How did the internet become a tangled web of misinformation? Miles speaks to danah boyd, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, founder of Data & Society, and Visiting Professor at New York University. boyd offers insight into the history of misinformation on the internet and the role of social media plays in the proliferation of fake news. It’s an interview we did for our upcoming series on “junk news” for the PBS NewsHour.
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Miles O’Brien: Hello and welcome to another edition of Miles To Go, I’m Miles O’Brien.
Producer Cameron Hickey and I have been hard at work for more than a year on an ambitious project for the PBS NewsHour. We have been walking through the house of mirrors that is the world of online misinformation–fake news, if you will.
The series will air soon on the broadcast and I’ve been sharing with you some of my favorite interviews as I’ve been doing the writing.
On this episode we’re going to hear from danah boyd. She is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the founder of Data & Society. She’s also a Visiting Professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.
Her research examines the intersection between technology and society.
We sat down in her office in New York City and she gave me a fascinating look at the roots of online misinformation…
danah boyd: In 2008, a group of young people were really frustrated with Oprah Winfrey. They thought it was ridiculous that she was spending so much of her time focused on online predators and they decided to mess with her. So, they took to her online fora and they decided that they would get her to obsess over a new threat to children everywhere. A group of people who came together under the rubric of a teddy bear known as, “Pedobear”, as the ultimate form of pedophilia online.
And they got her to talk obsessively on national TV about how this online group that had all these people coming together and that they were over 9,000 penises gathering to rape our children. And she literally says this on national TV. The internet erupted in pure laughter. They had been looking at ways of trying to hack the attention economy just because it was fun. My cohort was interested in hacking the security apparatus, because we could. They wanted to find a way where they could mess with the media landscape to prove that they had control over language, that they could shape the public discourse. Because mostly, they were teenagers and they were frustrated with all these people telling them that they had no power and they found a way to have power.
Miles O’Brien: I’m sorry, I didn’t know this story. Tell me about this Oprah story. I didn’t know this story. Tell me about this story a little more.
danah boyd: The Attorneys General of the U.S. were fighting MySpace as a major threat to children. Conversations about sexual predation were all throughout the news, parents were panicking, they were trying to tell their kids that they shouldn’t be online for fear that they may be abducted or harmed or raped by these strangers off in the wind. And young people understood what the risks were online. They thought this was absurd and they thought that this fantastical imagination of pedophilia was so disconnected from the realities of abuse that they saw and they saw Oprah is the person who was leading the charge and getting parents all anxious. And so, this was a teenage-driven messing with the media just because they could. This wasn’t the only one though, right?
Time Magazine arrogantly said that, “It could tell you the most popular and important people in the world.” They would print the 100 most important people. And it was on online poll. That’s a terrible idea. So, what did people do? They’re like, “Okay, we can game this.” Right? And they started messing with it, trying to shape what was on the list and Time Magazine arrogantly came back and said, “We see you. You will not be able to win at this. We are going to make ourselves bulletproof to all of your manipulation.” And they printed the list and down with the first letter of each word down the list had “Marblecake, also the game.” Totally an in-joke within these communities, because they hadn’t just shaped the list, they had shaped every aspect of the list. The order, the names, and they had managed to get past the media who thought themselves to be smarter than these online fora.
Miles O’Brien: What is Marblecake.
danah boyd: You don’t wanna look that one up.
Miles O’Brien: Okay. So, you’re making the point that these are young people who felt powerless and disenfranchised and they’re mocking–
danah boyd: All right, let’s go fast forward.
Miles O’Brien: Mocking the establishment, that’s as old as —
danah boyd: Forever.
Miles O’Brien: Time immemorial, right?
danah boyd: So let’s go forward, right? This is where social media marketing. Entire businesses got created to figure out how to shape the media conversation as a way of getting advertising and marketing out to the public. And so, you saw a lot of people skilling up around all these issues. This is the corner of a lot of political campaign advertising. We saw political actions start to unfold, which is to say everything from Occupy Wall Street to WikiLeaks and Anonymous to questions of Black Lives Matter, all knowing how to shape conversations online. What was notable is that each of these campaigns, people learned. People became more sophisticated.
