Category Archives: Internet and public issues

the launch of Brigade

Yesterday, Sean Parker of Facebook fame launched Brigade, a new app that lets you express opinions about political issues (including new issues that you introduce), discuss and persuade other users, identify people with similar concerns and views, and recruit them to your own “projects.”

If a random person invented such an app, I would be highly skeptical that it could attract enough users to be valuable. A network’s value is proportional to the square of its users (Metcalfe’s Law), which is why Facebook itself is a valuable place to engage and participate, and most startups go nowhere. But with Parker’s fame and his almost $10 million of initial funding, Brigade could “go to scale.”

I think it will do good if the design causes people to engage in relatively substantive (yet fun) ways, without degenerating into trollery or being taken over by organized interest groups. I think it will do even more good if users routinely introduce and share valuable content from other news and opinion sites in their efforts to persuade.

I can envision dangers if Brigade’s scale becomes huge and it gains some control over our public sphere, but that seems a distant hypothetical problem. As I told the Huffington Post’s Alexander Howard, I am rooting for Brigade to gain a substantial user base because I think it can be educational and energizing.

Brigade emphasizes issues rather than candidates and campaigns. In talking to the Washington Post’s Ana Swanson, I exaggerated the following point:

Parties, candidates and analysts alike have also found that Millennials are more willing to organize around particular issues rather than political parties. “For all human beings, it makes more sense to talk about issues than parties – who cares about parties[?] Most people are more interested in solving issues,” says Levine. “But I think it’s especially true for young people, who have a particularly weak attachment to political parties.”

In fact, a lot of people are driven by partisan attachments, which can even determine where they stand on specific issues. For some, loyalty to party comes first, and the issues follow. I nevertheless believe that there is a substantial proportion of Americans–especially young ones–who do not have strong partisan loyalties, and for whom Brigade’s focus on issues will be appealing.

media literacy education article

This is just out today: Levine, P. (2014). Media Literacy for the 21st Century. A Response to “The Need for Media Education in Democratic Education.” Democracy and Education, 23 (1), Article 15. It’s an invited response to Jeremy Stoddard’s fine piece “The Need for Media Education in Democratic Education.” My response is not a critique but just a complementary perspective. The abstract:

We cannot pretend to educate young people for citizenship and political participation without teaching them to understand and use the new media, which are essential means of expressing ideas, forming public opinions, and building institutions and movements. But the challenge of media literacy education is serious. Students need advanced and constantly changing skills to be effective online. They must understand the relationship between the new media and social and political institutions, a topic that is little understood by even the most advanced social theorists. And they must develop motivations to use digital media for civic purposes, when no major institutions have incentives to motivate them. Until we address those challenges, students will struggle to make sense of the new media environment, let alone take constructive action.


on daily blogging after 12 years

I started this blog on Jan. 8, 2003 and have posted virtually every work day since then. Each January 8, I have posted some thoughts about the blog on its blogaversary (while trying to avoid such self-absorption for the rest of the year). This January, I forgot, but then Andrew Sullivan announced he would stop posting daily after more than 15 years, and various prominent bloggers reflected on whether the whole form was dying. (See Ezra Klein or Kevin Drum.) Those articles reminded me to pause and say something about the evolution of this blog and its context.

In the early 2000s, most blogs were the property and invention of individuals who sought to participate in a national or global conversation called (with tongues partly in cheek) the blogosphere. Some, like Sullivan, were already famous, but others wanted to become pundits or public intellectuals without needing the approval of paid editors and other gatekeepers. These bloggers linked to each other and replied to each others’ arguments. As I noted on Dec. 6, 2004, the blogosphere had a “long tail” distribution, with a few sites attracting a vast majority of the links and many sites drawing only a few. I was definitely out on the long tail, very occasionally noticed by the high-traffic blogs. But, apart from its lower traffic, my blog was otherwise similar to the big ones–self-published, unpaid, part of a network connected by html links. You found new blogs to follow by seeing links on established blogs.

