In defence of internet anonymity

Image c/o Thomas Hawk.

It recently emerged that Twitter has added the need to register mobile phone numbers as part of the sign-up procedure when creating an account to use the network. The move is, as is always the case, presented as part of their effort to protect those that use the service, particularly from abusive trolls. However, as with all such protections, it only offers protection to a degree and does actually create more danger for others.

For those of us that live in Western ‘liberal’ countries, the requirement to provide a mobile phone number is perhaps not massively problematic. It is fairly easy to obtain a mobile and use it without having an data connected to that phone (if you’ve watched The Wire you’ll know that those that wish to protect themselves from the law will use so-called “burner phones”). Outside of nations like the UK and the US, particularly in authoritarian regimes, there are far more hoops that need to be jumped through and the possibility of obtaining a so-called burner is fairly slim. As The Guardian noted, Turkey requires all mobile phones to be registered and a passport is required to obtain a sim card and mobile number.

The request to provide a mobile number in order to use the service is therefore troubling for those living in authoritarian regimes. As we know, communication tools that provide anonymity have played a role in overturning a variety of authoritarian regimes (although the extent to which these tools have played a role is perhaps overstated). Anonymity in Western liberal states may be perceived as a tool to harass and intimidate individuals, but in less democratic states they are essential for survival and for hope. Without this cover of anonymity, lives can and will be placed at risk. Anonymity maybe a troubling concept from our point of view (not least given the media coverage) but it is essential. When weighing up the social cost, the removal of anonymity will come at a much greater cost than if it was to be maintained.

Trolls are an unpleasant side effect of creating a space where everyone can engage in public discourse. But whilst there is a need to figure out how we tackle this phenomenon, we also have to accept that the internet will probably only ever be an imperfect space and that imperfection is what makes it so valuable. Because so long as there as there is anonymity, there will be trolls. But there will also be opportunities for dissidents to communicate, organise and challenge the status quo. Whilst I would not wish to minimise the harm that trolls cause to individuals (as I’ve stated before, I don’t buy into this current “right to offend” trend), I prefer to think of the positive impact of anonymity. The potential it provides for people to be free. Either free to engage in discourse without fear of reprisal or harm, or to seek to secure freedom from state oppression.

Of course services such as Twitter have to seek to protect those that use the service. But, when it comes to the internet, every measure of protection can also do great harm. This is true of removing the right to anonymity for those who wish to communicate free from fear of reprisal, but also in creating internet filters that prevent people from accessing information. Those filters may provide some benefit in terms of the things that they block, but they will also prevent those who are most vulnerable from accessing the information they need. Such measures are presented as offering protection to individuals (indeed, isn’t this always how states present measures that repress individual freedoms?), when in fact this is only partially the case. Protection for some, insecurity or danger for others.

Ultimately, we must seek to defend the right to remain anonymous online. It is not always comfortable, but then defending our freedoms to the fullest extent will never be entirely comfortable because we understand that there are those that will abuse the freedoms we are advocating. But we have to accept that the benefits of protecting anonymity far outweigh the consequences of removing this protection. Because the consequences of this will not be felt in the middle-class suburbias of the West, but within the communities seeking to throw off the chains of oppression.

Extremism, nudge theory and access to information

Image c/o Albert on Flickr.

What constitutes extremism? Is it espousing views that threaten the lives of fellow citizens? Is it the performance of individual acts of violence? Is it merely holding views that are outside the mainstream? One person’s extremist is, after all, a moderate to others. Extremism is, to some degree, a subjective position. This hasn’t stopped, naturally, the Tory party seeking to define the boundaries of acceptable extremism. Which is, of course, hugely problematic on any number of levels.

Such an approach to extremism could be seen as part of an attempt to ‘nudge’ people to an acceptable (as defined by one party political mindset, with all the dangers that entails) range for public discourse. By defining what is an ‘acceptable extremist’, one is virtually determining the acceptable range of political thought. It is this acceptable range that the Tory party seem to be keen to ‘nudge’ people towards. (‘Nudge’ theory is, of course, a very illiberal perspective, setting out an ‘acceptable norm’ and then developing strategies to push people towards that acceptable norm.)

The theorists behind nudge theory (for more on this, see the end of the post) are certainly untroubled by its use to close down discussion and to water down entirely legitimate, non-mainstream opinion. In a piece on The Atlantic,  Evan Selinger explored the possibility of ‘nudging’ people towards civil engagement online using specialist software. Richard Thaler, one of the architects of ‘nudge’ theory, embraced the concept, tweeting: “A Nudge dream come true”. A dream come true for nudge advocates  perhaps, a nightmare for anyone who opposes any effort to narrow debate to a government approved ‘norm’. With such moves by the government to expand on its definition of terrorism, can we expect such ‘nudges’ in increasing areas of public debate and discussion?

This rush to define extremes has implications in terms of access to information. Information is, after all, a key factor in radicalising individuals. Expect, with such a policy as outlined by Theresa May, that this will come coupled with the shutting down of ‘extremist’ websites, as well as restrictions on public speech. As the terms of what is regarded ‘unacceptable extremism’ are extended, does this mean that literature on the fringes of mainstream thought may be susceptible to pressure to remove by the general public? Will books once considered ‘extremist’ yet ‘harmless’ suddenly be found to be unacceptable and unsuitable for public consumption? What would be the consequences of this shift in public perception of what is ‘extremist’?

