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Censorship on Facebook and Twitter – supporting the dominant ideology?

Pluralists would argue that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are just neutral sites through which anyone is free to express their opinion, however, Marxists would suggest that they work with governments and corporations to suppress views which go against the dominant ideology by censoring anything which challenges the mainstream capitalist world view.

The recent banning of the anti-media group from Facebook and Twitter seem to have gone further than just banning hate-groups and fake-news creators, and suggests support for the Marxist view of the media.

The banning of anti media from Facebook and Twitter

Anti-Media is an alternative news outlet that offers information that runs counter to the often pro-government narratives of traditional media outlets.

Their content is heavily critical of the current political system which they believe has heavily indebted ordinary people, and increasingly infringed on individual rights while expanding its reach and power.

They focus mainly on challenging unjust government corruption, oppression, and authority – criticising both ‘right’ and ‘left’ wing governments and part of their stated agenda is to awaken people from their passive subservience to big government and corporatism.

At their peak in 2016, Anti-media were reaching tens of millions of people per week, offering an alternative to the mainstream news, but their reach then declined, according to them, due to algorithmic changes following Trump coming to power.

Then in October 2018, the anti-media Facebook page was unpublished altogether, along with its Twitter feed shortly afterwards. A number of its employee’s twitter accounts were also suspended, including that of Carey Wedler, whose video about the issue, published on the censorship resistant site @dtube is well worth a watch.

NB her personal Twitter account was suspended without warning, and despite appealing this four months ago, she still hasn’t received a legitimate explanation of why her account was suspended.

The official Facebook and Twitter line was that they removed anti-media as part of a wider purge of  “spam” and “fake accounts” that targeted users with the intent of misleading them, by trying to do such things as driving them to ad farms to profit.

HOWEVER, neither anti-media nor their employees did any of this, they were dedicated to evidence-based factual reporting without sensationalism

Along with Anti-Media, dozens of pro-freedom libertarian pages were also deleted during the Facebook and Twitter purge back in October 2018, pages such as:

Some interesting analysis by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, who investigated these purges suggests that this isn’t about purging left or right political views, as both types of page and account were purged, but rather it was about censoring the following themes which are touched on by both ends of the political spectrum:

  • Anti-war content
  • Focus on police brutality and misuse of state power
  • Disinterest in two party politics

Relevance to A-level sociology

This seems to be a straightforward example of Facebook and Twitter censoring media content because of ideological reasons – anything which upsets the status quo by challenging the state too vociferously (whether from left or right ends of the political spectrum) and/ or draws attention to state violence is more likely to get censored.

In short, this suggests support for any perspective which argues that mainstream media companies collude to support the dominant ideology by gatekeeping out views which are hyper-critical of those in power.

If you don’t study the media, this is still yet more supporting evidence for Marxism in general, and relevant to Theory and Methods!

Sources

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China’s Social Credit System: Big Data meets Big Brother

Most of us are used to having our daily activities constantly monitored and evaluated – what we buy, how much tax we pay (or not), what television programmes we watch, what websites we visit, where we go, how ‘active’ we are’, who our friends are and how we interact with them – such monitoring is now done routinely via Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

Now, imagine if all of that ‘big data’ was fed to the central government, and mashed into a single number which would be our ‘citizen score’ which in turn would measure the value of our contribution to our nation and which would inform everyone of how patriotic, politically sound and trustworthy we are as a person.

And imagine further if that ‘citizen score’ determined our eligibility for certain jobs, our creditworthiness, where our children could go to school, or even our chances of getting a date.

This isn’t fantasy, China is in the process of developing such a Social Credit System, which will be mandatory by 2020. Presently, the Chinese government is liaising with various big data companies and trialing out schemes in order to figure out what kinds of data to collect, and what algorithms to use to determine an individual’s final ‘citizen score’.

The Trial Run…

One company which is set to be a major player in running China’s social credit system is Alibaba, which is currently trialling a ‘credit ranking scheme’ which people can voluntarily sign up to.

The scheme gives people a score of between 350 and 950, based on data collected from five major categories…

  1. Credit history – does the person pay their bills on time?
  2. Ability to fulfill contractual obligations on time
  3. Personal information – mobile phone number, address
  4. Behaviour and preference – such as what products someone buys – people who buy nappies are given a higher score, because parents tend to be more responsible, people who spend 10 hours a day playing video games are given a lower score.
  5. Interpersonal relationships – who your friends are and what you say on social media — those who ‘big up the Chinese economy’ get a higher score, for example.

