Forthcoming Ukrainian Publication on Distributed Intelligence

Aspects of my work on the role of distributed intelligence in problem solving, what I have called distributed collaborative networks, was published in English as Dutton, W. H. (2015), ‘Lend Me Your Expertise: Citizen Sourcing Advice to Government’, pp. 247-63 in Johnston, E. W. (eds), Governance in the Information Era: Theory and Practice of Policy Informatics. Abingdon, UK: Taylor and Francis Routledge. Delighted to see a revision translated into a  Ukrainian publication, entitled Advertising and Public Relations of the XXI Century: Reviews and Researchers. Collective monograph. Edited by Bezchotnikova S.V. (Mariupol : Mariupol State University, 2016): 82-103.

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Don’t Panic over Fake News

Fake News is a Wonderful Headline but Not a Reason to Panic

I feel guilty for not jumping on the ‘fake news’ bandwagon. It is one of the new new things in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. And because purposively misleading news stories, like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, engage so many people, and have such an intuitive appeal, I should be riding this bandwagon.[1] It could be good for my own research area around Internet studies. But I can’t. We have been here before, and it may be useful to look back for some useful lessons learned from previous moral panics over the quality of information online. th-1

Fake News

Fake news typically uses catchy headlines to lure readers into a story that is made up to fit the interests of a particular actor or interest. Nearly all journalism tries to do the same, particularly as journalism is moving further towards embracing the advocacy of particular points of view, versus trying to present the facts of an event, such as a decision or accident. In the case of fake news, facts are often manufactured to fit the argument, so fact checking is often an aspect of identifying fake news. And if you can make up the facts, it is likely to be more interesting than the reality. This is one reason for the popularity of some fake news stories.

It should be clear that this phenomenon is not limited to the Internet. For example, the 1991 movie JFK captured far more of an audience than the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy. Grassy Knoll conspiracy theories were given more credibility by Oliver Stone than were the facts of the case, and needless to say, his movie was far more entertaining.

Problems with Responding

There are problems with attacking the problem of fake news.

First, except in the more egregious cases, it is often difficult to definitively know the facts of the case, not to mention what is ‘news’. Many fake news stories are focused on one or another conspiracy theory, and therefore hard to disprove. Take the flurry of misleading and contradictory information around the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, or over who was responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July of 2014 over a rebel controlled area of eastern Ukraine. In such cases in which there is a war on information, it is extremely difficult to immediately sort out the facts of the case. In the heat of election campaigns, it is also difficult. Imagine governments or Internet companies making these decisions in any liberal democratic nation.

Secondly, and more importantly, efforts to mitigate fake news inevitably move toward a regulatory model that would or could involve censorship. Pushing Internet companies, Internet service providers, and social media platforms, like Facebook, to become newspapers and edit and censor stories online would undermine all news, and the evolving democratic processes of news production and consumption, such as which are thriving online with the rise of new sources of reporting, from hyper-local news to global efforts to mine collective intelligence. The critics of fake news normally say they are not proposing censorship, but they rather consistently suggest that the Internet companies should act more like newspapers or broadcasters in authenticating and screening the news. Neither regulatory model is appropriate for the Internet, Web and social media.

Lessons from the Internet and Web’s Short History

But let’s look back. Not only is this not a new problem, it was a far greater problem in the past. (I’m not sure if I have any facts to back this up, but hear me out.)

Anyone who used the Internet and Web (invented in 1991) in the 1990s will recall that it was widely perceived as largely a huge pile of garbage. The challenge for a user was to find a useful artifact in this pile of trash. This was around the time when the World Wide Web was called the World Wide Wait, given the time it took to download a Web page. Given the challenges of finding good information in this huge garbage heap, users circulated urls (web addresses) of web pages that were worth reading.

A few key researchers developed what were called recommender sites, such as what Paul Resnick called Platforms for Internet Content Searches (PICS), which labeled sites to describe their content, such as ‘educational’ or ‘obscene’.[2] PICS could be used to censor or filter content, but the promoters of PICS saw them primarily as a way to positively recommend rather than negatively censor content, such as that labeled ‘educational’ or ‘news’. Positive recommendations of what to read versus censorship of what a central provider determined not fit to be read.

