Jigsaw – the missing piece in policing the internet?

jigsaw

Should Google and others influence our online behaviours? (Image c/o Cindee Snider Re on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, the results of a pilot project run by Jigsaw (a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc – formerly Google) to send those seeking information on ISIS towards counter-propaganda anti-ISIS materials on YouTube were revealed. Over the course of the two month program, according to Wired, 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Furthermore, “searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign”. The success of the programme has led to plans to relaunch the program focusing on North American extremists, targeting white supremacists as well as potential ISIS recruits.

But the efforts of Jigsaw to police the internet doesn’t begin and end with counter-propaganda designed to stop individuals from being sucked into a violent ideology. According to Wired’s Andy Greenberg:

The New York-based think tank and tech incubator aims to build products that use Google’s massive infrastructure and engineering muscle not to advance the best possibilities of the internet but to fix the worst of it: surveillance, extremist indoctrination, censorship. The group sees its work, in part, as taking on the most intractable jobs in Google’s larger mission to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”.

Although there are elements of that mission that are to be welcomed, there is much also that is problematic at best and highly unethical at worst.

With regards to the determination to challenge extremist indoctrination, there are very obvious and serious questions that need to be asked here, not least how do we define extremism? Communism and anarchism have, for many decades, been perceived to be “extremist ideologies”, should anyone investigating such ideologies also be exposed to counter-propaganda? Is it Google/Jigsaw who determine whether such ideologies are “extremist”? And, if so, how “neutral” can we expect them to be about ideologies that would see corporations such as themselves broken up and no longer permitted to operate in the ways in which they currently operate? We know that such tech companies are susceptible to state pressure (as with Google, so it is also with Yahoo! and others).

Of course, this is nothing new. Large tech companies are increasingly seeing themselves as a form of global police force that acts as a form of privatised global state department. Much as I value the defence that Apple put up when the FBI demanded access to the infamous San Bernardino phone, is it really appropriate that they refused to do so? My gut instinct is to say, in this particular example, yes (I should add I am an iPhone user so I am somewhat seeing it through the prism of the protection of my communications etc). But should a large multinational corporation get to pick and choose which laws it abides by? If an individual in a liberal Western democracy refused to accede to a request by the security services, you can be sure that both sides wouldn’t be arguing across the media. They’d be arguing through the bars of a jail cell.

This tech company as global internet police force has also been exposed by the revelations that Facebook has been working closely with the Israeli government to “monitor posts that incite violence”. Needless to say, in the context of the long and complicated history of the region, such work opens a whole series of questions about the consequence of such a partnership, particularly given Israel’s questionable attitude towards Arab-Israeli comments on social media. As Freedom House’s 2015 report on Israel notes:

In July 2014, a professor at Bar-Ilan University was publicly rebuked by his dean for sending an e-mail to his students expressing sympathy for victims on both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict, a rebuke which drew objections from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Similarly during the conflict, students at some universities, particularly Arab students, were reportedly subjected to monitoring and sanctions for social-media comments that were deemed offensive or extremist.

One can’t help but wonder whether Facebook will actually make such action significantly easier.

Should multi-national corporations either act as independent arms of the state, policing the internet and tackling censorship or directing individuals to counter-propaganda at will? Aren’t there serious ethical issues at play here when such corporations either act as independent arms of the state, or proxies for the state in which they operate? Are we not effectively making multi-national corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple as arbiters of liberty and freedom?

Jigsaw intends to “end censorship within a decade” (Wired, Nov 16). A fine goal. But it is also about to launch Conversation AI which intends to “selectively silence” voices to protect the speech of others. Squaring the circle of ending censorship and “selectively silencing” voices is a question for the engineers at Jigsaw. However, the question for all of us must surely be to what extent are we prepared to permit large multi-national corporations to make ethical judgements on behalf of all of us? Should issuing counter-propaganda and tackling abuses of free speech be considered a social good when it is at the whim of a corporation or programs using algorithms created by individuals that work for such corporations? Ultimately, do we really need or should we even permit a (as Greenberg describes it) “Digital Justice League”? Or should corporations stay out of complex ethical issues? It seems to me that such corporations should be responsive to our needs and requests (eg harassment reports on social media) rather than deciding for us. By all means, tackle racism, harassment, misogyny and hatred, but it should be on our terms, not theirs.

Libraries – Brought To You In Association With Tesco

(Image c/o Manu Escalante on Flickr.

