Engagement in a time of polarization: Topic 2

This is the first time I’m enrolled in a mooc. I think one of the main reasons I slack off with these things – even though they are very useful- is that sometimes I find committing to timings and assignments hard to juggle with the things that I ought to be doing. So in this course (Digital Literacy), I ought to be enrolled in the course, and so yay for me, I get to do something I’ve always wanted to do.

The first thing I attempted to do is link in the title of the course with the course I’m currently taking, and I’ve come to the resolution that since this is a digital literacy course, the mooc will talk about technology being one of the sources of polarization and how engagement can happen despite that. And this links in with what we do in class, in the sense that a lot of times we talk about how we’re different, but at the same time how these different issues can bring us together or cause us to feel certain things.

I recently liked Chris Gilliard from the Twitter activity that we did a couple of classes ago, and so when he was featured in Topic 2, I knew I was going to enjoy the readings and related topics in that module. I started by reading Power, Polarization and Tech reading   . There are a few things that got me in this reading.

He talks about the “market place of ideas” existing in Silicon Valley which is lie fed by the tech people there, according to him. Being in the tech field myself, I want to question this. It takes a whole lot of research and investment to bring forth ideas in the tech industry, some of which have a tremendous benefit. Yes, I agree that extraction of data plays a pivotal role in the design and management of the apps used daily, but it is not the one reason why they sit for years, and spend tonnes of money.

I didn’t follow through with the part about cyberlibertarianism as I didn’t really understand what it meant or what message was it passing across.

The promotion of polarization does not, in my opinion, come from social media apps like Gilliard is saying. I agree that people are drawn to social media spaces because they can emphasize the fact that they are different, special, maybe. But what leads to having people on opposing ends rather than united, lies in the culture of use of these social media. And the culture of use is not dictated by people like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey. It is dictated by us as users. Example: Egypt is a very diverse country and different people use Facebook differently and for different purposes. A feature like Groups and Pages brings people who share a common liking together. Whether people write hate comments or give each other useful advice is shaped by the way they use Facebook. When there’s a political and global issue happening in the world, a lot of people express their solidarity by changing their profile picture.

There is a concentration of power in holders of data like Zuckerberg and Dorsey, and this is a powerful argument made my Gilliard because with this tremendous amount of information they can do pretty much a lot. (Mental Question: Do privacy policies and agreements prevent the people in power from misusing data?)

Gilliard takes another turn with his article by highlighting how Silicon Valley was built on the basis of segregation. But it’s also important to note that America’s social and political climate throughout the years has been based on segregation, and Silicon Valley would be just one example. I’m not justifying it in any way, rather putting the situation into context. I can also add here that given this argument, then it justifies how when a minority writes about anything that upsets the power construction, this is immediately deleted/banned. But minorities are different in every place. Does this mean the specific bands of minorities have less privileges than others?

Another interesting concept learned is “polarization by design”. This means that people like Zuckerberg work in collaboration with political campaigns or people in power in order to produce “dark posts” – posts which can only be seen by the people targeted.

Taking Gilliard’s words about polarization and how its relationship with power and segregation is very intact, I think an example of what he writes about exists in Egypt too and not just the states: the Egyptian government has arrested many activists, journalists and youth, many of these arrests were based on the people’s Facebook posts and/or tweets. While Facebook is claimed to be a space where opinions are openly voiced, it appears that powerful forces within the country can access specific people’s writing and take aggressive actions based on the information that Facebook gathers and claims that it keeps private and safe.

One of the most powerful statements in his article:

Like any abstraction, “Polarization” is fraught with meanings, but in this case, they are about class, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, technology, and power. These structures are filled with concrete instances from culture: content farms spewing out propaganda, police “heat maps” and the placement of cell site simulators in black communities, extractive platforms that benefit from the “engagement” of pitting one group against another, and the other hundreds of outrageous intrusions on our private and social lives that are first and foremost in the service of power. Digital Polarization is the technological mask for the age-old scheme of atomizing populations while making sure the powerful stay on top.

Then I watched the video where Amanda Martinez talks about fake news. And it was interesting to know that fake news take on many forms and levels and how the way information is presented could influence the way people feel and interpret this information.

This links in well with Chris Gilliard’s text because in one way or another social media tech influences what we see in our homepage based on the data collected on what we share, like, and interact with. And so a lot of time we see what we want to see, or what we believe to be “right”. What Martinez also hints at and is similar to what I earlier wrote is the fact that the audience’s critical view of information and being able to identify the right place for the type of information they need. I mentioned earlier that the culture of use of social media apps is not dictated by the founders of the social media apps but rather us. So if there’s a common understanding that interaction on social media platforms involves respect for other opinions, respect in how we present information and critical thinking towards what is being presented (and who is presenting it and how it is being presented), then part of the issue might be resolved.

Later on, I also read an article by Michael Caulfield which starts with an interesting analogy between cleaning the environment, and clearing up the information environment. I was appalled at the screenshots that Caulfield showed in the article and how shallow/commercial Google results could be. The impact of these results is not minor. (Mental question: Is there a reason for weak websites topping search engines other than money?)

I think cleaning the information environment as proposed by Caulfield is an idea that should be implemented worldwide and supported by educational, scientific and academic institutions. At least in the areas where it is possible to do the cleaning. Wikipedia, Google sites, blogs and informative videos are all our responsibility in order to spread high quality information that serves to answer people’s genuine inquiries. A long with that, awareness of critically assessing information’s credibility in terms of source, content and medium, as mentioned by Martinez, should be raised.
Another point I would add here in this area, is developing students’ search skills in a way that facilitates the appearance of valuable and better results; in terms of search keywords for example. (Mental question: how easy is it to get to Google’s top websites given the topic being not-so-niche?)

Another observation that might not be very related to any of this, is that I really liked the Digital Magazine and the way that it was laid out. I think it would be nice to try a software which helps in designing things like this.

I didn’t exactly engage on Twitter or on the discussion forums, but what I did was pick out a few things that Chris Gilliard or Bonnie Stewart was retweeting, read them, and post some thoughts about them while using the hashtag.

The first was about a fitness tracker for the brain developed by MIT. (Impressive stuff)
Another about a wife who was describing a tshirt to her husband over the phone and sent him a picture, only for him to find an ad for that tshirt on his Shazam.
And the stories go on: two people talking about buying snack bars and finding the ads for the bars on twitter (C.R.E.E.P.Y)
I also responded to one of Bonnie Stewart’s questions.

There’s this one thread on Twitter that I would love to know more about, but finding it hard to navigate through (ironically because I’m not good with Twitter). But it caught my attention because I rely on IEEE daily – it’s almost like my Google search, and so I want to understand what is it that’s causing the problem.



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