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The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

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Updated: 1 hour 57 min ago

Lessons from Galileo on Science and Religion: Eric Salobir and Maria Zuber at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 1:13pm

Today at the MIT Media Lab's Defiance conference, Jonathan Zittrain facilitated a conversation about the story of Galileo and what it means for our understanding of research and activism that violates deeply-held boundaries. Joining the conversation were Father Eric Salobir and Professor Maria Zuber.

A lawyer, a priest and a planetary scientist walk into a room... #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/k1l5ZLtmUc

— Saul Tannenbaum (@stannenb) July 21, 2017

Father Eric Salobir is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Order of Preachers (known as Dominicans). As part of the General curia (government) of this religious order, he is in charge of media and technology. He is also the founder of the OPTIC network aimed to promote researches and innovation in the field of digital humanities.

Maria T. Zuber is Vice President for Research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT, where she has responsibility for research administration and policy, overseeing MIT Lincoln Laboratory and over 60 research laboratories and centers at the Institute.

Jonathan opens up by asking Father Eric how he started on a career as a person of faith, especially after a career as a banker. Eric responds, "while I was a banker, I found myself loving my work to bring people joy and hope and engage around ideas. Over time, I realized I wanted to do this all the time. I discovered the dominicans." Joining an order is like entering a bath time and time again. I met with many people inside and outside the church. I learned that one of the big problems in our time is a lack of hope. When you have two dominicans, you have three opinions: you don't have to enter a box or deny anything of who you are, he says. Jonathan asks: is there a moment when you have to take an oath? Father Eric responds that the Dominicans have an oath: a vow of obedience to God. After you make that decision, Dominicans have to follow the decision they made on their own.

Jonathan asks Maria Zuber: "you're a planetary scientist studying plate tectonics. Was there a moment when you felt: that's my calling?" No, says Maria; it was genetically-encoded in me to become a scientist. There are stories in my family about me in my playpen, rockets taking off, and me pointing at the rockets. Maria started reading science textbooks in elementary school. She always wanted to do astronomical research and has never deviated from the plan.

Jonathan asks about the story of Galileo. When most people hear about him and his work, what's the canonical story and the real one? Maria responds that Galileo was convicted of heresy for his support of the Copernican system, our understanding of the solar system where the sun is at the center. This system replaced the Ptolemaic system, which put the earth at the center. It is true that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Catholics. But Galileo didn't help himself, she says. The church was open to the idea of Galileo exploring the Copernican idea. He took observations that showed things like the moons of Jupiter, showing that things went around other things than the Earth. The church was open to him publishing material that treated the idea as a theory, but he wanted it viewed as fact, and there were still things that were unexplained. Was the church more scientific about this than Galileo, asks Jonathan? Maria notes that Galileo went after passages in the Bible that were consistent with the Earth being fixed and claimed that it was incorrect, despite their being multiple possible interpretations. It wasn't what Galileo said, says Maria, but rather how he said it.

In the latter part of his life, Galileo moved away from collecting data and dedicated himself to seeing that it be adopted. Perhaps if he had continued to collect data, things might have gone in another way, says Maria. Jonathan next asks Father Eric what the story of Galileo is within the Dominican order. Father Eric thinks there was an epistemological over-reach on both sides. Galileo wanted to think about the consequences of his theory for theology, but the theologians did the same. They were not able to be challenged and should have faced the evidence, says Father Eric. In the time of Galileo, people saw science as unifying–so changes in one area were seen as threats to others. In-between the scripture and the science is the interpretation of the scripture. In John Paul II's statement on Galileo, he argued that the theologians were unable to reconsider their understandings, and they preferred to shut out Galileo.

In 1979 John Paul II wrote of Galileo that, he "had to suffer a great deal... I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between science and faith." Why 1979, asks Jonathan. Maria points out that as early as the mid-1700s, pope Benedict allowed the publication of Galileo's book. It had been on the banned list, and then it was given approval; people in the church thought the matter was settled then. But that wasn't universally understood within the church or outside it.

What lessons might we draw from this history? asks Jonathan. Maria says that religion can help provide order to people who would otherwise fear their world. Science wasn't seen as a full understanding of nature; it was viewed as a way of explaining the observations we saw. People were afraid of eclipses, but the Ptolemaic system could still predict eclipses, which people feared. We should always be open to data, and if it causes us to change our idea, we should change it. But we also have to think about the pace of change. Even within science, change can occur in a way that's so quick that other scientists don't accept it.

Father Eric points out that at Galileo's time, the organization of all society was linked with religion. Galileo's work shook the whole societal system in ways that people weren't ready to face.

Jonathan notes that there had been a blurring between science and society at the time. Is it actually possible for people to de-conflict by keeping different conversations between science and religion. Father Eric says it's important for people from the humanities including theology and philosophy to ask questions that scientists might not always be able to ask.

Jonathan asks, if you're being spiritual, it's a set of values that you're reflecting upon and making the case for them. Do you think science has values as well, or is it a view from nowhere? We recently had a March for Science, where Joi spoke. Jonathan recalls some nervousness from scientists that it makes it just another player among many rather than an over-arching framework? Father Eric thinks that technology has taken the leadership; people expect a certain kind of help from technology. It brings a new set of questions. Science is about discovering what already exists, he says. It puts you in a situation of seeing reality as bigger than you. If you are a creator of technology, you don't have the same mindset of humility. You can have the same superpower feeling. Jonathan asks: if there were a march for science next week, would you happily march and what would your sign say?

Science provides the knowledge that provides the framework for technology, says Maria. It tells us what we can do and it doesn't tell us if we should do it, and it doesn't tell us what the implications are. Jonathan asks Maria about her institutional role as VP of research for MIT, would you ever find yourself looking at a massive research project and saying to someone: you need to have a values analysis or person involved. Maria explains that at MIT, we like to think that we create and use technology to help the world. Our fundraising campaign is "the campaign for a better world." Yet we hear about the negative outcomes as well, from things like automation.

Jonathan asks: is there knowledge better left undiscovered? Maria would say that more knowledge is better than less; the challenge is to choose a prudent pathway in order to progress. Father Eric agrees; what matters is how something is implemented. Is the technology mature enough, and is society ready for it? Jonathan asks: could you see a scientist making the judgment: humanity isn't ready for this. "Why only the scientist?" asks Father Eric. Society needs to answer those questions together.

When the floor opened up for questions, I asked a question. I mentioned that it seemed odd for a conference celebrating defiance would include a panel advocating for sticking within one's lane, especially with a prize that celebrates scientists who went into politics, citizens who do science, and people who create great art and ideas despite substantial resistance. I asked if maybe the story of Galileo locks us into an individual versus collective understandings of defiance, and where we might find inspiration for being defiant in productive ways.

Maria talked about evangelical groups that support Christians to better understand climate change, groups like the Evangelical Environment Network and climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe.

Father Eric describes a Dominican in Brazil who works for farmers around land rights. he says, "There is only one thing you cannot disobey: it's your conscience. If there's something you see as fair and right, even if it's dangerous: no worries, do it. Conscience doesn't mean that you will never move. It's not like a compass: if you're in a boat, when the boat moves, the compass moves. Instead, it's like GPS, many sources combine to tell you where you are."

Jonathan responds, perhaps we have the Galilean model of the individual encircled by opposing forces, and the Pope's recent encyclical on climate change, which is an institution using their power to challenge and overturn assumptions as well.

Categories: Blog

Escaping The Conspiracy Trap: Masha Gessen at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 10:48am

Conspiracy thinking can take over our understanding of the world and immobilize our ability to create a better future. How does that work, and what can we do about it?

Conspiracies are perfect for simple thinking, because a conspiracy by definition explains everything — @mashagessen #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/Io3rnf86OO

— MIT Media Lab (@medialab) July 21, 2017

Here at the Defiance Conference, we're joined by journalist and author Masha Gessen. As a journalist living in Moscow, Gessen experienced the rise of Vladimir Putin firsthand. In her 2012 bestselling book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, she gave the chilling account of how a low-level KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency. Her upcoming book looks at how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia.

Conspiracy thinking contaminates life under certain kinds of regime, says Gessen. She starts with "an unfunny joke" from a 1940s diary of an academic who kept a journal of the Hitler years: "Hitler has run into Moses. Hitler says to Moses, tell me the truth: you set the bush on fire yourself, didn't you?" The joke illuminates, says Gessen, partly because it refers to the Reichstag fire, which many people believed was started by the Nazi party to justify their following actions. Conspiracy thinking is also infectious. In this story, Hitler believes in conspiracies, people believe conspiracies about Hitler, and Hitler thinks that Moses is behind a conspiracy too.

Conspiracies form around the promise of simplicity. Authoritarians get elected by couching their promises in an imaginary past, drawing from traditional values. Conspiracies also work this way, presenting something that already happened as something that is going to happen. She describes 9/11 truthers, pizzagate, and birthers. Russiagate is also a conspiracy: it explains how we got here and how we're going to solve the problem: Russia got Trump elected, it is claimed, and when we prove it, we'll be able to get rid of him.

But the possible existence of conspiracy is not an excuse for conspiracy-thinking, says Gessen. When we cling to this idea that there's one thing that explains everything, we do grave damage to our own ability to think, our politics, and our ability to act.

Why is conspiracy thinking so terrible? It prevents us from looking at the complexity of a given situation. Sometimes things are just a mess. If you read yesterday's New York Times interview with the president, says Gessen: here's a man who can't grasp the meaning of health insurance, federal employment, parades, handshakes, dinners. But somehow, people still believe that he can grasp the meaning and import of a conspiracy: for example that he can keep a secret for many months. What's wrong with thinking that the president can do this? It's not reality, says Gessen.

Becoming divorced from reality is a very dangerous thing in life, action, and politics, says Gessen. A focus on the Russian conspiracy theory interferes with our grasp on reality. The Russian part of the story is a different kind of mess. In the popular imagination, the Russian government is governed with an iron fist of one man who controls armies of trolls, spies, etc.. Yet we know that the DNC was hacked by two independent groups that weren't aware of each other. That's not an accident; it's the kind of mess that the Russian state is in. The inroad to the Trump campaign was made by a low-level lawyer who was trying to advance the interests of her clients, says Gessen. She was probably in no position to dangle her offers. She was partly a con artist trying to con Don Jr. into taking that meeting, and she was successful. She may likely have been in competition with other Russians who also stood to benefit greatly by establishing relations with the Trump campaign.

Even if we accept the theory that the Russian government played a substantial role in the election, says Gessen, American voters are still the people who elected Trump. Some have argued that we need to take a closer look at the fabric of American society after the election, many people have focused instead on the Russia story, says Gessen. Newspapers don't have infinite resources, and their focus on Russia draws attention away from other things. For example, journalists haven't been asking many questions about US foreign policy toward Russia. Instead, they're asking about Russiagate. Similarly, argues Gessen, focus on Russiagate has reduced journalists' focus on the impact of the election on the state of US democratic institutions.

Conspiracies obscure the future. When we focus on conspiracies, we think about what happened. Conspiracy-thinking anchors our hopes about how discovery of the conspiracy will magically lead to change, rather than the things that create real change. The only way to counter a message of the imaginary past is to imagine a glorious future. People who resist authoritarian power often say that things were great before the authoritarian rose to power, and that we need to go back to how things were. Of course the resistance needs to focus on what to salvage, but someone needs to think about the future says Gessen. One of the reasons a complex world becomes so frightening is that people can no longer imagine the future. Citing Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom, Gessen talks about how rootless people become when they can no longer imagine their future.

To defy conspiracy thinking, we need to engage with reality, says Gessen. Accept new information as something that exists in context, and just what you're learning today. Conspiracies pull us into our online universe of ever-spiraling conspiracy theorizing.

Categories: Blog

Biohacking and the FBI: Ed You at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 9:00am

How is the FBI thinking about its relationship with bio hacking communities as they attempt to support innovation while also limit the risks from DIY biotech?

"After 9/11 we had to defy our inheritance." -- Ed You, special agent at FBI. #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/RilUhErvaY

— Pinar Yanardag (@PINguAR) July 21, 2017

Here at the Defiance Conference, we're joined by Ed You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit. You is responsible for creating programs and activities to coordinate and improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats or incidents.

Investigations are inherently reactive, says Ed. After September 11th, the FBI decided to rethink their mission to focus on prevention. Ed is a molecular biologist by training, and now that the FBI has focused on prevention, they're hiring more people like him. Next, he talks about "WMD Coordinators," people like special agent Josh Cantor who work in the FBI's field offices on biological weapons. They work to establish partnerships with hospitals, researchers, and others who understand the risks before something happens.

The 21st century will be the century of the life sciences, says Ed. As we look for the promise of bio in our lives, we also need to think about the security implications. Ed talks about recent research about genetically modifying animal viruses to spread to humans. After this result came out, scientists put a temporary 60 day moratorium on this kind of research. Ed shows us conspiracy websites that raise fears about government funded work on biological weapons. He argues that

As synthetic biology becomes more widespread, it's possible to send information on DNA to synthetic bio companies and get a vial of smallpox or some other flu in the mail; a Guardian reporter actually did this in 2006. Since the report came out, the US has introduced regulations to carefully screen who makes these requests and what they ask for.

Yet it's also important to keep biological research open to the public if we're to gain the benefits of bio research in the 21st century, Ed tells us. Recent projects have made it possible to do CRISPR gene editing in the home. These are going to be genuine engines of innovation, just like the homebrew computer clubs that started in garages. At the same time, says Ed, governments are worried about genetically-engineered bio weapons and have cracked down on communities of innovation.

"How do you spur innovation while addressing innovation?" Ed asks. If you crack down on innovation, you could drive people underground and constrain important public benefits. Ed says that the FBI is trying to find ways to protect innovation. "Putting up walls is not the answer," says Ed, who encourages the FBI and biohacking communities to join up. "Be guardians of science," Ed encourages biohackers, inviting them to think about how best to protect public safety and mentor others to be responsible. Toward that end, the FBI became a sponsor of iGem, an international competition for bio hackers. Ed asks us to look at pictures of young people from China and other countries who participated in iGem. In the future, says Ed, these are people who will become leading citizens of science, and perhaps across the table in negotiations with the US. The FBI has also held meetups with DIY biohacking communities.

