Why Social Media Moderation Fails

Ukrainian Military Tractor Pulling Moscow Parody
A clear parody of a Ukrainian tractor pulling the Moscow.

Moderation of content has become a bit ridiculous on social media sites of late. Given that this post will show up on Facebook, and the image at top will be shown, it’s quite possible that the Facebook algorithms that have run amok with me over similiar things, clear parody, may further restrict my account. I clearly marked the image as a parody.

Let’s see what happens. I imagine they’ll just toss more restrictions on me, which is why Facebook and I aren’t as close as we once were. Anyone who thinks a tractor pulling the sunk Moskva really happened should probably have their head examined, but this is the issue of such algorithms left unchecked. It quite simply is impossible, implausible, and… yes, funny, because Ukrainian tractors have invariably been the heroes of the conflict, even having been blown up when their owners were simply trying to reap their harvests.

But this is not about that.

This is about understanding how social media moderation works, and doesn’t, and why it does, and doesn’t.

What The Hell Do You Know?

Honestly, not that much. As a user, I’ve steered clear of most problems with social networks simply by knowing it’s not a private place where I can do as I please – and even where I can, I have rules of conduct I live by that are generally compatible with the laws of society.

What I do know is that when I was working on the Alert Retrieval Cache way back when, before Twitter, the problem I saw with this disaster communication software was the potential for bad information. Since I couldn’t work on it by myself because of the infrastructural constraints of Trinidad and Tobago (which still defies them for emergency communications), I started working on the other aspects of it, and the core issue was ‘trusted sources’.

Trusted Sources.

To understand this problem, you go to a mechanic for car problems, you go to a doctor for medical problems, and so on. Your mechanic is a trusted source for your car (you would hope). But what if your mechanic specializes in your car, but your friend has a BMW that spends more time in the shop than on the road? He might be a trusted source.

You don’t see a proctologist when you have a problem with your throat, though maybe some people should. And this is where the General Practitioner comes in to basically give you directions on what specialist you should see. With a flourish of a pen in alien handwriting, you are sent off to a trusted source related to your medical issue – we hope.

In a disaster situation, you have on the ground people you have on the ground. You might be lucky enough to have doctors, nurses, EMTs and people with some experience in dealing with a disaster of whatever variety that’s on the table, and so you have to do the best with what you have. For information, some sources will be better than others. For getting things done, again, it depends a lot on the person on the ground.

So the Alert Retrieval Cache I was working on after it’s instantiation was going to have to deal with these very human issues, and the best way to deal with that is with other humans. We’re kind of good at that, and it’s not something that AI is very good at because AI is built by specialists and beyond job skills, most people are generalists.You don’t have to be a plumber to fix a toilet, and you don’t have to be a doctor to put a bandage on someone. What’s more, people can grow beyond their pasts despite an infatuation in Human Resources with the past.

Nobody hires you to do what you did, they hire you to do what they want to do in the future.

So just in a disaster scenario, trusted sources are fluid. In an open system not confined to disasters, open to all manner of cute animal pictures, wars, protests, and even politicians (the worst of the lot in my opinion), trusted sources is a complete crapshoot. This leads everyone to trust nothing, or some to trust everything.

Generally, if it goes with your cognitive bias, you run with it. We’re all guilty of it to some degree. The phrase, “Trust but verify” is important.

In social media networks, ‘fact checking’ became the greatest thing since giving up one’s citizenship before a public offering. So fact checking happens, and for the most part is good – but, when applied to parody, it fails. Why? Because algorithms don’t have a sense of humor. It’s either a fact, or it’s not. And so when I posted the pictures of Ukrainian tanks towing everything, Facebook had a hissy fit, restricted my account and apparently had a field day going through past things I posted that were also parody. It’s stupid, but that’s their platform and they don’t have to defend themselves to me.

Is it annoying? You bet. Particularly since no one knows how their algorithms work. I sincerely doubt that they do. But this is a part of how they moderate content.