It’s the the fourth and fifth categories above which are the most interesting… the first three are pretty standard (insurance companies in most countries will use these to assess premiums), but the last two involve turning personal comments into social and political capital…. they really politicize the personal!

When China’s social credit system ‘goes live’ in 2020, private companies will essentially be spying for the Chinese government – and negative tweets about Tiananmen Square for example, will hurt your social credit score.

FFS DO NOT thumbs up the tank guy!

And if your friends post negative tweets about Tiananmen Square, well, that will also make your score go down!

Rewards and Punishments

Volunteers who are currently signed up to Alibaba’s trial get rewards if they get a high credit score – preferential access to loans if they get a score above 600, and if they get to 650 they get faster check-ins at hotels and airports.

When the system eventually goes live in 2020, people with lower citizen scores will be punished – with slower internet speeds, restricted access to restaurants and will lose the right to freely travel abroad, for example.

As the government states the social credit system will ‘allow they trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step’.

Is it that different to what we’ve got in the West?

While this may look like a horrific meeting between George Orwell’s 1984 and Pavlov’s dogs, maybe this isn’t that different to western big data management systems?

We’ve had credit scoring for 70 years now, that doesn’t exist in China yet, so this could just be a rapid development of what here has evolved by stealth.

And as to using personalized data….. individuals already rate restaurants, movies and books, and each other!, and various companies routinely scrutinize big data….maybe we are also getting closer to the Chinese concept of ‘life scoring’ as our real world and online worlds merge.

Sources

Modified from The Week, November 2017

Book – Rachel Botsman (2017) Who Can You Trust: How Technology Brought Us Together – and Why it Could Drive Us Apart

 

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Technology Companies and the Digital Privatisation of Public Education

Education has long been influenced by private companies, but the rise of digital education has expanded the role of private technology companies, in public education enormously. Such companies range from the big global technology companies such as Microsoft and Facebook to smaller, silicon valley tech startups.

This post explores the companies involved, and the neoliberal, Silicon Valley mindset that lies behind what I call the ‘digital privatization of public education’.

Introduction – Digital Capitalism and Education

Schooling in the 1700s and 1800s was provided largely through private institutions, and the expansion of public education in the late 19th and 20th centuries was influenced by the commercial interests of text book publishing companies.

Digital Technology gives private, commercial interests greater potential to influence how public education is organised and delivered.

The reason for this is simply logistical – Nation States do not have the scope to develop digital technologies, and so it is massive, Transnational private technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft which are  driving the development of these technologies, and the public education sectors of national governments who are their largest potential market.

All of the above mentioned companies have education divisions, oriented to developing education software and applications for use in schools, and many other companies are developing educational products: from Pearsons to Lego.

At the other end of the scale from the massive TNC sector there are hundreds, if not thousands of smaller educational technology start ups, as small-fish seek to gain a foothold in the education market.

The fact that digital education is very big business is due to the fact that the global market for education is estimated to be around $5 trillion, with the estimated market for online Higher Education ‘e-learning’ products alone estimated at $91 billion.

In short, the potential expansion of for-profit digital education is huge.

The benefits of commercial involvement in digital education

Selwyn identifies a number of (potential) benefits of the involvement of private ICT companies in bringing digital technology more into public education:

  1. TNCs enjoy economies of scale that dwarf public sector organisations – they have global reach, and enormous sums of money to invest, and they tend to ‘think big’… as one of Google’s international heads of education puts it: ‘Technology was hard to deploy in schools and we’re making the solutions we supply very easy to manage….new technology is finally able to work for us in schools’.
  2. The private sector emphasize the importance of quick results and demonstrable outcomes – they are, after all, ultimately accountable to their share holders.
  3. The IT industry is clearly well poised to bring innovation into education – innovation being defined as introducing new products and ideas that support changes in the established way of doing things. These organisations thrive on thinking big and acting quickly. They pride themselves on thinking differently – they see themselves as risk takers and boundary-pushers, cultivating an ‘outsider perspective’ unfettered by establishment thinking or old money. This is especially true in the ed-tech start-up sector, in which millions of dollars are invested in hundreds of companies, only a few of which will go on to be the next ‘big thing’.

Digital Education and rise of ‘Californian Capitalism’

Sebastian Thrun (co-founder of online learning company Udacity Inc reasoned ‘Education is broken. Face it…. it is so broken at so many ends, it requires an little bit of Silicon Valley Magic’.

The idea of ‘Silicon Valley Magic’ alludes to the set of business practices and approaches that underpin the new high-tech economy and its increased interest in education.

This mentality was described neatly by Will Hutton, based on his account of a visit to Palo Alto during the early 2010s following which he wrote of the global significance of the strain of ‘Californian Capitalism’ that characterizes Silicon Valley institutions such as Google, Oracle and even Stanford University.