DIY bio is a good thing, says Ed. We need more of it, and we need to protect it, something that was emphasized in the 2009- 2017 US report on the study of bioethical issues. He argues that the FBI model can be an example for how other governments engage with creative communities. It pushes people's comfort levels, and it can lead to public benefits says Ed: some biologists have now been applying to join the FBI: "What better act of defiance than that?"

Categories: Blog

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract Software Engineer

June 22, 2017 - 7:08am

Online media is in a state of flux. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so-called fake news - these are all recent developments that have radically altered the landscape of news and information online.  We call this the "networked public sphere", and the Media Cloud project was created to track and understand it.  Come help us build data-centric tools for academic internet researchers and human rights activists that let them investigate coverage and conversations online about topics they care about.

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract software engineer to help us build tools that facilitate research about the role of online media in civic discourse.  We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media.  We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily.


The contract software engineer will work on our server architecture, which collects, processes, and makes these stories available via an API.  They will work under senior engineers to plan, design, build, maintain, and run all levels of the project's platform. This includes back-end tools that collect and archive the data, researcher tools that enable analysis of that data, and occasional contributions to front end tools that expose the data and analysis to the public. Buzzwords - big data, quantitative text analysis, machine learning, etc.


Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The position will be a 6-month contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab), but the engineer will work closely with members of the team from both centers.  The project is funded by human rights foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health. This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or turn into a staff position.


We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences.  The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products.  Experience building text-based big data systems, or working as a data scientist, is helpful, as is experience working on projects investigating online media.


Minimum Qualifications:
  • B.A. degree, preferably in computer science or data science related field;
  • at least two years experience working as a software engineer;
  • programming fluency – Python required, Perl and Javascript are helpful;
  • demonstrated ability to design, build, test, and deploy robust code;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate quickly through prototypes;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate architectural decisions using data.
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.
Helpful Skills:
  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience writing, maintaining, and optimizing SQL queries against large databases;
  • experience implementing and maintaining a production ETL pipeline;
  • experience scaling platforms to handle large data sets;
  • experience writing web crawlers;
  • experience working with PostgreSQL and Solr / Lucene in Ubuntu environments;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;
  • work with senior engineers to establish technical vision for project;
  • contribute to, and follow, a technical roadmap to meet research needs and complete grant deliverables;
  • collaborate with other developers, designers, and system administrators in implementing technical roadmap;
  • communicate project status internally and externally to our community of users;
  • maintain, upgrade, and build systems within large, existing codebase to collect, archive, and analyze content from online media;
  • writing code to scale systems to handle ever expanding data requirements.

Much of our substantive work focuses on issues of gender, race, and globalization.  We strongly encourage women, people of color, and people of any sexual identity to apply.


The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world.  We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge.


Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and link to your GitHub profile to jobs@mediacloud.org




Categories: Blog

Civic Media Co-Design Studio 2017: By Any Media Necessary

June 19, 2017 - 8:52am

This semester, the Civic Media Collaborative Design Studio was focused on youth media and gentrification. For this version of the course, we wanted to develop media projects that respond to the current political, cultural, economic, and environmental crisis with youth-led visions of a more just and creative future. We partnered with ZUMIX and The Urbano Project, two youth arts and media organizations in the Boston area, and NuVu Studio, an innovation school for middle and high school students in Cambridge. 

Co-Design Studio students, ages 11 to 26, gathered weekly at the Center for Civic Media to work on media projects to challenge narratives from a youth perspective, while discussing topics central to design justice, gentrification and transformative media organizing. The Studio made visits to NuVu, The Urbano Project, ZUMIX and other sites, and had visits from Evan Henshaw-Plath, Lawrence Barriner II from MIT CoLab, Marisa Jahn from StudioREV, Jose Gomez-Marquez from the MIT Little Devices Lab, Jorge Caraballo Cordovez from East Boston Nuestra Casa, and Mike Leyba and Homefries from Fair Economy and City Life/Vida Urbana. You can see the class syllabus here.

These are the resulting projects:

Open Book/Libro Abierto - atelier/co


Open Book/Libro Abierto is designed to be a versatile platform for community members to share their stories. The print medium allows users to interact with the book in a tactile way, physically making their mark on the story of their community. The book presents handwritten and printed words along with photos of community members, and offers viewers access to audio interviews via QR links. Our goal is to create a hackable book that invites viewers to share their stories and start conversations, responding in whatever medium they choose. The book will be exhibited in Urbano’s Nomadic Sculpture, where visitors will be able to read the stories and respond by writing directly in the book. We hope to foster productive and honest conversations about what displacement and community mean to the people of Egleston Square, both physically written in the book as well as verbally during and after the exhibition.

Here are the links to Open Book/Libro Abierto's projectfinal presentation slides, and to the case study.


East Boston Voices - Peas in a Podcast

"East Boston Voices" is a podcast special centered around events of gentrification and displacement in East Boston. The mission of Peas in a Podcast is to unveil the hidden stories of the neighborhood to the greater Boston community, hopefully instigating change among East Boston’s residents. Each member of the group interviewed someone in the community who’s dealing with the effects of gentrification and displacement directly, compiling their stories and presenting their contents to the audience with added data and thought-provoking questions.

Here are the links to Peas in a Podcast's episodesfinal presentation slides, and to the case study.


Displacement of residents is a growing problem in many communities in the Boston area. However, this crisis in the making remains mostly unknown, partially owing to the fact that those impacted are often low-income immigrants whose primary language is one other than English. To counter both the lack of attention as well as the anti-immigrant sentiment that buoys displacement, Homesticker proposes an interactive mobile installation that allows residents of neighborhoods to label locations that they consider to be their homes, giving a face to the victims of displacement and also demonstrating the problem’s magnitude.

Here are the links to to Homesticker's final presentation slides, and to the case study.



Rainbow is a public installation that tells the stories of about Cambridge residents and their history with the area. The goal of the project to highlight important issues mainly gentrification in and around Central Square. Using audio recordings and photography, this installation will help the voices of people who live in the area to be heard and shed light on how universities and businesses are changing Central Square and making the low-income life increasingly difficult.

Here are the links to Rainbow's final presentation slides, and to the case study.

Categories: Blog

Kathy Cramer on The Politics of Resentment: What I Learned from Listening

May 31, 2017 - 9:12am

On May 30, 2017, Kathy J. Cramer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of The Politics of Resentment,  spoke at the MIT Media Lab. This is a summary of that talk; any errors are mine. Research Question Cramer notes that the question on many scholars and citizens minds right now is "Why do people vote against their interests?" Most are implicitly asking, "Why are people getting it wrong?” But she believes that the better question to ask is "How are people understanding their world?"   The motivating question in the research Cramer has done that culminated in her 2016 book is "How does social class identity matter for the way people understand their world?” She tries to listen to people talk in the places where they live and spend their time. This gives her a chance to understand their social identity. So she invites herself into conversations with people who vary across socio-demographic characteristics.  Methods When she started in 2007, she chose to study a couple dozen communities in Wisconsin that would represent a diverse sample. Before she set out to visit a place, she would contact the local newspaper and the University of Wisconsin extension office nearby to learn where to find groups people who meet up regularly that she might chat with. She found herself in diners, churches, gas stations, and other local haunts.    Cramer had a semi-structured interview protocol to follow but tried to let the conversations go where they would. In the first year of research, she would return to the groups up to three times over the following year, and then at least once a year going forward until the study ended in 2012. When her book came out in 2016 and after the election, she followed up with the groups, sharing her book and findings and asking them about their current opinions. 

Rural Consciousness In the smaller communities, Cramer hears an unexpectedly intense resentment toward the big cities. There is a clear sense of Madison and Milwaukee (the state’s biggest cities and capital) versus the “outstate." The mental map for rural folks is that power emanates from Madison, and not the reverse. They feel they aren’t getting their fair share of power and resources and respect. Small town Wisconsinites feel deeply disrespected by urban dwellers.    Rural consciousness is identifying as a rural person, regardless of where you are from or end up, and a strong perception of distributive injustice that disfavors you and your identity. Cramer notes that this is a complex identity ripe for mobilization. It comprises resentment toward:
  • cities and city people, 
  • elites (government, financial, cultural), 
  • people of color, and
  • partisan polarization.
When you tap into one part of the resentment, it can activate the other parts, which makes rural consciousness a fertile ground for populism. Cramer defines populism here as essentially, "people are good and government is bad."   Rural folks explain, "Our hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going to people who don not deserve them." They thoroughly believe that others don’t work as hard as they do. And by hard work they mean, "when you have to shower after work, not before it.” And when Cramer followed up with the groups after the book came out, they agreed that they were resentful. There is also a sense of loss. That these people's communities and their standard of living have been taken away—that their status is threatened.    Despite high levels of government employment throughout the state by local, state, and federal authorities, there is a belief that government is urban and distant. Even if workers are local, the decisions they follow are from the city to the rural area. They believe the government is not really working for them.    In 2010, Scott Walker ran for governor of Wisconsin. He tapped into rural resentment by saying those folks were right. He proposed Act 10, which undermined state worker unions, arguing that private workers deserve to benefit more. There was a schism among voters: 50% of the state was for it and 50% against. The other big issue he campaigned on was a proposal for high-speed rail between the main cities of Milwaukee and Madison, which was badly needed. However, Walker argued this didn’t benefit real Wisconsinites, saying it wouldn’t help any of those with poor roads in the north of the state.    Cramer is still reflecting on how Donald Trump’s campaign activated rural consciousness. In contrast to Scott Walker’s assault on public employees, Donald Trump pointed to immigrants, Muslims, and women as undeserving groups. And he made strong claims about policies that would alleviate resentful voters’ problems.    Importantly, when she ask these rural folks what they hope will change with the new administration, they say they don’t expect anything to change. They set a very low bar. And it’s clear to her, that their criteria for Trump’s success is not anything like liberals criteria. They don’t believe he is going to solve their problems, which complicates attempts at bipartisan discourse.   Public Opinion Often during elections, we are interested in how people are going to vote. Generally speaking, this refers to people’s preferences. However, Cramer argues that their perspectives are also important. The lenses they put on the world matter so much, and public opinion polls don’t capture them well. Perspectives can help you understand why people make the preferences they make. When you hear people’s conversations, see where they live, and notice how they think about their options and choices, it makes it more understandable.   Cramer asks, "Where does public opinion occur?" Is what someone says to a pollster the same as what they would say in private? What expression is more real: pollster response or what they say to their group of pals in the morning. These are different expressions of public opinion. It’s worth our while to consider where else public opinion is expressed and the venues that aren’t reliant on polls.   So what does understanding public opinion look like? Cramer's book is not about causality, it’s descriptive of how the people she talked to think about their political lives. That said, she admits that it has been helpful to put the 2016 election in context. Generally, you want to understand what X set of attitudes predicts Y vote. But she notes that maybe it’s about how Z lens makes X relevant to Y vote.   Building Bridges Cramer isn’t sure exactly what will work to address this problem of resentment in rural consciousness. She believes that it’s important to have authentic conversations like she did during her research. And any solutions will require that rural folks enjoy a sense of agency and respect in the process. The case of the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin is illustrative. Those state employees live in the community and work alongside locals trying to make a positive connection, and yet they are widely despised—their work seen as regulating how average people carry out their jobs or even spend their leisure times. Rural folks feel like the department is in their face all the time.   Since the book came out, Cramer has received emails from people across the country trying to build bridges, with some creative approaches emerging. One person wrote that she is driving classic cars across the country, since they tend to invite interesting conversations with more conservative residents. 
Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Inconsistent Information Access Across Alabama Public Schools and Libraries

May 25, 2017 - 1:45pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

Today, most of the panels are smaller, discussion-oriented breakouts, so I'm not liveblogging them like I did yesterday. But I do want to take a moment to provide some notes the research I presented today, which extends work I performed while a graduate student at Civic.

In brief: I'm presenting results from some of the work on Mapping Information Access that I've done with my collaborators Emily Knox at UIUC and Shannon Oltmann at UK. In 2014, our friend Shawn Musgrave helped us use MuckRock to issue FOI requests to every public school system and library district in Alabama seeking records of book challenges and Internet filtering configurations. This project has already yielded one peer-reviewed publication on using open records laws for research purposes and we are currently preparing more articles for publication.

My presentation at PPDD17 has to do with a subset of this project that compares Internet filtering configurations across schools and libraries to illustrate commonalities and discontinuities across implementations. Our unique, rich dataset of documents help us see, with startling specificity, the anticipation and articulation work (to borrow terms from the tradition of Leigh Star's infrastructural studies) performed by filtering systems and the people who use them. We demonstrate that, despite nominal compliance with a standard regulation (CIPA), filtering implementations varied widely and wildly between institutions, and introduced significant inconsistencies into the stream of information access through public institutions (with potentially troubling political consequences).

If you're interested in the documents and arguments from this talk, the slides for it can be downloaded in PDF form here. If you have more questions, just drop me a line or hit me on Twitter @peteyreplies. And if/when our findings are published as a paper, I'll make sure to update this blog entry (or create a new one) to share it.

Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Exploring Life in the Digital Age and Pervasive Technology.

May 24, 2017 - 5:33pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

I'm attending the breakout panel entitled Exploring Life in the Digital Age and Pervasive Technology.

Andrew begins by introducing his fellow panelists and then his own topic of embodied technologies. He opens with a quote from Marc Weiser, Chief Scientist at Xerox PARC, who observed that "the most profound technologies are those that disappear." At his postdoc, Andrew has been working to construct a database of wearables called FABRIC, a database containing media about emerging embodied technology platforms and their applications that uses a customized metadata scheme to catalog the discourse regarding technologies in popular media, intellectual property, etc, so that it's possible to track their development over time. He reviews some of the specific elements of the system, technologies they have tracked, and partners they've worked with to help gather this information.

Will follows with a talk, on behalf of several collaborators, about an exploratory study of reddit users and their health seeking behavior. The goal of this project was to better understand the intersection of social media and personal health, and how users of the former use it to learn about the latter. They developed 4 hypotheses about information seeking behavior and credibility that they tested with SDSU students and users of r/SampleSize. They found their hypotheses were supported and that there was a feedback loop between how often people sought information, the perceived quality of the information they found, and how much more information they sought after. In future work, they hope to perform a content analysis of what reddit users are searching for, and what they are applying to their daily lives.