In protest, does it make sense to post even more of the same sort of content? Of course not. That would be shooting one’s self in the foot (as I may be doing now when this posts to Facebook), but if you’ve already lost your feet, how much does that matter?

Social media sites fail when they don’t explain their policies. But it gets worse.

Piling on Users.

One thing I’ve seen on Twitter that has me shaking my head, as I mentioned in the more human side of Advocacy and Social Networks, is the ‘Pile On’, where a group of people can get onto a thread and overload someone’s ability to respond to one of their posts. On most networks there is some ‘slow down’ mechanism to avoid that happening, and I imagine Twitter is no different, but that might be just from one specific account. Get enough accounts doing the same thing to the same person, it can get overwhelming from the technical side, and if it’s coordinated – maybe everyone has the same sort of avatar as an example – well, that’s a problem because it’s basically a Distributed Denial of Service on another user.

Now, this could be about all manner of stuff, but the algorithms involved don’t care about how passionate people might feel about a subject. They could easily see commonalities in the ‘attack’ on a user’s post, and even on the user. A group could easily be identified as doing pile ons, and their complaints could be ‘demoted’ on the platform, essentially making it an eyeroll and, “Ahh.These people again.”

It has nothing to do with the content. Should it? I would think it should, but then I would want them to agree with my perspective because if they didn’t, I would say it’s unfair. As Lessig wrote, Code is Law. So there could well be algorithms watching that. Are there? I have no earthly idea, but it’ something I could see easily implemented.

And for being someone who does it, if this happens? It could well cause problems for the very users trying to advocate a position. Traffic lights can be a real pain.

Not All In The Group Are Saints.

If we assume that everyone in our group can do no wrong, we’re idiots. As groups grow larger, the likelihood of getting something wrong increases. As groups grow larger, there’s increased delineation from other groups, there’s a mob mentality and there’s no apology to be had because there’s no real structure to many of these collective groups. When Howard Rheingold wrote about Smart Mobs, I waited for him to write about “Absolutely Stupid Mobs”, but I imagine that book would not have sold that well.

Members of groups can break terms of service. Now, we assume that the account is looked at individually. What happens if they can be loosely grouped? We have the technology for that. Known associates, etc, etc. You might be going through your Twitter home page and find someone you know being attacked by a mob of angry clowns – it’s always angry clowns, no matter how they dress – and jump in, passionately supporting someone who may have well caused the entire situation.

Meanwhile, Twitter, Facebook, all of them simply don’t have the number of people to handle what must be a very large flaming bag of complaints on their doorstep every few microseconds. Overwhelmed, they may just go with what the algorithms say and call it a night so that they can go home before the people in the clown cars create traffic.

We don’t know.

We have Terms of Service for guidelines, but we really don’t know the algorithms these social media sites run to check things out. It has to be at least a hybrid system, if not almost completely automated. I know people on Twitter who are on their third accounts. I just unfollowed one today because I didn’t enjoy the microsecond updates on how much fun they were having jerking the chains of some group that I won’t get into. Why is it their third account? They broke the Terms of Service.

What should you not do on a network? Break the Terms of Service.

But when the terms of service are ambiguous, how much do they really know? What constitutes an ‘offensive’ video? An ‘offensive’ image? An ‘offensive’ word? Dave Chappelle could wax poetic about it, I’m sure, as could Ricky Gervais, but they are comedians – people who show us the humor in an ugly world, when permitted.

Yet, if somehow the group gets known to the platform, and enough members break Terms of Service, could they? Would they? Should they?

We don’t know. And people could be shooting themselves in the foot.

It’s Not Our Platform.

As someone who has developed platforms – not the massive social media platforms we have now, but I’ve done a thing or two here and there – I know that behind the scenes things can get hectic. Bad algorithms happen. Good algorithms can have bad consequences. Bad algorithms can have good consequences. Meanwhile, these larger platforms have stock prices to worry about, shareholders to impress, and if they screw up some things, well, shucks, there’s plenty of people on the platform.

