Viral Political Communications

18 April 2017
Cambridge, MA
MIT Media Lab

This week we traveled back to Boston for a Summit on Viral Political Communications on the invitation of Simon Johnson, a former Chief Economist for the IMF and current faculty at Sloan. It was an impressive group of technologists, academics and journalists, all a bit dismayed by the current political climate, but also energized to fight back for truth and justice. Andy Lipmann introduced the session by telling us about reaching someone in his family with facts to combat internet rumors and election conspiracy theories, and the personal connection necessary to change one mind. We discussed efforts to scale that kind of individual communication through social networks.

Much of the presented work depended heavily on “big data” for analytics and was technically impressive: ingesting the entire Twitter “firehose” to search for all conversations about the 2016 election, and using machine-learning techniques to classify them by subject and position. This lead to graphs that clearly showed the tightly knit conservative media ecosystem, as compared to the much more loosely tied liberal and mainstream media. There was some brain-storming about borrowing “their tactics” such as bots, automated “sock-puppet” accounts, and hyper-targeted advertising to provide counter-propaganda. To me, this missed the mark. We need to fight falsehood not with deceit, but with the truth and opportunities for individuals to act together to defend democracy.

Students also presented studies on human-bot collaboration and economic fragility, and broke down their analysis to metropolitan areas where many jobs may be automated in the coming decades. I brought up the famous chart of the most widespread type of employment by state, which in 40 or so states is truck driver, a job on the verge of being obseleted by Otto and other self-driving vehicles. The anxiety about sustaining employment in rural and post-industrial areas is real, and to me a primary factor in the rise of populist politics.

I felt that the focus on quantified trends and explanations for the current situation overshadowed deeper structural analysis. Some of the best commentary came from another former Media Lab student now out for 30 years, who brought us back to the basic belief structures of reason and faith, and why arguing for one over the other can be counter-productive. I was left wanting more critiques of technological solutions to our societal problems, not just redundant apps.

I pitched extending my work on CallPower to enable second-level contacts of voter to voter, to cross constituencies and communicate beyond our filter bubbles. I hope to build on some of the insights developed in the Fifty Nifty tool, which challenged users to use their networks to place calls to congress in all 50 states. I also met with the burgeoning Save Science coalition on campus, which may use our tool to organize scientists fighting back against the gutting of the EPA and other regulatory and funding institutions. I was proud to see the #MITDayOfAction organizing a student walkout on May Day in solidarity with immigrants rights. This kind of activism did not feel possible when I was at the Institute.

No less than the fate of the world is at stake. We have work to do.

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