Of course, organized lists of valuable web sites evolved into some of the earliest search engines, and very rapidly, some brilliant search engines were invented that we use effortlessly now to find whatever we want to know online, such as news about an election.

The rise of fake news moves many to think we need to censor or filter more content to keep people from being misinformed. Search engines try to do this by recommending the best sites related to what a person is searching for, such as by analysis of the search terms in relation to the words and images on a page of content.

Unfortunately, as search engines developed, so did efforts to game search engines, such as techniques for optimizing a site’s visibility on the Web. Without going into detail, there has been a continuing cat and mouse game between search engines and content providers in trying to outwit each other. Some early techniques to optimize a site, such as embedding popular search terms in the background of a site that are invisible to the reader but visible to a search engine, worked for a short time. But new techniques for gaming the search engines are likely to be matched by refinements in algorithms that penalize sites that try to game the system. Overtime, these refinements of search have reduced the prominence of fake and manufactured news sites, for example, in the results of search engines.

New Social Media News Feeds

But what can we do about fake news being circulated on social media, mainly social media platforms such as Facebook, but also email. The problems are largely focused here since social media news provision is relatively less public, and newer, and not as fully developed as more mature search engines. And email is even less public. These interpersonal social networks might pose the most difficult problems, and where fake news is likely to be less visible to the wider public, tech companies, and governments – we hope and expect. Assuming the search engines used by social media for the provision of news get better, some problems will be solved. Social media platforms are working on it.[3] But the provision of information by users to other users is a complex problem for any oversight or regulation beyond self-regulation.

Professor Phil Howard’s brilliant research on computational propaganda at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) develops some novel perspectives on the role of social media in spreading fake news stories faster and farther.[4] His analysis of the problem seems right on target. The more we know about political bots and computational propaganda, the better prepared we are to identify it.

The Risks

My concern is that many of the purported remedies to fake news are worse than the problem. They will lead straight to more centralized censorship, or to regulation of social media as if they were broadcast media, newspapers, or other traditional media. The traditional media each have different regulatory models, but none of them are well suited to the Internet. You cannot regulate social media as if they were broadcasters, think of the time spent by broadcast regulators considering one complaint by viewers. You cannot hold social media liable for stories, as if they were an edited newspaper. This would have a chilling effect on speech. And so on. Until we have a regulatory model purpose built for the Internet and social media, we need to look elsewhere to protect its democratic features.

In the case of email and social media, the equivalent of recommender sites are ways in which users might be supported in choosing with whom to communicate. Whom do you friend on Facebook? Whom do you follow on Twitter? Whose email do you accept, open, read, or believe? There are already some sites that detect problematic information.[5] These could help individuals decide whether to trust particular sites or individuals. For example, I regularly receive email from people I know on the right, left and everywhere in between, and from the US and globally. As an academic, I enjoy seeing some, immediately delete others, and so forth. I find the opinions of others entertaining, informative and healthy, even though I accept very few as real hard news. I seldom if ever check or verify their posts, as I know some to be political rhetoric or propaganda and some to be well sourced. This is normally obvious on their face.

But I am trained as an academic and by nature, skeptical. So while it might sound like a limp squid, one of the only useful approaches that does not threaten the democratic value of social media and email, is the need to educate users about the need to critically assess information they are sent through email and by their friends and followers on social media. Choose your friends wisely, and that means not on the basis of agreement, but on the basis of trust. And do not have a blind faith in anything you read in a newspaper or online. Soon we will be just as amused by people saying they found a fake news story online as we have been by cartoons of someone finding a misspelled word on the Web.

Notes

[1] List of Fake News Sites: http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/11/fake-facebook-news-sites-to-avoid.html

[2] Resnick, P., and Miller, J. (1996), ‘PICS: Internet Access Controls without Censorship’, Communications of the ACM, 39(10): 87-93.