People like to talk about freedom of speech a lot, but that’s not really legitimate when you’re on someone else’s website. They can make it as close as they can, following the rules and laws of many nations or those of a few, but really, underneath it all, their algorithms can cause issues for anyone. They don’t have to explain to you why the picture of your stepmother with her middle finger up was offensive, or why a tractor towing a Russian flag ship needed to be fact checked.

In the end, there’s hopefully a person at the end of the algorithm who could be having a bad day, or could just suck at their job, or could even just not like you because of your picture and name. We. Don’t. Know.

So when dealing with these social networks, bear that in mind.

The Babel Problem

Babel TowerSome self-centric perspectives shared using social media creating a communication failure got me thinking more about information and how it affects us, as individuals, and how it affects humanity. It’s also something that I’ve been researching off and on, and one which has me working on a hobby software project related to it.

Information is everywhere. We’re all pattern recognition and information analysis experts in our own right. It’s a part of being human, as Stephen Pinker wrote about in the context of language, which is one of the  ways that we process and communicate information. There is the nature aspect, and there is the nurture aspect, which is often seen as a matter of which has more influence.

This is particularly interesting in this day and age for a variety of reasons, particularly when interacting using social media.

Language is the most obvious barrier, and translation algorithms are getting much better – but interpretation of translations leaves much to be desired at times. Another aspect is dialect, born of geography, which do not always translate well. There are some who will argue about cultural identity, but if cultural identity isolates, what use is that identity?

Another aspect is the ability of people to actually read and write to be understood.  While we may have a lot more literacy in the world than we did some decades ago, functional literacy is something different and is something that educational systems only measure within their own dialects. This leads to how people think, because people typically communicate as clearly as they think. And what affects how we think?

We get into world views – a factor of nurture, largely, and the ability to process the information of our world clearly. The most obvious aspect of these prejudices has to do with the color of skin of human beings – something that haunts us despite scientific evidence that there are no actual races. Other things are less obvious.

There are commonalities, as mentioned in a very thorough exploration by Pierre Levy in “The Semantic Sphere“, that weave commonality through concepts around the world despite language – but they can fail in that last mile of neurons, as people may have very different reactions to the same concepts.

When it comes to all of this, I live a very different life and look at things, at times, in very different ways than others. This has allowed me to sometimes solve problems that others could not solve.

Everyone looks at things differently, but commonly, people don’t look at things that differently when they read what everyone else reads, watch what everyone else watches, and thus think fairly closely to what other people think.

That, in turn, gives us the codification of problems in a way that is sometimes more popular than correct, and thus any solution may be solving the wrong problem. It’s a convoluted mess when you start thinking about it (and worse, trying to express it as I am here).

And that, really, is the core of this post. A thought of why the people who come up with appropriate solutions are typically the ones who can identify what the problems actually are… in a world of popularity.

 

Using Social Media.

It seems strange to me when people write about, ‘On Facebook’, or, ‘On Twitter’… or, ‘On Social Media’. I think it lends itself to the thought that people are above it. As if they have no responsibility for their actions and reactions, as well as what those reactions and actions cause.

In the same way, I’m not sure that ‘in’ social media is much better, because that lends itself to a thought of powerlessness – surrounded by.

Which is why I write, ‘using social media’, or, ‘using Facebook’, or… using whatever. These are tools, and unless Thoreau was correct about men becoming the tools of their tools…

We use tools.

So it may be semantic, but it might be powerfully so.

Exploring the Anki Vector SDK Alpha.

Installed the Vector SDK. @anki
Installing the SDK – which, fortunately, was easier since I am already running Anaconda (Python) for other things I’m fiddling with.

In my last post here, I said that the true value of the Anki Vector to me would be determined by the Software Development Kit (SDK), which wasn’t yet released.