They found new ways to route around whatever the new technologies were. They knew how to Google bomb in order to shape what was going to be popular when you did specific searches. And you fast forward a bit when things start to get much more serious. And I would argue that the turning point is an incident known as, “GamerGate.”
GamerGate is a point in time where a series of horrible interpersonal dynamics blew up into an intense conversation about the role of women in online gaming. And the radical extremes were for some people, it was a question of ethics in gaming journalism and for other people, it was a question of harassments or other forms of serious abuse. And this whole thing erupted across social media, where it became hard to tell what was real. And what we saw unfold during GamerGate was a strategic use of irony and ambiguity.
You couldn’t tell if something was a joke or if it was a real attack. If something was egregious racism or anti-Semitism, or if it was just kidding. And that kind of slipperiness was very strategically mobilized and weaponized during this period. And a lot of us who were online, were sitting there going, “Whoa! This is not a pretty turn. What is the implication of this?” But for most people in the public, it was about gaming and they didn’t have any understanding of what the implications would be in fast forward.
So, here we are in 2016 and the same networks of people, who were trying to hack the attention economy for fun, who were trying to use it as a tool to go after other people, who were engaged in conspiracy theories, who had some radically extreme viewpoints on race and gender. They were all in an environment together, a melting pot, if you will. And with a whole set of really powerful skills, when they saw a reality TV star start to run for president and that’s pretty funny, that’s pretty interesting.
And so, it was fun to create spectacle. It was fun to just make him the center of attention in every online fora, because it was ridiculous that he was running, at least, from their point of view.
By the summer of 2016, there were a lot of other actors involved, people with much greater agendas, people with a lot more money, people who are much more sophisticated at using these tools. And because many of these online fora are completely anonymous, it’s difficult to tell who all was there and who all was pulling what strings. Because what you see in these online environments is that a spark gets lit and it either fades out, goes away or a bunch of people jump in and they say, “Hey, let’s run this as a campaign.” And those campaigns can get very sophisticated.
Miles O’Brien: So, we’ve gone from teenagers making fun of Oprah somewhere through Estonia to Moscow or some route like that.
The big players, the state actors, the well-funded ones were taking notes off the teenagers, is that how it happened?
danah boyd: Yeah, everyone was paying attention with the teenagers. Every state out there was paying attention to them. The U.S. was paying attention, foreign states were paying attention. We’ve all had different ways of using information as part of our political agendas, every state has. United States has made it such that we go out and try to sell the story of America around the world and we’ve done that for decades.
What’s notable about Russia, and one of the reasons why Russia is something so many people are paying attention to, is that their strategy has long been to make it so that people don’t trust the information landscape, to make people doubt everything that they see. what’s powerful when you live in a highly saturated media landscape is that you can mess with people’s perception not by affecting each story or using a story as a traditional propaganda message. But, by making it so much that you’re not sure what is real. And when you start to distrust the media landscape and you look around to self-investigate and content has been set up for you to find different frames, alternative frames, they suddenly become appealing.
Miles O’Brien: So in your landscape of distrust, you find things that match your world view and off you go, is that it?
danah boyd: Or, you’re open to start questioning things in a new way.
So, take, for example, a nonpolitical topic. Every time the CDC puts out a report that there is no correlation between autism and vaccination, more of the public believes that there is a correlation. Why? Well, first, a large number of people don’t trust the media landscape. It doesn’t matter which entity we’re talking about. So, they go online and they start searching autism vaccination. There’s a lot of content about autism vaccination that tell supposedly both sides of the story. A lot of that content leads you to then start asking questions.
And when you start asking questions, you build a frame of doubt in your mind that maybe the information you have about vaccination is not true. So, you have to look deeper. And as you start to see this material, you start to get information that tells you not that vaccination is inherently bad, but that it’s not well-studied, it’s not well-investigated and you should doubt it because of course, you are a critical thinker, right? And a good critical thinker asks questions.