Liana follows with a talk about tech, mobility, and ubiquity. She argues that ubiquitous computing has historically focused upon technologies, but it really needs to focus on people, or more specifically the people-technology network, and quotes Bruno Latour to make the point (bless my poor dork heart). She shares survey data from Brazil about which media people use and for what reasons; "ubiquitous computing," in Brazil, doesn't mean omnipresent/omnipotent home sentries like Alexa, but mobile phones armed with assistant apps like Waze, which provides the corpus for her study. Liana argues that, at least in contexts like Brazil, small amounts of data linked over large numbers of devices provide a more realistic hope for ubiquitous computing than more centralized models.

Heloisa, who is also from Brazil, is presenting not the results of a study but a position paper proposing a future study. She identifies prior media forms like the book as having been shaped by patrimonialist political cultures and institutions built around and by the state. Heloisa argues that the main question for Brazilian digital inclusion is not so much about access or literacy but the complex relationship between the longstanding 'book culture' and 'Internet culture,' the former built around the state and its institutions, the latter around globalist and democratic aspirations. She proposes, on behalf of her and her coauthor, two studies of these separate cultures in order to compare their present and futures, independently and interwtwined, in and for the Brazilian context.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Information and Communication Technologies and Social Justice, Media Justice, and Ethics

May 24, 2017 - 4:10pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

I'm attending the breakout panel entitled Information and Communication Technologies and Social Justice, Media Justice, and Ethics.

  • Chair: Lousia Ha, Bowling Green State University
  • Darrian Carroll, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • Izabela Korbiel, Institut fuer Publizistik- und Kommunikationswisssenschaft, Uni Wien
  • Neha Kumar, Georgia Institute of Technology

Darrian begins by introducing himself as a master's candidate at UNLV who will be talking about #Palestine2Ferguson. He argues that this hashtag uses a "rhetoric of embodiment" that expresses empowerment "across the digital divide." He defines, for this presentation, the digital divide as a term that describes the (lack of) interconnectedness between people.

The #Palestine2Ferguson hashtag was created to produce solidarity in/by communication between individuals in Ferguson and in Palestine who saw certain parallels in their experience of oppression. This conversation sometimes saw people describing themselves as part of "one fight, or "one love." Darrian describes the "rhetoric of embodiment" as being constituitive of this "one", in (as I understand) a sort of e pluribus unum produced by Twitter conversation. He connects this to the rhetorical concept of enthymematic reasoning, whereby the audience is persuaded to arrive at conclusions produced by the negative space of what is not said, and reviews example tweets that perform this kind of rhetoric.

Darrian takes the concept of the public screen from DeLuca and Peeples and translates it into the "public touchscreen." He argues that certain activist conversations are both inventional/intentional in how they simultaneously imagine and speak to new audiences.

Izabela follows with a talk about human rights as an ethical framework for technology developers. She begins by describing two positions in thre academic debate about human rights and ICTs: whether particular (and which) social values should be followed when designing protocols, and whether protocols should seek to enforce certain values. While many governments have made statements about the liberating potential of ICTs, in practice many governments try to restrict, restrain, or control ICTs. Meanwhile, human rights advocates face challenges in technical feasibility, the legitimacy of non-state actors (e.g. the IETF), and the contested character of human rights.

Izabela identifies the UDHR as the most relevant ethical and legal framework for human rights on/around the Internet, but translating those values to the Internet remains a political and technological challenge. Even when engineers and developers in Izabela's research are sensitive to e.g. privacy concerns, they tend to see it as a problem of trust in a given network, as opposed to a universal human rights concern. However, Izabela argues that a framework like the UDHR is the most powerful example we have of a general framework for responsibility that should guide how we build and regulate the Internet.

Neha, who was on the plenary panel at lunch about global ICT development, is now here to give a presentation called "Imagining Feminist Futures and the Case of the Panic Button." It's drawing on her work at TaNDem on panic buttons in New Dehli. Neha references urban planning critiques of the city as places that were primary designed for men and their work and not for the mobility of a new generation of women. The purpose of this project is to investigate how smart cities can also be made safe cities for women, and what literacies // initiatives // technologies are required to achieve that.

In 2016, after a brutal gang-rape of a middle class woman in an area widely considered safe, the Indian government mandated that smartphones include a "panic button" that summons emergency services. Neha and her students conducted interviews and fieldwork with women in New Delhi to better understand how early deployments of this product are being used and where the problems existed. In doing this research, they followed feminist HCI principles to guide their fieldwork. Neha then reviewed core findings and themes that emerged from their qualitative fieldwork with women riding public transit systems and other public spaces in New Delhi. She also shared alternative practices that have emerged in New Delhi, e.g. taking a picture of the taxi and driver and sending that to a family member to help deter harassment.

Through this fieldwork Neha and her team concluded that the panic button // phone solution was not well-aligned to the problem as focused through design and local values. It's not well-integrated with the technical infrastructure, preexisting problems with police, tensions with parents about mobility, and so on. Instead of a single button with single function, Neha advocates for a solution that provides for multiple uses that are well-aligned with local customs and expectations, as well as increased accountability for state organs and investments in necessary infrastructure. Only with an integrated (and feminist) approach will a successor system to the panic button actually succeed.

Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Global Perspectives on Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research

May 24, 2017 - 2:27pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

Our next panel is titled Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research: Global Perspectives. Our panelists are:

  • Chair: Karen Mossberger, Arizona State University
  • Neha Kumar, Assistant Professor, School of International Affairs and School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Andrea Kavanaugh, Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director,
    Center for Human Computer Interaction and Courtesy Appointment: Computer Science Department, Virginia Tech
  • Hernan Galperin, Research Associate Professor, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California
  • Blanca Gordo, International Computer Science Institute

Neha Kumar shares her backstory as a software developer to someone with a PhD in ICT and a focus on development, particularly among marginal peoples in India. She places a particular focus on dispelling myths and uses ethnographic approaches to help do this and to craft new narratives that center users as opposed to imposing narratives of how people should use technologies.

Today, Neha reviews her ethnographic work among Indian youth as they use Facebook. She shares stories and interviews from her participants about the uses and gratifications Facebook brought them, and if/how participants learned "from their environment," meaning both the technical and social milieu in which they found themselves immersed.

At Georgia Tech, and with other collaborators, Neha is running a project called TanDEm, a feminist HCI project that studies "how empowerment translates across geographic, disciplinary, and socioeconomic boundaries, [as well as] designing so that individuals from underserved and under-represented communities are able to act, engage, and participate." She leaves us with the 'big idea' of 'respect,' which she sees as a necessary condition for working (unoppressively) with and across subjects, countries, fields, and other boundaries.

Andrea Kavanaugh begins by saying she has worked for decades in ICT for development, not only in the 'developing world' of the global south but the 'developing world' of Appalachia and in community computing in rural Virginia. She traces the history of an 'electronic village' project from the early 1990s, in which Virginia Tech collaborated with federal offices and public libraries to help connect towns, to today, where some of her participants are illiterate but still have cell phones. "My fundamental argument is that people who cannot read or write are still learning basic computing skills on their cell phones, and that these skills can translate off their phones into other contexts." Andrea canvasses a series of projects that she's been a part of to help create common community spaces (both at libraries and outside of libraries) that can help facilitate this kind of capabilities-building.

Hernan Galperin says that, instead of talking about his own research, he wants to ask whether we can connect everyone, and if we want to. 20 years ago, the answer was unequivocally yes: this is a great technology, and everyone will use it if we can just get them access, and it will be a social equalizer. In retrospect, he says, this was simplistic. Part of these misunderstandings arose from the fact that the Internet was built on the telephone network, and so people assumed that, like the telephone network, connectivity was sufficient (and empowering). However, the general-purpose technology of the web was fundamentally different.

The fundamental question Hernan poses is: what does it meant to be digitally connected? The historic binary of the digital divide was inaccurate but also urgent because it is so clear. Meanwhile, various forms of nuance (ranges and kinds of access, or literacies) are more accurate and subtle but also are confusing from a policy perspective. In some cases, trends may point in opposite directions: simple connectivity may be increasing while inclusion/equity decreases. In order to make advances, Hernan argues, we need to "build a better knowledge condition" and refine concepts, metrics, and outcomes so that our research can be more accurate and more usable.

Blanca Gordo opens by stating her excitement at being surrounded by people who care about (in)equality in, with, and through technology. At the same time, she says that she's surprised we still have to debate such (in)equality, given the empirical record. She raises and reviews a set of questions about what conditions - politically, governmentally, economically, pedagogically, and technologically - are necessary and sufficient for achieving more equality. She advocates for the term "new entrants" as opposed to "late adopters" when referring to subaltern communities; "you can't be late to something that was never offered to you." Blanca argues that too many researchers and policymakers continue to ascribe the results of inequality to personal choices when they are in fact the product of what she calls "digital destitution." She concludes with a rousing call for a renewed focus on the structural factors that exclude and disempower disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

Liveblogging PPDD17: Introduction to the Current Status of the Digital Divide Around the World

May 24, 2017 - 12:14pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

PPDD 2017 kicks off with a welcome and introductory summary of digital divide issues around the world. Our panelists are:

  • Chair: Karen Mossberger, Arizona State University
  • Europe: Grant Blank, University of Oxford and Oxford Internet Institute
  • Africa: Bill Tucker, University of the Western Cape and Bridging Application and Network Gaps
  • Asia the Pacific, and the Middle East: Ellie Rennie, RMIT University
  • Canada: Anabel Quan-Haase, University of Western Ontario
  • United States: Rafi M. Goldberg, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Office of Policy Analysis and Development
  • Latin America and the Caribbean:Laura Robinson, Santa Clara University

Karen Mossberger welcomes attendees and thanks organizers. She frames PPDD as a gathering of people who care about digital inclusion and seek to empower individuals from all walks of life with the infrastructure of the digital age, and an opportunity for academics, practicioners, and policymakers to work together towards these ends. After recognizing our local sponsors, she turns it over to our panelists to talk about inititives in their regions of the world.

Grant Blank offers to canvass 30 countries in five minutes ("must like most American tours through Europe"). He outlines 'gradients' of Internet connectivity and access across Europe. The big divide he delineates is between urban and rural areas: the former being well-connected both with fiber and and wireless access, and the latter less connected, less wealthy, and less educated. One challenge in this area is that certain countries (e.g. the Scandinavian countries) have very good public data on connectivity, but other nations, particularly to Europe's south and east, do not have good public data on Internet connectivity, which makes it hard to study. However, the best available data suggest that in south/east Europe Internet adoption rates lag significantly, in some cases with only half of the population connected to the web. Grant links these lower rates to the economic challenges of these countries as both cause and consequence. Grant concludes by arguing that that the Internet has served to perpetuate and strengthen, rather than amelioerate, existing socioeconomic divides across Europe.

Bill Tucker, who was unable to attend, has submitted a video of his introduction, but it's hard to hear in the conference room. I'll see if I can get a copy of the video to embed in this post.

Ellie Rennie begins by discussing Australia's relatively high inclusion index, which (strangely, to me and I infer to her) does not include indigenous peoples, who are her primary research subjects. She describes a government-funded initiative to test whether free Internet, loaned devices, and culturally-appropriate advising could help more indigenous peoples participate in online education. The results of this initiative were very strong (i.e., many of the students completed certificates and/or further education), but complicated. For example, cultural norms around sharing meant that students would sometimes have their devices/data dominated by family members for entertainment purposes before they could complete educational requirements. Ellie describes online educational equity as a "monumental task" that will require not only more funding but more careful attention to the social webs in which students are embedded. She then summarizes cases of access in Malaysia and new initiatives by Dubai to become a blockchain-based city.

Anabel Quan-Haase begins by discussing some of the opportunities and challenges for Canada, which is the world's second largest country in terms of area but relatively small in terms of population, with a population disproprotionately distributed across the southern border with America. Canadian cities also have large migrant populations (half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada). So Canada's challenges regarding the digital divide range across almost all possible aspects of the problem. She shares data from Canada that, like data in other regions, shows that age, gender, region, and income all predict Internet access and usage. One interesting phenomenon, however, is that immigration status doesn't: in fact, migrants use the Internet, particularly social media, as much or more than native-born Canadians. She concludes with a call for more grounded research in the actual needs and capabilities of (under)connected Canadians.

Rafi Goldberg begins by introducing the "mouthful" of the agency he works on and some of the data they capture. In 2015, 75% of Americans report having an Internet connection, and most have at least 2 devices. However, a "huge" digital divide remains, delineated, as in so many other cases, by education, income, and geography. The age gap is reducing, but this seems to be due to prior adopters becoming older, not older people becoming adopters. He concludes his short summary by identifying similarities and differences between what he's said about the USA and what others have said about the regions and what can be learned from there.

Laura Robinson begins by noting that, at PPDD17, many of the people in the room helped produce a volume of research on digital divide in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the time, they saw incredible variation across the regions of Central and South America, from 10% connectivity in Haiti to 61% in Chile. Latin America now represents 10% of the world's Internet connectivity, and slightly leads the global internet average for regional connectivity. She concludes by summarizing what we know and what we still need to learn.

Karen returns to the microphone to conclude our rapid tour around the world and tell us to go to lunch before the 1PM Plenary on Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

Initial findings from Para | Citizen monitoring of school lunches

May 23, 2017 - 1:37pm

This month we’re excited to be sharing initial findings from the Phase II Promise Tracker case studies, developed over the past year with partners at the University of São Paulo’s Colaboratory for Development and Participation (Colab-USP).

With support from Humanitas360 Institute, Phase II of the the project was launched in spring 2016 with the goal of better understanding the ongoing use of Promise Tracker in the field. Over the course of 12 months, we worked with Colab-USP, the Social Observatory of Belém, Project SOL, the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) and the Ministry of Transparency, Supervision and the Comptroller General (CGU) to document citizen monitoring initiatives in three cities across the state of Pará, Brazil, where the tool was most actively being used.

In all three cities, monitoring campaigns focused on the quality of lunches served in public schools. Despite being one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, Brazil’s National School Nutrition Program has been a source of challenges at all levels of implementation, and students in schools across the country have grappled with inadequate or missing lunches for years.