Libraries are, of course, hugely important repositories of information. They contain written materials that are purchased free from political prejudice (to an extent, one might argue that the collections reflect a Western liberal, neo-classical economic model, rather than an entirely balanced political outlook – bit we’ve gone over this ground before). The bulwark against any kind of censorship of such materials are professional librarians. Any attempts to influence or control the purchase of collections would, one would hope, be met with stiff resistance by the profession (both individually and through the professional body). Whether such professional opposition would be successful is a different matter. It would not, however, go without being vehemently challenged. What would happen if professional librarians were stripped away and an alternative model for delivering library services was pursued. We may not have to wait long to discover the answer…

We already know that libraries are being hollowed out. Professional stuff are culled and replaced with volunteers (often forced to take on the role of amateur librarian because their council has threatened them to do it or lose the service – blackmail that is laughably painted as local people taking control of their services), libraries are increasingly falling into private hands, or the hands of local groups. What would be the consequence of government encouraging an environment where certain ideas are considered outside of the norm? Would this create a climate in local communities where certain ideas (and therefore resources) are unacceptable? Where a Trust is in place (an alternative that is becoming increasingly popular), would the Trust be able to resist pressure from the local community and stick to the principles of free and open access to information for all?  There is a particular additional problem for charitable trusts – that of being in any way openly political.

In recent years, charities have come under increasing pressure from central government regarding their political activities. Charities have been attacked by such senior political figures as Iain Duncan Smith, Eric Pickles and Chris Grayling. This has been followed by new legislation restricting campaign spending by charities during election periods. A charitable trust would, it appears, be vulnerable to any attempt by government to clamp down on ‘extremist’ (ie non-mainstream political) works that they hold within their collections.

Librarians should be able to resist such pressures (to an extent). So long as the pressure comes from local communities rather than the government (we’re unlikely to see the government calling for outright bans of books, at least it seems unlikely at present), librarians will be in a position to resist. However, information access in libraries isn’t just about books. A shift in what defines extremism (and therefore what is mainstream and ‘acceptable’) would have an impact in terms of internet use and filters employed online. This is where it becomes more difficult for librarians to have any say in ensuring equitable access to information.

This is a problem that will extend beyond public libraries, of course. Academic libraries also have to contend with the issue of internet filtering, often down to arbitrary decisions made with no recourse to the library itself. When what is considered ‘dangerous extremism’ is expanded, there is potential for universities to expand filtering of the internet to prevent dissemination of materials which the state has argued now falls under the definition of extremist. This raises huge questions in terms of access to information for academic study, as well as academic freedom and freedom of expression (something that universities should be at the forefront of, for the good of not just academia, but society in general).

As the government ‘nudges’ individuals towards a predetermined ‘norm’, so we face greater threats in terms of access to information and free expression. As public libraries face de-professionalisation, they become vulnerable to environmental shifts that are hostile to the core ethics of the professional librarian (ie the free and open exchange of information, without prejudice). This nudging towards a norm limits free expression, debate and access to information. The impact of nudging people towards this government approved norm extends beyond public libraries and towards higher education. Cynical efforts to create ‘acceptable’ terms of opinion and public discourse ultimately limits individual freedoms and threatens to restrict our exposure to non-mainstream ideas (with all the dangers that entails). The consequences of government ‘nudging’ us towards what it defines as civil engagement (with apparent due deference to our democratic system) will lead to greater censorship and a restriction on free expression. Not only does this threaten our individual liberties, but it is also a threat to the values that librarians seek to defend and consequently threatens the existence of any meaningful library service.


 

What is nudge theory? Nudge theory proposes that people can be subtly persuaded to change their behaviour by influencing the choices individuals make. The school cafeteria is an oft used example positing that if healthier food is placed at eye-level, individuals may be more likely to choose that over junk food, even though the junk food is readily available.

Who originated the theory? Nudge theory first came to prominence in the book Nudge, written by the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who acted as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama.

Who have they influenced? Both David Cameron and George Osborne are big advocates of nudge theory. Whilst both are believers in the power of ‘nudge’, even they found some ideas proposed by behavioural economists a step too far, particularly in terms of healthcare (a proposal to move away from free healthcare by ‘nudging’ individuals caused even Cameron to re-asses his opinion).

It sounds a little problematic. What do critics say? Critics of ‘nudge’ theory argue that it is somewhat cynical, particularly as nudges can “infantilise individuals by taking away their moral maturity”. A psychologist named Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Centre for Cognition and Adaptive Behaviour at the Max Planck institute in Berlin, has been one of the key (and persistent) critics of ‘nudge’. Gigerenzer argues that rather than manipulating people, they should be taught and given the tools to inform their decisions. Gigerenzer argues that ‘nudge’ theory frames people as “basically hopeless when it comes to understanding risk”. Gigerenzer takes a more optimistic view that provided with the information and the tools to understand it, people will make the ‘right’ choices. I tend to side with Gigerenzer rather than Thaler and Sunstein.

Why are behavioural economists viewed as having a better insight into human behaviour than psychologists? Good question.


 

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?