This newsletter is published at techpolicy.substack.com. The following is an excerpt from Edition 14.
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Of Oxygen, Amplification, You Are Under Arrest, Plandemic Returns and You Can’t Stop This.
Mask, No Mask and The Oxygen of Amplification
I can see what’s happening?
And we don’t have a clue
We keep doing the same things, again and again. I don’t know what to do.
I wish I could say this was a Hakuna Matata kind of situation, but it isn’t. There’s plenty to worry about. But before I send you down to the depths of despair, here’s a gif to soften the fall.
What on earth are you going on about, Prateek??
Fine, fine. I’ll come right to it. I am, of course, talking about…
You would probably have guessed from the title of this section which incident I am talking about. No? Anti-mask protests are moving closer to home (well, I don’t know where you are, but mine anyway). I am going to avoid calling it an ‘Indian Anti-mask’ movement. There’s no need to make it sound bigger than it actually is.
What happened next? A bunch of people exclaimed on Twitter, many made fun of it. One publication ran a story repeating its claims in the title. Another did a story about such movements ‘gaining momentum’.
Now before going further, I am going to digress and talk a bit about a 3-part series by Whitney Phillips called *The Oxygen of Amplification* (Data and Society 2018) which was the outcome of a number of interviews/conversations she had with journalists about their role covering alt-right movements and the Trump’s first presidential campaign.
There were a couple of things that really stood out to me, I will rely primarily on quoting because I think the language she uses is very important. While a lot of these are in the context of reporters/journalists, many apply to us as social media users too.
What reporters covering “alt-right” antagonisms didn’t anticipate, however, was the impact this reporting would have on unintended audiences; … As the stories themselves and social media reactions to these stories ricocheted across and between online collectives, what was meant as trolling was reported (and reacted to) seriously, and what was meant seriously was reported (and reacted to) as trolling—all while those on the far-right fringes laughed and clapped.
Through reporters’ subsequent public commentary—commentary that fueled, and was fueled by, the public commentary of everyday social media participants— countless citizens were opened up to far-right extremists’ tried and true, even clichéd, manipulations. This outcome persisted even when the purpose of these articles and this commentary was to condemn or undermine the information being discussed.
However critically it might have been framed, however necessary it may have been to expose, coverage of these extremists and manipulators gifted participants with a level of visibility and legitimacy that even they could scarcely believe, as nationalist and supremacist ideology metastasized from culturally peripheral to culturally principal in just a few short months.
That is to say, that any coverage results in amplification in a sense.
She also points out structural issues in the media ecosystem (I’m paraphrasing here).
- Reliance on analytics essentially incentivises clickbait-y content instead of deep reporting.
- “The journalistic imperative” to cover what is perceived to be relevant to public interest. Attempting to ‘balance perspectives’ and essentially putting even harmful views on the same level as facts.
- It is a job – people get assigned stories they may not want to do, may not be interested in, may not agree with.
- Misconceived imagination of what the audience might be and a lack of diversity.
I am not directly in the media ecosystem in India, but I suspect many of these would apply here as well. This is why, I haven’t linked to the pieces/tweets I mentioned earlier. My intention isn’t to shame people.
Now, let’s get back to this anti-mask thing or any political leader that makes an outrageous statement, anyone spewing hate, or engaging in targeted harassment, for that matter.
The underlying dynamics are similar – the more coverage or purchase they get; the greater the incentive for others to flood the information ecosystem with similar content.
Does this mean such incidents should never be amplified and swept under the rug? Sigh, of course not.
There is no shortcut to figuring out when to do this either. The tricky part is determining whether something needs coverage or not. I did say there were no Hakuna Matatas here, didn’t I?
Based on this series , I’ve also made a quick mind-map of what participants felt were the trade-offs between choosing to amplify something or not + recommendations on what to consider. I strongly recommend reading the entire series.
Of course, this wouldn’t be MisDisMal-Information if I didn’t immediately throw a contradiction at you. So let’s talk about Hindustani Bhau. Ok, let’s not. But the gist of it is this:
Man spew hate -> People report -> Platform say ‘Policy not violated’ -> People outrage -> Platform say ‘Ok, ok, Policy violated’ -> Man account suspended.
This is a story we’ve seen before.
But wait, turns out, his Facebook account as a ‘Public Figure’ is still around (as of 21 Aug evening, when I am writing this). So is his Twitter account (or at least a Twitter account purportedly managed by one of the people who also manage his Facebook account), where he doubled down on the same video (for which is Instagram account was taken down) by quote tweeting Kunal Kamra (with 1.6M followers) sharing and flagging the Mumbai Police. You can’t make this up – I really wish I was.
Which brings up another question – when one account is suspended by a platform, are other platforms obliged to follow suit? Heck, is the same company expected to follow suit on another platform? Or do we have to rely on outrage-cycles all the time? Because that’s a sign that ‘due-process’ isn’t working.
And in a story that sums up most of this section.
Laura Loomer won a primary in Florida. Wait, Prateek. Who is she?
She was de-platformed in 2018. It got a lot of coverage. She handcuffed herself to Twitter’s NY office. It got a lot of coverage. She gained influence, leveraged it and clearly capitalised on it.
If you read the Oxygen of Amplification Series and some of the coverage around these events, the points in that mind map make a lot more sense
Becca Lewis has an important thread on this, in the context of de-platforming.
I’m thinking about the Laura Loomer primary win and how maybe it’s less of a sign that de-platforming doesn’t work and more of a sign that it’s one of the only levers of change the platforms let us imagine, which leads us to put far too much emphasis on it
In many cases, de-platforming has indeed “worked” in the sense of reducing the audiences for individual creators, but of course it’s limited and can be worked around with a bit of creativity. Loomer has turned out to be a master of that exact kind of creativity
It’s also necessarily individual and reactive, which means it can be a very effective tool at minimizing individual harmful voices, but generally after they have already cultivated a following. And the structures are all still in place for new creators to fill the void.
The problems are baked deeply into the business models and ideologies of the platforms, so nothing on such a small level as de-platforming will change the bigger issues. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still an important tool, because it clearly is – it’s just not a panacea
Oh, and remember the anti-mask video? The guy who posted it has been de-platformed at least once before, he keeps coming back.
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