Most of the really popular bloggers are now paid for their work and blog on platforms owned by firms like The Atlantic or Mother Jones or by the bloggers themselves. Some did not start as bloggers but were well-known editorialists who now also maintain blogs. I bookmark a few of these and still read them frequently (now on my phone as well as a computer). They are news sources, comparable to a newspaper, and they draw my attention because of their professionalism and their volume. I am unlikely to bookmark a page that is updated less than once a day.

Meanwhile (like a few billion other people), I follow a lot of individuals and organizations through Facebook and Twitter. Some of these people link to their own blogs, which I read when the summaries interest me. Others post substantive comments on the social media sites themselves. Although short, these tweets and status updates play a similar role to blog posts ca. 2003. One difference is that I personally know and like most of the people I follow. Because these are social networks, they appropriately include a high proportion of baby photos and vacation updates along with political commentary. The link structure of the whole network is more transient and less public than it used to be when people pasted html links into their blog posts.

The traffic on this blog has been remarkably stable for a very long time, averaging between 6,000 and 8,000 visits per month in both 2006 and 2014 (two years for which I saved data). But I think more people are now also catching glimpses via social media. My most popular post of 2014, in terms of the number of unique page views, was “Foucault and Neoliberalism.” I was never able to find the Tweet that sent 6,000 people there in a few days, nor did I see many replies, but somehow it became part of a social media conversation prompted by a Jacobin Magazine article.

One difference between a blog and social media is that the former builds up a public collection of searchable writing. Of my top 10 most visited posts in 2014, two are notes on famous poems (Auden’s “Sept. 1 1939” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”) They appear fairly high on Google searches for those two poems, and I suspect they are being consulted by students facing essay assignments. The most common searches that take people here include “types of freedom,”  “kinds of freedom,” and variants thereof, which send people to a post in which I suggested that freedom came in at least six forms. Again, I suspect that students are working on class assignments and Googling their way here. These posts are more like archived publications than social media contributions.

I guess what I aspire to is some kind of durability. I’d like to write things that people still want to read in a while. Although I strive to engage with events in the world, I’d prefer not to be merely topical. When blogging began, it seemed to be highly responsive, nimble, offering a very short path from conception to publication–but also prone to superficiality. In the era of social media, a long-standing blog is beginning to look more like a curated collection of relatively careful writing than an ephemeral contribution to the day’s discourse. And that’s why I’m still at it.

four questions about social media and politics

My post on the Monkey Cage (the Washington Post’s political science blog) is entitled “Social media hasn’t boosted young voter turnout.” The post may have turned out a little rambly, but the point is to contrast some effective recent social movements that have been driven by social media (the Dreamers and marriage equality) with the completely flat turnout rate of recent midterm elections in order to ask about the advantages–and limitations–of social media for various kinds of politics. At the end, I pose four questions:

First, can the new media engage young people who start without an interest in politics, confidence, or skills? There is little sign that large numbers of formerly apolitical young people are being recruited into politics online, even if we define “politics” broadly to include consumer and cultural activism.

Second, we can point to impressive examples of videos, slogans, and images that “go viral” and make their creators famous and influential. But for every such case, there are many that go nowhere, being seen only by the maker and perhaps a few friends. What is the impact of being unsuccessful in a competitive online arena? Is repeated failure discouraging, especially when the rare successes are so widely trumpeted?

Third, the removal of “gatekeepers” (such as newspaper editors, TV anchors, and party elders) has made information freer. Anyone can create and share a video without permission. But the task of sorting reliable from blatantly false information has become harder. How will young people — and older people, too — learn to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Finally, can online social movements be sustained in the face of adversity? The ALS Challenge (in which people dump water on their heads to raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), has raised $115 million. There have been 10 billion views of the Challenge videos. That was an impressive burst of activity that probably far exceeded the goals of the organizers. But the Challenge faces no organized opposition and need not continue to achieve its purposes.

In contrast, the Arab Spring, also powered by social media, faltered when it encountered disciplined resistance. The events of Ferguson, Mo. in the summer have prompted much online organizing (some from the right as well as the left), but that attention may also fade. To make a difference on a complex and contentious issue requires lasting effort. Whether the new participatory politics can sustain political engagement remains an open question.

what the Facebook mood experiment says about current research ethics

(Washington, DC) Our ethical rules and procedures now badly fit the actual practices of research–burdening some inquiries that should be treated as free while allowing other studies to do real damage without any oversight at all. The Facebook “mood experiment” exemplifies these problems.