As you might imagine, I’ve come across many, many daft ideas regarding how public library services should be provided in future. However, I think this is possibly the worst suggestion yet, and one that makes me think even volunteer run libraries might be preferable. Darren Jones, a parliamentary candidate for Bristol North West has made the following suggestion in a letter to the chief executives of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons :

…in Bristol North West there is a significant number of residents with no access to a computer and/or the internet. There is also a significant percentage of older people, who may not have the skills or understanding to access such services. With the ongoing move to digital services it is vital that we tackle this challenge.

This is why I am writing to you today. Online shopping is increasingly popular. Many high streets in Bristol North West are crying out for increased supermarket based competition. Our libraries are in need of investment.

As one of the big six supermarkets you are well placed to help meet this need. By investing in IT equipment and training you could help a significant number of residents in Bristol get online, in modernised digital community hubs (formally known as libraries) undertaking grocery shopping online.

It’s difficult to know where exactly where to begin with this. Of course, commercial interests should have absolutely no involvement in the provision of library services. It risks undermining their very purpose (ie neutral spaces providing access to information). Once they come under commercial influence, the position of the library is compromised. How do we know that, particularly if the large supermarkets are providing “IT equipment and training” that they aren’t also filtering and leading library users down certain paths where they are the beneficiary? And what of all the information these corporations would collect on individuals? Would they be aware of the data they are giving away so that they can use a Tesco sponsored computer in a library part-funded by the supermarket giant? And as for the training itself, this is similar to that which is provided by Barclay’s of course. But which is preferable? A representative from a commercial party training an individual in how to use the internet, or properly trained and remunerated library staff guided by professionals?

No commercial enterprise will stump up the cash for equipment without some sort of return and in this case they certainly will not. The proposals would, in essence, make the library service a cash cow for the big supermarkets. This is not what libraries are about. They are not about lining the pockets of large corporations, bringing them new customers to boost profits. In terms of internet provision and ‘training’, they are there to help support them in terms of education, financial well-being and providing them with the tools with which to engage in society as informed and engaged citizens.

There is no place for commercial interests in our public library system. It compromises libraries and it makes them no better than profit generators for corporations who are already sucking up vast sums of money from the taxpayer with little return. The very last thing we should be doing is allowing them to turn libraries effectively into their satellites, acting as another driver for profit. About the only thing Jones got spot on was his proposal to re-name libraries:

By investing in IT equipment and training you could help a significant number of residents in Bristol get online, in modernised digital community hubs (formally known as libraries) undertaking grocery shopping online.

Because there is no way you could possibly describe the service proposed by Jones as ‘libraries’. They would be anything but.

The problem with Twitter becoming a little less Piccadilly Circus…

Messages delivered by third parties for payment on social media raises a number of ethical concerns, for information professionals and society in general.
(Image c/o Joe Price on Flickr.)

One of the things I have become increasingly interested in (and wary of) is the use of social media, in particular Twitter, for either personal financial gain (via a corporate sponsor), or to push certain agendas. Of course, this sort of thing has been pretty much part of the Twitter landscape for some time now (this article on the phenomenon dates from 2011), but either this trend has increased, or I am noticing it far more than I used to. A couple of incidents recently have raised my interest in the area to such an extent that I felt I simply must write a blog post on it (one incident alone isn’t enough to pad out a post, I need two different examples at least to prompt me to sit here and start bashing out a series of letters and symbols).

The first was the news that the Israeli government are offering grants to students if they tweet ‘pro-Israeli propaganda’. According to The Independent:

In a campaign to improve its image abroad, the Israeli government plans to provide scholarships to hundreds of students at its seven universities in exchange for their making pro-Israel Facebook posts and tweets to foreign audiences.

The students making the posts will not reveal online that they are funded by the Israeli government, according to correspondence about the plan revealed in th

This troubles me greatly and, I think, it’s part of a growing trend of using Twitter as a means of covertly pushing propaganda (or misinformation) out into the public domain. Without an awareness of the funding aspect, such tweets not only undermines everything that individual tweeters tweet, but also Twitter itself. Suddenly, everything becomes suspect. Who else is pushing out tweets with an agenda, trying to covertly influence public opinion? If we are not aware that an individual has been sponsored by either state or corporate actors, how can we properly evaluate what they are saying?

I was reminded of this story recently when this tweet popped up in my timeline. Whilst a reasonable comment on the iPhone, a bit of digging into the tweet author raises some questions. A quick check of his bio indicates that the aforementioned tweeter works for Telefonica. A further search on Google revealed this story:

Telefonica, one of the world’s largest carriers, has signed a deal with Microsoft to promote far more heavily the software giant’s Windows Phone 8 operating system and devices running it.