I am a bit disappointed that no one at Anki answered my tweet on it to date – and so I used a Douglas Adams reference about hiding things when I tweeted them again.

A fair criticism of Anki is that they aren’t very good at organizing the information and updating customers when they’re doing pretty good things. Frankly, the beginning novelty of Vector and it’s potential is what seems to be allowing them not to pay as much for this faux pas. And too, I suspect, the project has grown faster than the company has – a testament to engineering. It has apparently sold well, a testament to their marketing. Yet when it comes to information on the product, it seems pretty hard to come by information users/expected are expected to have.

Installing the Vector SDK

I found the Vector SDK Alpha release note through an Anki blog entry not as easily found as I would have liked. Within it you’ll find the link to the SDK documentation, and within that you’ll find the actual downloads. I found this through force of will, largely because Vector was sitting impatiently on his charger for almost a week making R2D2-ish sounds while giving me the baleful look of Wall-E when I walked by.

It’s amazing how those eyes are really the center of how we see Vector.

I installed the Alpha SDK, and I configured Vector – which involves getting the IP address of Vector. It’s not available through the app on the phone, and there’s a trick to it (in case you’re looking for it yourself) – you have to tap Vector’s top button twice, then raise and lower his arm. Vetor’s IP address will then be shown where his eyes are. To get back to normal operation, raise and lower Vector’s arm again. Sacrificing a chicken is optional. Be careful with blood spatter; Vector is not fluid-proof.

After that, it was a simple matter of firing Spyder up – part of the Anaconda data science platform for Python, but available standalone – and ran some of the example code, tweaking it here and there to get a feel for the capabilities of the Vector SDK Alpha.

This is where they shine – when it comes to sharing the code. And the SDK documentation itself, so far, is pretty good.

The Reality of the SDK.

I think I was expecting a bit more from the SDK, which is my fault and I acknowledge that. I had expected more in the way of interacting with the cloud itself – for example, renaming Vector’s wake phrase/word, or allowing behavior change during normal operation. That’s presently not there, which effectively gives Vector a multiple personality disorder – with blackouts where, for better and worse, the SDK allows the hijacking of Vector.

Imagine waking up and not knowing how you got somewhere, what you just did, and where that eyebrow went. That’s a fair anthropomorphization.

The SDK works  through your wireless connection – the code/application has to be running on the same network as Vector, and your specific machine gets a certificate to run the code on Vector – a good security precaution or people would be hacking Vectors and checking out other people’s places.

It’s bad enough with the Alexa integration – I had an Alexa when they first came out but had enough creepy incidents with Amazon to get rid of mine. Still, the world of Amazonians wants it and it’s a good selling point for Anki, so I get it. That seems to be done well enough to please those that wanted it, so maybe they’ll focus on things other than that now.

In all, I’d like to transfer a version of what they have in the cloud into my personal systems and allow me to tinker with that as well.

Still, given what I have been playing with related to machine learning and natural language processing – it’s no mistake that I had the Anaconda distribution of Python installed already – I’m having a bit of fun playing with the SDK and testing the limitations of the hardware.

@anki Vector vide feed example. Rocking.Some things I noticed

The video from the Vector hardware platforms is good enough for some basic things, but lighting really does affect it. This is a limitation in it’s exploration, and it limits it’s facial recognition ability (the one thing I’ve found you can access from the cloud in a limited way).

I’ve been considering a polarizing film over the cameras for better images, and have even considered mounting a light source on Vector for darkness, which would have the misfortune of not being able to be controlled through Vector (but it could be controlled independently through code). I plan to play with the lights part of the SDK to see what I can get away with.

You don’t get to fiddle with facial recognition code, but there’s Python code for that – such as PyPi face_recognition.

The events ability does allow for more reactive things.

Making Vector use profanity is a must, if only once.

There are error codes that aren’t documented – I had the 915 error twice on Vector while I was writing this, and all I found was on Reddit. Without error codes, we don’t get error trapping with Vector – and that’s a problem that I hope they address in the Beta.