So, why don’t you go to your doctors and ask questions? And people turn to their doctors to ask questions. And the doctors don’t know how to convince people about information, when it’s about evidence in a rational and statistical way versus explaining or making sense of outliers, or situations where we don’t have evidence to make sense of. And that’s one of the reasons why — what’s at stake right now is epistemological warfare. Is this about producing information through evidence, through facts, through verifiable content? What is the truth? Is this about belief, experience, faith? And once you start asking those questions, you start to realize that it’s hard to figure out how truth is constructed.
Do you ask somebody whether or not Jesus is real? Do you ask somebody whether or not heaven is real? Those questions that are the root of faith are where you start to see the undermining of a structure that’s built based on fact and evidence.
Miles O’Brien: So are we in a world where we doubt everybody and everything, is that what it’s come to?
danah boyd: Historically, our information landscape has been tribal. We turn to the people that are like us, the people that we know, the people around us, to make sense of what is real and what we believe in. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, we built the structures to imagine a way of trusting institutions or information intermediaries to place our confidence in experts. And that was, in many ways, the project of western society and it really came into fruition and notably in the 20th century.
And what we’re seeing now with the network media landscape is the ability to move back towards extreme tribalism, to turn once again to the people around us, rather than having faith in institutions or information intermediaries. And there are whole variety of actors, state actors, non-state actors, who are happy to move along a path where people are actually not putting their faith in institutions or information intermediaries and are instead turning to their tribes, to their communities.
Miles O’Brien: So, what happens to our society when that whole construct that came about the 20th century disappears, which is where it appears we’re headed?
danah boyd: The United States has never known how to deal with tribalism. They don’t have a very good path forward through it. And part of my challenge is we don’t even realize that that’s what’s going on. So much of the conversation about polarization comes from this conversation, well the solution to polarization is to provide more facts and more evidence and it’s like, “That’s not what we’re even talking about.”
For me, the one clear thing that is notable in a society that allows meaningful jelling is when the population as a whole has deep intertwined connections to other parts of the population, emotionally rich connections to people of the population. That are fundamentally different than them.
And we have done a variety of things in the United States to undermine that. The U.S. Military has historically, and even to today, played an important role in connecting people across geography, political viewpoint, experience. And that’s the thing about basic training and being willing to lay down your life with somebody for the nation.
By privatizing huge chunks of the military, by reducing our services at scale, by making more and more of it distant from the physical acts of bonding, we don’t do that work.
The same is true for how the churches used to operate compared to what is present. The same is true for how higher education in the United States used to work. When I look at a question of like, how do we reconnect ourselves as a society, I keep coming back to the absolute need we have to rebuild that structure to really remit that social network.
This is why technology is so odd in this equation. Many of the people who built these technologies, social media technologies, information technologies. Truly imagined in the 1990s and early 2000s, that if you built social technologies, you would connect people around the globe. They couldn’t fathom that their tools would be used to magnify polarization, to magnify tribalism, and I think that’s the strange moment that we’re in today which is everybody’s sitting here and going, “What have we wrought?”
Miles O’Brien: What’s happening in our society right now as a result of this?
danah boyd: We have dichotomous narratives happening right now.
Statistically, we are more likely to live for a long time than ever before in history. We have a higher level of wealth than we do in history. And yet, at the same time, our perceptions and experiences of inequality are also significantly greater than they’ve been in decades. Our fear of all sorts of things is also significant, perhaps not as significant as during the height of nuclear anxieties but still notable. And so, we don’t trust each other, we don’t see ourselves as part of a whole system. And you see that playing out certainly in American politics.
The conversation about taxation and dismantling government often comes back to why can’t I just focus on my local community? I’ll go my church to get health services, why should I go to the doctors? Why should I have to pay money to be a part of this?
And so, when I look at our information landscape, I struggle because the news media has a special place in the American social imaginary, a place of providing information to connect us and gel us. But fundamentally, modern-day news media is primarily a business and the vast majority of the media ecosystem is financialized, taken over by hedge funds and private equity, forced into figuring out how to not just make money but how to make more money per quarter than they made in the previous quarter. And that’s what it means to be financialized, where it’s about return on investment not just sustainability.
And so, the handful of folks who are there providing a public media ecosystem are forced in to a broader conversation of which public are they a part of and how are they lumped together with a business that has been fully financialized.