The carrier said in a statement on Wednesday that over the next year, it will enhance its marketing efforts for Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices. The company will focus those marketing efforts in several of its major markets, including the U.K., Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Telefonica said that its move is designed to enhance competition in the marketplace. The company said Wednesday it wants to “encourage the presence of additional mobile operating platforms as an alternative to the current duopoly of Android and iOS, and provide customers with a more personal smartphone experience like Windows Phone offers.”

[Yes, that is a terribly written article, see other sources here and here.]

I’m not suggesting that the author is posting tweets as part of some grand corporate strategy, that would be a little far-fetched, but one wonders to what extent corporations actually deploy such tactics. After all, if nation states are using the technology to engage in more subtle promotion, you can be sure corporations are and have been doing so for some time (when have you known the public sector be one step ahead of the private sector?). Stealth marketing is, of course, a well-established concept and Twitter (and social media in general) makes it much easier to push out promotional materials from seemingly independent accounts. How can we be sure whether @X is tweeting about a product or service because they value it, or because they are being paid to be seen to value it?

Of course, marketing people love social media, particularly tools such as Twitter. Here is a service which enables a corporate entity to interact directly with both customers and potential customers. That’s a powerful weapon for any business or service. But, of course, utilising it effectively requires care and subtlety. It’s no good being the virtual equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, blazing loud messages out into the ether whilst thousands of people walk past or chatter away oblivious to the messages being pumped out around them. Sure, you’ll pick up a few along the way (who may well then broadcast your message to their audience), but to a significant number you will become background noise and a more sophisticated approach is warranted (besides, no marketing strategy should focus purely on one tactic). Most people do not want their feeds cluttered with corporate messages, they want such messages to be as unobtrusive as possible. Which is why, for those wishing to push out a certain agenda, alternative methods to push out such messages are sought. If it means paying a third-party (a willing customer, a celebrity or an employee) to push those messages out for you, then so be it. As long as the message does not come direct from source. The more removed the message, the more effective it becomes.

However, once the message does become removed from source, certain ethical questions are raised. Individuals are no longer providing ‘personal opinions’, they are providing opinions for money. Once opinions are provided in this way, it then devalues the entire output of that individual. How many other ‘opinions’ have been formed as a result of payment? Can anything they say be taken at face value? Once it is clear that your opinions can be bought, your output becomes valueless.  As Bill Hicks once argued, if you do a commercial, “everything you say is suspect” (I’ll let you look up the rest of that quote…).

It’s difficult to know, however, how this can be tackled. In part it’s just a case of being aware that there might be a particular agenda at play, but then you also don’t want to view with suspicion every single thing that is tweeted by someone referencing either a service or product. Some people may be genuinely endorsing a product or service without financial gain, I see little problem with that. However, when there is a financial incentive behind the tweets that are being posted it clearly becomes problematic. Not only does this kind of tweeting raise questions for the online community in general, it particularly raises a number of issues for librarians and information professionals.

First, it makes it difficult to evaluate published materials. With a lack of transparency about the motives and agendas behind a series of tweets, it is hard to determine whether tweets are genuine opinions and beliefs, or merely the opinions and beliefs of a corporate (or state) sponsor. Taking the example of the accounts to be sponsored by the Israeli government, how will it even be possible to determine whether published opinions are actually those of the Tweeter in question, or whether they are opinions given for financial reward? It could possibly be determined, but it would take a lot of work, far more work than the average Twitter user has to investigate the authenticity of a tweet or tweets. And who is really going to take the time to find out whether X’s comments about the state of Israeli society are an accurate reflection of the reality? I’d be surprised if anyone does.

But it also raises questions about our own ethical principles. How would we square tweeting for financial reward given our professional ethics? It’s not acceptable for anyone, in my view, to sell their opinions in this way, but is it even more problematic if you are a library and information professional? If you clearly state you are such, is there an expectation by the general public that you will hold the highest ethical principles at all times, no matter how unfeasible that might be? When people see ‘librarian’ or ‘information professional’ do they see ‘disseminator of impartial information’? Is it unreasonable if they do? Can any professional truly be held to the highest ethical standards at all times? Likewise, would it be acceptable for operators of an official library account to offer rewards to those who post positive tweets about the service?

