Media must pursue these creeps

We are all targets of information managers who lurk behind seemingly innocuous networks and apps. Graeme Addison highlights a new direction for investigative journalism.

Do you get the creepy feeling that you are being watched – but don’t know by whom or how? Increasingly, all of us are being watched by digital spies, be they advertisers, government agents, perverts, or even our own “friends”, who use social media and apps to profile us and unwittingly declare our weaknesses to the world.

shorenstein logoThe Shorenstein Centre on Media Policy, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard has published a fascinating summary of a research paper on holding digital power accountable. The paper from the University of Maryland explores the emerging field of reporting on algorithms and lays out definitions, strategies and key issues for journalists.

Incidents recounted in the study include Apple’s apparent schoolmarmish attempt to suppress words like “abortion”, “rape”, “arouse” and “virginity” on the Apple iPhone’s spell-checker.

It’s time investigative journalists took this seriously and acquired the tools to pursue digital evil-doers.

A friencan of doomd of mine once wrote a wonderful poem about a cockroach with a creepy feeling. A man was sneaking up behind him with a can of DOOM. Little did the man know that God was creeping up behind him with a gigantic can of FATE.

It was good for a laugh but it has stuck with me.

Our digital fate may be decided by backroom techies who write the programmes that allow us to see, or not see, what concerns us.

Your fate may be decided by the spooks of the internet who are using every means possible to pin you to a digital board like a cyber-butterfly. Worse, they use secretive means to manipulate your emotions and ideas.

The most notorious case so far was the secret and unethical Facebook “feed experiment” to control emotions. In 2012, Facebook, in collaboration with academics, deliberately selected the postings of seen by 689,000 (without their knowledge or permission) in order to test whether their moods could be influenced. Indeed they were.

The Guardian reported:

In a study with academics from Cornell and the University of California, Facebook filtered users’ news feeds – the flow of comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their social network. One test reduced users’ exposure to their friends’ “positive emotional content”, resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to “negative emotional content” and the opposite happened.

“In the wake of the Snowden stuff [on US surveilliance]… the Facebook ‘transmission of anger’ experiment is terrifying,” wrote Clay Johnson in a Tweet. He represents the so-called Department of Better Technology (DOBT), dedicated to making software that helps governments and non-profits better serve their communities.

Unfortunately the Facebook experiment has made little or no difference to user habits on the social network which continues to expand. People seem to expose themselves willingly to the risk of automated manipulation.

Your tastes are known to banks and supermarkets, your opinions and associates are known to security agencies, your romantic preferences are tracked by those who would otherwise be peeking into your bathroom, and your friends relay your messages to many others who might not have the same friendly attitude.

In the Shorenstein article mentioned above, one case stands out. Apple’s spell checker seemed to ignore words like “abortion”, “rape”, “arouse” and “virginity”. According to the Daily Beast, which carried out an extensive algorithmic investigation into the way Apple’s spellchecker software worked, if you misspelt certain words on the iPhone, it did not correct them. (This in turn would mean anyone searching for these topics would not find your write-up). Meanwhile, obscure words like “nephrotoxin” and “sempstress” were corrected.

This suggests that the Apple programmers had some straightlaced notion that people should not discuss naughty topics. It amounts, of course, to a form of censorship and the manipulation of content to serve someone’s agenda.

spooks gchq

It doesn’t take the Chinese government with its punitive internet controls to manage the web. Big companies and “democratic” governments can and do assign their software architects pin us to the display board. George Orwell in his worst imaginings of 1984 did not anticipate this cynical misuse of the public resources of cyberspace.

Apple’s sniffy spellchecker was a mild attempt at digital censorship, but the digital danger runs much deeper. We can categorise the threats as:

  • Deliberate attempts to limit what we may see – that is, mind control
  • Censoring or deliberately avoiding content that we have a right to see
  • Passing private information to advertisers and intelligence agencies
  • Infecting networks with surveillance tools
  • Using the networks to confuse, harass and intimidate opponents
  • Stealing identities to pass off false information
  • And more

One of the typical responses of the State and major corporations to these accusations is that they are doing their best to control bad influences by using digital surveillance. Call this the contradiction of secrecy. Yea, right. We are spied upon to prevent us coming to harm.

The new era of Apps development has opened new fields of hidden exploitation. Numerous social networking tools allow anonymous users to secretly implant messages that could mislead or endanger those receiving and reacting to them.

Install “Secrets”, an Android app, on your phone and you can store and send your most intimate secrets to friends – and they may not know who the info came from.

The “most scandalous social network” is that the mediatech website The Verge called it.

People are devouring their Secret feeds, with their unpredictable mix of sex, drugs, and industry gossip… The secrets have all been posted by your friends, though you’ll never know which friend: Secret is “anonymish.” It’s a feed of gossip created by the contacts in your iPhone, but labeled only as being from a “friend” or “friend of a friend.”

There’s a strong case to be made for secret storage of your most personal information. But this too suffers from the contradiction of secrecy. Wilfully collect that information to “protect privacy” and then let it out selectively, and it can be devastating to others.

You may literally be on the receiving end of a can of poison.

Investigative journalists have new opportunities here to explore the apps and networks that seek to manage our access to information and shape our thoughts. As the Shorenstein article says:

How can the power of algorithms be understood and, when called for, controlled? We are only starting to understand how these strings of computer code are shaping our view of the world. As researchers point out, inherent biases in algorithms can lead to startling discriminatory possibilities, with important consequences.

  • Graeme Addison runs workshops on social media and journalism at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg, South Africa. Next course: DIY your own APP 28-30 July.  +27 11 482 4900
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