Fake News, a New Media Ecology and Information Literacy

In an era of fake news and technology-enabled meddling with elections, the need for information literacy, media literacy, and digital competency is greater than ever. It is now possible to record 20 minutes of a person’s voice, rearrange some text, and replay a completely different sentence that the person didn’t say with a new kind of software. While this kind of technology is not yet available to everyone, the need for critical engagement with technology should be a concern for anyone from policy makers to educators to general citizens.

In addition to the audio modification technology,  labs and centers at different universities are currently investigating and improving face modeling video technologies. A research paper about a technology called Face2Face from scientists at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Max-Planck-Institute for Informatics, and Stanford University show how they can modify YouTube recordings of George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Daniel Craig and Donald Trump in real time by overlaying a second person’s facial expressions on top of the original recording. The WNYC podcast, RadioLab, explored this topic even further by investigating how detectable this kind of technology would be to experts and how concerned we should actually be. They got mixed answers from experts and decided to pursue their own investigations while trying to create a fake video of their own.Fake News RadioLab video

It can be tempting to disengage and be discouraged at the level of disruption that this can cause. However, we can also take this as motivation to more deeply understand the technological context around us and become more informed and skeptical at the same time. Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and Simon Adler took the approach to engage the technology that concerned them and came out with an informed respect and wariness while also dispelling the most paralyzing fear that there was now no way to discern the truth.  We must continue to wrestle with Pandora’s box and this is another challenge for librarians and digital humanities practitioners to pursue.


Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised by the Cambridge Analytica Facebook Issue

One of the chilling aspects of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook relationship is how they used sophisticated psychological profiles based on personal data to market and influence individuals during the presidential election. While the level of detail and manipulation of personal data is shocking this methodology is not new. Advertisers and groups seeking wide societal influence in modern times have used targeted profiling and data to focus their efforts and gain influence since the 1950’s.

Rites of Men coverReading this passage, written in 1999, in Varda Burstyn’s Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport about how advertising and spectacle sports became more deeply intertwined reminded me of the issues at the heart of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica story:

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, advertising relied on demographic measurement to help design effective campaigns. In the early 1970s, the industry took a major step forward in enhancing the power of their appeals by introducing a technique called ‘psychodemographics.’ A product of the impact of psychology and neurology on the advertising industry, psychodemographics could evaluate the effects of a given visual-auditory messages on the feelings and behaviors of demographically grouped viewers, and then aid in producing tailor-made advertisements to stimulate particular responses.

Burstyn goes on to quote Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (1987, 74):

According to the new model of communications that emerged the human receiver is by no means an empty vessel waiting to be filled with a potent message. Rather, the human receiver is a bundle of needs (many of them unconscious or below the threshold of awareness) and a compendium of emotional experiences (many of which are common to all of us as members of this society)…the receiver is a highly involved participant in the communication. The goal is to shape the message so that it matches the unconscious needs, emotional experience, and coded expectations of the desired audience – so that it speaks to, or resonates with, their deepest feelings and beliefs. This isn’t putting something into the receivers, it’s drawing something out of them and attaching it, or labeling that emotion with the product being advertised.

Watchers of Mad Men, the series about the advertising business in 1960’s New York, may recognize some of these ideas in the market research scenes.

Facebook reactions for like button

When Facebook added Reactions to the Like button in February 2016 users now had the ability to literally label items with six different emotions,  deepening their psychoprofiles along with any personality quizzes they may have participated in. Some anticipated that this feature had a purpose beyond broadening user expression which eventually came to light as Cambridge Analytica utilized that data to influence people in ways that Nelson describes in ways that one could refer to as mind control.  Some of my colleagues at Bethel in Political Science, Computer Science, and Neuroscience discuss this in a podcast last May called Social Media and Mind Control.

Keeping in mind what is new about this situation and what is a progression of an established practice help to frame our responses. For instance, the Congressional hearings about this with Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, may have gone better if the Senators were more informed about this advertising practice and what is unique about Facebook’s technology and data practices.

Review of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each OtherAlone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What does it mean when we live in a world where robots are beginning to care for the elderly or children? What does it mean when children look at a Galapagos tortoise in a zoo and say that a robot would be “alive enough” to do what it is doing. How do we engage with the world around us when we have the potential for 24/7 network access? What does the blending of the physical and virtual worlds mean for our psyches and identities?

