erhardt's blog

Learning from Political Experiments and Information Cascades on Facebook

This is a liveblog of Lada Adamic's plenary keynote from Political Networks 2014.

When your friends deliver the news
Lada Adamic is a Data Scientist at Facebook and former associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information. Her talk is entitled "When your friends deliver the news." Using studies based on Facebook data, she invites us to think about factors of social networks that affect the spread of information.

She opens with a set of questions and concerns raised by the idea of your talk's title: what happens when your friends deliver the news through what they share on Facebook...

  • How is your exposure affected? (Your friends are not a random sample of the population nor are they mainstream media journalists.)
  • Does it affect political engagement? (How interested you are or likely to vote.)
  • What do social movements look like? How does success propagate?
  • How does any information spread, is it predictable?
  • Is it reliable?

Lada shows us the top five most shared stories from a year ago (i.e. June 2013):

  1. Drowning doesn't look like drowning (Slate)
  2. Boy's death highlights a hidden danger: Dry drowning (Today Show piece containing substantial misinformation)
  3. 22 Maps that Show how american speak English totally different from one other (Business Insider maps that were later integrated in the most read NYT story of 2013)
  4. Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations (The Guardian)
  5. 8 Foods we eat in the us that are banned in other countries (Buzzfeed)

She tells us that women in their 40s read the drowning pieces, whereas men in their 20s read the Snowden piece. There are definitely clusters of people more likely to read certain stories. But Lada asks: Is there a filter bubble? Do we get echo chambers, especially across political lines?

Using information from users' profile pages, Lada and team members rated what people's political leanings were: very liberal, moderately liberal, moderately conservative, very conservative. And they coded the different news sites by what was read by users of certain political leanings: from ThinkProgress on the far Left to FoxNews on the far right. They found that content skews liberal in aggregate over Facebook even though ideology is balanced. There is simply more liberal content shared by all users on the network. Lada cites Duncan Watts' Friend Sense app research, and asks: Can we understand what the egonetwork of a conservative looks like?

People's friends aren't exclusive to their political beliefs. They found that the distribution of friendships skews toward their own political leaning but still retains some balance across the spectrum. Then they looked at the interactive patterns between users and news across the political spectrum, breaking them down into four buckets of user-news interaction:

  • Potential: all of the news your friends are sharing
  • Exposed: what showed up in your news feed (balanced diet of liberal and conservative for conservative users)
  • Selected: what was clicked on (no effect, they were clicked on in proportion to what showed up in feed)
  • Endorsed: what is liked this is where the difference exists, conservatives are much less likely to endorse liberal news

They found that endorsement was the key difference between users of conservative versus liberal ideology. Conservative users were significantly less likely to endorse liberal news, even though they were served and even clicked to read liberal news at similar rates to the liberal users.

Research by Solomon Messing and Eytan Bakshy looked at and experimented with activity on Facebook prior to the 2012 election. The treatment involved adding more political news in certain users' news feeds. They found that people reported being more interested in politics and government when, unbenkownst to them, they were getting more news in their feed. There was a greater effect for users that don't log in everyday, since people who log in everyday are more likely to read everything. The treatment group also reported they were more likely to vote, with a stronger effect again on less regular users. 

Hacking Civics Education with Phillips Andover Students

On Wednesday, May 21, 2014, we hosted the Hacking Andover class, "an experiment in education for the digital age," comprising seniors from Phillips Andover Academy led by their teacher and head of school John Palfrey. We designed a two hour block connecting creative learning at the MIT Media Lab with civic technologies and civics education.

Alex Anderlik, one of the Andover students, beat us to blogging about this workshop. Do check out his great Google+ story: MIT Media Lab: Hacking Class Field Trip

Civic Fiction: The Real Insidiousness of A Gay Girl in Damascus according to Molly Sauter

At Theorizing the Web this year, MIT Center for Civic Media alum Molly Sauter delivered a powerful paper on the idea of "civic fiction" using the the case of A Gay Girl in Damascus (about how a white American man created a compelling fake lesbian Syrian blogger named Amina during the height of the Syrian resistance) to show how a fictional narrative co-constructed by a culturally homogenous author and audience (in this case Western) can do problematic political work by amplifying an Orientalist narrative. The result is a feedback loop through a media ecosystem that thinks its functioning as a bridge between narratives but is actually serving as a insidious mirror.

Her concepts of "civic fiction" and the "mirror figure" are important new constructs for civic media to wrestle with. At the Center for Civic Media, our standard "demo" slides feature an image of Mike Daisey holding an iPad with the caption "exaggeration and distortion," which we use as an example of ways we need to be skeptical about the way media is used for civic and activist purposes. In Daisey's case, his source was actually theater, but it was dropped into a news context—a situation he's reflected on with respect to how truth is negotiated with the audience.* Often we think about these not as fictions but little distortions that add up to propaganda in some cases. What's new about the Amina hoax in the case Molly presents is the possibility that we will all be in on it, unwittingly or not—our biases confirmed. And we won't be able to fact-check our way out of one of these feedback loops because the truth is inaccessible in a place like Syria. What if This American Life couldn't do the background research and produce a completely separate episode to retract Mike Daisey's "creative" version of the truth?