Overall – I’m happier with the SDK, which shows promise and a bit of effort on the part of Anki. The criticisms I have so far are of an Alpha SDK – which means that this will change in time.

They do need to get a bit better at the responsiveness, though – something I suspect that they are already aware of. To enjoy this level of success comes with painful growth. If only that were an engineering problem to solve.

The Reading Problem.

Reading enlightensWe’ve all encountered it. We post an article on some social network and someone comments without reading the article, or not reading it properly.

As someone who writes, I went through the stages of grief about it. I can apathetically report that I don’t care as much as I used to about it. Many people tend to skim headlines, sharing them without thought, and then blaming the Russians or whoever the headline targets for everything.

As someone who reads, I’m confounded by it. When I read that skim reading is the new reading, some of it began to make sense:

…As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading… — 

The bad news is that anyone who read that didn’t skim it, and therefore doesn’t need to understand it on a personal level. The good news is that there are people thinking about it.

But there are other things, things that also need to be addressed. Some people don’t even skim articles, they skim headlines – and in a rush, for whatever reason, they share it. Before you know it, things with no actual truth to them, or just enough to be shared, inundate the entire web.

Issues, too, of framing with technology come into context.

And what it really boils down to is that, aside from how much we might like to think people who are demonstrably susceptible to all of this are ignorant, as a society we generate a lot of things to read. Publishers understand the need for sticky headlines and ‘cover art’, and are good at it.

People don’t have enough time to deep read things, and they don’t want to be left out of an accelerating world – but are proud of themselves when they can type out the 4 letters, ‘TLDR’.

People who figured all of this out long ago have capitalized on it. Fake News, coupled with Big Data analysis of what people are interested in, allows some impressive amount of sharing of information that should probably be tossed in a pyre of literacy.

So, what to do as a writer? Well, the answer to that is simple: Keep writing.

And, as a global citizen on the Internet? Deep read. Don’t skim. Encourage others to do it.

 

Facebook And Your Finances

broken suicidal pigJust as Facebook is recovering from the privacy concerns related to Cambridge Analytica, including threat of lawsuit from one UK group, is now even more interested in your data.

Facebook is after your financial data:

…Facebook already has smaller agreements with financial institutions, including PayPal and American Express, that allow users to do things such as review transaction receipts on Facebook Messenger. In March, Facebook launched a service that would allow Citibank customers in Singapore to ask a Messenger chatbot for their account balance, their recent transactions and credit card rewards.

It’s a strange world we live in where we trust those that have not been trustworthy in the past. ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine.’

Are you divine? I’m not. I’m sure, though, that connecting the accounts will require buy-in from consumers.

In Trinidad and Tobago, I’m sure it will mean more photocopies.

Where Communication Fails

Communication is the keyIt amazes me how people make things more difficult through communication, enough so that sometimes I wonder if there is a special group of us that talks to ourselves for lack of anyone else receiving on the other end.

Exhibit A.

Last year, here in Trinidad and Tobago, someone asked me to be a reference on a visa application – which I willingly did because I know these people. I was at their house, filled out the form for their granddaughter and thought this was done other than a phone call. There was no signature, just the filling out of a name, address and phone number – as most references are.

Time passed – maybe a week. The grandfather calls me and tells me that they had filled out the old form and that they needed a new form filled out – and so, I told him it was a simple matter of copying the information over. He said that the new document needed a signature, which I was sure was not the case. He insisted, dropped by…

And lo! There was no signature necessary. It was as I expected, the form simply needing the same information that was on the old form, that anyone could have copied over. I showed him that, and he got upset with me. I filled it out anyway. We’re friends.

Why did he get upset? It took some time to unravel that. This 70-something year old man was upset because his granddaughter told him it needed my signature. She’s in her mid-20s, a product of an education system that apparently can’t distinguish between simply filling out a name and actually signing something.