Across the three initiatives, school lunch was monitored in a total of 28 schools with over 26,000 enrolled students. Each case involved a unique set of actors and approach to advocating for improvements in the consistency and quality of what was served.

Included below are some of our initial observations gathered from three visits to Pará, focus groups, and 27 interviews with members of partner organizations, student participants, teachers, school directors, lunch preparation staff, and representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, CGU, the State Secretary of Education, and the School Council.

To read more about these cases and our findings, see the overview of our Phase II findings in English here and the full report in Portuguese here.

School Lunch Outcomes
Participants in several schools reported an improvement in the quality of food preparation and storage of ingredients as a result of monitoring campaigns. Interviewees shared that school leadership in some cases had become more attentive to deliveries and taken initiative to improve the hygiene and organization of stock rooms.

Greater Awareness of School Lunch as a RightStudents in all scenarios reported a better understanding of the PNAE legislation and the rights they had related to school nutrition. Many felt this awareness of lunch as a right contributed to less complacency and more willingness to mobilize around the issue.

Increased Curiosity and Engagement on Behalf of StudentsSome teachers and administrators noted that students involved in the campaigns demonstrated a desire to expand monitoring to explore additional challenges related to school lunches or other issues within the school community.

Citizen Monitoring as a Learning Tool
Experiences at UFPA in particular offered new perspectives on the value of Promise Tracker as a pedagogical tool to engage critically and creatively with new models for government oversight. For many students, the monitoring projects were the first time they had engaged in applied coursework outside of the classroom and they expressed excitement at being able to connect theoretical learning with real-world interactions with citizens. For the Ministry, the tool offered an accessible way to test at scale a concept that had been of interest previously but never implemented.

Power of Multi-stakeholder Partnerships for Monitoring
In Santarém and Belém, campaign organizers developed approaches to monitoring that involved active collaboration between civil society, government oversight agencies, and in the case of Belém, the academic community. Participants felt these partnerships were a powerful way to leverage skills, knowledge and networks in order to tackle complex shared challenges.

Value of Collaboration with Government Oversight Agencies
In all three cases, the Public Prosecutor’s Office or the Comptroller General played a key role as a recipient of information and advocate. Though government oversight agencies were not imagined as an implementation partner in the initial phase of the project, it has proved a mutually beneficial relationship for those involved.

Development and Consolidation of Partnerships
The development and implementation of campaigns appeared to provide an opportunity in all cases to build new partnerships or strengthen existing relationships. On the school level, interviewees reported feeling closer to other students, school lunch staff, teachers, principals, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the local executive branch as a result of campaigns. On the organizational level, initiatives provided an opportunity for actors who were previously acquainted to develop concrete projects together for the first time.

Technology as a Means to Facilitate Speed, Scale, and Visibility
Both campaign organizers and participants felt that as a technology platform, Promise Tracker allowed them to achieve greater scale, save time, and attract new participants and more media coverage. Students who had previously used Facebook to document the school lunch situation felt that Promise Tracker provided greater legitimacy and credibility to the information gathered. Actors in all roles noted the power of images in mobilizing the public around this issue and achieving a response.

We’ll be sharing these initial learnings alongside Phase II partners in a series of events in Brazil over the next 2 months that will convene actors from academia, civil society, government and tech sector in a broader dialogue around the role of technology in citizen monitoring and government oversight. Join the conversation in São Paulo on May 31st!

Downloads:  Promise Tracker Phase II Summary
Categories: Blog

Cyber Harassment in the Global South: Nighat Dad at the Berkman Klein Center

May 16, 2017 - 2:35pm

What kinds of online harassment do women in Pakistan face, and what can we learn from Pakistan for our efforts to protect people around the world?

(this liveblog was written with Mariel García M)

Last week at the Berkman Klein Center, we were privileged to hear from Nighat Dad, a lawyer and global leader on human rights and the internet. Nighat is the founder of Pakistan's Digital Rights Foundation, a research based advocacy NGO that focuses on the role of ICTs to support human rights, democratic processes, and digital governance. Last year, Nighat started Pakistan's first hotline for people experiencing online harassment.

Online harassment is a global issue, says Nighat. The Digital Rights Foundation has been working to advance digital rights in Pakistan, where religion plays an important role in everyone's lives, and where the culture has deep patriarchal norms. While these are global issues, some nuances in Pakistan make it more complex in that country.

In Pakistan, it's hard for women in conservative parts of the country to get online in the first place. In the conservative parts of Pakistan, women are hardly allowed to access social media or online spaces. According to society, conservative families and wider cultural norms do not consider internet access to be for women. So when women face online harassment, they can't talk about it, because they're often accessing the internet without the knowledge of male members of their families. They can't turn to their families when they get stalked, blackmailed, or face threats.

Despite the challenges that women face, many Pakistani women have found the courage to speak up. In 2016, Pakistan passed a Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in the name of protecting women against online blackmailing and harassment. This often happens in the global south, where the protection of citizens, especially women and daughters becomes the reason for developing massive powers to surveil, ban, and censor content. Sections of these laws in Pakistan do offer some legal remedies to people who face harassment online, even if the laws also introduce these massive powers.

Nighat tells us the story of a Qandeel Baloch, one of the first Pakistani women to reclaim their sexuality openly online. Using a pseudonym, she attracted a massive following of people, many of whom harassed her. Then a blogger found her legal identity and published articles about that identity. When television channels created shows about her and shamed her publicly, it was seen as a shame upon her small village. Her brother responded by killing her in the name of defending the family honor. The case is still being processed.

When many people in Pakistan agreed that this murder was justified, Pakistani feminist activists resisted this narrative. In the resulting conversation, many of those advocates were harassed and threatened as well, including Nighat. Last year, women who had been facing these issues pooled their knowledge and used a $5,000 grant from the Urgent Action Fund to start Pakistan's first anonymous helpline for online harassment. They now have a year of resources. When they started the helpline, the organizers thought they might get a dozen calls a week. Instead, they received 15-20 calls per day and now plan to run the helpline 7 days a week.

Although the helpline was developed initially to support women, over a third of the calls come from men. In a patriarchal society, it can also be shameful for men to admit the threats that they face, and the anonymous helpline is able to support them as well. In some cases, men will call on behalf of women they know.

What help does the helpline provide? The Digital Rights Foundation offers people information about legal remedies, helps them understand how the law enforcement process works, offers psychological counseling, and gives advice on digital security systems. The helpline also refers people to social media platforms when relevant or points them to other helplines that support people facing domestic violence, emotional trauma, and cybercrime.

Among people who have called in, people have faced problems including fake profiles, stalking, threats, and other kinds of bullying. Facebook is the most common platform that people report. The Digital Rights Foundation has now published a report of the first four months of this helpline.

Nighat shares some of the challenges that the helpline has faced. First, law enforcement in Pakistant is under-resourced when dealing with cases of online harassment. Next, Pakistan's law enforcement, who only have cybercrime wings in major cities, have no policies about data protection. Because these cyber crime wing offices are in major cities it is hard for victims to reach out to them if they are in villages or towns (70% of Pakistans population lives in rural areas). Without those privacy protections, women are often reluctant to report to regional police outside of cities. Since they have to report cybercrime in person, others would see them, which could put them under greater risk. According to Nighat, law enforcement engages in substantial amounts of victim blaming and lacks awareness of the cybercrime law, and judges are usually not aware of the laws–despite passing laws that purport to support women, no women have yet been supported under those laws, she says.

On the bright side, the online harassment helpline has been able to support hundreds of people, work with law enforcement to improve their handling of cases, and advocate more widely on behalf of people who face online harassment. Nighat is also encouraged to hear from so many men, who she didn't expect to come forward as supporters and advocates on these issues.


Susan Benesch asks: why is the helpline a phone number?

Nighat: In Pakistan, toll free helplines have been a very effective way to support people on a wide range of issues. In Pakistan, people are used to calling each other, so it works well.

Susan: What kind of data do you collect from people who call, and what don't you ask?

Nighat: We don't ask their name, their location, or other personal information. People sometimes volunteer that information, which they record. But they're not sure that it's true. Maintaining trust is important– so it's important for us to avoid asking personal details.

Question: how do you reach out to different parts of the country?

Nighat: We reached out across the country through local journalists, and we've appeared on television shows and radio shows that have a broad reach. We also advertise on Facebook.

In one case, the helpline heard from a man who called on behalf of his sister. "I don't want my family to kill my sister, and she's being blackmailed by a person who has her nudes." I was moved to hear from a brother who was supporting his sister in this way.

Question: What do you do in that kind of situation?

Nighat: In these urgent cases, we are sometime able to reach out to platforms who can intervene. In other cases where there is a risk of an honor killing or someone who might be killed by her family, regional law enforcement treat that issue sensitively.

Question: What risks do you face from this work?

Answer; In one case, we received a report from someone who said they had a blasphemy to report. In Pakistan, the punishment for blasphemy is death. The helpline said they don't do this work, but they encouraged him to report it to the Pakistani telecommunications authority. This person became upset in the call. Other people are upset that the helpline offers support to women. Yet critics are rare. Even law enforcement who aren't always happy about Nighat's critiques, appreciate the support that the helpline offers to them.

Grace Mutung'u: In Kenya, when the government made a law about online harassment that wasn't specific to women, it was used to bully bloggers. How do we create balanced laws that protect people without restricting people's rights? Do think that these issues might be resolved through more traditional means?

Nighat: I don't support the current law in Pakistan. Legal provisions that have been developed to support women are often used to limit political speech. In Pakistan, the judiciary has been saying that Facebook is evil because anyone can post anything against Islam, and they banned YouTube for years. In that context, my hopes are not high. The law is very problematic. We suggested to the government that small amendments to existing legislation might work– there are already laws in the penal code that protect women that could be edited. Instead, the government brought forward bad laws that expanded their control over the internet in the name of protecting citizens, women, and national security. We'll wait to see how the courts develop the jurisprudence.

In Pakistan, many cases of online harassment are already handled outside of the court. The justice system is so broken that it takes years to handle a single case. Many families settle their cases outside the court because of fear of shame and protecting family honor.

Yaso: In Brazil, similar helplines were trolled by the people who engage in harassment. The service had to be dismantled. Did you suffer any kinds of attacks on your service?

Nighat: We haven't received even one prank call. Other help lines in Pakistan told us to expect fake calls. This is surprising, and a good sign.

Mariel: In Mexico, the collective working on responses to harassment was very inspired by the Digital Rights Foundation in our work. But we struggled with the inconsistency of dealing with online platforms. The consistency of service tends to depend on who someone's contact is and whether they slept well the night before. What have you learned about working well with them?

Nighat: One of the hardest parts of this work involves helping these companies understand how their processes and guidelines are poorly set up to support people. When we developed our report, the company responded by saying that they wanted to improve the issues. But every time people complain, companies respond that they're looking into the problem and plan to change things soon. I feel like it will take a long time, and I'm not sure we'll succeed. Yet small changes can make a difference, like the translation of community guidelines into Pakistani languages. When we showed them the kinds of violence that were occurring in Pakistani languages, they realized that they needed to translate their policies into languages that people would understand.

Susan Benesch: it sounds like translation needs to happen in two directions? The problems need to be translated so the company can understand the issues, and guidelines need to be translated into the languages and cultures involved. Nighat: Yes.

Susan: You mentioned blasphemy. Can you explain further?

Nighat: One month ago, a university student was killed in the name of online blasphemy by his fellow students. He was lynched until death. It's still hard for me to talk about this issue. He had a Facebook page called "Voice of the voiceless," where he talked about human rights, women's rights, and animal rights. He also identified himself as a humanist. Then someone created a false profile on Facebook to spread misinformation about his views and lead others to believe that he was committing blasphemy.

Because people don't understand how fake profiles work, and because there's limited digital forensic capacity in the country, people can become riled up based on false information and lynch someone. Those fellow students even filmed themselves taking the action, videos which are still online. Nighat tells us about one of the videos: one of the filmmakers would kick the student, step back, film for a while, then kick his body again, until someone shot the student in the head. Using those videos, law enforcement were able to identify and arrest some of the people involved.

Nighat believes that this story may start a debate about online safety, security, protections against false profiles, and the risks that people face, especially in a society with strict norms and laws against blasphemy.

Susan: Do law enforcement understand the dangers that people face when someone creates a false profile that appears to be committing blasphemy?

Nighat: I do think they understand. These are trends that happen in Muslim countries. Social media companies are aware, even if they may not always act like it. So I continue to urge them to be vigilant and be informed.

Question: What other ideas do you have for Pakistani privacy laws?

Nighat: Our country has the world's largest biometric database, and we have a huge project around smart cities. Just in Lahore, they are installing 8,000 CCTV cameras. Yet no one knows how the data will be used or who has access to it. If the government passes new privacy laws, I am hoping that the federal government, provincial government, and cities will have their own privacy policies. So I'm pushing at the federal level and with the Punjab government. If Punjab passes new privacy legislation, it might influence the federal government to pass similar legislation. We are also working with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard to draft a policy draft around data protection and what kind of data protection mechanism suits to Pakistan.

Crystal Nwaneri: You mentioned that you have received 500 calls in four months. What amount of harassment are you able to handle?

Nighat: We don't have the data to answer that question. Sometimes people ask us for information without telling us their story. And many people don't call us back to tell us that the issue was resolved.

Nathan Freitas: Is there any talk about biometric systems might help stop attacks, or should we avoid that idea?

Nighat: I don't think we should go there. I'm worried about the biometrics that are happening in Pakistan. I was recently on TV and someone said that we could solve the problems of impersonation by linking biometrics with profiles. In many cases, people are able to find a voice online through anonymity and pseudonymity–when Qandeel Baloch's name became widely known, that's when she was killed.

Ellery: what should we tell Facebook to do about the issue of impersonation? The company already asks for people's ID. How might the university student have handled this?

Nighat: I'm not sure. And that's why we're all here. The helpline is a very local solution. Dealing with companies is so complicated. We need to understand why those companies are there. Their main job is business and making money out of our data.

harassmentanonymityglobal southactivismgovernmentlocal communitiessocial networkstechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Podcasting for movement building

May 8, 2017 - 9:32am

This post was originally published over at MIT CoLab.


One of the most fulfilling experiences I have had this year was that of planning, recording and editing my first podcast episode ever (along with my collaborators… more about them coming soon). 

