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Surveillance

Stefania at 2.Dh5 Festival, Utrecht

On 1-2 February, Stefania will attend the 2.Dh5 Festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She will give a presentation on “Surveillance capiralism and the future of data activism” , with a Q&A section (date and time will be announced on the 2.Dh5 Festival website).

 

About the presentation:

Surveillance capitalism is grounded on the transformation of human actions, interactions and emotions into data points which can be quantified, analysed and monetised. It accelerates the crisis of liberal democracies, and changes the role of information and technology in the constitution of our societies. People may react by fighting the aggressive intermediation of the industry, including social media platforms, and the snooping of the state, for example through “smart city” projects. Others may leverage the possibilities for transformative collective action harboured by big data. This talk explores how citizens, social change activists, and variably skilled users engage with datafication looking at emerging practices of “data activism”. It takes stock of the main tendencies we observe on the field, and surveys emerging areas such as algorithmic activism and device activism.

OFFTOPIC

Stefania at Workshop organized by OffTopic Lab, Milan

On 25 January 2020, Stefania will attend the workshop “Contesto urbano. Strumenti e pratiche per deostruire il Modello Milano” organised by OffTopic Lab in Milan, Italy. She will participate in the rountable “La città ambigua: presente e futuro della metropoli tra decoro, sorveglianza, greenwashing (The ambiguous city: present and future of the metropolis between decoration, surveillance, greenwashing)” from 15.00 to 18.00.

(Image courtesy of Osvaldo Pereira)

[BigDataSur] How Chilean activists used citizen-generated data to fight disinformation

by Tomás Dodds

Introduction
For over 80 days now, and with no end in sight, Chile has been in the grip of waves of social protests and cultural manifestations with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets across the country. For many, the upsurge of this social outburst has its roots in a civil society rebelling against an uncaring economic and political elite that has ruled the country since its return to democracy in 1990. Mass protests were soon followed by a muddle of misinformation, both online and in the traditional press. In this blog post, I provide insights into how Chilean activists, including journalists, filmmakers, and demonstrators themselves, have started using citizen-generated data to fight media disinformation and the government’s attempts to conceal cases of human rights violations from the public.

Background
The evening of October 18th 2019 saw how Chileans started to demand the end of a neoliberal-based economic system, perceived among citizens as the main cause for the social inequalities and political injustices that occurred in the country over the last decades. However, demonstrations were met with brutal police repression and several corroborated cases of human rights violations, including sexual torture. To this day, information gathered by national and international non-governmental organizations show at least that 26 people have died and more than 2.200 have been injured during the rallies.

Although I was raised in Chile, today I am living in Amsterdam. Therefore, I could only follow the news as any other Chilean abroad; online. I placed a screen in my room streaming in a loop the YouTube channels of the prime-time late-night news of major media outlets. During the day, I constantly checked different social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, and from time to time I would get news and tips from friends and fellow journalists in the field over WhatsApp or Signal. Information started flooding every digital space available: a video posted on social media in the morning would have several different interpretations by that evening, and dissimilar explanations would be offered by experts across the entire media spectrum by night.

And this was only the start. Amidst the growing body of online videos and pictures showing evidence of excessive military force against demonstrators, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera sat in on a televised interview for CNN’s Oppenheimer Presenta where he claimed that many recordings circulating on social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have been either “misrepresenting events, or filmed outside of Chile.” The President effectively argued that many of these videos were clearly “fake news” disseminated by foreign governments seeking to destabilize the country, like those of Venezuela and Cuba. Although Piñera later backed down from his claims, substantial doubts were already planted in Chileans’ minds. How could the public be sure that the videos they were watching on their social networks were indeed real, contemporary, and locally filmed? How could someone prove that the images of soldiers shooting rubber bullets at unarmed civilians were not the result of a Castro-Chavista conspiracy, orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, as some tweets and posts seem to claim with a bewildering lack of doubt? How could these stories be corroborated when most of them were absent from the traditional media outlets’ agendas?

As a recent study suggests, unlike their parents or grandparents, the generation that was born in Chile after 1990 is less likely to self-censor their political opinions and show a higher willingness to participate in public discussion. After all, they were born in democracy and do not have the grim memories of the dictatorship in their minds. This is also the generation of activists who, using digital methods, have taking it up to themselves to mount the digital infrastructure that makes relevant information visible and, at the same time, accessible to an eager audience that cannot find on traditional media the horror tales and stories that reflect the ones told by their friends and neighbors. Thus, different digital projects have started to gather and report data collected by a network of independent journalists, non-governmental organizations, and the protestors themselves in order to engage politically with the reality of the events occurring on the streets. Of these new digital projects, here I present only two that stand out in particular, and which I argue help to alleviate, or at least they did for me, the uncertainty of news consumption in times of social unrest.