But as well as raising questions about our approach to social media, it also raises questions about how and whether we as a profession can tackle the problem. Is there actually anything that we can or should do? What, if anything, can actually be done about covert sponsored social media statements by anyone? Is it about awareness and validating everything everyone tweets or posts? That would surely be too time-consuming and needlessly paranoid/cynical? We don’t want to get drawn into a habit of being sceptical about the motives behind every single thing that people tweet or post. Perhaps all that we can do is to be aware of the problem and to try, wherever possible, to lead by example. For if our opinions and beliefs can be bought, compromising our professional, ethical principles in the dissemination of information, who is left for anyone to trust?

Propaganda, ethics and the information profession

Just over a week ago, I headed up to London to visit the Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition at the British Library with a bunch of friends and fellow professionals. I had been eagerly anticipating the exhibition ever since I caught the live stream of an audience with Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Freedland a couple of months prior to its opening.  Needless to say, the exhibition was right up my street and thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, it could have been twice the size and I still would have been left wanting more.  In short, if you can get there before it closes in September, I would seriously recommend making every effort to do so.  As well as providing much thought provoking material on the nature of propaganda, it also led to much pondering on critical thinking and its importance both in terms of the profession in which I belong, and in a broader context.

Critical thinking has been a crucial part of my educational life. History was perhaps my strongest subject at both GCSE and A-level and went on to form part of my degree (alongside English Literature – although the head of history did make repeated attempts to get me to switch my major from literature to history, to no avail). Critical thinking is a crucial component of the study of history. At a basic level, history requires that you analyse and evaluate source material. This evaluation and analysis then informs any research into particular historical events or historic social conditions.  If you are unable to process information in a critical way, you will not excel in the study of history. This is not to say that other subjects do not place equal importance in the ability to apply critical thinking (that would be absurd), but I do know that through studying history I have developed a good standard of critical analysis skills. Of course, when it comes to evaluating information in a historical context, the role and impact of propaganda must be a key consideration.

The Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as:

…information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

Typically propaganda is politically skewed information designed to persuade or educate the populace, normally in an effort to disseminate a particular ideology. Generally when one considers the impact of propaganda throughout modern history, one tends to think of figures such as Lord Kitchener, Norman Rockwell, Josef Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl (albeit in slightly different ways). Each in their own way helped to communicate a particular set of ideas, whether it be mobilising support for war or by demonising an ‘enemy within’ to consolidate political power, propaganda is a crucial weapon in winning ‘hearts and minds’.

Propaganda itself is, obviously, not solely restricted to the political sphere.  Whilst governments churn out propaganda by default (one need only look at the propaganda being forced upon us every day regarding the need for ‘austerity’), corporations are also responsible for a large volume of propaganda, more commonly known as advertisements.  Propaganda can be used to influence people’s perceptions of a product or brand, subverting existing realities to present a positive brand image that then encourages people to purchase such products. There are many examples one can call upon in examining this type of propaganda. The rebrand exercise conducted by BP is one such example.

Back in 2000, BP embarked on a rebranding exercise.  The aim was to present BP as an “environmentally aware energy and general services company.” As they put it on their website:

Since ‘BP’ petrol first went on sale in Britain in the 1920s, the brand has grown to become recognised worldwide for quality gasoline, transport fuels, chemicals and alternative sources of energy such as wind and biofuels. We are committed to making a real difference in providing better energy that is needed today and in the changing world of tomorrow.

The reason for its need to rebrand? The emergence of the global environmental movement. The rise of this movement resulted in increased scrutiny of energy companies and their actions across the world. Not least because of the damaging effect of resource extraction by the industry in countries across the world. Needless to say, the rebrand had little effect on the global environmental movement but it did appear to have an effect on consumers:

After the rebrand exercise, research revealed that BP was seen as the most “environmental” oil brand with more than half the market now agreeing that BP had become “more green” in the past five years. BP’s brand awareness shot up and in a poll of UK marketers BP was rated one of the top 10 green brands, finishing higher up the ranking than Greenpeace.

Pretty effective propagandising. Of course, the effect of such propaganda can be somewhat undermined by very visible, and environmentally damaging, short-comings.

Of course, the BP example is a relatively crude one in demonstrating the ways in which propaganda is utilised by large multinationals. Know-more, for example, is perhaps a slightly more worrying example of corporate propaganda used to mobilise public support in the face of potential government legislation. Know-more is a website sponsored by Philip Morris and is designed to share ‘information’ about the impact of legislation upon smokers. Philip Morris is, of course, a large tobacco company with a vested interest in halting government legislation that might impact upon its business model. The tobacco industry has a long history of lobbying law makers to prevent legislation that would impact upon its customer base (to adopt their parlance), Know-more is just the latest example of the determined efforts by corporate interests to protect their bottom lines.