The case is well known, but I will summarize: Advised by a small group of academic researchers, including Cornell professor Jeffrey Hancock, Facebook experimented by changing the algorithms that select posts for users’ newsfeeds so that some users saw more happy material, and others saw more sad material, than they would have seen otherwise. It turned out that seeing happy stories led people to post more happy content of their own (contrary to some previous findings that happy news makes us feel resentful). The Cornell University Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is charged with pre-reviewing “research,” did not review this study because the professors were deemed to be insufficiently involved, e.g., they would not see the users’ data. Hancock et al. published the results, prompting an international outcry. Both the scholars and Facebook were denounced (and the former even threatened) for manipulating emotions without consent or disclosure.

I believe that the scholars were involved in “research” and so should have been reviewed by Cornell’s IRB. Given current principles of research ethics (as I understand them), the IRB should have required more disclosure and consent than Facebook actually provided. (But see a contrary argument here.) The key point is that users were influenced by the experimental manipulation—to a very small degree, but the magnitude of the impact could not be known in advance and was not actually zero. People were affected without being asked to participate or even told afterward what had been done to them. The scholars should have made sure that research subjects gave consent. Otherwise, they should have dropped their association with Facebook.

But I also believe that current IRB rules and procedures now poorly fit the realities of research.

On one hand, I am concerned about some over-regulation by IRBs. I start with the presumption that when we ask adults questions or observe them and publish our thoughts, that is an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment. IRB review of a research study that involves asking questions seems akin to prior censorship of a newspaper. In both cases, the writer could violate rights or laws, but then the affected parties should seek legal remedies. The IRB should not pre-review research that merely involves talking to or watching adults and writing what one observes.*

I realize that academic research based on mere conversation or observation can be harmful. Consider the “super-predator” theory of violent crime, which led to terrible social policies. But the problem with that research was its conclusion, not its method. An IRB has no purview over conclusions (or premises, or ideologies). We must respond to bad ideas with counter-arguments, not with prior censorship.

By the way, I have no complaint about the actual oversight of our own very capable and efficient IRB, which approves about a dozen studies of my team each year. My point is rather an abstract, principled one about the right to ask questions and write whatever one concludes.

On the other hand, manipulating people without their consent is problematic, and that is happening constantly and pervasively in the age of Big Social Science, microtargeting, and “nudges.” When academics experiment on people, they are generally subject to prior review and tough rules. But most social experiments are not done by academics nowadays. If Hancock et al. had chosen to stay clear of the Facebook study, Facebook might well have gone ahead anyway—with no review or scrutiny whatsoever.

One might argue that professors should be regulated more than companies are, because the former receive federal support and may have tenure, which protects them even if they act badly. But I am more worried about companies than about professors, because: 1) companies also frequently receive government support; 2) they may conduct highly invasive experiments without even disclosing the results, whereas professors like to publish what they find; and 3) some companies have enormous power over customers. For example, quitting Facebook over an ethical issue would impose a steep cost in terms of missed opportunities to communicate. Networks have value proportional to the square of their users, which implies that you cannot just decline to use an incumbent network that has more than a billion users. Agreeing to its “terms and conditions” is not exactly voluntary.

Philosophically, I’d be in favor of removing IRB review of research unless the research involves tangible impact on subjects, while regulating corporate research that involves experimental manipulation so that disclosure and consent are always required. I am not sure if the latter could be done effectively, fairly, and efficiently–and I am not holding my breath for anyone even to try.

*Notes: 1) I am not arguing the IRB review is literally unconstitutional. The IRB’s legally legitimate authority flows from contracts between the university and the government and between the university and its employees. My point is that First Amendment values ought to be honored. 2) When academics pay research subjects, that creates a financial relationship that the university should probably oversee on ethical grounds. 3) I am not sure about minors. The First Amendment argument still applies when subjects are minors, yet there seems to be a case for the university’s protecting human subjects who are under 18.