Now: as a technological capacity builder and media researcher, few things bring me as much joy as the powerful processes where tech, media-making and collaboration are all part of one learning experience. However, I am usually the facilitator; I rarely get to do the direct learning myself. I had forgotten what it feels like to learn like that.

It feels like the excitement of technological discovery in unpacking the audio recorder, caressing the windjammer and learning about waves and decibels. The awe when listening, more actively than ever, to others’ work and discovering the features I had always taken for granted. The creative flow of ideating interview arcs with my brilliant collaborators – Jordan Frias, journalist, and Lesly Monroy, ZUMIX youth musician.


Along the journey of technological discovery, I picked up a few tips that come in hand when recording and editing audio:

  • Well, yes: use a proper recorder with mics properly dressed in fur.
  • Hold the mic at a hand’s distance from people’s mouths and slightly off axis to avoid hearing their ”P”s pop in the recording.
  • Check and adjust the sound levels before you actually record.
  • If you’re the one speaking, use the full range of your voice, without forgetting the middle.
  • Don’t forget to record room tone at the end!
  • When it’s time to edit, put on your over-ear headphones (never trust your speakers).
  • Also, don’t edit your raw audio; edit the copy.  

And then there are the learnings that come from active listening. We were listening, yes, for instances that show proper executions of the recipe above; but also for the things that can make podcasts a part of movement-building since not every podcast is aligned with broader advocacy goals. It comes down to how we tell stories, how power gets assigned in these stories, whose voices are portrayed, and what these stories reflect about our relationships with their characters. Podcasting for movement building ultimately comes down to how we tell stories not on behalf of, but with, their characters. My takeaways:

  • I found one of the Center for Story-based Strategy’s handouts very good for analyzing power dynamics in a narrative.
  • Of all possible analogies to make sense of interviews, the one that poses them as a journey resonated with me the most: you don’t jump into a journey with anyone, so don’t expect someone else to do it with you. Build the relationship first. 
  • Honor your interviewee’s input: don’t forget to leave time for their reflections so they can talk about what you did not ask them.
  • Whose voices? I loved reading this text on disabled voices in radio by Alice Wong, and this one on vocal color by Chenjerai Kumanyika. (I also loved discovering Transom, really.)

There are also the media-specific stylistic choices that are relevant not to all stories, but to those in podcast format in particular. The writing needs to be tight and clear, using simple tenses. People need to be reminded of the story constantly. Music and ambient sound are not luxuries: they are elements that carry the message forward. But don’t be too ambitious: podcast as a format could be, in fact, conducive to bite-sized explainerism.  

All of this, of course, is much easier said than done. Like most of my production experiences at MIT, I feel that this course was as much an exercise in empathy as a workshop. After hours spent in East Boston to better understand the issues at stake, planning, interviewing, trying to gather ambient sound, building a conservative narrative that wouldn’t require too much editing, truth is we still spent an absurd and unsustainable amount of time putting it together.

Did we succeed in the end? In telling Luis Bravo’s story, which is decidedly worth telling, we learned about a miracle of Spanish-speaking community newspapers in Boston and we gave potential listeners ideas on what they can do going forward. But, like in all media-making, we have no evidence that anybody will ever listen to what we recorded.

This moment of painful humility, in a world of overworked and underpaid advocacy, could pose this work as a distraction from strategic action. However, having also felt the glory of listening to the final version after hours of obsessing over details and fiddling with editing software, of seeing Lesly’s smile after she heard her Spanish voice on the recording, my own vision of media for movement building has been strengthened.

The power of podcasting for movement building does not stem just from its products, but from its process. For a devout, I had forgotten what the learnings and disappointments and glories felt like. I am happy to have seen my faith and empathy for collaborative media-making processes be renewed, and already looking forward to many more of these processes, both facilitating and making-feeling


This post is a reflection on MIT CoLab’s Media for Movement Building IAP Course, which was held in collaboration with ZUMIX, to teach about audio collection as a method for place-based inquiry. 

Mariel García-Montes is an activist on hold, and current graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. She is a research assistant at the Center for Civic Media, and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. 

All photographs were taken by Lawrence Barriner II for MIT CoLab.



Categories: Blog

Mobile Security Primer for Activists

April 18, 2017 - 8:45am

At MIT's Day of Action, Nathan Freitas of Guardian Project led a workshop on mobile security for activists, focusing on various secure messaging apps available today, touching on their benefits and risks for different kinds of activities and communities.

Common messaging apps (and their secure setting)

  • Conversations (default, can also interface with other secure XMPP apps like ChatSecure and Zom)
  • Facebook Messenger (secret conversations setting)
  • iMessage (only for messages to another iPhone/iMessage users, i.e. "blue" messages)
  • Signal (default)
  • WhatsApp (default)

All of these apps transfer messages over the internet via your data plan. SMS messages are never encrypted and can additionally be seen by your telephone company, which is particularly insecure because metadata from phone companies can be acquired without a warrant. Instead, internet-based messaging apps can be secured using "end to end" encryption with their secure settings. This means that messages are encrypted and then conveyed over encrypted connections (HTTPS/TLS) between phones and servers.

It's important to understand what each service knows about its users and what it stores. This may include:

  • When you are connected to the internet
  • Your phone number for user identity purposes (thus, they can look up your name at the phone company)
  • Your network of friends, IF you uploaded your contact book

Because of end to end encryption, these companies generally don't have access to your messages unless you are using them on an insecure setting like green messages on iMessage (actually sent by SMS) or non-secret Facebook Messengers messages. Because of this companies under subpoena can only provide metadata, not the messages themselves. 

Some apps have less metadata than others. WhatsApp keeps a lot of metadata for analysis/advertising purposes. Apple is opaque about what data it keeps from iMessage but it has a good record of fighting government subpoenas. Signal deletes most metadata after it completes a transmission, only retaining when you last connected to their servers. Conversations is not tied to a phone number and can interchange with other servers using the same messaging protocol—including running your own if you want complete control over security.

Disappearing messages is feature available on some services like Signal and Facebook Messenger that will actually delete messages after a set period of time, so that they can't be accessed by others or downloaded if you phone is confiscated. Additional security features on WhatsApp are also available to make it more like Signal such as asking that it notify you when someone's identity changes and disallowing cloud back up of your messages.

What should I use? Consider these questions as activists:
  1. Are we going to be talking about breaking the law and possibly creating a record of that conversation? (then it should be secured)
  2. What level of sophistication do people have with their phones and what services are they already using? (e.g. if everyone is on WhatsApp already then use WhatsApp)
  3. Need a good middle ground solution? Signal is easy to install and use and very secure, and great if people have aversions to Facebook (who owns WhatsApp).
More General Security Recommendations
  • Use a password manager: Nathan uses Lastpass for things he needs to share and KeePass for things he doesn't. These can also be used to take secure notes.
  • Use a phone that gets security updates and always install them: iPhones, Google, Samsung
  • Use a Chromebook as your activist computer: disposable at low cost and helps you isolate data from your normal life from your activist activities.

What about Slack?
Slack is not end to end encrypted and retains messages on their side. Nathan recommends Moxtra and Semaphor as more secure options for enterprise.

Downloads:  signal-app-logo.pngactivism
Categories: Blog

Mapping The Concepts of Content Warnings: Three Themes, Two Causes, & A Possible Path Forward

April 3, 2017 - 7:08am

In summer 2015 I attended a meeting of the Freedom Expression Network (FEN) in Washington, DC. The FEN is an alliance of a few dozen civil liberties organizations convened by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a nonprofit whose mission is to promote freedom of thought, inquiry and expression and oppose censorship in all its forms. I've served on the Board of Directors at NCAC since 2010, and was asked to address the FEN meeting on the topic of trigger/content warnings* in the context of higher education.

(*These terms are used somewhat interchangeably in this debate; since, as we'll discuss below, 'trigger warnings' are narrower in scope, I'll primarily use 'content warnings' for the rest of this essay)

I'm no special expert on content warnings (and if you know someone who is, please introduce us), but I do have a background in anti­-censorship work from my graduate research at Civic and my affiliation with NCAC, and I recruit, admit, and teach undergraduates at MIT, so I have a decent amount of experience thinking about this issue as both activist and educator. So my goal, at this meeting, was to try and talk about how I thought about content warnings in my work, and, to the best of my ability, to help other members of FEN who don't work with students every day to understand their perspective as well. Some time has passed, but the conversation has continued, so I thought I would take the time to organize and post the notes from my talk.

Some points I should make before I proceed. These viewpoints are my own, and should not be construed to represent (indeed, likely do not represent) those of FEN, NCAC, or MIT. The purpose of this post is not to advance a strong argument, but rather to trace the outlines of the debate as I see it from my own standpoint and situation. I've shared drafts of this post with half a dozen different people with different perspectives on the debate, and they've all overall liked it while finding different things to be wrong with it, often in contradiction with each other. I'm posting it because I'm hoping that mixed reception is actually a signal it can provide some value, if not in answering any question, at least helping to map the terrain of the debate. 

I was asked to speak about content warnings in the context of higher education, but my most direct experience is limited to that of MIT, the institution where I have (at various points) worked, studied, and taught since 2009. In many ways, MIT is not a typical university (well­funded, exceptionally prestigious, and as such very privileged, for example), but still you can see some of the general ambivalence about content warnings reflected in the history of the institution.

For example: Dr. Mary Rowe, a longtime Ombuds, Adjunct Professor, and Special Assistant to the President, played a key role in developing the concept of microaggressions/microiniquities and other forms of "subtle discrimination" in a series of papers starting as early as 1973. Rowe, along with her colleague Dr. Clarence Williams, also organized and recorded a series of campus conversations regarding stereotypes and microaggressions in the context of race in the 1990s.

At the same time that it has hosted these kinds of 'sensitive' conversations, however, MIT is also known for a radically autonomous student culture, which you can see in the campus hacks, student protests when dormitory artwork was classified as a Title 9 violation and painted over, and even an infamous 1987 student lawsuit when the administration clamped down on a longstanding tradition of screening porn in a campus theater on Registration Day. The lesson that I take from this history is that MIT, like many universities, has been wrestling with the apparent conflict between autonomy and safety for decades before the current controversy over content warnings became prominent.

Part of this ambiguity, I believe, is that many different issues have been bundled together into the category of content warnings. In my discussions with students, activists, and educators, I've heard three major themes/metaphors/concepts mobilized for or against warnings:

Medical Trauma: this theme organizes content warnings around the metaphor of disease and treatment. Under this model, proponents of warnings tend to mobilize two different variants of this argument. The first, which draws on folk knowledge of PTSD and related disorders, is that certain kinds of content might be associated with, and therefore 'trigger' emotional responses to, past trauma. The second, which draws on folk knowledge of allergens, is that certain kinds of content might induce negative, 'allergic' reactions. Opponents of warnings tend to respond by arguing that both trauma and allergies should be treated with exposure therapy to desensitize any negative response.

Rhetorically, this metaphor also moves warnings out of the domain of political disagreement into the domain of medical expertise, which simultaneously depoliticizes and professionalizes the discourse by making it the kind of claim that can only be debated and settled by scientists (see, e.g., Trigger Warning: This Post May Contain Scientifically Accurate Information on Trigger Warnings), and relies on a neoliberal focus on the damaged individual rather than the structures that damage them.

Informed Consent: this theme organizes content warnings as analogous to the content ratings that have been 'voluntarily' applied to e.g. movies and video games (but not books) by professional organizations. Under this model, proponents tend to argue that warnings aren't a restriction of information, but in fact more speech, in the form of meta­speech that characterizes speech. As the blogger Scott Alexander writes:

I like trigger warnings. I like them because they’re not censorship, they’re the opposite of censorship. Censorship says “Read what we tell you”. The opposite of censorship is “Read whatever you want”. The philosophy of censorship is “We know what is best for you to read”. The philosophy opposite censorship is “You are an adult and can make your own decisions about what to read”. And part of letting people make their own decisions is giving them relevant information and trusting them to know what to do with them. Uninformed choices are worse choices. Trigger warnings are an attempt to provide you with the information to make good free choices of reading material.

Opponents of warnings tend to argue that rating models are censorship by another name because they attempt to enforce a top­down, universal classification of content as "appropriate" or "inappropriate," and position warnings as the 'moral authoritarian left' employing tactics long used by the reactionary right during e.g. the culture wars.

"Don't Be An Asshole": this theme organizes warnings into the ethical sphere, where proponents see warnings as an acknowledgment of actually­existing differences in experiences and social power, and refusals to offer warnings as a move to force the conversation to happen on one's own terms, a tactic only available to the socially empowered and which the writer Ta­Nehisi Coates has offered as a working definition of what makes someone an "asshole."

As the journalist (and friend of Civic) Laurie Penny puts it: "Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalised people, to be spoken of frankly." This viewpoint, as in Penny's formulation, often draws on feminist standpoint theory, which positions claims of what is true, and thus what/how it should be taught, within the domain of political struggle as opposed to received fact.

In the university context, this may manifest as an obligation for instructors to consider adjusting their curriculum, offering different examples or alternative assignments, as described by the law professor James Grimmelmann. Some opponents of this view argue that there are things that will make people uncomfortable yet must be taught.

This list of reasons is neither exhaustive nor exclusive but does incorporate some of the more common logics used to understand and argue about content warnings. But if we understand more about how people argue about content warnings, there remains the question: why is this controversy emerging now? I think there are two major and interrelated reasons:

Increasing precarity of educators and students alike

The precarity of educators, particularly at the university level, has been well­-documented. Adjunct lecturers are typically hired on semesterly contracts and can be easily disposed of should a student complain about the content of their coursework, so their sensitivity to conflict should be obvious. But even tenured faculty, who historically enjoyed almost total security and freedom, have become comparatively less­secure within the ranks of increasingly risk­averse, press­conscious, and bureacratically­managed universities, as in the cases of Steven Salaita and Laura Kipnis, whose polemical popular writings had serious professional consequences.

