Automated misinformation

In “How Automated Writing Systems Affect the Circulation of Political Information Online,” Timothy Laquintano and Annette Vee survey the online ecosystem of “fake news.” Writing in 2017, Laquintano and Vee concentrate on how fake news affected discourse surrounding the 2016 US presidential election. The authors’ concern for misinformation driven by automated systems of writing might have predicted the horrible events at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

After Trump supporters violently stormed the US capitol building on January 6, ten social media platforms temporarily or permanently banned accounts owned by the former president. Twitter responded to the permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump saying, “we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

Since then, C.E.O.s of giant tech companies, like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, are facing pressure from lawmakers and the public about their responsibility in mediating misinformation.

The Chief Executive Officers of Alphabet, Facebook, and Twitter testify virtually to congress

Sundar Pichai (Alphabet/Google), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter) virtually testify to congress

Currently, these companies are shielded from liability of what’s posted on their platforms by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230—which was enacted before the invention of Google—protects websites from being liable for content posted by third-party users.

According to Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Alphabet, “Without Section 230, platforms would either over-filter content or not be able to filter content at all.”

This contested editorial ecosystem is at the heart of Laquintano and Vee’s 2017 article. The authors observe a shift from human-editorial writing practices to software-based algorithms that influence how information circulates. This shift becomes problematic because social media and tech ~companies~ prioritize user engagement.

Laquintano and Vee explain that these companies profit from user engagement through algorithms that curate content to individual users in attempt to maximize their screen time.

Previously on this blog, Christa Teston observed the material conditions that enable the online spread of information. I add that algorithmic “filter bubbles” created by social media and tech companies are another factor threatening public well-being via misinformation online.

The January 6 insurrection was an overt example of the dangers of the current online writing ecology. (There are still less publicized victims of online misinformation). Accordingly, Section 230 has become a contentious piece of legislation in the US, but it seems like both sides of the aisle are open to discussing its revision—for different reasons.

WTF is an NFT?

A few weeks ago, I came across a piece of digital artwork that sold for a record breaking $69 million. “Everydays—The First 5000 Days” by Beeple is a collage of all the images the artist has posted online over the last 13 years. I appreciate the artistic concept, but what astonished me was that someone paid $69 million for a JPEG file in the form of an NFT.

A collage of colorful images that make up the artwork "Everydays - The First 5000 Days"

“Everydays – the First 5000 Days” by Beeple

Since then, the world is witnessing a boom of digital assets in the form of NFTs. But—WTF is an NFT?

NFT stands for “non-fungible token,” and fungibility refers to the essence of currency as something that retains values and can be exchanged for another. In extremely simple terms, a non-fungible token is unique and can’t be exchanged because it is part of blockchain technology. Blockchain creates a linked network of records, making it resistant to change.

Tokens have played a fundamental role in economic transfers and recording systems ever since Uruk scribes used clay tokens to indicate and record transactions in the fourth millennium B.C. Denise Schmandt-Besserat even proposes that tokens may be the earliest precursor to the invention of writing.

Now, society seems to have reinvented the value of tokens in recording transactions. And unlike the clay tokens of the past, NFTs can verifiably trace possession to a specific person through blockchain, making ownership the source of value.

My favorite NFTs are from individuals and organizations who auction off their tweets. For example, Jack Dorsey recently sold his first tweet for $2.9 million and our own Ohio State football program is selling their first tweet. Tweets as NFTs seem to place a new value on digital modes of writing while also complicating the idea of ownership, especially when it comes to the ownership of words.

For me, the NFT craze indicates the inextricable link between economic interests and forms of writing.

Denial by Design

In December 1948, the United Nations drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to establish fundamental rights and freedoms all nations should protect for their citizens. The document lays the groundwork for human rights laws on the basis that all people are born free and equal in dignity.

Article 26 of the declaration outlays the right to education. To summarize, the right to education involves free and compulsory elementary education, equal access to higher education, and a parent’s right to choose the kind of education given to their children.

But this week’s reading from Winn and Behizadeh puts on a lens on how U.S. schooling systematically denies children, particularly children of color, their right to literacy and education.

Winn and Behizadeh point to evidence that Black students significantly trail behind white students in standardized testing, and predominately white schools can sometimes spend over twice as much per student than schools with larger populations of Black and Latinx students.

How did this happen?

Map of Columbus, Ohio from 1936. Neighborhoods are assigned levels of "mortgage security," and lines are drawn around different levels of security.

Map of Columbus, Ohio from 1936 via Mapping Inequality. Neighborhoods are assigned levels of “mortgage security.”

For one thing, racial inequities continue to be affected by the legacy of redlining.

We can look back historically and see that in the 1930s the federal government began segregating neighborhoods based on race, diverting money and resources away from minority communities.

Because we fund public schools through property taxes, neighborhoods with lower property values have lower-funded schools and lower graduation rates still to this day.

Redlining is technically illegal now, but the country is still affected by its original mapping system.

So, how can we fix it?

Much like the work of Winn and Behizadeh, we need to take a closer look at policies that limit access to education.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has since been replaced by Every Student Succeeds in 2015. Although Every Student Succeeds responds to many of the criticisms of NCLB, it’s still worth keeping a critical eye on standardized tests and proficiency targets.

I’m particularly drawn to S. Green’s assertion that “social justice is about understanding education and access to literacy as civil rights” (Winn and Behizadeh 147).

Science fiction becomes science reality

Fiction may be a useful tool for processing dilemmas, but what do we do when an author’s imagination becomes reality?A woman's head seems to protrude from a space ship

In 1969, American science fiction writer, Anne McCaffrey, imagined a future dystopia where governments melded human mind with machine so that those deemed unworthy had a function in society. Her story focuses on Helva, a compelling character who becomes the “brain” of a starship and completes missions alongside a pilot. The story’s first line, “She was born a thing,” immediately probes how our society’s preoccupation with gendering affects our relationship with technology.

You may not have read “The Ship Who Sang” or its subsequent series Brain & Brawn, but McCaffrey’s world might still remind you of technologies that exist today.

Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are two examples of gendered-feminine technology. And in 2018, Heather Suzanne Woods studied the phenomenon of gendered technology using the rhetorical concept of persona, or the character that’s presented or perceived by others.

As virtual assistants for home and for work, Alexa and Siri mobilize traditional stereotypes of femininity. Specifically, Woods points to persistent conceptions of femininity related to homemaking, caretaking and administrative labor. McCaffrey’s story likewise provokes the idea that woman and machine have the same capacity to function as utilities.

This concept of “digital domesticity” is powerful because it reworks femininity into technology to connect what’s familiar about the past/present to the unfamiliar future landscape. But in doing so, we egg on problematic gender stereotypes.

If we look to McCaffrey’s story, there isn’t a happy ending…