Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: MediaPhilosophy

What would it take to turn Facebook into a democracy?

by Severin Engelmann and Lisa Herzog*

When the relation between “Facebook” and “democracy” is discussed, the question usually is: what impact does Facebook – as it exists today – have on democratic processes? While this is an urgent and important question, one can also raise a different one: what would it mean to turn Facebook into a democracy, i.e. to govern it democratically? What challenges of institutional design would have to be met for developing meaningful democratic governance structures for Facebook?

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“Hackable” Humans and the Need for Philosophy

We are now facing not just a technological crisis but a philosophical crisis. (Harari)

I recently watched Nicholas Thompson’s interview with Yuval Noah Harari and Tristan Harris for WIRED. It’s wide-ranging and informative, particularly as regards the current ways in which our thought-leaders are discussing the so-called “technological challenge”: the revolutions in biotech and infotech, and their attendant personal, social, political, and even existential risks.

There’s much I’d like to comment on; but in this post I’ll pick up on one framing issue and follow a line of thought that speaks to the claim that we’re facing a philosophical crisis as much as a technological one. I’m all for the philosophical call-to-arms, so to speak; but I think that linking the “technological crisis” to the idea that this follows from a deeper, “philosophical crisis” is somewhat misplaced.

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If everything is measured, can we still see one another as equals?

Relational egalitarians hold what matters for justice is that all members of a society “stand in relations of equality to others.” The idea that all human beings are moral equals is widely shared: it underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many national constitutions. How will this norm be affected by the arrival of “big data,” the collecting and analysing of huge amounts of data about individuals? Internet companies and government services collect data about individuals’ activities, including geographic locations, shopping behaviour and friendships. Many individuals voluntarily share such information on social media, some also track their physical activities in meticulous details. Experts expect that “people analytics” – big data applied to the measurement of work performance – will have a revolutionary impact on labour markets.

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How to recognise bullshit on the Internet

Following Trump’s shocking election win last Tuesday, this picture was shared by thousands of people across both the world and my Facebook feed:

trumppeople

I, like I suspect most people I know, wanted to believe it. It just sounds so true. He totally would say that! They would buy it! It speaks to all my prejudices, and when trying to make sense of what just happened, it provides a bit of solace.

It’s too good to be true though, innit? It just fits a little too perfectly, the quote’s too prescient, its message too convenient. Indeed, as it turns out, the quote is completely fabricated. It first surfaced around October 2015, and has periodically made its return in sync with Trump’s successes over the past year.

This is fairly emblematic of how our news are generated these days, and the tendency was clear in the US elections. Facebook was flooded with highly partisan posts and articles on either side of the fence. Some, like Breitbart, are designed to be highly partisan. But a lot of it has to do with incentive structures: Online, most companies make their money from clicks rather than subscriptions. This creates an incentive to generate articles that conform to people’s preconceived notions, as they’ll be more likely to read and share them. And clicks mean advertising revenue. A BuzzFeed article recently exposed how a city in Macedonia had become a hub for far-right conspiracy nonsense on Facebook. They simply repackaged articles elsewhere and shared them with their followers with zero regard for factual accuracy. This is not only a right-wing phenomenon, however. On the left, The Canary is a particularly glaring example. It’s the worst of both worlds: A heavily partisan editorial stance, and an payment structure that pays authors per click, incentivising sensationalism.

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The Quasi-Gated Community

Mount Oswald, DurhamMount Oswald, seen from South Road, Durham.

Just down the road from my home in Durham the new constellation of houses known as Mount Oswald is taking shape, filling up the space that used to belong to a golf club of the same name. One of the 60 newly built four-or-five bedroom houses could be yours for just £520,000 to £730,000, according to the developer. This in a region where the average salary is just £24,000.

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