Ten Years After

Lessons From a Decade in Civic Tech; Why Facebook Shouldn't Ban Political Ads and more.


  • This is civic tech: Our friends at Digital Democracy, which is celebrating its tenth year doing vital work with indigenous communities in the Global South, have started publishing a series of pieces reflecting on what they’ve learned about using tech for good. Start with Dd co-founder Emily Jacobi sharing her 10 lessons and then turn to her colleague Karissa McKelvey on local-first software for frontline communities.
  • Speaking of ten year anniversaries, congrats to Sara Holoubek, who founded Luminary Labs a decade ago and who recounts some of the key moments in its development here.
  • Three academics—J. Nathan Matias, Kevin Munger, and Marianne Aubin Le Quere—have announced the Upworthy Research Archive, a dataset of 32,487 A/B tests conducted by Upworthy from January 2013 to April 2015, built-in partnership with Good and Upworthy. When released, they believe it will be the largest collection of randomized behavioral studies available for research and educational purposes. To join in, you have to fill out this form explaining your ideas for studying the dataset. You won’t believe what happens next!
  • The UK Parliament has sent out 30,000 invitations at random to citizens inviting them to join the Climate Assembly UK, which will run over four weekends early next year and provide recommendations to the House of Commons. 
  • The Knight Foundation has awarded $3.5 million to 22 universities, think tanks and advocacy organizations focused on issues in internet governance.
  • Attend: The annual Platform Cooperativism conference is happening this Thursday through Saturday here in NYC at the New School, and it only costs $5 to attend to hear great speakers like Trebor Scholz (its founder and curator), Astra Taylor, Anand Giriharadas, NYC Deputy Mayor Philip Thompson, Juliet Schor and many more. 
  • Attend: The good folks at First Draft are doing a state-of-the-art “disinformation emergency” training next Monday at Temple University in Philadelphia.
  • Apply: Here’s a slew of interesting civic/tech jobs posted by participants in last week’s National Conference on Citizenship. 
  • Listen: Our friend Seth Godin makes a really important point on his Akimbo podcast titled “Bill Gates Has a Problem.” The problem is that while he has pledged to give away at least half his fortune, he’s making money far faster than he’s giving it away, meaning that it will take an infinity before he fulfills his pledge. And this, Godin notes, is true for other billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge. Yet another argument for raising taxes on the super-rich? (h/t Sanda Balaban)
  • Life in Facebookistan: In the wake of Twitter’s decision to stop running political ads worldwide, a lot of people have rushed to argue that Facebook should do the same. My view is that would be a mistake. Either Facebook should treat political ads the same way it treats nonpolitical ads and throttle or take down those that get reported as fraudulent and then judged by third-party fact-checkers as false, or as experts like Siva Vaidhyanathan argue, it should stop offering the ability to micro-target ads to anything smaller than a congressional district. As he writes, “

If the same political ads were to reach everyone in a state, district or even country, they would not just appeal to marginal constituencies, might not tend toward extremism, and could not get away with lies quite so easily. Journalists, citizens and political opponents would see the same ads and could respond to them. A reason to be concerned about false claims in ads is that Facebook affords us so little opportunity to respond to ads not aimed at us personally. This proposal would limit that problem.

  • This is why we don’t expect broadcasters to vet TV ads for their truthfulness—the ads are highly visible and can’t be microtargeted to individual viewers.
  • Former CIA officer, White House adviser and (briefly) Facebook’s head of global election integrity Yael Eisenstat writes an oped for the Washington Post that makes a similar point about the need to scale back Facebook’s microtargeting tools, and then explains why company COO Sheryl Sandberg‘s defense of the company’s vaunted political ad archive isn’t worth much. She writes, “… true transparency would include information about the tools that differentiate advertising on Facebook from traditional print and television, and in fact make it more dangerous: Can I see if a political advertiser used the custom audience tool and if so, if my email address was uploaded? Can I see what look-alike audience advertisers are seeking? Can I see a true, verified name of the advertiser in the disclaimer? Can I see if and how your algorithms amplified the ad? If not, the claim that Facebook is simply providing a level playing field for free expression is a myth.”
  • Tara McGowan, the founder of ACRONYM, a new Democratic powerhouse for digital marketing and strategy, argues on Medium that if Facebook instituted a blanket ban on political advertising, it could “hand Trump the election.” Why? Because she says, eliminating political ads won’t stop the spread of misinformation, which spreads organically through people’s own sharing; because the Trump campaign has a much larger organic Facebook community of 26 million followers (five times as many as Bernie Sanders); and because Democrats rely on Facebook for grassroots fundraising.
  • Related: ACRONYM has just unveiled its plans to spend $75 million on digital advertising aimed at countering Trump’s early advantage in 2020 battleground states, Shane Goldmacher reports for The New York Times. The effort will feature advertisements across multiple digital platforms, including Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Hulu, and Pandora.
  • As Steven Overly reports for Politico, Google is starting to get scrutiny for how it handles misleading political ads on its platforms.
  • Tech and politics: The New York Times’ Mike McIntire, Karen Yourish and Larry Buchanan did a deep dive into all 11,000 of President Donald Trump’s tweets, but the most important findings from the resulting story may not be the content that he creates and shares, but the effect on him of spending hours a day awash in an often toxic torrent that sluices into his Twitter account — roughly 1,000 tweets per minute, many intended for his eyes. Tweets that tag his handle, @realDonaldTrump, can be found with hashtags like #HitlerDidNothingWrong, #IslamIsSatanism, and #WhiteGenocide. While filters can block offensive material, the president clearly sees some of it, because he dips into the frothing currents and serves up noxious bits to the rest of the world.”
  • GitHub has removed the code for an innovative protest-organizing app called Tsunami Democratic, after Spain’s national police force, went to court to make a takedown request to Microsoft, TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas reports. The Spanish police claim that the app is helping a “criminal organization driving people to commit terrorist attacks,” that charge is clearly overblown.
  • Privacy, shmivacy: Kashmir Hill explains in the New York Times how to get your “secret” consumer score from some of the companies tracking you. 
  • End times: China tech researcher Matthew Brennan shares a short video of a facial recognition system that aims to discourage minor traffic violations. “Cross the road when you shouldn’t and a picture of you with your name, ID card number pop up on the big screen for everyone to see.” Lovely.

 
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