There’s a question then of how much you trust any of these information. 24/7 news, thanks to CNN back in the late 70s have put us in a position where we have to find something to talk about where competing news media with every form of entertainment media with everything that’s out there for attention. And so, salacious headlines which have been a cornerstone of news media for forever, have reached a whole new level of high-pitched voice only further magnified by the fact that those news headlines shape Google search engines, shape Facebook and social media.
And so we’re in a moment of freefall when it comes to information. We’re at a moment where identities are destabilized. People don’t know if their kids are going to have the opportunities that they had.
High levels of debt are experienced by huge loss of the country under a promise that if they got an education they’d get a job that was rewarding. We’re having a conversation about AI as it’s going to be the massive disruptor of society when we can’t even contend with the fact that the biggest shift in the 20th century labor was women going to work. We’ve got gender politics that are raging in every which direction as people try to grapple with systemic sexism and abuse at the same time, the people aren’t quite sure of what it means to negotiate their gender in a present day environment.
So, there’s just this moment of collective instability and confusion. And at that moment, there’s a lot of opportunity for adversarial actors to amplify that confusion, to direct that confusion to radicalize people towards extremist fuse.
I fully recognize that this all sounds absolutely horrifying, but part of it for me is that none of it’s that new. This country is rooted in a history of massive forms of inequality. We’ve had to grapple with it in new ways and new waves every couple of decades. So for me, this is an iteration and what will make or break us is how we respond to the present day, not the present day alone.
Miles O’Brien: I want a few more words on — and a lot of people, when we talk about the term, “fake news or junk news” whichever you prefer, think of it as something outside the mainstream media for lack of a better term.
The big corporate media, you point the finger at them like I gather quite a bit. Do they exacerbate this in some way or help create the environment that made fake news all the more possible?
danah boyd: I think it’s dangerous to blame any one actor in an ecosystem, they all play a role. And the danger’s when we don’t take responsibility for that role.
When it comes to news media — news media used to understand the practice of strategic silence. My colleague, Joan Donovan, talks a lot about how the media knew that Klan rallies were happening but chose not to cover them, because covering the KKK meant giving them a voice in the public square, it meant amplifying their hate.
Now, the news media covers them and they justify covering them because they were covered on a blog and they were covered — they appear in search. And so then, as a result, we’ll cover them, we’ll showcase their hateful activities and then more people participate in those hateful activities.
Strategic silence was a really powerful way when you understood and you controlled the entire information ecosystem, the distribution mechanisms, the actual content itself.
Ryan Holiday wrote a book called, “Trust me, I’m Lying” where he talked about how he get tons of free advertisements for his clients of different forms.
He would get blogs to pick up a story that he would usually make up. It was totally fabricated. And then, he would get the news media to cover the blog covering that story. And so the news media was inevitably negating it or fact-checking it and showing this wasn’t real. But that moment of amplifying something that is factually inaccurate in order to negate it, actually gives it power, especially when people don’t trust the media.
A good example is Pizzagate. It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory but it actually has some really interesting legs to it. So, first John Podesta’s email was presumably hacked by a foreign actor, released online such that conspiracy theorists started looking through it to try to make sense of it. They saw a lot of references to a pizza shop in D.C. and they thought they had something important there. The connection to pizza shops seems alien to people who don’t study trafficking but before the internet, people used to call up people who were sexually abusing children and ask to abuse a child by referencing different kinds of pizza toppings.
It kind of made sense if you knew anything about sex trafficking.
These groups knew that secretary Clinton had been doing a lot of work as Secretary of State on anti-sex trafficking work. They believed that she was doing so because she was trying to cover her husband’s activities and the activities of her aide’s husband, Anthony Weiner. And so they thought they had a smoking gun. It was absurd and it made no sense and it wouldn’t have gotten traction if it wasn’t for a whole variety of people performing it as real in order to get the news media to negate it. And the news media did exactly what it was expected. They picked up this ridiculous conspiracies story, as something that was flowing around through conservative ecosystems to negate it. And what they did? They motivated hundreds of people to go and self investigate what was really going on at this pizza shop, to see with their own eyes true critical thinking. One showed up with a gun.