It broke down to a functional literacy failure, something that I’ve found increasingly common.

Exhibit B

I was ordering a breakfast I normally order at a place I am a regular at, from a lady I normally order from and who is familiar with my order. The scene was tense for some reason as I walked in, having nothing to do with me. Yes, I asked, and she would have told me – which is why I value this relationship.

The sound of the AC was buzzing above the register, and the background noise of the busy place was at a high. I hear her say that there’s ‘No ham bacon’.

I’m puzzled by this. “Do you have ham?”

“No ham bacon”.

We go on like this for a few moments. She doesn’t speak up. I’m not understanding what she’s trying to tell me, and I know that she is trying to help me. After a while, it gets sorted out when she finally raises her voice a bit so I can hear over the background noise – when she spoke quietly, her voice was deeper and it merged with the underlying buzz.

She was saying there was no ham, only bacon.

But why couldn’t I hear her? Frankly, maybe I should get my hearing checked – I should get on that – but the other part of it was that she was upset and was making a conscious effort not to raise her voice because she was upset about other things.

This was a situational communication problem. Had we not known each other, it probably wouldn’t have ended with both of us laughing.

Exhibit C

I’d sold a piece of land to someone who was already on it – a simple solution (hack) to a silly problem caused by laws in Trinidad and Tobago – and a year had passed.

Out of the blue, I see this person is trying to contact me on Facebook messenger – by calling me (who does that?). So I message them back, and they message me that they were having trouble registering the deed. A year later.

Now, they had my phone number. After a year, this suddenly became an emergency – which is easy to judge someone on without knowing how their life is, but a year is a long time and I know that the deed registration had to have been done or I would have heard about it from the lawyer, who I do know, and who has done other transactions similarly.

Something wasn’t adding up, and it was already clear that this was a communication error.

I sent them my phone number – they should already have had it. Then they tell me that they don’t have my phone number. I respond that I just sent it. “Scroll up.”, I typed, even as I wanted to scream it.

11 messages and 5 phone calls later, they tell me that they’re at the tax office and can’t find the deed number. And this is where a lack of specialized knowledge created the core communication error – they were confusing the assessment number and deed number up, and finally, after repeating myself a few times, it sunk in. They blamed the government office for not telling them, but based on everything I had experienced with the person…

I was pretty sure that the person just wasn’t paying attention to what anyone had told them, written to them, or tattooed on their forehead. The whole situation showed over and over that they were not interested in finding out what they needed to know to solve their problem. They were happy just annoying people until someone held their hand and guided them to the right solution.

Maybe they were hugged too much as a child. I don’t know.

But this example shows not only a problem with understanding specialized things, but also the joys of dealing with people who do not listen well.

Exhibit D. 

In dealing with purchasing something, I ended up dealing with 3 separate entities who are allegedly working together: A lawyer, the seller, and the agent. During this process, I handed over documents required to the seller.

Their lawyer contacts me. They want me to come up and submit the very same documents to them. I explain that the seller has the documents, and the lawyer tells me that they can only receive those documents if I authorize the seller to release them.

The rub here is that the seller has their own lawyer that, by circumstance, I have to use. One would think that the documents that the seller had would be furnished to the lawyer. The lawyer explains that it’s to safeguard my privacy (nevermind all the photocopies of my IDs hanging around) – but it’s really a process failure.

In the course of a few hours, I get conflicting information from all 3 parties who were legitimately trying to help me around the process failure, which I ended up resolving by simplifying. I only need to deal with the lawyer. What she says is what we go with, in the hope that it all falls together properly.

So this was a conflicting communication error, caused by trying to work around a process failure. I have to wonder how many people get stuck in those loops.

So Many Problems.

This is just a sampling. All of these communication problems, at their core, are human problems. In an age when we can communicate so quickly all over the world – I remember a time when postcards were a big deal – we still don’t communicate well enough to make use of it.