‘We are increasingly living in a world where economics, politics, culture and society are being shaped by West Coast ideals of the power of computing, entrepreneurialism and risk-taking approach to investment.

The ways Silicon Valley firms seek to do business are shaped profoundly by the programming and hacking backgrounds of their main protagonists such as Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergcy Brin, Larry Ellision, Peter Thiel and so on. All of these high-tech billionnaires remain steeped in a programmer mindset where a faith in computational power and an always on networked way of life fuel a relentless focus on invention and innovation.

This is a culture of all night coding sessions and a succession of ambitiouss start-ups, most of which quickly fail, backed by investors keen to take a punt on the next ‘big thing’.

These are ventures which are based on big ideas, solving computational problems, entrepreneurialism, openness, collaboration, learning through failure and relentless self belief and optimism, based on a relentless mindset that revels in the power of individuals rather than institutions, and the creative potential of manageable amounts of renewal and disruption.

Although all of these high tech firms seek to make a profit, many of the main industry protagonists also want to ‘make a difference’ and seek to use frontier technologies to engage with immense societal challenges such as world health and global poverty, and it understands that it is part of society and owes a debt to the culture and public infrastructure that created it.

Thinking Big, spending bigger

Education is one of those sectors in which silicon valley firms seek to ‘make a difference’. This is evidenced in many different forms:

In the well-established and vast educational programmes run by all of the large multinational IT companies – often under the aegis of ‘corporate social responsibility’. These activities range from the physical design and construction of ‘schools of the future’ to the development of teacher training programmes, alternative curricula and the provision of computer hardware, software and the infrastructure to educational institutions.

There are also a range of far more ambitious initiatives such as Peter Thiel’s ‘Thiel Fellowship’ through which young people are awarded $100 00 to drop out of college and pursue their dreams by setting up a world changing business idea’; Mark Zukerberg’s ‘Start-up: Education’ through which Zuckerberg has made personal donations of $100 million to the Newark school district and $120 million to schools in the Sanfrancisco Bay area; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation boasts an extensive educational programme, including its key role in driving recent US school reforms around standardised testing and the common core curriculum. It has also spent over $470 million on US higher education reform, funding projects and generally creating what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls an ‘echo chamber of like minded ideas’.

We should also not overlook the considerable ‘soft power’ of high tech corporations in education decision making, such as with the computer industry’s considerable lobbying governments to focus more on teaching coding in schools, which now seems to be accepted universally as a ‘good thing’. The Chairman of Google, Eric Smidt has been a leading proponent of this push since 2010.

Finally, there are the various companies involved in setting up MOOCs, one of the largest of which is Coursera, bolstered by $85 million of venture capital funding.

All of these activities shows that corporate involvement in education is sometimes submerged in complex networks of influence and power, and if one finds time to follow the money, one finds that high-tech firms are in some way involved in seeking to profit from most, if not all, of the digital education initiatives out there.

It follows that the biggest movers and shakers in digital education are not educators and teachers, but rather programmers, hackers and the trillion dollar tech industry which has grown up around them.

These interventions illustrate the power which IT corporations can wield over public education, and these are increasingly strong voices in conversations about education reform, setting the tone for how education should be reimagined in the ‘digital age’.

Sources: Nick Selwyn (2016): Is Digital Education Good for Education?

Forthcoming Post:

The problems of the increasing role of Tech companies in public education

 

 

 

 

 

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How Technology Companies Manipulate our Behaviour

Design features such as likes, swipes, notifications and autoplays make being on-line more addictive, less autonomous, and cause pyschological and social harm, at least according to this recent Guardian Article by Paul Lewis: Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia‘.

Are we all digital technology zombies?

Below I summarize this article and add in a few comments.

Technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google have incorporated a range of design features into their mobile devices, operating systems and social media applications that make them addictive, which results in us spending longer online than we really want to, clicking on links we never intended to and making us more distracted, less rational and more impulsive than ever.

Former Google employee Tristan Harris says that all of our minds are “jacked into the system” and “all our minds can be hijacked. We are not as free as we think we are”. Harris believes that tech companies deliberately set out to make their products addictive, as they are oriented to respond to the incentives of an advertising economy and thus experiment with techniques which are most likely to grab people’s attention.

As an example, Harris points out that the Facebook icon which notifies users of new activity and ‘likes’ was originally blue, but no one used it, then they switched it to red, and everyone used it, because red is a trigger colour, which is why it is used as an alarm signal. Now the red icon is everywhere, and every time smartphone users glance at their phones, dozens or hundreds of times a day, they are confronted with small red dots, pleading to be tapped.

red notification icon
The Red Notification Icon – Inducing the anxiety of variable rewards?