And all of a sudden it became yet another loud news story. Such that to the day, we still see constant conversations about Pizzagate being real.
The news media in its current instantiation feels like it needs to cover anything that’s being talked about in the public. It feels that it can negate a story just by talking about it. It’s not doing that work. And as result, even trying to negate a fake story actually produces the successful fake story far more than anything else.
It also does a lot to shape our gas lighting. Take what’s going on with Russia. I bet that the internet research agency bought those 3,000 ads. There’s probably a variety of other firms that we haven’t yet identified. To the best we can tell, those ads on Facebook, which are drop in the bucket of Facebook ads. Were one of many things that flew by for a variety of people that they probably didn’t notice because it probably confirmed their world view or just, you know, it was a mess because you just didn’t know what to make sense of the content.
The content had nothing do with Russia. It was just making people more fed up with the media ecosystem. It wasn’t alone.
But then, of course, people reasonably started to investigate. Journalists felt the need to investigate. Congress felt the need to investigate. There has been a nonstop march of how much influence has Russia had in the election. The news media gave them that influence. It made it so that their voice was louder than anything else. It also created the voice that suggested to every person who voted for Trump that their vote was not real. That they were being told by the elite establishment and by the world of journalism that they didn’t actually have agency, that they were entirely corrupted by Russia.
Ironically, the media’s coverage of the Russian story has done a lot more to polarize the country than any of those ads on Facebook.
Miles O’Brien: All of this in the context of corporate profit-driven media, the ratings go up through all of these, don’t they?
danah boyd: Absolutely.
Miles O’Brien: CNN was the first to give Trump a lot of attention, wasn’t it? It has been good for business.
danah boyd: It’s totally good for business. There is no doubt Facebook and Twitter are profitable companies and they profit off of the distribution of content. They profit off of advertisements. But so does the news media.
And so, we need to think about them as an ecosystem. And they’re also not alone. I mean at this point, I would argue that congress is a business, right? There is a lot of money to be made off of an election. There’s a lot of money to be made off of running a presidential campaign for two years.
Is this really good for America? By the time we hit an election, everyone is exhausted by the speculation and the drama and the this and that and the other. So many people are just checked out. And that’s not the governance that we imagine our self doing. We think we’re making the public more informed, we’re engaging them with the news of the day. But it’s such a level of information overload and psychological exhaustion, that the result is that a huge chunk of the population feels safer and healthier just walking away from paying attention at all. And that really deeply concerns me because that’s not how we build a society or govern ourselves.
Miles O’Brien: When we look at this problem on a superficial level, it’s easy for a lot of people to just blame Facebook. How big a player are they in this?
danah boyd: From my perspective, the biggest thing that Facebook did is give people what they want. And what they want personally, individually, isn’t always what’s good for a society. So, we go online, we choose our friends. Those are the people that are like us. We block or mute the people that we don’t really want to pay attention to, our crazy uncles. We click on and like the stuff from the people around us and Facebook’s algorithms are trained to keep giving us the content that makes us happy, the content that we want to return to everyday, and that shifts for different people. But that’s not the hard-hitting news about the devastation happening in Syria. That’s not the detailed analysis of what climate change is going to look like for our grandchildren.
It’s the stuff that just makes us feel proud and engaged and happy and joyous or the things that make us angry and pissed off that confirm our worldviews.
And that’s a weird thing about Facebook. It is a business. It is a business serving consumers. And by serving consumers, it’s designed and its entire business model is about giving users what they want. So then, what is their role with regard to society? Should they be the paternalistic controllers of what people do and don’t see? That’s certainly up for grabs and contested right now. Should they basically just set in motion what is valuable content for everyone around in the world or what kinds of material people should watch? Do you give people vegetables when what they want is cotton candy? None of your business.
And so, that’s where I struggle because what Facebook has done is it has mirrored and magnified the good, bad and ugly of every other part of society.
And we can certainly blame them because they are the amplifier but if we just think that this is about the amplification, we’ve got a problem because it’s about the underlying dynamics. It’s about the fact that when we choose our schools under the idea of school choice and greater choice of making certain we’re doing what’s right for our children, we self-segregate at scale. It’s about the fact that when we decide to choose what news to watch, to what to pay attention to, we self-segregate. When decide how to build teams in our workplaces, our default is actually to build homogenous teams of people like us, self-segregate.