We build things on communication. We build things on flawed communication. Technology is not waiting for us to get it right; it’s a wildfire of acceleration on all fronts.

Take a moment. Take a breath. Listen. Speak clearly. Know of what you speak of. Ask the right questions.

Communicate. The world actually does depend on it, and more specifically, your world depends on it.

Much Ado About Russia.

ПетергофIt seems like every time I open some social media site, someone’s posting about Russia. About how they allegedly influenced the U.S. Elections, about who in the Trump Administration passed notes to someone in Russia, and so on and so forth.

That’s all I know, that’s all I’m going to know, and realistically, I don’t even need to know that. Wait, what?

Right. I don’t need to know all of that. We live on this rotating sphere filled with people who are separated by lines on maps. These people – human beings, so you know – are only citizens of one country or another by accident of birth and legal policies decided before they were born. Maybe a few snuck through here and there, but that’s how it is.

And these countries used to be separated by oceans or fences or languages or… well, they were more separate than they are now on the Internet. Everyone is influencing everyone’s elections one way or the other by mouthing off on social media, so all we’re really discussing is degree.

USA Today pedantically went through 3,517 Facebook ads bought by Russians (not to be confused with the Russian government, any characters from Rocky and Bullwinkle, or Ivan Drago).

But they missed a significant point – a point that no one is talking about because it’s so inconvenient and, probably, because it doesn’t sell advertising.

Ads or no ads, those ads wouldn’t be clicked by anyone who didn’t already have a sentiment or world view that made them believe the ad in the first place. 

That sentiment could not have been Russian. It wasn’t from Pluto, either. That sentiment that allowed that advertising to work, if indeed it did, was part of the United States.

Either that, or Russians are running amok in the U.S., holding guns to people’s heads and telling them to click the advertisements.

I suppose these days, anything is possible.

Mediation, Media, Social Media, Journalism

El Mercurio newsroom
El Mercurio Newsroom, by JD Lasica.

We use language and communication so much that sometimes we take it for granted.

‘Media’, ‘mediation’ – when we look at these words, it’s all but impossible to note the exact first 5 letters. This is no coincidence. They both derive from the noun, ‘medium‘. Digging further gets you to a Proto-Indian root, ‘*medhyo‘, something you can drill further down into if you wish.

It’s an interesting history in not words, but concepts and thoughts. Medium has been used to describe, ‘intermediate agency, channel of communication’ since around 1600. The basis of ‘media’ and ‘mediate’ is medium. Are they so different in concept?

In theory, no. In practice these days, it’s hard to say.

Mediation

As mentioned before, I took the first level of training in Mediation at the Conflict Resolution and Media Center of Trinidad and Tobago, and after hours I began thinking about the common etymology of ‘media’ and ‘mediate’ which got us to where we are, here. Yet when I look at the two as they are now, through a fresh lens, that seems to be the only way in which they are linked other than through some serendipity.

Mediation is a confidential process that works toward resolution of conflict through communication facilitated by a neutral third party. I did learn a few things.

Media, on the other hand, has come to mean any communication over one or more mediums. Newspapers use paper and literacy, radio uses sound and radio frequencies, television uses sound, video technologies, and sometimes literacy, and the Internet combines all of these to varying extents. ‘Social Media’ is redundant, really, because all media is social – it’s really media that allows easier feedback, and these day, allows things to be shared faster than other forms of media, driven by interests of users.

From Media To Journalism

‘Media’ encapsulates entertainment, education, and news. However, these days, we hear it used in the context of ‘news’ a lot. The lines between entertainment, education and news have blurred with the ‘talking heads’ and the prevalence of bias to sell advertising or simply to keep it. So when we hear about ‘The Media’ in this context, it’s about a specific use of the media. It’s about what we are given as news. And journalism is where ‘news’ is supposed to come from, or where we say it’s supposed to come from.