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(Image courtesy of Osvaldo Pereira) 

From singular stories to collective data
Only four days after the beginning of the protests, journalists Miguel Paz and Nicolás Ríos started ChileRegistra.info (or Chile-Records in English), a depository of audio-visual material and information regarding the ongoing protests. Chile-Registra stores and distributes videos that have been previously shared by volunteers and social networks users who have attended the rallies. According to these journalists, traditional media could not show videos of human rights violations shared on social networks because they were unable to verify them, and therefore would only broadcast images of riots and barricades, which would later produce higher levels of mistrust between the demonstrators and the press.

As a response to this problem, the project has two main purposes; First, to create a “super data base” with photos and videos of the protests, and military and police abuses. Second, to identify the creators of videos and photos already posted and shared on social networks, in order to make these users available as news source or witness for both traditional media and the prosecutors. National newspaper La Tercera and Publimetro, among other national and international media outlets, did already use this platform to published or broadcast data collected within the depository. By using this project, users were able to easily discredit Piñera’s claims that many of these videos were being recorded abroad.

The second project I would like to draw attention to is Proyecto AMA (The Audio-visual Memory Archive Project in English). AMA is a collective of journalists, photographers, and filmmakers who have been interviewing victims of human rights violations during the protests. Using the Knight Lab’s StoryMap tools, AMA’s users can also track where and when these violations have taken place, and read the personal stories behind the videos that they most probably saw before online. According to their website, members of this project “feel the urgent need to generate a memory file with the images shared on social networks, and give voice and face to the stories of victims of police, military and civil violence in Chile.”

These two projects have certainly different approaches for how they generate content. While ChileRegistra relies on collecting data from social media and citizen journalists uploading audio-visual material, Proyecto AMA’s members interview and collect testimonies from victims of repression and brutality. Although the physical and technological boundaries of each media platform are still present, these projects complement each other in a cross-media effort that precisely plays with the strengths of each of the platforms used to inform the work activists do.

New sources for informed-activism
These projects are at the intersection between technology and social justice, between the ideation and application of a new digital-oriented, computer assisted reporting. Moreover, the creation and continuous updating of these “bottom-up” data sets detailing serious human rights violations have not only been used to further the social movements, but they also indicate the necessity that digital activist have to gather, organize, classify, and perhaps more importantly, corroborate information in times of social unrest.

As long as Chileans keep taking to the streets, this civil revolution presents the opportunity to observe new ways of activism, including the use of independently-gathered data by non-traditional media and the collection of evidence and testimonies from victims of police and military brutality in the streets, hospitals, and prisons.

What can we, only relying on our remote gaze, learn from looking at the situation going on today in Chile? This movement has shown us how the public engagement of a fear-free generation and the development of a strong digital infrastructure are helping to shape collaborative data-based projects with deep democratic roots.

Lastly, let’s hope that these projects, among others, also shed some light on how social movements can be empowered and engaged by new ways of activism actively creating their own data infrastructure in order to challenge existing power relations, seemingly resistant to fade into history.

 

CPDP2020_SQUARE

Stefania at the CPDP Computer, Privacy and Data Protection Conference, Brussels

On Thursday 23 Janurary 2020, Stefania will attend the 13th International Conference of CPDP in Brussels, Belgium. She will speak in the panel ‘Online privacy, algorithmic bias, targeted political advertising — an interdisciplinary conversation’ organized by Mozilla. She will join on stage with other speakers: Fanny Hidvegi (Access Now); Matt Rogerson (The Guardian); and Sarah Bird (Mozilla).

 

Panel Desciption:

With an increasing degree of automation in the systems responsible for content delivery, advertisement platforms and content recommender systems alike are filtering, weighting, and ranking a continuous feed of potential items to provide a tailored experience to each individual based on their personal preferences and past behaviour. The complexity of such systems introduces a sophisticated (and almost totally opaque) new layer to peoples’ ability to access information. Automated decisions drastically impact our access to information and relationship with content serving and journalistic platforms. In many cases, the definition of success for such systems is not based on individual or societal well-being, but rather on some variation of engagement or revenue. A common belief motivating the design and optimization of these algorithms is that more (private) information about an individual equates to a better experience and more valuable advertisement via increasingly specific programmatic micro-targeting. This panel will present a multidisciplinary investigation of the interaction between data collection, the algorithmic nature of content recommendation systems, the commercial forces at play for such platforms and the individual and societal consequences of their prevalence.

