still in Afghanistan.

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