What has been perhaps less well understood is the parallel rise (and for the same reasons) in the precarity of students. This is particularly true in the case of graduate students who face historically poor job prospects (and who, in my personal experience, have been the most aware of/engaged with content warnings): if you have poor chances of ever becoming a colleague, there is little reason to be collegial with professors who are speaking in a way that strikes you as traumatizing/uninformed/assholeish. It is also true of undergraduates who may a) fear that their inability to fully­engage with troublesome subject matter will impact their grades, student­-teacher relationships, and subsequent professional opportunities, and/or b) because of their subject position are sensitive toward the (perceived) entitlement of the professors who have almost total power over them.

For example: a few years ago ago, two queer undergraduates at MIT approached me for advice on how to ask a professor to modify his computer­-science curriculum after he included jokes about hermaphrodites in his videotaped lectures on object types. They were at once angry about his (in their view) tonedeaf and dismissive attempt at humor and fearful of his power to affect their grade.

Redistribution of power and deprofessionalization of everything
A reason (and result) of this precarity is the redistribution of power in terms of who is qualified to make claims to and subsequently propagate knowledge. The trouble for civil libertarians is that, although we aspire to support 'more speech,'in many cases, we have to functionally 'pick sides,' at least in terms of the consequences of speech.

For example, most free speech organizations have historically opposed content rating systems, which are inarguably a form of speech, on the grounds that they will ultimately influence what kinds of movies and video games are made, a standpoint which sides with movie directors and game designers over watchdog groups and moral majoritarianism. Similarly, most of us routinely oppose parents who try to have books removed from libraries or syllabi, but defer to librarians and teachers who decide which books to buy or include in their curricula, because in practice the philosophy of 'defending academic freedom' means 'defending the authority of academic professionals.'

It's instructive to note that many free speech associations have substantial programs, and in some cases entire organizations, built around supporting 'student speech,' yet have (mostly) taken positions against student activists in the content warning case, instead favoring professional organizations like the AAUP or ALA. As Sara Ahmed has written, it is a puzzling contradiction to construct the figure of the contemporary student­-activist simultaneously as a coddled, weak-minded millenial and terrifying, all­-powerful demagogue capable of erasing canons and destroying careers.

The broader phenomenon here, I think, is that not only is higher education suffering from a crisis of economic precarity, but from epistemic precarity as well. For years, scientists have watched as more and more people deny climate change or think that vaccines cause autism, which have transformed professional consensus into controversies that often operate as proxies for broader cultural conflicts. I don't think content warnings are the same thing as the climate controversy: one is a disputed practice, and the other a disputed fact. But I do think the evident disruption in higher education regarding who is qualified to know, and what is appropriate to teach, is another symptom of the same underlying condition of skepticism regarding 'the establishment,' whether that establishment is an economic or academic elite.

What's to be done?

I concluded my remarks with a statement of the concerns that face us and our work as member organizations. I worry that civil liberties groups, like other institutions of liberalism, are being confronted by an evident disjuncture between the principles and consequences of our favored approaches and a resulting crisis of indeterminacy in what we ought to do. To oversimplify somewhat, we are being asked (perhaps forced) to choose between competing visions of who should decide and influence what ought to be taught in the university classroom. As institutions, we have a loyalty to other professional institutions who have power; as activists, we have a loyalty to other activists who challenge it. In some cases, these loyalties are aligned, but in this case, they are fundamentally in tension.

In my own view, and in my own teaching practice, the way I have tried to resolve this tension is to treat students as capable, thoughtful adults. To me, this means respecting their time and intelligence by making sure I articulate what I'm teaching, and why I'm teaching it, as I prepare and present the syllabus. By publicly performing my own considerations, I communicate that I care about and value them and their time. It also forces me to evaluate, as I review my own instructional materials, whether I've truly done the best job of teaching I can do, by seeking out the most compelling, persuasive, and necessary readings and assignments, even/especially on challenging topics, and trying to be honest with myself if I can do better by revising it.

Instead of offering things I call trigger or content warnings, I've taken an approach like that prescribed by Grimmelmann, and tried to establish and follow a set of best practices and standards that will treat my students as the capable, resilient, and knowledgeable adults they are; and if they aren't, to trust that treating them that way will help them become such. I'm doing this because, as far as I've been able to tell, it's both the most ethical and effective way to work with the students under my instruction, and I'm hoping that, as this conversation continues, the controversy over content warnings begins to turn away from the perceived divisions between student and faculty into a productive compromise ­­ -- which, as the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour reminds us, etymologically means "promise together" -- that improves the educational experience of both.

Categories: Blog

Boston Civic Media Consortium: Teaching Climate, Inspiring Action

March 24, 2017 - 5:30pm


Boston Civic Media Consortium: Teaching Climate, Inspiring Action

Friday 24th March 2017

Organized by the Boston Civic Media Consortium with Sara Wylie and Sharon Harlan of Northeastern University's Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI), the event on Teaching Climate, Inspiring Action bought together academics, students, community groups, journalists, artists, members of government, and many more, to discuss how we can partner effectively across the Greater Boston area to mobilise climate action.




Lightning Talks:


David Abel, Environmental Reporter, The Boston Globe

David begins with quotes from emails he has received over the past few weeks in response to stories he has written for the Globe on the environment. Some are from climate denier companies, others from readers. As a journalist contesting such deliberately misleading assertions can be challenging. David argues that as the science of global warming has become more definitive, we now have to ask what constitutes fair balance in the journalism industry.

When faced with mounting evidence that smoking causes cancer, journalists moved away from quoting scientists arguing the opposite and creating false equivalences. Speaking to the EPA, David has heard that the science of climate change is more robust than the science correlating smoking with cancer. As such, journalism needs to move away from making false equivalences with climate change.

As such, David tries to respond to denialism with facts. He recently responded to prominent climate change denier, Robert Lindzen. Where Lindzen argued that the melting ice is just natural variation, David used recent figures that show the depletion of arctic sea ice has peaked in recent years. David also noted that Linzen has received money from fossil fuel companies.

Today David is off to D.C. to screen one of his films. David has begun making films to document the real effects of climate change that are already happening. He shows us the trailer to Sacred Cod, which documents the effects of climate change on the gulf of Maine, which has warmed faster than nearly any other body of water on the planet.

As Environmental Reporter at The Boston Globe, David is constantly writing about climate change. He states that his films also attempt to lay out the facts and invite the audience to make decisions.


Roseann Bongiovanni, Associate Executive Director, Chelsea Collaborative

Roseann begins by telling us about Chelsea, MA, which often gets overlooked when we think about the Greater Boston area. Chelsea has over 40,000 residents within 1.4 sq miles due to city zoning limits. Roseann explains the aerial photo she is displaying shows lots of grey infrastructure, surrounded by water on three sides. 100% of Logan Airport’s jet-fuel is stored in Chelsea with road salt for 350 towns stored on the banks of the creek. 24% of Chelsea’s population lives under poverty level and 72% identify as an ethnic minority.

The most densely populated, most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods are surrounded by industry due to the entirety of Chelsea being designated as a port area, which means industry has city planning permissions to property along the waterfront. Chelsea experiences high rates of cancer and cardiovascular conditions. Not only are there issues with industry but predictions of flooding in 2070 show much of the city submerged underwater, rendering much of the population homeless.

Roseann works with Green Roots Chelsea, ensuring that the residents of Chelsea, including those who are the hardest to reach, are heard. The group speaks on a neighbourhood level to strive for environmental justice. Green Roots Chelsea works with businesses to ensure industry is working for climate protections in the interest of the residents, as well as taking action to sue companies like Exxon who are denying climate change. Environmental Chelsea Organisers is a youth led organisation that works on environmental justice.

Roseann finished by inviting us to the clean-up run by ECO on Earth Day, April 22nd. She provided the groups website, greenrootschelsea.org, and said that if people want to take action right now they should donate, because money is not coming from the federal government any more and that impact is real.



James DeCunzo, Organizer, All Campus Divestment Collaborative

James introduces himself as a member of DivestNU. James tells us that the divestment campaign at Northeastern begun in 2014, when 75% of the student body voted in favour of divestment. A recent Social Impact Council Report released by the DivestNU group in Spring 2016 recommended full divestment, however Northeastern did not divest and created a sustainability fund, which although a success for the group is still a half-measure on the road to divestment.

James explains that the creation of a Faculty Working group saw a power dynamic shift within DivestNU and helped the group accumulate important gains in staff support by overriding different concerns including those surrounding nontenured positions.

The All Campus Divestment Collaboration (ACDC) was an effort to share resources and show solidarity across the Greater Boston area. One of the key tools was a shared calendar along with other tools which enabled the different divestment groups to expand their network.

James recalls some of the challenges DivestNU have faced. The issue of reliable communication with professors as well as within the group is central, as well as redundancy issues across different groups trying to share work and find new strategies.

To conclude James points to some of the actions the ACDC has taken including teach-ins, direct support of campaigns, and reaching out to work with community organisations. He mentions that Professor Jennie Stephen’s teamed with ACDC to increase collaborative skill-sharing and transfer experience from older members to newer students. Following this, James leaves us with the question of how we can affect change by promoting allyship and skill-sharing.


Paula Garcia, Energy Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

Paula explains that the Union of Concerned Scientists was formed in 1969 by scientists and students from MIT. The groups focuses on a range of issues including nuclear weapons and power; climate and energy; and science and democracy.

Paula says that one of the solutions to climate change we have is reducing emissions and as the US is one of the countries that pollutes most in the world it has a particularly important role in this. Renewable energy is a viable alternative for the US and the Union of Concerned Scientists helps create models to inform policy decision-making in this area.

For Massachusetts, the Union found that the state could produce electricity in a sustainable way without building any more pipelines. Instead, deploying offshore wind energy could decrease bills and reduce emissions, as well as the state's reliance on natural gas. After a recent intervention the group helped achieve a state commitment to renewable energy.

Paula invites the audience to join the Union of Concerned Scientists, saying the group provides training and development opportunities. She also invites everyone to join the Union for the People’s Climate March in D.C. April 29th, urging people to RSVP at: wwww.ucsusa.org/pcm


Jane Marsching, Artist, Professor and Sustainability Fellow at Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Jane talks about embedding sustainability in art and design practices in higher education institutions, from class curriculums, to student clubs, to the financial structuring of educational institutions. Jane talks about the incubation package she has been working on at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Some of the big aims of the project included:

-Creating interdisciplinary opportunities for a school where departments are often defined by mediums

-Identifying deep themes to introduce sustainability as “everything”

-Unpacking the college’s aims to make practitioners “citizens”

The incubation program begun with the UN definition of sustainable practice as “that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” However a year into the incubator program the group decided that the UN definition of sustainability was not working for what they were trying to achieve. Jane tells us that The Sustainable MassArt Initiative defines “MassArt as an ecosystem in which everything we do is part of an interconnected web of economic, environmental, and human resources. The Sustainable MassArt Initiative works to define, develop, support, and communicate visionary work in the field of sustainable art and design by students, faculty, and staff. The primary goal of the Sustainable MassArt Initiative is to foster and support sustainable curriculum throughout the college.”

Jane tells us that she strove to make the classroom or laboratory the teacher with DIY products, tea stations, and other aspects which morphed over the course of the semester to allow anyone who entered the room to reorient themselves. She poses the question of how to create a strategy of knowledge and focus when many are uninterested to the group, and cites one-off classes by professors on an aspect of sustainability in their subject which were free and open to the public as a way to engage a broader range of people beyond the student body.

This year Jane tells us that the program is focusing on not creating a top-down series of events. Instead they have asked faculty to design from the ground up. She reminds us how important and necessary this type of work is when so much is judged on profits and quantitative metrics these days.To end, Jane urges us to work together to create systemic discontinuity with business as usual across all institutions of higher education.


Dr. Atiya Martin, Chief Resilience Officer, City of Boston

Atiya introduces us to Boston’s Resilience Strategy, providing a brief overview of the cities approach to resilience and the links between racial equity and social justice.

The Resilient City project was funded by the 100 Resilient Cities scheme by the Rockefeller Foundation. The project defines resilience as the ability of cities and individuals within cities to survive, adapt, and grow after emergencies. Atiya explains that anything from high unemployment to environmental justice issues can be considered emergencies, and that it includes racism as well as acute shocks like terrorism and natural disasters. The concept of resilience has helped the emergency management world to re-assess the impacts of issues like climate change within the different problems localities face every day.

Atiya tells us that the Mayor’s Office of Resilience had over 100 folks from different sectors attend two events to help us frame resilience in the City of Boston. The events asks what the vision for resilience in Boston is, what goals we need to achieve to get there, and what initiatives will help that happen. The two collaborative sessions created a Boston’s Blueprint for Resilience Strategy which includes the group's focus on racial equity. Overview of vision areas includes: Reflective city, stronger people; collaborative, proactive governance; equitable economic development; and connected adaptive city.

Atiya says that we should conceive of the event or experience as the tip of the iceberg, whilst beneath there are patterns of behaviour and thought that derive from the historical and social context we are in which themselves are part of ingrained cultural and institutional values. Atiya reminds us we all embody these values, sometimes in ways that we cannot recognise any more.

To prove this Atiya concludes with a demonstration of unconscious bias, having us read the colour of the word on the screen. Our unconscious brain wanted to read the word instead of looking at the colour of the word. Atiya says that we all have blind spots and we need to address them by expanding our networks, learning social and historical context, creating space in our personal and professional lives, and taking responsibility within our practices and policies.


Q&A with Dr. Atiya Martin, Jane Marsching, Paula Garcia, James DeCunzo, Roseann Bongiovanni.

Q: Can we work with fossil fuel companies from the inside?

JDC: Looking at the history of companies where that has happened I would say no. EXXON mobil has had shareholders and legal fights pushing for its transition to renewable energy from the inside. How can you work through those institutions when they are so resistant? As opposed to trying to work with these unjust companies we should depower them, and try to limit the power they hold in our institutions.


Q: Boston has the most poorly grounded racial justice lens of any group in the 100 Resilient Cities?

AM: All the Chief Resilience Officers meet, and each equity issue is different across cities. Initiatives tended to fall short of addressing the equity statement identified at the beginning. We are in close contact with Melbourne, who also have a large immigrant population and are seeing rising discrimination, particularly against muslims. We aim to share what we’re learning and what it means for government to address inequity.


Q: What are the primary obstacles for building a broader climate justice movement, and what are the important lessons we can build on?

AM: Climate justice has been predominantly white, where people of colour have been in the grassroots but separated from these movements. We can join the intersections around race by asking who disproportionately gets the burden of climate justice issues?