Miles O’Brien: Facebook is a reflection but Facebook has tremendous power, power that it probably, maybe never anticipated it would have. And with that power comes responsibility that a corporation might typically not have, do you think? Is that a fair thing to put on a private corporation that isn’t, as you put it, in the business of getting people to like what they see and come back? Do they owe us more?
danah boyd: I don’t know what Facebook’s moral responsibility should be. Right now, they make decisions unilaterally. They get advice from a variety of different people to try to decide what should be there norms and different jurisdictions and globally to decide what is right or was is not. It’s reasonable to be wary of a unilateral decision made by a single company sitting in Silicon Valley. So what’s the alternative? Some people argue they should be making policies based on democratic interest. Okay, democratic of their entire population or democratic of the West or democratic of the United States or whose democracy?
So, if we say democratic of the entire globe, one of the first things that will be axed is LGBT-related content. That goes against my values.
So, okay fine, we take western values, social values and say that’s acceptable but global for politics. Not all of the public has the same world view on what is acceptable in terms of information. There is a reason that a huge chunk of people are thinking of CNN and The New York Times as fake news.
So, how do we draw those lines? And what Facebook is in the middle of is the same governance battles and questions that are at the root of starting a state, only they’re a corporation, a multinational cooperation, a truly embedded information ecosystem that touches the vast majority of the people in the world. So, how do we govern them?
And I find it troubling because when we yell, “They should be ethical!” or “They should be more moral!”, we don’t even know what that means and I can guarantee you, they don’t either.
Miles O’Brien: So in a perfect world, Lord knows we don’t have it, would Facebook have the — because it has so much reach and so much power, does it have the ability to try and fix this problem or is it just too unwieldy and too disparate to even contemplate solutions that Facebook couldn’t bring forward?
danah boyd: Facebook is capable of experimenting. It’s capable of trying different things. It’s capable of seeing the ripple effects of all of those experiments. The difficulty with that is that we don’t know the outcomes. And so, you can’t say that Facebook is capable of fixing this when we don’t know what “this” is and we don’t know what the desired outcome is and how to measure against that outcome. And on top of that, any fix to society is a series of experiments.
What is policy, right? Laws are set up as experiments on the public to try to find ways to address whatever socially fraught issue we’re facing. Facebook is in a strange position because it has become a quasi government. In an environment where we do not have a way of understanding that, we certainly don’t have a global governance structure that could regulate that. It’s not clear that we’d want that.
So, I think that Facebook is in a position where they’re going to have to try a variety of things. And one of the outcomes that a lot of people want is for them to just be gone, to disappear, to no longer exist, to use monopoly, block them, stop them. You know, very western-oriented governing structures.
Okay. So, what does that do? There is going to be another Facebook. This isn’t the last company. Okay, so, we bring down the whole of the internet. Really? There’s a lot of amazing advances that we’ve had. The irony for me about all of this, following World War II, the Allied Powers came together and said, “The way we’re going to stop World War III is by making us so globally interdependent on each other that we have to make our financial ecosystems indebted to one another. We have to be so entwined, that we can’t possibly bring each other down.” Facebook is the very clear outcome of 50 years of that form of capitalism. It’s a very logical outcome that of course it’s going to build a structure that in effect is a new form of governance but were not equipped to deal with it.
Miles O’Brien: So they’re not solving any problems for us, are they?
danah boyd: They can’t. They can only experiment. I mean, Facebook is made up of people, just like governments are made up of people. Facebook is looking down the barrel of broader societal problems that long predated Facebook, questions of inequality, questions of hatred, questions of tribalism, we haven’t figured out how to solve tribalism anywhere. No government has figured that out as a long-term project. So why should we expect Facebook to be able to solve what we couldn’t solve in other environments? They sure can experiment. They can try different things but they’re not going to solve the things we can’t solve elsewhere.