 

Connection two persons

[blog] Why Psychologists need New Media Theory

by Salvatore Romano

 

I’m a graduate student at the University of Padova, Italy. I’m studying Social Psychology, and I spent four months doing an Erasmus Internship with the DATACTIVE team in Amsterdam.

 

It’s not so common to find a student of psychology in the department of Media Studies; some of my Italian colleagues asked me the reason for my choice. So I would like to explain four good reasons for a student of psychology to get interested in New Media Theory and Digital Humanities. In doing that, I will quote some articles to give a starting point to other colleagues who would like to study similar issues.

I participated in the “Digital Method Summer School,” which has been an excellent way to get a general overview of the different topics and methodologies in use in the department. In just two weeks, we discussed many things: from a sociological point of view on the Syrian war to an anthropological comprehension of alt-right memes, passing by semantic analysis, and data scraping tools. In the following months, I had the chance to deepen the critical approach and the activist’s point of view, collaborating with the Tracking Exposed project. The main question that drove my engagement for the whole period has been: “what reflections should we make before using the so-called ‘big data’ made available by digital media?”.

The first important point to note is: research through media should always be also research about media. It is possible to use this data to investigate the human mind and not just to make assumptions about the medium itself. However, it is still essential to have specific knowledge about the medium. New Media theory is interesting not only because it tells you what New Media are, but rather because it is crucial to understand how to use new media data to answer different questions coming from various fields of studies. That’s why, also as psychologists, we can benefit from the discussion.

The second compelling reason is that you need specific and in-deep knowledge to deal with technical problems related to digital media and its data. I experienced some of the difficulties that you can face while researching social media data: most of the time you need to build your research tools, because no one had your exact question before you or, at least, you need to be able to adapt someone else’s tool to your needs. And this is just the beginning; to keep your (or other’s) tool working, you need to update it really often, sometimes also fighting with a company that tries to obstruct independent research as much as possible. In general, the world of digital media is changing much faster than traditional media; you could have a new trendy platform each year; stay up to date is a real challenge, and we cannot turn a blind eye to all of this.

Precisely for that reason, the third reflection I made is about the reliability of the data we use for psychological research. Especially in social psychology, students are familiar with using questionnaires and experiments to validate their hypotheses. With those kinds of methodologies, the measurement error is mostly controlled by the investigator that creates the sample and assures that the experimental conditions are respected. But with big data social sciences experiment, the possibility to trace significant collective dynamics down to single interactions, as long as you can get those data and analyze them properly. To make use of this opportunity, we analyze databases that are not recorded by us, and that lack an experimental environment (for example, when using Facebook API). This lack of independence could introduce distortions imputable to the standardization operated by social media platforms and not monitorable by the researcher. Moreover, to use APIs without general knowledge about what kind of media recorded those data is really dangerous, as the chances to misunderstand the authentic meaning of the communication we analyze are high.

Also if we don’t administer a test directly to the subjects, or we don’t make assumptions just from experimental set-up, we still need to reproduce a scientific accuracy to analyze big data produced by digital media. It is essential to build our tools to create the database independently; it’s necessary to know the medium to reduce misunderstandings, and all this is something we can learn from a Media Studies approach, also as psychologists.

The fourth point is about how digital media implement psychological theory to shape at best their design. Those platforms use psychology to augment the engagement (and profits), while psychologists use very rarely the data stored by the same platforms to improve psychological knowledge. Most of the time, omnipotent multinational corporations play with targeted advertising, escalating to psychological manipulation, while a lot of psychologists struggle to understand the real potential of those data.

Concrete examples of what we could do are the analysis of the hidden effects of the Dark Patterns adopted by Facebook to glue you to the screen; the “Research Personas” method to uncover the affective charge created by apps like Tinder; the graphical representation of the personalization process involved in the Youtube algorithm.

 

In general, I think that it’s essential for us, as academic psychologists, to test all the possible effects of those new communication platforms, not relying just on the analysis made by the same company about itself, we need instead to produce independent and public research. The fundamental discussion about how to build the collective communications system should be driven by those types of investigations, and should not just follow uncritically what is “good” for those companies themselves.

 

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new article out: “Enter the WhatsApper: Reinventing digital activism at the time of chat apps” (First Monday)

Our first article of 2020 is out! Entitled “Enter the WhatsApper: Reinventing digital activism at the time of chat apps”, it reflects on the evolution of political participation and digital activism at the time of chat applications. It is part of a special issue of the open access journal First Monday dedicated to the (first) ten years of WhatsApp. The abstract is below. The article can be read at this link.