Thirty years of research on how computers and technology affect how we think and think about ourselves is compellingly covered in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Our Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle balances down-to-earth examples of her daughter’s use of technology with a wide body of psychological research on adults and children’s interactions with computers and technological gadgets. Her’s is a measured and helpful voice within the group of writers exploring cultural change due to technology; neither blindly condemning it, nor uncritically trumpeting the wonders of new applications.

Centered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) she is steeped in cutting edge technologies and innovation. She applies her knowledge as a psychoanalytically-trained psychologist to ask reflective questions about how the computer is changing us. She says that this book is a culmination of two previous books on the effect of computers on the mind. Second Self was published in the 1984 and centered on how one on one interaction with a computer re-shaped our thinking. Later, her 1995 book Life on the Screen, explored the emerging Internet and how the ability to connect through computers changes us. This book is a combination of these issues with the addition of the possibilities and pressures of mobile and personal devices.

Some stories she shares are lightly amusing like some of the students she interviewed about Facebook shared with her their exhaustion with the demand on their time to maintain their social “face” saying, “How long do I have to keep this up?”. Others are more troubling and really challenge how we think about relationships with our technology including humans who prefer the company of robots or their smart phones over members of their own family.

Whether you are curious about the social and psychological effect of Facebook and the Internet or are curious about more advanced robotic technology and artificial intelligence this book will challenge you to think about how technology impacts you, your family, and the world around you in a new and deeper way.

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What does Marshall McLuhan have to do with libraries? His Medium and his Message

The following two statements from library colleagues motivated me to understand more deeply how the Internet and Web are influencing libraries and librarians:

Web pages are still being used as if they are pieces of paper in the same way that TV programs were created as if they were radio programs that people can see. (2005)

The Medium is the message, right? (2012)

Gavin Brown, Web Manager at Enoch Pratt Free Library in 2005 and Tim Senapatiratne, Reference Librarian at Bethel Seminary Library in 2012 respectively, led me to seek out the meaning of the statement the “Medium is the Message” by Marshall McLuhan. The first statement brought the significant societal shift driven by the Internet and the World Wide Web to my attention particularly as it applied to libraries use of the Web. However, it was not until after graduate school, several years as a practicing librarian, and leading our library’s web redesign that the second statement drove me to seek out the true meaning of that famous phrase.

Because I am so deeply involved in transforming analog materials into digital form through digital collections and library services through the Web, I feel the responsibility to understand the impact that these activities, and the medium that they are delivered through, have on people.

In 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, introduced McLuhan’s phrases and concepts that he contributed to our society; ‘global village’, ‘hot and cool media’, and ‘the medium is the message’. In the Preface to the third printing of this book,  he addresses the criticism about his chapter on the “Medium is the Message” by explaining that he doesn’t focus on content and instead explores the greater cultural effect of the medium; “The section on ‘the medium is the message’ can, perhaps, be clarified by pointing out that any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes” (vi-vii).

With this in mind, moving cultural artifacts and documents to the Web changes their nature, as does providing library services over the Web instead of in person. These are not reasons to cease digitization or service over the Web, but they are important factors to understand when our mission is to serve the best interests of our community.  Knowing the impact of the medium as well as the information content of what we do is a key part of our responsibility as stewards of our intellectual and cultural heritage.

Another significant aspect of this book is how it explores the effect of a broad scope of technologies throughout history starting with the “spoken word” to print to electronic media like radio and television. The chapters on “the Written Word”, “The Printed Word”, and “The Telegraph”, are particularly relevant to our philosophical underpinnings as librarians and as citizens of Western culture. Even though he died in 1980 and never experienced the internet, his chapters are prophetic in how they anticipate the many social and technological manifestations of electronic information including the Web over the Internet.

If one wishes to be a reflective practitioner of librarianship then having some understanding of McLuhan and his media metaphors is a critical task. Eric Schnell from the Ohio State University Libraries, is one example of a librarian who has named his blog after McLuhan’s phrase “The Medium is the Message” and explores “libraries, technology, innovation and trends (with respect to Marshall McLuhan)”.

McLuhan’s metaphors are both rich for exploration and courts much controversy so this will be the first of many posts on this theme.