Miles O’Brien Do we overstate Facebook’s role in all this?
danah boyd: Facebook is the tip of an iceberg. It’s about the inter-connected dynamics of the public. It’s the fact that Facebook mirrors and magnifies, Facebook amplifies, Facebook makes visible things that are going on. And so, it’s not so much that Facebook is the primary or the most powerful actor. It’s that it is this strange actor that has amplified and connected all these things that always had existed. And that’s what makes it to be such a strange governing body at this moment because it’s connective tissue. And what is a nation state? A nation state is connective tissue, connected by land, connected by values, connected by language.
This is a different version of connective tissue. And I don’t know that Facebook will be around 50 years from now, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine the world in which we decide to blow up the Internet. And so the idea of being able to be globally connected to information, to other people, seems like something that is with us forever even if it’s current instantiation in a form of a company called, “Facebook,” is not the long-lasting version.
Miles O’Brien: Recently, they changed some policies on their newsfeed, which actually takes some of the corporate media out of the mix and allow more of a reflection of what your friends are saying. Is that a solution in your view in any way, shape or form?
danah boyd: That’s an experiment. And this is what I mean, none of these are about it being a solution. One of the things that I think is hardest for anybody in journalism to understand is that the vast majority of people don’t want to consume news all day long. They’re not that interested in it.
And what they wanted out of Facebook was, first and foremost, connecting to the people that they know and they love. Their friends had started forwarding them tons of news content, they respond and react to that news content and so they sent signals to Facebook that this was important. One of the funniest pieces about it is that Facebook can’t tell the difference between a love signal and a hate signal. So, people were hate-forwarding content and Facebook was like, “Oh, you seem to like that content, let me give you more of it.”
And one of the things that they consistently heard in all their user studies is that people were exhausted by the news media and really wanted less of it. They wanted to hear less about Trump in their newsfeed, one way or another. And give me a newspaper that doesn’t put Trump on its front page right now, right? Every day, like clockwork, and so how do you select out of it?
So, what Facebook appears to have done is to say, “We are going to prioritize the content including the news media content that is shared by your peers and by your network. We’re going to downweight the content that is a part of the Facebook pages that you’ve subscribed to. Because what they had done is upweighted the Facebook pages, saying that if you’ve subscribed to them, you clearly want that even more than your friends’ stuff.
Now, they’re changing the equation. We don’t know what it’s going to look like. We don’t know how people are going to be dealing with it. But Facebook, again as a business, designed and monitored by its ability to give people what they want, has heard loud and clear from its users that they don’t want to be flooded nonstop with news, they want to see baby pictures.
Miles O’Brien: It’s interesting though that the corporate media has been so vocal about the critique of fake news and part of the solution in this case is Facebook downgrading corporate media in news feeds.
And in a sense, punishing them with fewer sets of eyeballs for the problem that they claim they’re not a part of. Does that make any sense? Does that question make any sense?
danah boyd: Yeah.
Miles O’Brien: I mean, there’s a bit of irony in all of this, I guess.
danah boyd: The news loves to write about the news. It loves to write about its business problems, it loves to write about its relationship to other folks. News media as a business has been in bed with social media for quite some time.
Miles O’Brien: Left unchecked in this dark, dark place you’ve taken us.
danah boyd: Sorry.
Miles O’Brien: Well, you know, sometimes the truth — well, sometimes we want it to be fake, right? Put it that away.
danah boyd: Unicorns and kitties.
Miles O’Brien: Where are we headed if this is unchecked? What is the natural conclusion, outcome, trend that you see that is worrisome or otherwise?
danah boyd: The natural outcome of where the current ecosystem leads us is towards hyperpolarization that historically doesn’t end well. It results in war-like tendencies, if not outright, civil war.
I think the question for me is whether or not we can recognize our own cultural complicity in this. This will require all of us to recognize that we want to be a part of something collective. And to get there means that we need to actually have empathy and understanding for where other people are coming from. We need to appreciate their world view, not as something to laugh about or cackle over. But is something that is completely legitimate coming from where they’re coming from. And that goes also hand in hand with recognizing our own biases, our own fallibilities, our own assumptions.
Gillian Tett said something very interesting to me when we were talking. She said, “In elite establishments whether we’re talking journalism or academia, we pride ourselves in the ability to control language, to have mastery over how we communicate. We’ve turned that into a profession and we reward people for their communication skills.”