Below are my notes from Molly's talk, and you can also watch her deliver it thanks to the livestream capture. 

Strike Debt and the Moral Argument for Debt Resistance

Liveblog of Civic Media Lunch w/ Ann Larson and Aaron Smith, two of the organizers of Strike Debt. Blogged by Erhardt Graeff and Rahul Bhargava.

Nice to be here on May Day, May 1st—international worker's day, starts Ann Larson before she starts their argument: Debt resistance is well-suited as a political tactic. Debt is not autonomous, it exist as part of an economic and political system. A recent study that claims the US is an oligarchy, not a participatory democracy. How do we begin to change that dynamic, how do we begin to develop counterpower?

Ann and Aaron Smith are here to introduce a bit of background, talk about how Strike Debt got to where it is, focusing on student debt as an illustrative example. Then they'll share some of their projects and interventions: Debt Assemblies, Rolling Jubilee, and the Debt Resisters Operations Manual.

Notes on Monitory Democracy and a Networked Civil Society

Schudson's The Good Citizen

Ethan and I have been exploring the concept of monitorial citizenship in the pursuit of a definition or roadmap for "effective citizenship." We are working on related projects trying to operationalize Michael Schudson's idea of monitorial citizenship from his book The Good Citizen, but using slightly different definitions. Ethan's project Promise Tracker, being developed by several of our colleagues at the Center for Civic Media, thinks of monitorial citizenship as the responsibility of citizens "to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave." My master's thesis project Action Path thinks of monitorial citizenship more like Jane Jacobs idea of "eyes on the street," whereby average citizens are being civic and gathering useful information in aggregate by simply "watching their kids, keeping abreast of important consumer recalls, noting how weather affects the cost of groceries or their ability to check in on family members' safety."

Both of us may be thinking of monitorial citizens in different ways than Schudson and other scholars use the term. Marc Hooghe, in a paper reacting to Schudson called "Does the 'Monitorial Citizen' Exist?" [paywalled] looks for citizens who are critical non-participants in political life, but care deeply about social issues.

This week Ethan and I read a couple of papers as part of our ongoing conversation of monitorial citizenship. Schudson, himself, kindly pointed us to an essay by John Keane, unpacking monitory democracy as a new vision of "democracy in our times." Ethan has also been eager to dive into a prescient manuscript by David Ronfeldt, which proposes a framework for societal evolution wherein networks represent the latest organization form necessary for the success of advanced societies.

The following are our thoughts on these two pieces... 

Thinking about Design with Geo-fences

Here at the Center for Civic Media, we're exploring the use of smartphone apps for civic engagement. I'm really excited about using geo-fences for civic engagement; my project Action Path uses them to trigger push notifications about opportunities to participate as you walk down the street. But it's still an open question: What constitutes good uses and good design for geo-fences?

Nathan Matias and I ran a workshop on March 14, 2014 at MIT exploring this question with other students interested in using geo-fences in mobile design. The following are our notes and takeaways.

The What and Why of Geo-fences
First off, it's important to differentiate geo-fencing from geo-location and geo-awareness. Here are some definitions:

  • Geo-location: identifying the real-world location of a user with GPS, Wi-Fi, and other sensors
  • Geo-fencing: taking an action when a user enters or exits a geographic area
  • Geo-awareness: customizing and localizing the user experience based on rough approximation of user location, often used in browsers

Since geofencing is focused on action, not all location-based mobile experiences require it. Many designs can and should avoid the messiness of using geo-fencing by relying on basic geolocation services.

Geofence Example
Entering and exiting a geo-fence

Good, or common, uses of geo-fencing include: location tracking of objects and users, lifehacking, games (in the form of run-arounds, check-ins), and hyper-local ads and offers. Apps that are obvious employers of geo-fences include: foursquare (check-in reminders), ChildrenTracker (alerts for parents when kids are home or at school), and Field Trip (notifications about places to see around a community). However, there are some clever, non-obvious uses of geo-fences like Google Keep, which allows you to set location-based reminders for notes to self (lifehacking) and Pandora's radio app, which sends hyper-local ads to you as you walk-about, most notably McDonald's.

Action Path: A Location-Based Tool for Civic Reflection and Engagement

This is the talk I delivered for the "Civic Media Geography: Experiments In Cosmopolitanism, Citizenship and Accountability" panel I organized at Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship: Eleventh Annual Conference in Citizenship Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI on March 21, 2014.

Today, I'm going to talk about a tool I'm building. It's a smartphone app called Action Path. But it hasn't been deployed yet, so I can't tell you how it's revolutionized civic learning or engagement. But I can tell you about my motivation for building it. Specifically, I want to talk about the theories of citizenship which inspire me and what I see as currently missing in the landscape of approaches to civic technology, and even civic engagement more broadly.