[3] Walters, R. (2016), ‘Mark Zuckerberg responds to criticism over fake news on Facebook, Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/80aacd2e-ae79-11e6-a37c-f4a01f1b0fa1?sectionid=home

[4] Phil Howard: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/is-social-media-killing-democracy/

[5] B.S. Detector: http://lifehacker.com/b-s-detector-lets-you-know-when-youre-reading-a-fake-n-1789084038

 

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

News coverage of the 2016 US presidential election vividly illustrated a worrying trend. It goes well beyond the decline of the newspaper to the decline of quality journalistic reporting in favor of entertaining news commentary. Perhaps I have a romantic view of the past. Perhaps journalism may be better than ever, but let me develop this point.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge the larger context in which most news organizations are facing various levels of financial trouble. The newspaper, for example, used to be quite profitable enterprises in the US, with major revenue for classifieds and other ads. The Internet has undermined the growth of revenue for newspapers, such as by providing far better options to the classified ads. With ad revenue dropping, there have been major drops in subscriptions, and the number of newspapers published. However, the growth in online news has not been generating the revenues that maintained the traditional newspaper.

However, the decline of the traditional newspaper and its business model, does not necessarily translate into a decline in news coverage. The Internet and social media provide some new sources of news, and have also lowered the costs of traditional news gathering and reporting. And it is increasingly technically possible for any reporter in the world to be read by anyone interested in the story the reporter puts online. First hand accounts are increasingly more available through social media and mobile Internet smartphones. These developments are occurring, but so are some countervailing trends.

First, there are fewer reporters on site, in the field. Some of the major world news organizations, such as Al Jazeera and CCTV, are able to bring live reporting from the sites of news developments to their viewers. But these are exceptionally well-funded news operations, and funded by state entities, which can compromise their editorial and reporting independence. Generally, first hand reporting of the news is declining except for the rising reliance on Twitter and other social media coverage picked up by the wire services and other news organizations.

Secondly, there is some evidence of a rise of churnalism, which is the uncritical publication of press releases by politicians, business organizations and government agencies. Perhaps churnalism is simply more apparent with Internet Web sites devoted to exposing it. If true, as I believe it to be, this is another symptom of a decline in the quality of reporting.

Thirdly, and most worrying to me, is the rise of surrogates as major news sources. To the credit of CNN, for example, which makes a great use of these sources, they at least call them surrogates. During the election, CNN rolled out Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and many other candidates’ surrogates. Decades ago, I recall some early discussions of concerns over the major news organizations interviewing journalists as sources, rather than the actual protagonists and eyewitnesses to events. This was widely criticized as a poor substitute for authentic news reporting. Perhaps people of interest to the news reporter are more difficult to interview, more inaccessible, but for whatever reasons, there is a major growth in the reliance on journalists several steps removed from the actual actors who are the subject of the news.

There is a silver lining to the increased reliance on paid surrogates. They are trained and polished presenters, unlike many of the actual subjects of the news. There is no doubt that many of the surrogates are entertaining, bright, articulate, and knowledgeable individuals. But they are not so much reporting the news, but trying to interpret stories in ways that throw a positive light on their candidate. They can only provide commentaries on the news, most of which we already know, and from their staged point of view – a surrogate for a particular candidate. They are the ultimate extension of the so-called spin doctors for the candidates, such as immediately following a debate. They give us a perpetual debate of the spin-doctors, but not news. Whether print or TV journalists – the distinction is disappearing as the star surrogates move across platforms – the focus is on entertaining discussions of the ‘breaking news’ reported by others. The print journalists that are good on TV will be the most read in the papers, and that is likely to privilege engaging delivery over original substance.

The surrogates provide the greatest example of the decline of quality journalistic coverage. Journalists are not only becoming the sources of the news, many steps removed from the subjects and news events that they comment on, but also not from an objective, disinterested position. So you can hear a surrogate on a news panel ‘report’ that they had just had (presumably during a commercial) a call from one of their candidate’s supporters, and use that call as the basis of their sense of how the campaign was going. th

News has moved from the provision of information to entertainment as a means to reduce costs and increase viewers and readers. Journalists have moved from seeking to objectively report what is happening by distancing themselves from the hard news, being on stage rather than in the field, and slanting their story to fit their surrogate role.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there should be serious and careful discussion of all the institutions that brought us to two candidates with such unfavorable ratings among a worryingly divided electorate, but those institutions should go beyond the parties and the primary process, to also include critical assessment of the role of surrogate news in fostering our current distrust of the news, government, and the political process most generally. The public is – somehow – putting up with surrogates for real high-quality news. Its entertaining.

