erhardt | MIT Center for Civic Media

Recent blog posts by erhardt

The disruptive moment is over: Micah Sifry on why the internet hasn't transformed politics (yet)

This is a liveblog of Micah Sifry's book talk hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. It is not a perfect transcript of the event.

Livebloggers included Erhardt Graeff, David Weinberger, Nathan Matias, Sands Fish, Dalia Othman, Mayte Schomburg, and David Larochelle.

Micah Sifry at the Berkman Center

Keeping Up and Keeping it Real: An Analysis of the Social Life of Civic Media

Talk by Eric Gordon (@ericbot) of Emerson's Engagement Lab and Rogelio Lopez (@Tochtli_exe) of USC Annenberg at the MIT Center for Civic Media.

This is a liveblog of a talk on November 6, 2014, recorded by Alexis, Ali, Adrienne, Catherine, Nathan, and Erhardt.

Keep Up and Keeping it Real: An Analysis of the Social Life of Civic Media

The context of the talk is the space of "civic tech." It's a field that has been defined by corporations and foundations. They have been seeking to put a lot of things into recognizable envelopes.

Mostly, civic tech is associated with government and government innovation. Increasingly, there’s an effort made by other organizations to use that term. Some of the narratives that pop up in civic tech are that of the smart city, entrepreneurship, and efficiency.

They were curious about how would you characterize civic tech through a metaphor in terms of the operations of your organization? "We're the NASA of non-profits." This is to say it is a scientific enterprise and also that there is a frontier out ahead. This was a very positive spin on the use of technology in nonprofit work.

When we talk about civic tech to NGOs the rhetoric isn’t as positive. “It’s a sourdough starter, you have to keep feeding it unless it dies,” or “deer in the headlights.”

Most of the time, the metaphors being used to describe the technologies of integration are filled with fear and anxiety.

“Everything keeps changing all the time,” Gordon says to express his frustration with the technology landscape. "Keeping it to the traditional, like, grassroots organizing tools of going out and having one-on-one conversations."

Themes of "Keeping up" and "keeping it real" kept coming up in their interviews. Rogelio explains that keeping up means staying current with technologies, but they wanted to focus on “keeping it real,” because many of these communities were focused on communities who worked in the grassroots activism space.

For many organizations, legitimation is based in the grassroots. The efficacy is judged based on how it affects residents. The reality is organizations are struggling with the normative maxim “keeping it real.” Eric notes that they are particularly interested in community organization and grassroot techniques.

There is a need to complicate discourse. “There is so much stuff going on in the course of using technology." 

Molly Sauter and The Coming Swarm: A Fireside Chat

On October 29, 2014, The Berkman Center hosted Civic Media alum Molly Sauter in a "fireside chat" with Nieman Fellow Laurie Penny about Molly's new book The Coming Swarm: DDOS, Hactivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. This is a liveblog of that conversation (not a transcript), co-written with Dalia Othman and Kendra Albert.

The Coming Swarm book cover

Laurie: Can you tell us please what is a DDOS?

Molly: How many people have younger siblings, and you may have gone to Disneyland? I have a little brother, and when we were going to Disney wherever, he would be like "Hey Molly! Hey Molly! Hey Molly!” repeatedly. Now, imagine your younger sibling is a server saying that to you over and over and over again. That’s a DDOS. Pinging a targeted server a bunch of times until it falls done. An activist DDOS is doing this with as the target. And there was a time when that was a reasonable action: on 4pm on a Wednesday, you would coordinate and start refreshing the page on and crashing it with your friends.

Laurie: I didn’t realize that this is something that has a long history, it spans long before wikileaks and Anonymous’s DDOS attacks then, it goes back to the WTO Battle for Seattle.

Molly: DDOS has been around at least since the early 1990s. For example, Quebec redphoning: calling the same political switchboard. Flood your congressman with more mail than they can read. Those are types of DDOS.

The Strano Network Net Strike was the first example back in 1995(?) that Molly found. Italian group attacking a French nuclear company. Electronic Disturbance Theater (that were involved with the zapatistas) and Electrohippies were both American groups who did activist DDOS in the 1990s

Laurie: Can you break that down a little bit, can you talk more about attention getting versus direct action?

Molly: Attention getting activism is a good way of describing the paradigm of activist intervention that we see contemporarily. Through press coverage of the intervention, you gain the attention you need to put it on the political agenda. Direct action is instead about working on the issue you want to make change on. Spiking trees to stop logging, or sending out your own ships to drive off whales from whaling ships in environmental activism and Electrohippies stopping the WTO from emailing itself.

Laurie: Protest is when I say I don’t like a thing, resistance is when I stop that thing from happening. So where does DDOS fall?

Molly: It really can be on either side of the spectrum. It depends on what your goals are. It's so easy with DDOS, where activists will direct the press toward an issue or target by DDOSing them. It's easier to do an attention-getting DDOS now than ever before - but much more difficult for you and your friends to take down servers on your own, because of advances in web infrastructure.

Laurie: Can we talk about Operation Payback linked to Anonymous? Especially for journalists in the room, that was a big deal, I remember that I did trying to learn the background.

Molly: Operation Payback was in the late fall / early winter of 2010. Everyone remembers Cablegate and Wikileaks in this room, right? The US government got upset over the cables publication and asked financial institutions to stop enabling funding of Wikileaks.

Anonymous was already, confusingly enough, involved in an action called "Operation Payback" targeting the MPAA and RIAA. They expanded their target pool to VISA, MasterCard, a Swedish banking site, and several congress member's sites. This lasted for a about a week, also under the name "Operation Avenge Assange." 

Creating Learning Guides for Community Makers

On Saturday, October 26, 2014, Nathan Matias and I co-facilitated a session at Mozilla Festival on creating "Learning Guides for Community Makers" along with Gabriela Rodriguez, Janet Gunter (@JanetGunter), Linda Sandvik, Vanessa Gennarelli.

The main goal of the session was to help participants create a learning guides for other community-focused makers based on initiatives, projects, and workshops they have already organized, hosting them here:

We are also interested in connecting practitioners together who are working at the intersection of code/data literacy, civic technology, and youth development. The effort was inspired in part by MIT Media Lab alumni projects like Young Activists Network (Leo Burd) and ScratchEd (Karen Brennan).

We kicked off the session by discussing "What do we mean by civic and community-focused making?" This proved an engaging topic, especially as we dug into my own definition and goals. I offered the idea that there are changes we would like to see in the world, and we would like more people to be in the business of making change, so its important to support the growth of an inclusive Civic Tech movement. We debated whether a sense of membership in some kind of "civic tech movement" was a necessary part of community-focused making. We agreed that community-focus was both about working in existing communities as well as building new communities through collaboration, forming and strengthening relationships with others.

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. (Edit: Lada later clarified to me that the treatment involved adding more news content of all kinds to certain users' news feeds, not just political news. - EG, Oct 29 2014) 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.