When the Cambridge Analytica story first hit the headlines, I decided to wait a while. Everything seemed to be imploding at the same time and I was struggling to fully follow along. So I decided to let the dust settle a little, and then check the news when a more comprehensive overall picture of the situation had been built.
This turned out to be a good idea, and over a week after the story broke I delved through the news coverage to build a more accurate understanding of what the heck had happened, who was accused of what, and where this sat in terms of outcome. While there seems to be some differing opinions on how much this has truly influenced politics, there’s one thing that we know for sure. Companies like Facebook and Google know a lot more about us than we think they do. The Guardian breaks it all down fully here, but in short these companies have access to a lot of information, including but not limited to where we go and when, everything you’ve ever searched, information you’ve deleted, private messages and emails you’ve sent and received, photos you store, your call history and even access to your webcam and microphone (fun fact, it’s well known that Mark Zuckerberg himself keeps his microphone and webcam covered). All of this data is compiled to help target advertising towards us that’s likely to cause a tangible reaction, whether this be products bought or votes cast, so advertisers see return on investment. Apple CEO Tim Cook has slammed Facebook for this recently, arguing that the platform has monetised the customer, making them the product that they sell to advertisers rather than creating a product to sell to customers.
On the one hand, this is all pretty scary. Most of us use these applications with the assumption that this information is kept safe, and when you see all the data that companies can have on you listed out it’s not only crazy but can feel dehumanising too, as you’re reduced to numbers and activity logs. On the other hand, what the heck does this really mean? If this data is all used to compile a profile of me, then I truly feel sorry for whatever employee has to look over my search history only to find that 90% of my searches are related to my first time binge of Pretty Little Liars for the last two months (I know it is not a good show I just can’t stop ok!!). And beyond that, what are we supposed to do now?
For some, the answer has been to pull a Taylor Swift and exclude themselves from this narrative by simply deleting Facebook, but for many of us this isn’t always a viable option. Sure if you’re Elon Musk then you probably can afford to simply wipe Tesla’s Facebook presence, but if you’re a small business it isn’t so easy to go off the grid when you rely on that grid to make sales. Let’s not forget Facebook also owns Instagram, so you’d have to delete that too, and it’s not like other social media platforms have the best reputation themselves, Twitter still doesn’t seem to have found a way to deal with its nazi problem after all. So what do we do going forward, if we’re going to keep using these platforms?
As with everything, I think being educated and informed is one of the best first steps we can take. I would first recommend watching this really helpful video to understand more about what internet dark patterns are, why they exist and how they work.
There are a few things you can do to keep your data more secure and hidden from outside eyes, including:
But overall, I think The Nerdwriter is right. A large part of what we have to do is mounting pressure on companies not to do this, after all it is them who have created the problem. It does look like some steps are being made in this direction:
‘The fallout from the Cambridge Analytica controversy has triggered Facebook to cancel an advertising tool that pulled data from people’s backgrounds, like whether you own a home or what products you like to buy. “We want to let advertisers know that we will be shutting down Partner Categories,” Facebook said on Wednesday. “This product enables third party data providers to offer their targeting directly on Facebook.” ‘ (source)
That being said, who knows how effective and wide reaching this will actually be, and barely anyone seems to be talking about how Google basically does the same thing. I doubt any of these companies are keen to fully overhaul things anytime soon, so something we can do is try and understand what our data may be influencing, so that we can stay alert to how we interact with these things in our real lives. Obviously we can’t know for certain, but my best guess is that the main areas we see this manifesting are the adverts shown to us and news cycle that we interact with (the Facebook echo chamber is way too real). Having looked at understanding fake news and media bias once before, this seemed like a good reason to revisit and expand on some of these ideas.
Honestly, when it comes to products I think the targeted advertising that comes my way via data collection is hit and miss. I don’t know if it’s the same for others, but 99% of the ads thrown my way I don’t look at twice. That being said, there have been occasions when something is advertised to me that I may actually be interested in, but seeing as I’m trying to avoid overconsumption and working towards being as minimal as possible, I make a point to never click on the ad immediately.
It’s the same as choosing to disengage with fast fashion, although with online advertising it’s not as simple as not going into high street stores. I’ve never been a huge internet shopper, so it’s been fairly easy for me, but my general rule is always to avoid impulse. If you do see something you like, try writing it down and waiting. If in 2 weeks or a month you still want to buy it, then reassess the situation. Let things simmer for a while, instead of instantly buying things that are thrown your way, especially as internet dark patterns work their hardest to make you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t buy instantly.
