Tag Archives: Persuasion

Is Design Censorship?

We live in a world where seemingly settled issues are being reframed. A recent, fascinating discussion on the Persuasion podcast focused on the role of social media in spreading both misinformation and what Renee DiResta, the expert being interviewed, labeled “rumors.”

As she explained, using the term “misinformation” (a use to which I plead guilty) isn’t a particularly useful way of framing  the problem we face, because so many of the things that raise people’s hackles aren’t statements of fact; they aren’t falsifiable. And even when they are, even when what was posted or asserted was demonstrably untrue, and is labeled untrue, a lot of people simply won’t believe it is false. As she says, “if you’re in Tribe A, you distrust the media of Tribe B and vice versa. And so even the attempt to correct the misinformation, when it is misinformation, is read with a particular kind of partisan valence. “Is this coming from somebody in my tribe, or is this more manipulation from the bad guys?”

If we aren’t dealing simply in factual inaccuracies or even outright lies, how should we describe the problem?

One of the more useful frameworks for what is happening today is rumors: people are spreading information that can maybe never be verified or falsified, within communities of people who really care about an issue. They spread it amongst themselves to inform their friends and neighbors. There is a kind of altruistic motivation. The platforms find their identity for them based on statistical similarity to other users. Once the network is assembled and people are put into these groups or these follower relationships, the way that information is curated is that when one person sees it, they hit that share button—it’s a rumor, they’re interested, and they want to spread it to the rest of their community. Facts are not really part of the process here. It’s like identity engagement: “this is a thing that I care about, that you should care about, too.” This is rewarmed media theory from the 1960s: the structure of the system perpetuates how the information is going to spread. Social media is just a different type of trajectory, where the audience has real power as participants. That’s something that is fundamentally different from all prior media environments. Not only can you share the rumor, but millions of people can see in aggregate the sharing of that rumor.

Her explanation of how social media algorithms work is worth quoting at length

When you pull up your Twitter feed, there’s “Trends” on the right hand side, and they’re personalized for you. And sometimes there’s a very, very small number of participants in the trend, maybe just a few hundred tweets. But it’s a nudge, it says you are going to be interested in this topic. It’s bait: go click this thing that you have engaged with before that you are probably going to be interested in, and then you will see all of the other people’s tweets about it. Then you engage. And in the act of engagement, you are perpetuating that trend.

Early on, I was paying attention to the anti-vaccine movement. I was a new mom, and I was really interested in what people were saying about this on Facebook. I was kind of horrified by it, to be totally candid. I started following some anti-vaccine groups, and then Facebook began to show me Pizzagate, and then QAnon. I had never typed in Pizzagate, and I had never typed in QAnon. But through the power of collaborative filtering, it understood that if you were an active participant in a conspiracy theory community that fundamentally distrusts the government, you are probably similar to these other people who maybe have a different flavor of the conspiracy. And the recommendation engine didn’t understand what it was doing. It was not a conscious effort. It just said: here’s an active community, you have some similarities, you should go join that active community. Let’s give you this nudge. And that is how a lot of these networks were assembled in the early and mid-2010s.

Then DiResta posed what we used to call the “sixty-four thousand dollar question:”  are changes to the design of an algorithm censorship?

Implicit in that question, of course, is another: what about the original design of an algorithm?  Those mechanisms have been designed  to respond to certain inputs in certain ways, to “nudge” the user to visit X rather than Y.  Is that censorship? And if the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” is the First Amendment implicated?

To say that we are in uncharted waters is an understatement.



On The Other Hand…

Sometimes, this blog focuses so much on the crazy, the hateful, and the depressing that the whole human landscape seems bleak. I’m not going to apologize for pointing to the problems we face, because they’re real and we need to think long and hard about solutions. But an unremitting focus on the “dark side” can be misleading.

There are also bright spots in that landscape.

I’ve been subscribing to a Substack newsletter called PersuasionA recent one consisted of an interview with Yascha Mounk. Mounk is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and the founder of Persuasion. He recently published a book titled “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure,” and it was the focus of an interview conducted by Ravi Gupta.

Mounk readily concedes that diversity makes democratic government difficult. The very human proclivity to prefer those with whom we share an identity makes civic equality a “really difficult thing to get right.” But then he says

I also want to make people a little bit more optimistic, because I think when you look at the injustices today, and you don’t have that perspective, you might think, “What’s wrong with us? Why are we so terrible?” But then when you compare it to other times and other places, you realize this is just a really, really hard thing we’re trying to do. Yes, we’re failing in certain respects, but we’re succeeding in other respects. We’re doing much better today than we did fifty years ago. We’re doing vastly better today than we did a hundred years ago. That, I think, can give you the hope to build a vision for the kind of society you want to live in, and to make sure that our society doesn’t fall apart, but actually thrives and succeeds.

At the conclusion of the interview, he returns to that optimism.

When I look at what’s actually going on in society, I don’t despair. America has become much more tolerant in the last decades. We have really rapid socioeconomic progress of minority and immigrant groups, in a way that’s rarely appreciated by either the left or the right. The best study suggests that immigrants from Central or South America, for example, are rising up the socio-economic ranks as rapidly as Irish and Italian Americans did a century ago. This shows that the far-right is wrong in believing that there’s something somehow inferior about them. But it also shows that parts of the left are wrong in thinking that our countries are so racist and so discriminatory that nonwhite people don’t have opportunity. Thankfully, actually, people have opportunity. We see that in the way in which their children or grandchildren in particular are rising up very rapidly. Now, there are also all kinds of sensible things we can do in terms of how we think about our country, the education we engage in, the kind of patriotism we embrace, the kinds of policies and acts of Congress that we should pass—and that’s important, too. But fundamentally, my optimism comes from the developments that I already see happening in society.

