Why questioning the code in Facebook and Twitter matters

On: September 8, 2014
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About Mahsa Alimardani
Mahsa Alimardani is an Iranian-Canadian Internet researcher. Her focus is on the intersection of technology and human rights, especially as it pertains to freedom of expression and access to information inside Iran. She holds a Honours Bachelor in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and is completing her Masters degree in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam.

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The Internet has created more possibilities for the individual and civil society. Now they can engage in higher connectivity, collective action, and freedom of expression in what Robert Harris and Rebekah Heacock term as “the creation of social capital online.”(1) Indeed it must feel liberating as an Internet user of 2014 to think that one is curating their own online content. I choose who I friend and what I like on Facebook, and I choose who I follow on Twitter. But how do we dig through all of this content to find what is relevant?

The list of networks we might all subscribe to might at times seem bottomless. There are Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, then selected pages and lists on these social networks as well as their news feeds, and timelines. The various nodes of connection  pocket us into almost endless corners of connection that open new windows into information.

How does one digest and filter out the relevant in this scenario? Do we have the right expertise to know which news story or post is the most relevant to our lives, work, and studies? Information overload is a struggle I deal with everyday, as I amass countless tabs throughout my day of things I should read, but often don’t have the time for. In a comment on our connected age, Ethan Zuckerman states the problem in his book Rewire, as such,

Our challenge is not access to information ; it is the challenge of paying attention. That challenge is made all the more difficult by our deeply ingrained tendency to pay disproportionate attention to phenomena that unfold nearby and directly affect ourselves, our friends, and our families. (2)

Zuckerman’s thesis in Rewire rests on the notion that in our digital cosmopolitan world, we might be as connected as ever to different cultures and countries through the Internet, but our knowledge of these issues might still remain at the same level as before the World Wide Web connected us to all of this information. That is, we might have Facebook and Twitter feeds to help us connect with things, and be informed on topics we normally wouldn’t be exposed to, however we are often left following things that are naturally interesting to us within our localities, and the updates in the lives of our close friends. And the culprit at the centre of this misplaced access to information are the tools themselves. That is, we used to  blame the traditional sources of mass media, such as CNN, BBC, and the New York Times for the selection of information, or scrutinized authoritarian governments for their control over newspapers, and broadcast reporting. But now, the companies behind the platforms we use are the central to our current notions of information control.

The rise of the Internet has been hailed by some as a popular ideology that equates technology with empowerment. (3) In some regards this is true. Take for example a country such as Iran. Prior to the Internet, Iranians often relied on state controlled newspapers, radios and sometimes even illegal satellite dishes broadcasting western channels. Regardless of the western, or state origins of the information, it was not free, and under the control of certain authorities. Despite filtering, circumvention technology is ubiquitous in Iran, and Iranians make up one of the biggest populations of Facebook users globally, with an ever growing number of Twitter users adding to the mix (Iran’s Minister of Culture places the number of Iranians on Facebook at 4 million users (4)). That is to say, despite slower Internet speeds, Iran is part and parcel of this case study of global online information interactions.

The social media phenomenon known as the ALS ice bucket challenge indeed made its way to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country under such strict western sanctions that donating money to the American based ALS foundation is against international and American law. Yet, countless Iranians, despite the sanctions barrier which nullified the purpose of the challenge, and the nation’s extreme water shortages, went ahead and poured ice water on their heads on their Facebook accounts. This in effect speaks to Zuckerman’s thesis, in that Iranians preoccupied with the ice bucket challenge are more consumed by the likes, and attention they can gather amongst their friends  than they are with tangible problems within their own country. Namely, the massive water shortage in Iran’s Isfahan region.

A similar situation again occurred when riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri this past August. As Zeynep Tufekci explained, “algorithmic filtering” kept the news of riots and police repression off of Facebook news feeds as the event occurred, and kept the event from trending in the United States on Twitter. (5) While we don’t rely on the traditional media centres to access information, how we extract information is now at the disposal of the tools we use to see this free flowing information. And these tools are controlled and shaped by the corporations that own them. This essentially takes us back to the pioneer texts on Internet scholarship which was Lawrence Lessig’s 1999 book, Code v.2, where he argued “code is law.”(6) Indeed, the algorithms that filter the content in the programs and applications such as Facebook and Twitter shape much of our online transactions. The code inherent in Facebook and Twitter are responsible for how we digest information. The impact of this has been so far reaching that Facebook has invested resources in understanding how information presented to us can manipulate our emotions.

Now the question of what we do is an important one. We have access to all of this information, but how this information finds us is controlled by corporations. Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to this question within this one blog post, but there is one thing we can say. Just as the Internet has the ability to create this new paradigm of control within ubiquitous access, it also has the ability to generate conversations that question these systems. The conversation around how the Internet is governed, and the role of corporations in shaping this world is an important one that affects our human right to unfettered, and free flowing information as global citizens. Indeed, the problems inherent in the code of Facebook and Twitter in breaking relevant news has now been covered by major media including the Guardian, and CBC, and have been shared on Facebook and Twitter accounts. What’s left for us to do is recognize the importance of these new forms of control in our new information age, and keep this conversation alive, constantly questioning how this increasingly important realm of the Internet is governed.

 

(1) Farris, Robert and Heackock, Rebekah. Berkman Centre for Internet & Society, Internet Monitor 2013: Reflections on the Digital World, 2013 (1-13).

(2) Zuckerman, Ethan. Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Connection. First Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, 2013. Kindle File, 249/4837.

(3) Deibert, Ron and Rohozinski, Rafal, “Beyond Denial: Introducing Next-generation Information Access Controls.” in R. Deibert, J. Palfrey, R. Rohozinski, & J. Zittrain (Eds.), Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights and Rule in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. 5.

(4) The Economist. July 19, 2014. Everyone’s Doing It: Liberals and Conservatives Argue Over Restrictions on the Internet.  Accessed September 7, 2014. <http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21607894-liberals-and-conservatives-argue-over-restrictions-internet-everyones-doing>

(5) Tufekci, Zeynep. “What Happens to #Fergusan Affects Fergusan: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering, and Ferguson.” Medium. August 14, 2014. Accessed September 7, 2014. <https://medium.com/message/ferguson-is-also-a-net-neutrality-issue-6d2f3db51eb0>

(6) Lessig, Lawrence. Code 2.0. New York: Basic Books, 1999. CC Attribution Share-ALike. Accessed September 7, 2014. <http://codev2.cc/download+remix/Lessig-Codev2.pdf>

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