The most seductive design, according to Harris, exploits the psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive – variable rewards. Each time you swipe down you don’t know what’s coming next, either an avalanche of likes, or nothing, and the action even mirrors that of the slot machine: a human action to ‘pull down’, and a pause before a variable result. The pull-down to refresh was originally designed in 2009, and has since become one of the most widely emulated features in apps – even though refreshing can now be done automatically, the pull-down function remains, because if users aren’t involved in the process, then the experience is less addictive.

social media swipe addiction
Swipe to refresh and lock-in your addiction

Justin Rosenstein designed the like feature for Facebook in 2007 – to create a means to send ‘little bits of positivity at the click of a button’, creating what he now calls ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’. ‘Likes’ were  wildly successful, and hence they spread to a range of other social media platforms, and now it is the short-term pleasure of this social affirmation that is one of the features which drives people to touch, swipe or tap their phone more than 2500 times a day on average.

Facebook Like
Facebook like – dings of pseudo-pleasure?

Tech companies can exploit such information to keep people hooked: manipulating, for example, when people receive ‘likes’ for their posts, ensuring that they arrive when an individual is most likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or just bored, and such information can be sold to the highest bidder.

James Williams, a former Google employee who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, but has now turned critic of the industry, describes the tech industry as one which has the ‘largest and most centralised form of attentional control in human history’ – he had an epiphany moment one day while working at google when he glanced at one of Google’s multi-coloured dashboards showing how much of people’s attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. He says that he realised ‘this is literally a million people that we’ve persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to do otherwise.’

Some of the Negatives Effects of Being Online

Firstly, technology may be contributing to so-called ‘continuous partial attention’ – In the attention economy (driven by the needs of advertisers) – everyone is distracted most of the time – which actually prevents us from getting things done, the complete opposite of what technology was intended to do!

Secondly, the attention economy thrives on a ‘sensationalise, bate and entertain’ logic and as a result the media is now is now more than ever biased in favour of that which is sensationalist and entertaining. People like Donald Trump do well in this environment because they are good at grabbing attention with their simplistic,  emotional and extremist views –  that which is rational is less likely to get attention than that which is impulsive.

Finally, and related to the above point, this may be changing how we view politics – we see it in increasingly polarised terms – because the only thing which grabs our attention at a similar level of Donald Trump is a similarly extreme reaction, in the form of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn for example.

What are the solutions to avoid getting addicted in the attention economy?

Some of the big names who created the technologies of the attention economy are actually ducking out of it themselves – having turned off their social media updates, or even uninstalled most of the apps from their hardware.

Find out More

If you’re interested in Tristan Harris’ initiative to make digital technologies less addictive – you might like to check out his Time Well Spent Website, and his TED talk below…

Related A-Level Sociology Debates

As I see it this material fits in to at least two places on the A-level sociology syllabus:

  • This material seems to be coming from the structuralist side of sociology – that society shapes (or at least frames) social action. See this post: ‘Sociological perspectives: the basics‘ for an overview of structure versus action approaches in sociology.
  • There’s also some clear relevance to the increasing power of Transnational Corporations: this material certainly suggests that transnational technology companies wield enormous power to shape people’s actions.
  • If you study the media option for A level paper 2, no doubt it’s even more relevant!

 

 

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Revise Sociology on Facebook, Twitter and the Rest…

Below are some links to the main social media sites I use.

If you like this sort of sociology thang, then you might like to follow me by clicking on any, or all of the icons below….

Blog

Twitter – @realsociology

 

 

 

 

Facebook Page

 

 

 

 

Google Plus 

 

 

 

 

Linked In

 

 

 

 

And a few more….

I’ll add in the real perty (‘pretty’) logos later….

  1. YouTube
  2. TES
  3. Quizlet.com

Disclaimer/ Apology

OK OK I know this is a shameless ‘plug my online constructed self page’, but I’ve just spent two hours consolidating my social media profiles, so that’s it for today folks!

It’s probably worth noting that this blog is the main ‘hub site’ I use to post stuff: and most of the other sites are just what I use to publicize what I post on this blog – so cycling through all the above sites will give your the most wonderful feeling of an inward looking cycle of self-referentiality.

Also this is something of an experiment with the ‘contact details’ part of my C.V. which I’m currently trying to reinvent for the 21st century, and that is honestly about as much fun as it sounds!

Tomorrow I promise I’ll post some actual content.