But these are relatively obvious examples of propaganda by large corporations, examples that informed, educated people will spot and dismiss readily.  There are many others, of course, who will not (obviously as some appear to believe that BP is an energy company more identifiable as a “green brand” than Greenpeace), and perhaps others who believe the protestations of the tobacco industry – although that is perhaps a diminishing segment of society as we become more aware of the harm tobacco causes.  What about the examples that are harder to spot, that require more…effort?

Toward the end of the exhibition at the British Library I caught a rolling video clip with various talking heads exploring the growth of social media and the state of propaganda in the 21st century. One anecdote by John Pilger stood out above all others, and underlined to me both the nature of propaganda now and the importance of critical thinking. Pilger referred to a meeting he had with a dissident in the old Czechoslovakia, before the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The dissident noted the difference between how people in the West and in the East process propaganda, telling Pilger that in the West:

“You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.”

And that is what is so crucial in the modern era, the ability to read between the lines (or critical thinking) and it is an ability, I believe, that should be a fundamental skill for information professionals generally, and librarians specifically.

The use of propaganda raises an increasing number of ethical questions in our current economic and social environment. We live in a society where neoliberal economicsdominates political life. As such, the private sector is increasingly creeping into areas that had long been either the domain of the state or, broadly speaking, independent of the state.  As a result, we are seeing the corporate sector increase its influence in both public and academic libraries. This encroachment raises a number of serious concerns. For example, recent tweets from the @voiceslibrary (not by the current tweeter of the account by the way) account highlighted a particular ethical dilemma many of us will increasingly face in just such a neoliberal environment. What if a course was provided by a private sector corporation with a dubious ethical background and if the course materials provided were wholly uncritical of that corporation? Is it ethical for us to provide materials that effectively act as propaganda for the course sponsor? How do we deal with the dilemma presented to us of choosing between pleasing our employer and maintaining an adherence to professional values and ethics?  Should we reluctantly accept propagandising for the company providing the course as part of our obligations to our employer, or place our professional ethics above the perception that it may do harm to our careers?

This question of propagandising for large corporations cuts across both our personal lives and our professional lives. By identifying ourselves as librarians (or information professionals) we are proclaiming an adherence to a certain set of ethical values. Regardless of whether we are acting in a professional or a personal capacity, these values must surely still apply. In the medical profession, for example, your professional and ethical values do not end the minute you leave the surgery/hospital/pharmacy, you carry them with you at all times. As there are serious ethical considerations when asked to prepare uncritical course materials for a corporate funded education programme, so we must be careful about the information we disseminate publicly. This means avoiding propagandising for corporate interests where we receive financial (or other) benefits directly in return, or at least ensuring a disclaimer is clearly provided. For if, as an information professional, we lack transparency in our provision of information, how can we possibly be trusted in providing clear, unbiased information? By propagandising for a corporate entity for either our own benefit or our employers, we have become a conduit for that corporation. And once an information professional acts as a conduit for corporate interests, without doing so in a transparent fashion, our professional ethics are compromised. Once compromised we can no longer be seen as impartial providers of information, but as effectively something little more than a ‘sponsored link’ on a Google web search.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am fortunate in that critical thinking formed the backbone of most of my educational life. But it did not form a crucial component in the completion of the MSc in Information and Library Studies qualification. Admittedly there was a module requiring critical analysis of a research article for the Research in the Profession module, but there was little to encourage critical thinking, in my view, or to teach the fundamental skills required to do so. As a result, I wonder to what extent critical thinking should be ‘taught’ in a Masters (or a bachelors for that matter) in information science?  Is it adequately covered in existing LIS programmes? Or is there a greater need for learning the tools and skills required to, as the aforementioned Czech dissident put it “read between the lines”?  I’m not convinced that it is, although others may well disagree. Regardless of the extent to which it is or is not covered in existing LIS programmes, critical thinking is absolutely fundamental to the profession and never more so than now, at a time when our values are increasingly challenged and undermined. Ultimately, how can you be an information professional without being able to effectively critically analyse information?

In short, in my personal view, it is a professional duty to ensure that we always “read between the lines” and ensure that those we serve do not have to in their engagements with us. For if we do not challenge and breakdown propaganda and misinformation, who will?