And for a huge swath of the population who has not prioritized that as their primary skill set, who doesn’t judge people based on their linguistic capabilities, there’s a tremendous amount of condescension from what they see as journalism and academia and other elites towards their use of language. And so, when a president says, “Shithole countries”, and the entire news establishment goes into uproar discussing about whether or not we can talk about that term on news, whether or not we can recognize or accept this. How horrible it is that people think this way.
When a majority of the population sees that language coming out of our president and says, “He’s just one of us. He’s flubbing over language. We flub over language. It’s no big deal.” And a form of hatred emerges towards those who assert their power through language.
It’s also one of the reasons why the online fora that I study are so interesting, because they’ve mastered a different kind of linguistic skill set, one that Whitney Phillips talks about as involving irony or ambiguity as a strategic tool because nothing tears down a journalist or other elite who prides themselves on linguistic control than irony or not being able to tell what is something means in the first place.
It’s just befuddling and confusing and frustrating. And so, that’s a form of true rebellion. So, for me, the next step to being able to address any of this is going to require empathy and serious forms of self-reflection. And if our news ecosystem can’t self-reflect, I don’t have a lot of faith that other parts of the elite establishment will be able to do so. And I worry because one of the things that I see among those who share my political views is that there’s a desire to play a blame game. We want to blame capitalism, we want to blame corruption of politicians, we want to blame tech industry, we want to blame everyone else.
The problem often as with most things starts with us.
Miles O’Brien: So, toss me a bone. Give me something good. Is there anything you see that’s happening that might counter some of these trends?
danah boyd: There’s nothing like an existential crisis for a lot of people to suddenly get involved, start engaging, trying to figure out what’s going on, and there are a lot of young people right now looking around and going, “What is this is world that I’ve been brought into?”
And one of the things that I’m a firm believer on is that you have to focus on the long-term not the short-term. If we’re focused on a short-term fix, we’re going to be solely disappointed. If we’re willing to look long-term, if we’re willing to see people taking actions, learning, trying to make sense of this world, trying to figure out what they can do, then I get hopeful.
Because the first step is always becoming aware of what’s going on and I think we’re partly there as a society. We’re not all there at all but I think that it’s going to hurt for a while in order to get there.
So, my hope is to help provide different kinds of information, different ways of understanding what’s going on, to galvanize more people to try to make a difference in their small corners of the world so that we can collectively start working together. And I actually think that if we’re willing to tackle this as a large problem, there are a lot of good things that can come from that. But addressing societal issues is equivalent to a moon shot. It’s not something that’s just going to be done by one quick policy fix, one quick regulation, one quick company change. It is a fundamental question.
And I have a lot of faith that we can get there. But I also have faith that it will take a long time.
Miles O’Brien: danah boyd, thank you. I sure learned a lot. And it’s not a very pretty picture is it? But we can’t fix big problems without fully understanding them first, right?
I’ll keep you updated on the upcoming series that airs on the PBS NewsHour… stay close to milesobrien.com for that. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter! I think you’ll find it interesting.
And one favor to ask as I sign off: I’d appreciate it if you would rate this podcast. This is all pretty new to me and I’d really like your feedback.
Nothing fake please! Just the truth, unvarnished.
I’m Miles O’Brien. This has been Miles To Go. Thanks for listening.
Lincoln Dahlberg says
Another intersting interview. I totally agree with Boyd’s general position that the wider social context must be examined, rather than just focus on what Facebook is doing, but was then shocked at Boyd’s comment that we must all start with ourselves and stop blaming the corporations, capitalism, etc. This puts moral blame on individuals – a real liberal individual/libertarian move – who have very little power in a system that is exceedingly structurally unequal. We (i.e. media, social scientists, and policy makers) must look at what is going on with surveillance/platform/network capitalism (or however you’d like to call it) and the political economy of the social structure that systematically shapes individual and group practices. I’d like more examination of this Miles, maybe interview a more critical political economy researcher, just to bring some “balance” the user (more ethnographic) focus that Boyd brings in her work.
Thanks for the great work.