Communities Labour United joined communities and unions to develop a report on climate justice and how we can work together. It is important to ask how to connect the grassroots to broader movements, bringing climate justice into social justice beyond our comfort zones.

PG: Solar equity is a big movement across states like California and New York, where the benefits of solar reach lower income communities. It is important to invite lower-income communities to the table where these decisions are being made.


Q: How do we do better at reaching people who are not currently “in the choir”?

RB: We need to bring them into the choir - these people benefit from the exploitation of others and people need to be made aware of their benefits being a burden on other people. Racism is still a prominent issue, where people believe it is out of sight and out of mind, but we need to readdress the distribution of benefits and burdens.

AM: We need to focus on the larger group through “like me” mentality.

JM: It is important to have the opportunity to re-create our formulaic responses to an issue like climate change.

Community announcements:

Brookline Interactive are organising a 3 day hackathon. For more information visit: http://vrecohack.com/
Groups are welcomed to submit events to http://bit.ly/EWB2017-event or contact earthweekboston@gmail.com  to join a coalition of groups in Greater Boston for Earth Day 2017.
ACDC highlight events for divestment at Harvard and Tufts over the coming weeks.
Physicians for Social Responsibility offer their partnership to interested parties.
Quincy Climate Action Network share their South Shore Science Festival event on Earth Day.
And Emerson’s Engagement Lab advise applications to their MA in Civic Media: Art and Practice are still open.

Moderated Small Group Discussions:

How do we teach climate change through action? and How do we take action on climate change through teaching?

Small break-out groups discussed the two questions above thinking of creative responses and case-studies that illuminate potential outcomes.


Group 1: It is important to finding scaleable projects and embed students within the community


Group 2: The group came up with several ideas to teach climate and take action through action. Use local library as resource to showcase climate change media; visit state or federal legislature to teach students how to lobby; map knowledge of what people do and don’t know about climate change, and be able to sum up basic climate change science in an accessible way; have ways for people to get involved in smaller ways; document history of work within movements; link student organisations to staff or national organisations


Group 3: This group discussed that it is important to not adding to people’s workloads, and promoted the idea of dovetailing rather than adding, i.e. partnering with urban farming groups where there is common interest. Useful examples for teaching climate include heatmapping local areas and using comic book to share information. The group recommended Public Lab for tools for teachers to download


Group 4: The group asked the question “where does teaching happen?” The focus of the group was on tone, as they said it was important with an issue like climate change to open opportunities for discourses of hope and imagination. The group noted that values matter and we should find the spaces of common values are and teach towards those. Network building (Climate College, BCM) and finding points of commonality and common language are especially important, particularly building them locally


Group 5: The group looked at moving the learning experiences outside the classroom, from collaborative class projects to teachers from different departments providing expertise within a class for a richer learning experience. Getting students out of school to do work in the world was seen as a good way to drive engagement, including using initiatives like The Beautiful Stuff Project and other recycling centers that have free materials for students to work with


Group 6: Meeting people where they’re at and understanding that people have different experiences of the environment and what climate change means to them was the key takeaway from Group 6. Enabling community partners with mutually beneficial research was central to teaching action and learning from action. The group pointed to ISeeChange.org and other uses of data which increases community investment and the quality of academic data. The group's closing through was that outside of the classroom we are all experts and we are all students.



climate change; action; activism; teaching; pedagogy; global warming; journalism; art; government; Boston; youth; environmental justice; racial equity'Civic media
Categories: Blog

The Civic State of the Union

March 7, 2017 - 4:36pm

The is a liveblog of the “The Civic State of the Union” panel on March 7, 2017, part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series at Tufts University. The livestream is here. Note: this is not a transcript, any errors are all mine.

* Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University
* Shirley Sagawa, Service Year Alliance
* Peter Levine, Tufts University
* Mara Liasson, NPR (moderator)

Is the Civic State of the Union strong and if not how do we go about strengthening it?

Mara Liasson (ML): If Donald Trump is a stress test for democratic institutions, how are those democratic institutions doing? Tonight we are talking about our citizens. We’ve seen depressing indicators about civic engagement for years. However, people are filling town halls, many are promising to run for office, and well-attended demonstrations are proliferating. Citizens are getting a real education about what democracy is and isn’t in this moment.

Talk about what has happened since the late 1990s, since Bowling Alone, since Americorps launched, and since CIRCLE was founded? Where are we now?

Robert D. Putnam (RDP): The basic descriptions of trends in secular civics and associational life is down as of 2017. This makes Putnam a secular pessimist. Second, the internet real caught on after Bowling Alone and parts of it are really good and some are really bad. What we need to find are alloyed networks that are partly online and party face-to-face. Tahrir Square during the Egypt Revolution included three groups—and the folks that were only connected online did not have the network necessary to take power despite their best intentions. The Muslim Brotherhood did.

Putnam is not impressed with protest marches or tweetstorms. What really matters is people working together in close collaboration as civil society. There is much more face to face organizing going on around the country than is currently being reported.

Allegheny County, where Putnam’s daughter is a professor and is organizing people in response to Trump. This is hard territory, lots of Trump supporters. But how are they going to be connected to the Democratic Party? Because that is necessary to take back the reins of power.

Right now, it’s hard to capture all the interest in political engagement. But all of this makes Putnam optimistic about civic renewal in America.

Shirley Sagawa (SS): This was maybe the first election where people decided not to vote and that was a form of civic engagement. And that makes Sagawa really sad. When Sagawa first started work on national service, there was a lot of anxiety about young people not voting. The first Americorps cohort in 1994 was about “getting things done.” This was how it was sold to Congress as a way to get America’s problems solved efficiently. But the time we got to the Serve America Act, Sagawa and her collaborators changed their frame about what youth get out of service. That was where young people are at. It needs to not be a set back in one’s career.

On Service Year Alliance’s board is General Stanley McCrystal and he and others in the military are very worried civics in the country and see national service as a key response to it, in the same way military services binds people to a service and civic lifestyle.

When Sagawa was growing up in the 1980s, people’s lives were bifurcated: there was work and family and then there was service. These were separate. But the market research, Service Year Alliance does to understand what motivates young people into service find that everything in life is political, such as what you buy.

Peter Levine (PL): First off, Putnam was right. The last twenty years have shown that what he found was right in terms of a hallowing out of democratic institutions. Two things that didn’t come up. The class divide is important because we see much bigger civic engagement gaps affecting lower classes. Second, there has been a turn to greater levels of choice in every part of life. For instance, news is not about the same newspaper everyone gets but which paragraph you forward to someone online.

Echo filters are one problem facing young people, but there is also the people that are completely turning away from politics. And this helps explain the voting patterns, including so-called protest votes among young people.


ML: How do we get more connected?

RDP: Putnam is a fan of national service (sits on the board of Service Year Alliance). We need to be more precise about where the problem is. Research for book Our Kids showed that working class kids are increasingly disconnected from everything: their parents, their schools, sports and other expensive extracurriculars, and their neighbors. Those kids are pissed.

One subject had parents who aren’t working, she had been in prison, she is eighteen with several kids of her own, she is a white women without a high school diploma. And she voted for Trump. If you combined two things: great economic disadvantage and social isolation this is what created the space for authoritarian demagogues in post-WWI Europe. Putnam wrote this warning before Trump was on the radar. It’s true: educated coastal elites have completely forgot about the middle of the country.

ML: So, the conspiracy theory about the DC pizza place might have been snuffed out if you went to your Bowling League and share it with your buddies who told you “you’re crazy!” (RDP: That’s right!)

SS: The Twitter algorithm change this week suggests this will make things worse. They are now ranking things based on what they think you will like. This is part of the large set of things that enable people to be isolated, including segregated schools. This is why we need well-implemented national service.


ML: The Tea Party did create some of this civic infrastructure, and it was successful. What will this look like on the Left, that is what everyone is asking or wondering.

My father used to go to workman parties for snacks, but he probably also gained some civic education while he was there.

RDP: There was a great period of creative organizing, that came after the earlier social capital creation of barnraising, and this missing now.


Audience: What do you think about the trends toward authoritarianism both in the United States and elsewhere? What should we be doing to change this course?

PL: I remember asking RDP about whether his next project would be international and comparative. A few years ago, I started working in Ukraine and that it was going one way in terms of democratic ideas, but now it feels like we are in similar places. If you look at the powerful male figures with macho agendas, representing a unified idea of the country without dissent… we haven’t seen anything like this since the 1930s.

ML: There is a global movement against globalization and all the ways it has not paid off for people. Both parties concede that they haven’t paid enough attention to these people and their problems.

RDP: It turns out social capital does predict support for Trump: the least connected voted for him. But these are aggregate phenomenon in depressed regions; the people here feel that the rest of the world pays no attention to them.

PL: These are all sociological explanations. I also think there is an ideas gap. There has not been a vision articulated by any party that bridges this divide.


Audience: What about the issue of our economy being digitized and yet America is still struggling with a digital divide? What is going to be the young generation’s role in taking digital experience and mixing it with service to address these problems locally and nationally?

SS: I think this is important growth area for service. Digital divide’s policy issues will not be addressed by service, but the ability to use technology is great starting point for young people to bring into service. SS is interested by disruptive innovation as articulated by Clay Christenson. Technology offers remote access and learning but you need someone there to still serve as a mentor. If you can’t access these tools, then you can’t access these great services. This could create opportunities for providing professional services like lawyers remotely who are facilitated locally by a smart person: offer better access to these services for everyone.

RDP: The digital divide gaps are closing quickly. The poor kids Putnam studies have smartphones. The difference is whether there is someone that can help show you how to use these tools effectively to achieve personal and civic goals. It’s not just about software, it’s about peopleware, who can tell us how to use it well. It’s not about access to technology, it’s about access to people. Putnam is worried about the techno-optimism that works who are already rich socially and economically.


Audience: Earlier we spoke about the recent surge in activism and where it will go. How do we maintain that activism and civic engagement (it seems it is already waning)?

ML: So many women stayed with ML in DC for the women’s march, and they wanted to know what to do next. Talking to people I know that do this work, there is a real need for infrastructure for getting people in. Also, there is a need to make it routine—every day or week a few calls. It is up to you (speaking to audience member) to organize yourself?

RDP: Don’t just think about the politics: it’s about building real connections with real people. It’s also about leisure. People aren’t going to show up every week just to lick envelopes. It’s got to be fun. Good organizers are cognizant about this.

PL: What you need is SPUD: scale, pluralism, unity, and depth. You need a lot of people. You need different people, including have different ideas and strategies. You need to all come together to do something. You need the ability to transform each other deep down. The Civil Rights Movement achievement SPUD for ten years.


Audience: I spend a lot of my time thinking about building a tech company, wondering how do we find a hybrid of human and social capital with technology? As a City Year alum, with the rising costs of urban development, how do you see national service as an option that is accessible to everyone? How do we inspire marginalized young people to civic engagement? Last, what about the issue of supporting capitalism in spite of these problems?

SS: A whole bill was drafted to take care of living allowance and other costs for national service members. There is also an emerging opportunity for corporate sponsorship for service members. The government doesn’t just pay for service but needs to leverage and honor the service that is being offered by young people.

RDP: People in marginalized communities have real strengths, especially to survive in their situations, but often they are doing everything they can to survive. Politics was often furthest from their minds; they saw no connection between their daily lives and politics.


Audience: It’s hard to focus on civics, when we as Millennials see everything as connected. Chance the Rapper made that connection for young people mobilizing them to vote.

ML: It seems like Chance the Rapper is following the principle of doing work as close as you can to your community and making that connection.

PL: YouthBuild is a social enterprise that takes in young people who are predominately working class and people of color and offers a path to GEDs and jobs. Once you are in the program, youth are embraced by adult mentors with love and provided with civil and leadership training.


Audience: How can the young generation be better than previous generations that have proven so divisive? How can we be more open even if we disagree?

ML: Getting out of your information silo is one thing. Talk to people in real life, rather than arguing in person.

RDP: The larger picture is that the young generation is coming age after 30–40 years of class segregation, which is new. This affects whom you go to school with and whom you marry. It’s party being an intelligent consumer of news, but it means the younger generation needs to work harder to break out of your milieu—it’s harder for you to socialize with people that are different from you. That is the plight this generation is in that didn’t affect earlier generations.

civic engagement
Categories: Blog

Research Ethics in Social Computing: A Discussion

February 28, 2017 - 11:28am

This is a liveblog of the town hall discussion "CSCW Research Ethics Town Hall: Working Towards Community Norms" at CSCW 2017.

Panelists from the SIGCHI Ethics Committee

The SIGCHI Ethics Committee is charged with helping facilitate community conversations—helping social norms emerge from the community. This should help refine ACM’s policies and procedures. The Committee does not make decisions about what is ethical. Bruckman also sits on ACM COPE which works on ACM’s Code of Conduct (which was written before the Web existed).

Bruckman and Feisler start the town hall off by reflecting on how traditional human subjects rules were written for medical research. This is often a poor fit for social science, internet environment, methods that involve stakeholders as full partners, and interventions in public places.

Common open questions in research ethics across computer science communities include how we develop ethical standards that work cross-nationally and cross-disciplinarily. Serious issues involve data privacy and legality with respect to “public” data and platform terms of service, and how to secure truly informed consent. The following are the questions and comments discussed during the town hall.