Balancing Deep and Wide Impacts in the Design of Civic Tech

These are the prefatory remarks I made as moderator during the panel "Balancing Deep and Wide Impacts in the Design of Civic Tech" at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, Boston, MA on March 8, 2014.

I'm working on a project called Action Path. Similar to Promise Tracker, which will be the featured case study in this session, Action Path is a smartphone app for civic engagement. Specifically, the app uses geo-fencing, a technique based on the awareness of the user's GPS coordinates, to send notifications to users about opportunities to take quick actions in the form of polls or documentation of a local area for easy, yet contextually-relevant civic engagement. As indicated by my promo slide here, it's meant to marry mobile computing with the concept of a "Jane Jacobs Walk," whereby you only really understand a city's needs and resources through walking its streets. I hope you all agree that this sounds great... at least in theory.

But what does this look like in practice? Well, right now it looks like three two-hour public meetings per week, where I sit and learn about the ongoing planning processes in Somerville—the city where I live and hope to do my research. I am building trust with folks in the planning department at the City of Somerville and the leaders and organizers in civil society organizations who work on issues like land use, affordable housing, and beautification in different neighborhoods around town.

There are lot of conflicting agendas among these different groups, all of whom I need buy-in from in order to, 1) make sure that I have enough people test my app, and 2) ensure the app is stocked with relevant actions that a) make my partners feel good about endorsing it among their members, and b) make the city and private developers happy because the feedback will be in a form that can inform their planning processes, WITHOUT becoming overly politicized. I want to have real impact, and tying the technology to real impact is important for my research

In the end, I have to write this up as a thesis. And that means I need a rigorous study of some kind showing that people's understanding of their ability to make a difference in their city has changed.

I appreciate that this is an iterative and interactive process that demands flexibility, but it's also hard from the perspectives of design, research, PLUS overall impact. And it's actually the social processes around the technology that are harder to design than the mobile app itself.

Binders Full of Election Memes: Expanding Political Discourse

This is text of the talk I delivered for the "Click, Meme, Hack, Change: Civic Media Theory and Practice" panel I organized at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, Chicago, IL on March 14, 2013.

What do I mean by memes? Well I'm talking about internet memes: cultural artifacts that are generally user-generated content that is shared widely and remixed in various ways. This should be very familiar to most people in the Digital Media and Learning community.

We've got image macros like the lolcat, we've got animated gifs, and the viral video. There are of course political versions of these popular meme forms. And I'm going to focus on three that came out of the last US presidential election cycle: "Fired Big Bird," "Binders Full of Women," and "You Didn't Build That."

Each of these memes mainly consist of image macros, and I'm going to feature the image macros because they are the easiest meme to produce, thus available to the most people to produce. There are several image macro meme generators online now that allow you to upload your own image and overlay the classic bold white font.

But what I want to argue in this talk is that it isn't just about the creation of these memes—which we all know is interesting and valuable—it's also about the sharing of them. Sharing these memes I believe represents a political speech act itself, which generates political discourse of value. And just like we have low barriers to entry for creation, so also do we have low barriers for sharing with ready audiences on Twitter, coalescing into publics around hashtags, or on Tumblr, through tagging and curation.

Mapping the Trayvon Martin Media Controversy

This is a summary of the article “The Battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy Online and Offline,” co-authored by Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman and appearing as the lead article in the February 2014 issue of First Mondayhttp://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4947.

News coverage about the killing of Trayvon Martin started as a short-lived, local Florida news piece, but through strategic activation of traditional broadcast media and participatory online activism, eventually became the most-widely covered story about race in the last five years. The story drew immense coverage from professional journalists and active public engagement online and offline, offering a potent case study for examining the role and influence of participatory media on media agendas.

To make this research possible, we’ve been building Media Cloud with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. It’s a toolset for rigorous, quantitative studies of media agendas and frames. Media Cloud collects stories from a corpus of more than 27,000 mainstream media and blog sources, and uses a link-following methodology to expand the corpus to other relevant sources.

The first major analysis to use Media Cloud’s tools for the purposes of “controversy mapping” considered the emergence in nontraditional, online media of opposition to proposed SOPA-PIPA legislation. In contrast to SOPA-PIPA, the Trayvon Martin story occurred and unfolded substantially offline: the shooting of a black teenager eventually sparked a national debate across multiple media channels, in rallies and marches, and in the speeches and actions of major political figures. Initially, the story passed with little notice, but the efforts of a small pro bono team of lawyers and publicists attracted the national limelight. From there, the Trayvon Martin story spread to broader audiences through a widely signed online petition, 24x7 cable news coverage, multiple activist campaigns including competing political agendas pushed by participatory media, a deeply emotional response from President Obama, and a widely televised criminal trial.

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