If you talk to anyone with a point of view, they will say that there is bias in published journalism – be it published in print, on radio, on television, or on the Internet – and that’s where things can get fuzzy. And so does what a journalist actually is. As Mark Lyndersay points out in , “What Is A Journalist?“:

…Paul Richards asked, “Who or what constitutes a journalist and should be protected by this?”

“And more importantly, who should not be considered a journalist?”

The American Press Institute notes, “Asking who is a journalist is the wrong question, because journalism can be produced by anyone.”

As the Institute explains on a series of pages on its website dedicated to considering the role of journalism professionals (report here), the journalist is a “committed observer.”

In 2011, “We Are All Journalists Now” by Scott Gant covered the same issue. It’s 7 years later, and I’m not sure society has changed enough to deal with it sensibly. And if we get into the etymology of ‘journalist’, we find this:

1690s, “one whose work is to write or edit public journals or newspapers,” from French journaliste.

As A.J. Liebling wrote, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The Internet gave everyone with access to the Internet access to such a press. To publish publicly without a media organization, potentially publishing things less biased by advertisers – but then, to make money, advertising became necessary, and all that happened was the atomizing of the same business model.

What all of this really gets to, though, is an phrase attributed to Edmund Burke, supposedly used in a debate in 1787  when the House of Commons of Great Britain was opened to the press.

Indirect But Significant Influence

There are 2 definitions of the Fourth Estate defined on Dictionary.com:

  1. the journalistic profession or its members; the press.
  2. a group other than the usual powers, as the three estates of France, that wields influence in the politics of a country.

The first definition fit better before the Internet, where there was a more substantial difference between journalists and the general public. The second definition fits better in modern times, where we can all publish. And there you have the link between journalism and the public as it shifts in one definition.

These days, the more popular what you share is, the more influence you have – for better or worse. What others share that you have demonstrates how much influence you have as well – a closed circuit.

Thus, if we can get past definitions of ‘journalist’ and ‘journalism’, words doomed to a period when journalists broadcast instead of interacted, we get back to us all being a part of the Fourth Estate.

But what does this all have to do with mediation? Not that much right now, it seems, and yet, maybe it should. The Fourth Estate is necessarily not confidential, but maybe it could be more neutral. Maybe that’s what they should have in common. Maybe that ‘neutral third party’ should be everyone publishing to some metaphorical public journal. Maybe we should all be facilitating facts instead of regurgitating hearsay – after all, hearsay is heresy.

An informed public, after all, is what I expect from journalism. What I get, on the other hand, hardly seems to fit Journalistic Ethics and Standards. I can’t criticize what happens in the industry, because all I know is hearsay – but I can make a few distinctions that I believe can accepted and agreed upon as truths in the context of journalism aspect of the media:

  • When it comes to the media in the context of news, people need to be informed. They want to be entertained. The two are separate.
  • Publishers are the ‘media’, journalists are not the media unless they self-publish. If they don’t self-publish, they just work for the media.
  • With the atomization of the Fourth Estate, anyone who publishes has a greater responsibility when using their influence.

In these ways and more, we might get ‘media’ and ‘mediation’ to make more sense together when we see those common five letters.

 

Of Digital Shadows And Digital Ghosts

Ice, Shadow and StoneIn writing about shadows and ghosts, it’s hard not to draw the line to how we process data – the phrase big data gets tossed around a lot in this way.

Data Science allows us to create constructs of data – interpreted and derived, insinuated and insulated, when in fact we know about as much about that data as we do the people in our own lives – typically insufficient to understand them as people, something I alluded to here.

Data only tells us what has happened, it doesn’t tell us what will happen, and it’s completely based on the availability we frame in and from data. We can create shadows from that data, but the real value of data is in the ghosts – the collected data in contexts beyond our frames and availability.

This is the implicit flaw in machine learning and even some types of AI. It’s where ethics intersects technology when the technologies have the capacity to affect human lives for better and worse, because it becomes a problem of whether it’s fair.

And we really aren’t very good at ‘fair’.