How do we protect research subjects, especially from marginalized groups, that can be discovered through reverse-lookup of social media platforms?
  • Bruckman brings up the case of Bob Kraut’s study quoting directly from breast cancer forum posts that anyone could join the forum and find the personal contact information of subjects.
  • Kraut notes that research ethics in medical studies talk about protecting reasonable expectations of privacy but not unreasonable expectations of privacy. And these are often baked into warnings on such forums. He does attempt to massage the language somewhat so it’s not very easy to find but there are limits to that.
  • This brings up ethical questions about the research and authenticity of the data. Bruckman tells a story about being Sherry Turkle’s research assistant on Life on the Screen in which she changed the medical condition a child was suffering from which changed the severity of his condition and perhaps other’s interpretation of his behavior but it helped protect his privacy. There is a trade-off and it needs to be considered.
  • A key question is whether doing the research elevate the publicity of research subjects and putting them in harm’s way when that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred even in public spaces.
  • Thinking to the future: we also can’t anticipate all the new ways research advances will allow anyone to be identified based on what scant trace data is revealed.
  • From the disciplinary perspective of media studies, there is a tradition of assuming that any data you can get that was published—microfiche, etc.—was fair game for research and there isn’t a reasonable risk. But is this no longer true: does public still mean public?
What is our responsibility to identify reviewers of papers that represent the marginalized communities in a part—how essentiallizing or insulting is that to the marginalized population?
  • Bruckman notes that postmodern ethnography (Ronaldo, Culture and Truth) argues that we are ethically required to report back to our populations and let them respond to them.
  • One research project mentioned by an audience member discussed a study of ageism among bloggers and they made sure to return to the research subjects and ask them whether they would want to change any of the quotes about them and be clear about what the implications would be for them and for the research.
  • Hancock brings up the case of CSCW paper reviews. He wants to see more diverse review panels (and implicitly a more diverse community of scholars) to help shepherd papers that look at particular populations.
  • What do you do if people want to change the representation in the research?
  • Kraut expands on Hancock’s note that too often the feedback comes post-hoc at reviewing stage and should also be a part the research project design stage. This isn’t just about ethical research but it also stops good research at the review stage because a reviewer is sensitive to a particular issue that has already based ethical review earlier.
  • Bruckman responds to Kraut by noting that Institute Review Board’s are often asleep at the wheel. How do we deal with getting through IRB, yet the true ethical quality of the research design is still murky. 
  • Hancock says that we have a responsibility to review the IRB.
  • Munteanu puts this in the perspective IRB and research ethics around the world: where sometimes we as researchers have a choice of how strict of an ethical policy we want to follow: European privacy laws, Canadian detailed research ethics, U.S.’s looser strictures?
How do we handle visual data about research subjects, especially marginalized groups—sometimes we can synthesize approximations of that visual data to show what we mean but not submitting them to harmful publicity?
  IRB research ethics is all about protecting the people that are studied. Journalistic ethics differ by protecting the people’s right to know. Corporate ethics include an obligation to their stakeholders. In doing corporate research as an employee or contractor, then you are responsible to your employer. This complicates the research ethics question in the space of CSCW and we need to be aware that IRB is only one frame.
  • Should we talk about both positive and negative research ethics? Negative ethics required by IRB upfront to handle harms is different than the positive ethics of doing something that helps people. In public health research, there is often a need to approve studies quickly to help as many people as possible. But when these include methodologies like ethnography of stories of struggle can be hard to get through an IRB because the focus is on protecting subjects rather than on the positive outcomes from it.
  • Brown notes that we can have excellence in ethics that are divorced from specific regulations.
  • Munteanu notes that Canadian research ethics put duty to science as the top responsibility with a respect for subjects (not a do no harm principle).
Blogs written by parents of autistic children is an example of a sensitive dataset where clustering quotes creates serious ramifications for the population because it falls under medical definitions of autism that can change the medical treatment this people receive.
  • Hancock cites Solon Barocas: we can computationally infer things about a population that they did not give consent to collect information about.
What do we do about the misrepresentations of our work in the public?
  • Are there examples of CSCW proceedings articles that have been misrepresented?
  • See John Vines’s study on HCI papers misrepresentation in the media. 
  • One study author included in John Vines piece talks about his project in which liberal and conservative press framed research about what people threw away in the trash using a camera inside as solutionist surveillance to solve bad garbage behaviors, which was not the point of the paper. He says the problem is that really you can’t control the public.
What should happen when the paper is sent to the reviewers, what should we do?
  • Peter Kraft mentions his research using bots as virtual confederates in online field research in which they pose as humans, which may be deceptive (against the ACM Code of Conduct), but is also an important emerging area in CSCW.
  • Different communities have different ethics around deception. The Communication discipline widely uses deception but also has clear processes for how to handle it, especially for post-study debriefs. There are real research cases that require deception and we need to think carefully about that. 
  • Hancock notes that IRB does have a lot of experience in deception research.
  • Of course, industry cannot rely on IRB for addressing deception practices.
  • Another audience member notes that debriefing in online communities is really hard. We need best practices for how to do post-deception debrief well in these cases?
  • Munteanu says in Canadian research ethics deception and research value can be balanced against harm or respect for subjects.
Some of the papers submitted to CSCW have never gone under ethical review: what should the program committee do about these papers?
  • In a similar case, a cross-institutional research study had received positive IRB reviews from several institutions, but do we feel like we have the authority as a program committee to overrule ethical reviews of institutions if we disagree that they should have been given.
  • Cliff Lampe worries that we might be performing a kind of cultural hegemony if we as a community start overruling other communities and their ethical review boards.
  • Example of SIGCOM paper about Friendster: program committee choose to append a prominent box above the title on the paper that said they had ethical concerns about the paper even though they published it. This was a kind of Scarlet Letter approach.
  • Ideally, these things should happen in public rather than in private program committee rooms. 
  • A dangerous line of thinking is that the “harm has already been done” by the research, so what additional harm do we do by publishing?
  • Another consideration for researchers about online research is that we are crossing many localities when do our work. We don’t know how to think about this. Do we have an absolute standard as a community? Which locales should take precedence? Should it be the strictest ones?
  • Munteanu provides the example of a research study in which he was grilled by an expert ethics panel for hours to get to a multi-page decision. If he had received the Scarlet Letter on that paper it would suggest that the program committee’s opinion was better than the panel of ethics experts, which doesn’t seem right.
Why can’t we make room for ethical consideration sections within papers or otherwise publish the outcomes of ethical reviews?
  • Fiesler argues that we should make room for them and they should be part of the methods sections, and we need to work through the logistics of paper length that suggests we can’t.
  • Mako Hill notes that when he submits papers to general science venues they do require a section on ethics. He doesn’t see why we in CSCW can’t do this as well? We can start in places that don’t have strict page limits and start encouraging people and in some cases requiring them?
  • Kraut discusses the analog issue of replicability of research. He does a lot of work with Facebook data that other people can’t get. Replicability should be part of the ethical considerations. And some scientific agencies require data to be released so that science can benefit more generally. This presents a conundrum?
  • Bruckman extends this with a question: What is the cost of platforms controlling what is said about them?
  • Should funding bodies make that requirement rather than publication venues and research communities? In one audience member's experience, he has found that the answer is ‘no’ arguing that Facebook should bear the cost with respect to the value to science. Descriptive statistics can sometimes enable people to create synthetic datasets—there is more nuance to this question of public data.
  • Hancock replies that public and private data really exist on a spectrum. For instance, archaeologists only allow trained experts to handle artifacts. We could come up with processes that allow for limited publicity to handle some of these issues.
What about ethical review of software creation that is an intervention, not just research? What should ACM’s Code of Conduct say about the ethics of software development?
  • Bruckman notes that it was in the old Code of Conduct and it is improved in the new version. This is the time to send feedback on revision for this year to ACM COPE: http://ethics.acm.org/code-of-ethics/code-2018/.
  • The new code will be finished in the next fourteen months and there will be lots of opportunities for public input. Researchers are only a part of the Code. And IEEE has similar reviews ongoing.


research ethics
Categories: Blog

Social Justice and Design panel at CSCW 2017

February 27, 2017 - 6:19pm

This is a liveblog of the Social Justice and Design panel at the CSCW 2017 conference.


Accidental Activists Or: Why I Burst Into Tears during a Research Interview
Shaowen Bardzell

How do we consider CSCW research and activist through personal stories? Bardzell wove her own personal story as a researcher with one of the online activists she studied.

In 2011, Bardzell’s research subject Peggy from Taipei had to take care of her father after a medical emergency in Vietnam and was quickly overwhelmed. Before meeting Peggy, Bardzell, from 1992 to 2008, left Taiwan went to the United States for graduate school and fell in love with it. But most importantly and personally, she was fleeing a difficult domestic situation.

Peggy struggled between 2011 and 2014 and chose to document her struggles through a blog. Her blog attempted to share health-related information to others and advocate for policy changes on the issues. The popularity of website climbed, and she was invited to give public talks on the topic.

In 2014, the Sunflower Student Protests occurred in Taiwan. Bardzell calls them a “protest of enfranchisement” for young people. And the subversive hacker collective g0v.tw supported the protests by creating alternative information infrastructures. Peggy joined g0v.tw in 2014 with the hope that it would amplify the reach of her own work.

Back in 2009, Bardzell was starting to prepare her tenure portfolio connecting topics of affective computing, domestic interaction, tech-mediated sexuality, and research through design. The common thread she found between concerns for gender, activism, and women she knew was: feminism. This wasn’t something she had considered before in her work and wrote the Feminist HCI paper to reflect on this question. What should/could feminism mean for the researcher and activist?

Last year, Bardzell visited Peggy in Taiwan where she is now in the Taiwan federal government. She is helping design join.gov.tw as a new open democracy platform that offers opportunities for citizens to engage in policymaking and leverage open data. So how did Peggy end up in government after participating in a subversive hacker collective: the other g0v.tw organizers saw her talent for explaining difficult health information and wanted that to be part of a future government.

Bardzell saw two parts of herself in Peggy. They both worked hard, but struggled as young Taiwanese women, and both aspired to better more effective version of themselves. They are both accidental activists. To Bardzell this is suggests a power in “utopic hope,” whereby critique leads to labor, which can effect community-building and direct action.

HCI/CSCW research for social good needs to tell stories of hope and point to and motivate efficacious labor. Labors and stories of hope serve an epistemological purpose. Researchers need to understand / teach / strengthen / reward the epistemology of hope.

Hope drives and orients our actions. Bardzell urges us to not just critique, and acknowledge the drive of hope as a kind of labor. And we need to think about how to craft invitations so that others can be fellow travelers in the effort of social justice.

Reconfiguring Crowdsourcing: Starting from Interruption, towards a Horizon of Justice
Lilly Irani

In this talk, Irani wants us to think about Lucy Suchman’s idea of “reconfiguring”: how do we transform the world into what we want together rather than relying on a master planner to design the intervention?

Charting a course from the beginning of her graduate studies, Irani notes that she was looking at crowdsourcing and her frustrations with Amazon Mechanical Turk arose from classic feminist CSCW questions.

Turkopticon started off as a class project, reflecting on the growing popularity of crowdsourcing with little regard for no minimum wage and other worker rights. Her initial research showed that workers complained that they had no agency in the system. She and Six Silberman created the tool Turkopticon as not a solution for the problems of crowdsourcing but a temporary collaboration with workers in solidarity with them. At the time they weren’t sure it was HCI research but at least it was useful.

What they learned was that their attempt to learn about these issues was twisted by journalists into an activist cause in which technologists saved duped micro-workers. After feeling bad about the coverage, Irani and colleagues worked to reframe the issue to put worker voices and interests at the front and only worked with journalists that would interview them first if interested in the topic.

We as a design community need to think about how we are positioned as privileged entities that allows to do certain work and get press for it. This is part of the same system devaluing Mechanical Turk Workers as commoditized and robotic while the technologists design the platforms on which they work.

Dynamo takes the next step to think about this as movement-building. Evidence of this transforming practice is in how Six Silberman has gone on to work with a labor organization in Germany to develop systems that honor crowdsourced labor.

Irani implores us: don’t just critique but work on ways that we can reconfigure systems that redistribute the power toward labor.

Computer scientists like to build fast and dream big but that isn’t exactly how organizing works. How do we recognize the cultural power of the rhetoric we use like innovation. How should CSCW think about the distribution of financial value that our systems create?

In Q&A, Cliff Lampe notes that CSCW has often been on the side of management as opposed to workers, and wonders whether we are inextricably linked to that or can we subvert it? Irani responds that social justice projects like Turkopticon often don't look like a CHI paper or a CSCW paper, and she questioned her work because of that: We should examine our doubt and ask why aren’t they papers at these conferences?

#GetGayCSCW: Understanding how power through location has been designed into contemporary technology for queer men
Jean Hardy

There is a history of the homosocial practice of “cruising” documented as early as 1700 in the Old Bailey Courthouse Proceedings. The practices are associated with particular locations—so context matters when you make a look at someone or say something specific. The art of this exchange is passed by word of mouth and by accident.

Queer locations were not just ephemeral but permanent gay business and neighborhoods. This is important because location (as a form of information/knowledge) is power.

Location-based social networks (LBSN) arising from GPS-capable phones. Grindr was possibly the first LBSN in 2009 to solve the problem of gay men finding each other and solving the location problem. This creates a network of people grouped by location, empowering them as a community.

There is a strong value in qualitative work but also putting that in a historical context. Queer HCI (Hardy and Lindtner 2017) is about accounting for the many ways in which experiences of queer subjectivity through technology happens at the intersection of design decisions and use.” Hardy wants to use more participatory and ethnographic approaches to understanding how designs are situated. This important because often design is pitched as universal and thus can apply to intersectional spaces. We need ways to respond to this argument.

Deeping Commonalities in Two-sided Struggles
Jill Dimond

Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs and the Detroit social justice efforts inspires Dimond’s work. In her work, she takes on two-sided struggles in two ways. First, she wants to say “no to existing power struggles.” This is how Dimond thinks about her work in street harassment. She built tools (Hollaback!) with activists to collect stories of street harassment. The goal was to tell stories in a way that can illustrate this is a serious, global problem, whereas it’s often dismissed or ignored.

Dimond also wanted to create a similar system that allowed for sharing stories of online harassment. HeartMob not only allows you to share the story but tap into a network of other Heartmobbers for peer support. Users can take action by: documenting abuse, notifying platforms, and sending supportive messages.

The next evolution of fighting in two-sided struggles is to “embrace the power within each of us to create the world anew.” So Dimond founded Sassafras Tech Collective as a worker-owned tech consultancy. It’s a democratic workplace with flat hierarchy. They use Loomio for consensus-based decision making. They are researching tools for healthy conflict, peer evaluation, and accountability. And they need to think about how soft power arises, exhibiting the “tyranny of structurelessness”.

Dimond also lives in a co-housing arrangement in Ann Arbor: 50 people live in a shared, interdependent community. Sassafras developed Gather to help the co-housing community organize themselves democratically. The ask for CSCW is to think about platform cooperatism and how users can have ownership in the governance of their online spaces.

social justicedesign
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