This paper investigates how the appropriation of chat apps by social actors is redesigning digital activism and political participation today. To this end, we look at the case of #Unidos Contra o Golpe (United Against the Coup), a WhatsApp “private group” which emerged in 2016 in Florianópolis, Brazil, to oppose the controversial impeachment of the then-president Dilma Rousseff. We argue that a new type of political activist is emerging within and alongside with contemporary movements: the WhatsApper, an individual who uses the chat app intensely to serve her political agenda, leveraging its affordances for political participation. We explore WhatsApp as a discursive opportunity structure and investigate the emergence of a repertoire specific to chat apps. We show how recurrent interaction in the app results into an all-purpose, identity-like sense of connectedness binding social actors together. Diffuse leadership and experimental pluralism emerge as the bare organizing principles of these groups. The paper is based on a qualitative analysis of group interactions and conversations, complemented by semi-structured interviews with group members. It shows how WhatsApp is more than a messaging app for “hanging out” with like-minded people and has come to constitute a key platform for digital activism, in particular in the Global South. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i12.10414

Cite as 

Milan, S., & Barbosa, S. (2020). Enter the WhatsApper: Reinventing digital activism at the time of chat apps. First Monday, 25(1). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i12.10414

PaCla_CFP_Twt_EN

Call for papers: Palabra Clave special issue

Please note an exciting upcoming special issue of Palabra Clave, titled “Latin American perspectives on datafication and artificial intelligence” with Stefania Milan & Emiliano Treré as guest editors of this special issue.

More information on the CfP here:

Call for papers (Español): http://bit.ly/Pacla-CFP-2021-2-ES

Call for papers (English): http://bit.ly/Pacla-CFP-2021-2-EN

Call for papers en (Portugués): http://bit.ly/Pacla-CFP-2021-2-PT

BDS

***hot off the press*** Working Paper “Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda”

What would datafication look like seen… ‘upside down’? What questions would we ask? What concepts, theories and methods would we embrace or have to devise? These questions were at the core of the two-day immersive research workshop ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’ (University of Amsterdam, 4-5 December 4-5 2018). The event was the third gathering of the Big Data from the South Initiative (BigDataSur), a research network and program launched in 2017 by Stefania Milan (University of Amsterdam) and Emiliano Treré (Cardiff University).

The workshop report has finally been released and is ready for download! Special thanks go to the workshop participants, the authors of the thematic areas Anna Berti Suman (Tilburg University), Niels ten Never, Guillén Torres, Kersti R. Wissenbach and Zhen Ye (University of Amsterdam), and to Tomás Doods, Jeroen de Vos and Sander van Haperen for the editorial assistance.

We take the opportunity to once again thank the sponsors that made the event possible, namely the European Research Council (grant agreement No 639379-DATACTIVE; https://data-activism.net), the Amsterdam Center for Global Studies, the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis and the Amsterdam Center for European Studies. Our gratitude extends also to SPUI25, the University of Amsterdam and Terre Lente for hosting us.

Internet governance, standards, and infrastructure

Off the Beaten Path: Human rights advocacy to change the Internet infrastructure

Report on Public Interest Internet Infrastructure workshop held at Harvard University in September 2019

by Corinne Cath-Speth and Niels ten Oever

Introduction

Surveillance-based business model[s] force people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse.

Choice words from the latest report published by Amnesty International, in which they consider the human rights’ implications of Big Tech’s extractive business model. Their conclusions are bleak; the terms of service on which we engage in social media and search are diametrically opposed to human rights. This, however, comes as no surprise to academics and activists who have been highlighting the Internet’s negative ramifications over the past decade. In this blog, we present some thoughts on the promises and perils of human rights advocacy aimed at changing computer, rather than, legal code. It draws on insights shared during a two-day workshop on public interest advocacy and design in Internet governance processes, with a particular focus on Internet standards. The workshop, entitled “Future Paths to a Public Interest Internet Infrastructure” took place in the fall of 2019 at the Harvard Kennedy School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It brought together 26 academics, activists, technologists, civil servants, and private sector representatives from 12 countries.

Concerns at the intersection of Internet governance and society span way beyond—or rather, below—those touching on social media, search engines, or e-commerce. They also include technologies, like Internet standards and protocols, that most of us have never seen but rely on for our day-to-day use of the Internet. The development and governance of these technologies is increasingly subject to scrutiny of public interest advocates. This is not that surprising given the history of struggles over power, norms, and values that colour the development of global communications infrastructures, like the phone, the telegraph, and Internet standards.