If you see adverts in relation to elections, votes or decisions beyond what you buy, I would make a deliberate decision to completely ignore them, regardless of which side of the political spectrum they’re coming from and whether you agree. When it comes to making these decisions we want to make them democratically, not because advertisers have found ways to psychologically profile us. Put aside some time to weigh up your options: look at manifestos and policies put out by the parties themselves on their websites, look at the track records of the representatives you may be voting for, get involved in local politics and go out and actually meet the people who want your vote. Engage, ask questions, go to town halls, make pro and con lists with a pen and paper, and make a decision after you’ve assessed all these factors. It’s not about living life in a way that makes you distrust all politicians and their advertisements, but instead pushing aside all the noise and engaging with the real policies and people behind them.
Fake & Biased News
While not all news that’s thrown at you is fake, it certainly will be biased. Most likely it will be in a way you agree with, seeing as these internet platforms often become places where we surround ourselves with others who think like us. The first step: if you see a headline/piece of shared news content that immediately causes a reaction in you, whether positive or negative, sit back for a moment. These days articles are often written to provoke reaction and drive clicks, whereas the kind of journalism we really want is factual and doesn’t cause extreme emotion in us. If we immediately feel a sense of anger or validation, it’s important to check the news is trustworthy, there are so many times when I’ve seen people angrily share an article on Facebook that was actually written 3 years ago.
The Liturgists put together some handy resources last year for identifying news that might be fake. First, start with this crazy catchy song:
To expand on this:
- Legitimate news media will name the author and contributors to any article they publish to create accountability. If you click an article and there’s no author named, immediately lower your confidence in the article and its claims.
- Where was the piece published? Have you ever heard of this media organisation? If it’s a site you’ve never heard of you want to know more about them before trusting their claims. If you have heard of them, what’s their journalistic reputation? Do they have an editorial review board? A board holds journalists and authors accountable, as well as fact checking their claims. Fake news sites won’t have such boards. Does this organisation publish corrections, retractions or letters to the editor? Aka is there are a way for the public to keep this media organisation accountable? Who owns the publication? Most of our media is controlled by a small handful of corporations, yes, but for example if you read a piece of climate change from a publication owned by the fossil fuel industry, again you’re going to want to reduce your confidence in the article.
- Is there a date of publication? Fake news sites often don’t add a date of publication (or they print it in such a way that it’s not easily noticeable) so people don’t realise their articles have been out for months or years. Often they’ll report on facts from years ago and without a date with slightly different language, so people share as if it’s happening today.
- Are specific sources named? Legitimate news will reference institutions, reports and studies by name, as well as dates of the studies. Fake news sites will often use phrases like ‘studies say’ with no reference or naming of the actual study. The word study doesn’t mean something is backed up by evidence. In the same strain, don’t trust graphs, charts or statistics that you see just because they are numerical, as these can be somewhat altered to make certain numbers seem more drastic than they are. Additionally, sometimes legitimate news will protect their sources, for example keeping them anonymous if their job is at risk, so in these cases it’s important to note that you cannot fully substantiate claims in these articles from these sources alone.
- Is the article well written? Typos, grammar mistakes, bad punctuation and all caps are all signs that you’re not dealing with trustworthy writing from a reputable institution.
- Does anything in the piece make you feel angry or afraid? If so, it’s important to look deeper into the claims made before accepting the information or sharing it, because our emotions aren’t necessarily trustworthy when it comes to analytical thinking, and fake news is designed to elicit strong emotions. Many people accept a headline without reading an article, but often even trustworthy news outlets will write sensationalist headlines in order to attract readers, so have a lil read and think before you share away. (Also, be aware of satire. If people accidentally take what is written as satire as serious news, then it can become fake news.)
- Check your own bias. This one’s a toughie, but important. We’re likely to want to believe something that lines up with beliefs we already have, even if it’s not true, and reject news that opposes those beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. If you find yourself seriously agreeing with a story simply because it lines up with your thoughts, it’s important to be diligent in discovering if it’s actually true. You can cross reference facts using sites like snopes, politifact and factcheck.org
I also think reading from publications across the political spectrum is really important. When it comes to news, information or political coverage it’s interesting to read how the same things are reported on in right and left wing journalism (or even where publications choose to place things, as it shows their priorities). This will help you see bias and hopefully build a better picture of the overall situation. When it comes to actual facts, here are some things to do:
- Learn about Reuters and the AP, where a lot of stories are pulled from and then edited. Look further into studies, statistics and press releases that are pulled for stories too. Looking for the source of information can help you grasp the facts clearly as well as see editorial media bias in action.
- Look out for opinion buzz words, and how to have a threshold of how many are acceptable.
- Check at the top of the page for what section an article is under. Opinions and editorials are usually clearly marked and will express more bias than the news section. Most traditional newspaper news sections will be more straightforward and tell you what you need to know.
- Keep in mind that we are in an incredibly polarising time so news media and newspapers are likely to be more opinionated.
- Get your news from a variety of sources – don’t just rely on television or your Facebook feed. Remember that television and online media are different to reputable newspapers, magazines and public radio, so try and listen to a variety of voices when you can.