Mounk rests his argument on verifiable data; my own (occasional) optimism is more anecdotal and scattered. Just a few of my observations, in no particular order:

When I was still teaching, the university students who filled my classes were overwhelmingly inclusive and committed to their communities, the common good, and the rule of law.

The massive demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were multi-racial–the first time I have witnessed widespread diversity in racial protests.

Someone recently reminded me that eighty million Americans came out during a pandemic to vote against Donald Trump.

There’s constant progress on efforts to combat climate change– like recent development of a new, thinner and more efficient solar panel. 

Increasing numbers of out LGBTQ people are being elected to political office, and not just in blue parts of the U.S.

Ketanji Brown Jackson will join the Supreme Court.

For the past week, my husband and I have been on a cruise (we’re headed for Amsterdam to visit our middle son). We have taken previous cruises, and virtually all the couples we met on those trips were devotees of Fox News. I still recall some of the dismissive comments (and worse) leveled by these financially comfortable travelers about poorer (and darker) Americans. I am very happy to report that everyone we’ve had an opportunity to converse with on this trip has at some point indicated strong disapproval of what the GOP has become. Several–like yours truly–identify as “refugees” from the Republican Party.

It’s anecdotal, true…but encouraging.



It’s The Culture, Stupid!

People who follow politics will remember the large sign that James Carville  posted in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters: “It’s the economy, stupid!” After Clinton won, a number of political strategists have quoted it approvingly, and certainly seem to believe that  economic performance decides elections.

These days, objective performance not so much. Thanks to a media environment that facilitates massive amounts of disinformation, even when the economy is doing very well--as it is now–partisans are able to convince large numbers of Americans otherwise.

So what does matter?

A recent podcast from Persuasion confirmed my belief that it’s the culture. Jonathan Sumption  is a British Judge , author and historian, On the podcast, he and host Yascha Mounk discussed the prospects for democracy in the English-speaking world and the power of strong political conventions.  Several observations during that discussion were intriguing–and I found a couple of them debatable– but I just want to focus on one of them.

Democracies depend on two things. They depend on an institutional framework, and they depend on a cultural background. It isn’t usually the institutional framework that fails. That’s still there. What fails is the cultural background, which is the desire of people to make it work, the desire of people to respect plurality of opinion, and to accept that sometimes they can’t get their way, however important the issue and however right they think they are. In most countries which have lost their democratic status, the institutions are still there, there are still elections of a sort, there are still parliaments—but they are largely meaningless because the culture that sustained them disappeared.

I think this is essentially correct. In the U.S., as I have written (many times!), several of our institutions are getting pretty creaky, but our deeper problem is the erosion of what political scientists call “democratic norms”–unwritten but widespread expectations about proper behaviors. In the Senate, for example, we expect that the chamber will take up a President’s nomination for a Supreme Court seat, and it was shocking–and a very significant blow to the democratic culture–when Mitch McConnell refused even to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee.

The ridiculous antics from the lunatic caucus aren’t simply embarrassing; they constitute daily assaults on longstanding norms of governance and appropriate  official behavior.

Let me suggest a rather odd analogy,  Over the past few years, I have noticed increasing numbers of drivers exhibiting dangerous behaviors: excessive speeding on residential streets and running red lights. (Not simply speeding up through yellow–zipping through intersections well after the signal has turned red.) As such bad road behaviors grow, other drivers are tempted (or encouraged) to ignore the rules. If we can no longer depend upon the vast majority of drivers to observe the culture of “traffic obedience,” driving will become far more dangerous–and vehicular behaviors that traffic engineers depend upon will no longer work.

Culture is also implicated in the reports about Trump taking boxes of Presidential materials with him when he left the White House. As an op-ed in the Washington Post noted, although the retrieval of those documents was relatively cordial,

For all the calm of the retrieval, the very fact that Trump could simply take the records — and that they could remain in his possession for so long — demonstrates that our institutions still haven’t adjusted to the problem of a lawless and disorderly president. The routines of presidential recordkeeping (and presidential transitions) anticipate a generous, bipartisan spirit of cooperation. So ingrained are these expectations that, even nearly seven years since Trump jumped into presidential politics, it’s hard to describe his willingness to take records the way we should: as an alleged theft of federal property.

It is impossible to have formal, specific rules for every aspect of official life. As the author of the Post article noted, numerous general rules rest on our ingrained assumptions about the way elected and appointed officials will behave. With respect to official Presidential records, the norm is “that the physical integrity of the records will be maintained and that they were properly created in the first place.” Neither of those assumptions was safe with Trump, who regularly “tore up briefings and schedules, articles and letters, memos both sensitive and mundane” according to reporting from The Post.”

When the social expectations we call “norms of behavior” are first violated, we are shocked, but when numerous people follow suit, it isn’t very long before those norms simply disappear. It’s one thing when it is no longer the “norm” for men to wear ties–it’s quite another when we lose the norm of obeying traffic laws. Or expectations of Presidential behavior.

The loss of democratic norms and a culture of compliance poses an existential threat to self-government and the rule of law.