The New Status Symbol: A Secret Email Address

I have been so wrapped up in communicating with my colleagues and those who contact me, that I have missed the rise of a new status symbol. I recently took on a task that led me to contact a range of academics, with excellent track records in their respective fields. Some are simply known to be strong academics, others approach virtual ‘rock stars’ in the academy. I was struck by how often I found it quite difficult to find the email addresses of many, particularly the stars.

Clearly, all the academics had ample information online about their record of publications, their career and various academic positions and activities. They also have links to their Twitter, blog and Websites clearly identified. But email addresses are surprisingly often hidden, if not totally absent.

Some sites have a form to complete for staff to decide whether and how to forward a message to the academic they support. Some have an email tucked deep in text explaining how busy they are and that they cannot be bothered to respond to solicitations, requests for endorsements, and so forth. Some just don’t give you a clue about how to reach them by email.

What is going on here? One possibility is simply a rational response to the impossible task of keeping up with email. Many of us could spend their entire day simply responding to email. So if you want to pursue your own priorities, rather than only responding to others’ priorities, maybe making it more difficult to send you an email is a very pragmatic response. They could move to the Midwest, for example, but it might be easier to hide your email address. th-1

Another possible fix is to delegate email responses. At one time when I could ask an assistant to filter and respond to some email, I found myself taking more time going over decisions with my assistant than it would take me to work directly with my mail. I’m not sure there are good short cuts.

When I am busy on a deadline or travelling, I can get so far behind on email that many go without responses, and are eventually buried in the inbox. So maybe it would be better to not have an open email address than letting people believe you simply choose not to respond. Either way you irritate people you’d like to help.

Many of us are hooked on email because opportunities come your way, such as potential collaborations, prospective students, news, or job openings. You can argue that if a person really needs to reach you, they will find a way. It is not uncommon for example for people to ask me how to reach a colleague – a communication role I try to avoid. Nevertheless, it takes some confidence and courage to knowingly cut your self off from many emails.

But I don’t think you can reject the possibility that this has also become a sign of one’s status. It is a trend that is growing and among top people in your field. They are among the best at managing their time, and they are very busy following their own agenda. So they have less to lose, and more to gain, but protecting more of their time. So it might be a sign of one’s status, but also a rational response to the threat of email undermining one’s priorities. But for now, I’ll keep my email address public.

10th Anniversary of OII’s DPhil in Information, Communication & the Social Sciences

It was a real honour today to speak with some of the alumni (a new word for Oxford) of the Oxford Internet Institute’s DPhil programme. A number came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the DPhil. It began four seemingly long years after I became the OII’s founding director in 2002. So while I have retired from Oxford, it was wonderful to return virtually to congratulate these graduates on their degrees.

The programme, like the OII itself, was hatched through four years of discussions around how the Institute (which is a department at Oxford University) should move into teaching. Immediately after my arrival we began organizing the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme (SDP), which was an instant success and continues to draw top doctoral students from across the world who want to hone their thesis through an intensive summer programme with other doctoral students focused on Internet studies. The positive experience we had with this programme led us to move quickly to set up the DPhil – and four years is relatively quick in Oxford time.

As I told our alumni, the quality of our doctoral students has been largely responsible for the esteem the OII was able to gain across the university and colleges of Oxford. That and the international visibility of the OII enabled the department to later develop our Masters programme, and continue to attract excellent faculty and students from around the world. th-1

I am certain the OII DPhil programme has and will continue to progress since I left Oxford in 2014, such as in adding such strong faculty as Phil Howard and Gina Neff. However, I believe its early success was supported by four key principles that were part of our founding mission:

First, it was anchored in the social sciences. The OII is a department within the Division of Social Sciences at Oxford, which includes the Law Faculty. In 2002, but even since, this made us relatively unique given that so many universities, particular in the USA, viewed study of the Internet as an aspect of computer sciences and engineering. It is increasingly clear that Internet issues are multidisciplinary, and need a strong social science component that the social sciences should be well equipped to contribute. Many social sciences faculty are moving into Internet studies, which has become a burgeoning field, but the OII planted Internet studies squarely in the social sciences.