The advocates currently participating in governance and standards bodies are legion: they span from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to various Centres for Internet and Society, to the C-suites of tech-companies. Their theories-of-change rooted in the idea that digital technologies shape communication such that it can impede or enable the exercise of rights. Their tactics focused on direct engagement with companies, often through the technical working groups of the key Internet governance organizations. Little, however, is known about these advocacy efforts. Like the standards they focus on, these efforts are largely invisible. The ferocity of the public debates about the negative impact of the Internet on society, as well as growing condemnation of industry-led tech ethics efforts, calls for these efforts to be brought to light.

Documenting Workshop Discussions

The discussion at the workshop took us from the very top of the Internet’s stack, where our social media and search applications live, to its depths where sharks chew on Internet cables. We discussed expanding, collapsing, horizontally and vertically integrating the Internet’s stack, and even doing away with the concept all together. Likewise, we discussed what it means to do public interest advocacy aimed at changing the Internet’s infrastructure, what “public interest” entails as a concept, how different stakeholders can be effective advocates of it, and what it takes to study it. We do not aim to provide definitive answers. Rather, we will highlight three discussions that show where participants diverged and converged on their respective path(s) towards including public interest considerations in the Internet’s infrastructure.

  • Pragmatism and its politics: How and when public interest advocates should team up with colleagues in the private sector or government was a crucial discussion during the workshop. It revealed that cross-industry cooperation often put the public interest advocates between a rock and a hard problem: how do you known when cooperation turns into co-optation? Many took a “pragmatist” position, acknowledging that their concerns around tech development often stemmed from core-business decisions, which they considered beyond their influence. However, they argued, this was insufficient reason to write off strategic cooperation to move the technical needle. Even if it meant much of their work was focused on treating symptoms rather than causes. The turn to pragmatism, highlighted an underlying concern. As with most social values, “public interest”, means different things to different folks. This in turn implies that public interest representatives are not only contending with difficult choices about strategic collaboration across sectors, but also within them. This tension is both irresolvable and interesting, for the debate and careful articulation of advocacy positions it requires. Which, as one participant optimistically quipped: is helpful because now at least I know where you are going and what it takes for us to get there.
  • Shrinking space for civil society: Civil society organisations trying to raise public interest considerations in Internet governance are fighting on multiple fronts. Within Internet governance organisations they are contending with inherent hurdles: the power differentials between corporate and non-commercial participants, lack of civil society funding for work seen as technically opaque and difficult to explain to funders; the technical learning curve; lack of consensus among allied organisations; and the confrontational culture of Internet standardisation bodies. At the same time, they are operating in a broader context of a shrinking space for civil society. In many countries, the regulatory environment is such that it is near impossible to be an effective civil society organisation. The question then becomes how to grow and sustain civil society participation in the development of the Internet’s infrastructure in the face of internal and external pressure that limit it.
  • What is the endgame? For some getting the tech right was their main concern. Other argued that this was too narrow an endgame for public interest representation in Internet governance. Focusing on the tech is necessary but insufficient. Code, the participants agreed, is not the pinnacle of societal change. In order for these interventions to have ramifications beyond their direct context they need to connect to existing work done outside of a limited number of Internet standardisation bodies. Many of the participants were actively creating these necessary connections to other technical communities, by talking to Internet Service Providers (ISP) and other Internet governance stakeholders. Yet, many agreed that ensuring the Internet’s infrastructure reflects particular articulations of “the public interest” requires policy as much as protocol intervention.

These three discussions only scratch at the surface of the conversation during the workshop. If you are interested in learning more, please see here for the full workshop report. The social movements bringing a range of public interest considerations (from civil liberties, to social justice, to human rights) to the Internet infrastructure and its governance processes, will keep evolving. Like the Internet’s infrastructure itself. This blog should thus as is good practice in academia, engineering, and activism alike, be seen as documentation of known issues and efforts at this current moment. Rather than a singular path-forward. It provides a departure point to further develop this conversation to include a broader range of stakeholders, network engaged scholars, and practitioners.

The workshop was organised by:

  • Niels ten Oever, DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam
  • Corinne Cath-Speth, Oxford Internet Institute, Digital Ethics Lab, University of Oxford
  • Beatrice Martini, Digital HKS, Harvard Kennedy School

We would like to thank the Harvard Kennedy School, ARTICLE19, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Open Technology Fund, European Research Council, DATACTIVE, and the Amsterdam School for Globalisation Studies for their generous support that made this this workshop possible.

 

Internet governance, standards, and infrastructure