- Follow news sources from outside of your country such as Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera for the Middle East and EuroNews. European broadcast journalism (TV) tends to be more digestible and less sensationalised than American news, for example BBC, TV France or EuroNews.
- Remember that a lot of journalists do good work, and work very had. If you feel like you can’t trust the media read, listen to, and watch stories that won Pulitzer Prizes or from organisations like Pro Pública and the Marshall Project, which contain multiple great stories that have exposed wrongs or paid homage to the human spirit. These stories often do not get read because we are too busy for them and they aren’t necessarily as clickbait-y. This American Life also tends to do a great job of telling people’s stories more than traditional news media.
Local media can often be forgotten in the midst of global large scale news reporting, but reading from local media sources is incredibly important and useful for several reasons:
- You can fact check their articles personally. If there’s reporting on places or leaders in your area you can go to these places, meet and talk with your local politicians.
- There a lots of great reporting coming from local newspapers, radio stations and TV which will also give you a balance. Polls have shown the animosity against media is mostly towards national media so local news helps balance the intake.
- Local is more observable and more actionable. There aren’t as many intermediaries between you and your local mayor, school board or police chief as with the national leaders and executive government. It is easier to see change happen and keep your leaders accountable when you start local.
- Focusing on impacting your local community is a better use of time and energy as it has more impact on your life. Work on education, crime, housing, etc in your local neighbourhood first. You can’t elect a new president right now, but you can help the people, friends and neighbours around you.
In general all the things I’ve listed above talk about digesting the news still at a relatively fast speed, but like slow living and slow fashion I also think it’s good to embrace slow news. It seems counter cultural, but I really found that engaging with news coverage retroactively made it easier to build a full picture of what was happening, and to feel less overwhelmed.
As much as increased connection helps us in many ways, it can also be our worst enemy when it comes to the news. Not only because it feels like the world is constantly imploding and getting worse (which isn’t necessarily true!) but also because it leads to misinformation. Beyond the spread of fake news that often zooms round twitter in an emergency situation, the legitimate news does it too. I can so clearly remember the London Bridge attacks last year: after people were injured on London Bridge and Borough Market I was reading the live timeline and saw an alert that there was another stabbing in Vauxhall, which isn’t particularly close by. I remember panicking internally that this was some kind of grand scale event that was going to spread across the city, thirty minutes later it was confirmed that this stabbing was actually completely unrelated. I didn’t actually do anything to act on the sense of panic I had felt, but even I, a person who has written about fake news and media bias, was susceptible to the immediacy of the news cycle and the fear it can create! I was so frustrated at myself afterwards, and now I make an effort to avoid live reporting unless it is really necessary to do so, like if it involves the direct area I am in at that moment. Slowing down journalism can save our sanity here, providing an alternative of intelligent, curated, non-partisan news coverage.
There’s a quarterly publication called Delayed Gratification that I’m a big fan of. It’s a bit like studying history, where you’re able to see the larger picture of how shifts in events and culture shape the world, and this publication helps us relate to the news in a healthier way. Delayed Gratification waits for three months to pass before returning to the news, picking out what really mattered and returning to events with the benefit of hindsight, giving you final analysis rather than a kneejerk reaction. Like the other slow living movements, they take time to do things properly. Instead of desperately trying to beat Twitter to the punch, they focus on context, analysis and expert opinion, focusing on telling the full story from start to finish, not just bombarding you with information as it happens. This also means they don’t fall into 24/7 news traps of rumour and fear mongering. They’ve only got 120 pages every three months, so they make sure it’s only filled with the most important, useful reporting.
Delayed Gratification also focus on unique stories, understandable and helpful infographics and good design, so they’re a pretty satisfying read all round. Large scale stories go on for months, if not years, so I think waiting a couple months and looking at the news retrospectively really isn’t going to change things all that much, apart from separating the emotion from the fact. Delayed Gratification is all about not just telling you what’s happening as it happens, but helping you understand it, which ultimately helps us engage with the world in a better way.
It’s a bit like when you write an angry email, leave it overnight and then come back to it the next day to remove the angry parts (or is it just me who’s had to do that?). You can get across your point factually and reach a resolution, without letting emotion just blindly shove you into situations and decisions you’ll later regret. It encourages critical thinking, embraces complexity and helps us understand how events are interconnected. Ultimately if we can foster this type of thinking, we can work to apply it to all areas of our lives.
Obviously this isn’t an ideal solution. The perfect solution would be for internet companies to not mine all our data and then try and use it against us. But until these companies make the proper changes (which we can most certainly push for too), then at least we can take responsibility for creating the kind of mindsets that can sit back, breathe and engage with these things in a healthy way. After all, they can mine our data all they want, but once we know what they’re doing, we can make sure it doesn’t work.