Secondly, our DPhil emphasized methods from the beginning. We needed to focus on methods to be respected across the social sciences in Oxford. But also we knew that the OII could actually move the social sciences forward in such areas as online research, later digital social science, and big data analytics as applied to the study of society. The OII did indeed help move the methods in the social sciences at Oxford into the digital age, such as through its work on e-Science and digital social research.

Thirdly, while it is somewhat of a cliché that research and teaching can complement each other, this was always the vision for the OII DPhil programme. And it happened in ways more valuable than we anticipated.

Finally, because Oxford was a green field in the areas of media, information and communication studies, with no legacy departments vying to own Internet studies, we could innovate around Internet studies from a multi-disciplinary perspective. And we found that many of the best students applying to the OII were multidisciplinary in their training even before they arrived, and understood the value of multidisciplinary, problem-focused research and teaching.

As you can see, I found the discussion today to be very stimulating. My 12 years at Oxford remains one of the highlights of my career, but it is so much enhanced by seeing our alumni continue to be engaged with the institute. So many thanks to Dame Stephanie Shirley for endowing the OII, and the many scholars across Oxford University and its Colleges, such as Andrew Graham and Colin Lucas, for their confidence and vision in establishing the OII and making the DPhil programme possible.

Remember, the OII was founded in 2001, shortly after the dotcom bubble burst and at a university that is inherently skeptical of new fields. Today the Internet faces a new wave of criticisms ranging from online bullying to global cyber security, including heightened threats to freedom of expression and privacy online. With politicians worldwide ratcheting up attacks on whistleblowers and social media, claiming undue political influence, threats to the Internet are escalating. This new wave of panic around the Internet and social media will make the OII and other departments focused on Internet studies even more critical in the coming years.

 

 

The 2016 US Presidential Election and the Institution of the Presidency

One of the classic works on the governance of England is Walter Bagehot’s (1867) The English Constitution. He observed that through the evolution of its unwritten Constitution entailed two critical but separate components, the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’. The former exercised symbolic power and was represented by the monarch, who did not have effective power but could capture the imagination and support of the public. The efficient component was represented by Parliament and the Prime Minister, who had the power to effect change. The modern Prime Minister of Britain in the 21st century retains this role in getting the work of government done, but has also become more ‘presidential’ in the American sense, but embodying more of the symbolic roles of the state. Nevertheless, despite contention, a far more educated public, and access to information about anything everywhere, Queen Elizabeth remains the major symbolic head of state, helping to maintain the legitimacy of the government. th-3

In the US, the founders had combined these dignified and effective components in the Office of the President. The US President represents the state in formal international ceremonies, such as in laying wreaths with the Queen or her representative, as well as being the chief executive and Commander of Chief on the nation’s military.

For decades, the preservation of the dignified role of the President as head of state has been a matter of debate. Television news was said to reveal so much about the President that it was impossible to maintain any myths about a President’s leadership (Meyrowitz 1985). Every foible, stumble, illness of a President is in the news for all to know. This transparency has a very positive role, such as undermining the potential for a president to become too powerful if shielded from the public accountability. However, it may also undermine the ability of the government to maintain the support and trust in the government that was delivered by the symbolic Chief of State.

It is obvious where I am going with this rendition of Bagehot’s perspective on the components of governance. Whomever you support for President, there must be some concern over whether the institution of the Presidency will be reduced dramatically by the revelations of the 2016 primaries and presidential campaigns. Will we, or have we, lost the dignified role of the Presidency? Maybe this is good and appropriate in a modern democratic state, but these trends are likely to generate far more discussion in the wake of the 2016 elections, whomever is elected. In whom will we entrust the dignified role of the Presidency? Perhaps this dignified role has been antiquated by modern forms of democratic governance, but the lack of trust in government, and the candidates for office, are likely to keep this debate alive.

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References

Bagehot, W. (1867), The English Constitution.

Meyrowitz, J. (1985), No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford University Press.