Deception, Propaganda & Epistemology
on the Anti-Social Web

AoIR14 Conference – Denver, CO
October 25, 2013
Jessie Daniel...
@JessieNYC
#ir14

@JessieNYC #ir14
The first page of
search engine results
@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
<cloaked sites> : disguise
authorship in order to
conceal political agenda

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
<cloaked sites> : examples of
deception & propaganda with
features that are unique to
the web

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
<cloaked sites> : used by
individuals, social movements,
corporate interests

@JessieNYC #ir14
“Yeah, because the site itself, it says, ‘Martin
Luther King dot org’ so I guess they’re
dedicated to that.”
(study partic...
“I actually have never, I think, in my
life gone to like the third page, or
the second page, because I just stop
at the fi...
evaluating pairs of
websites
@JessieNYC #ir14
The Racial Politics of “Bias”

@JessieNYC #ir14
“Well, you know, in looking at this
site, it appears to be created by his
widow, or his family, so, it could be
biased.”
(...
“Two Sides to Everything”

@JessieNYC #ir14
“I mean, I don’t think I
would disagree with it. I’m
sure there are some slaves
that were treated well. So, I
can understa...
<anti-abortion cloaked site>

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
“complications for girls”

@JessieNYC #ir14
“post-abortion syndrome”

@JessieNYC #ir14
not a medical condition

@JessieNYC #ir14
rhetorical strategy of the pro-life movement

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
brick-and-mortar “crisis pregnancy centers”

@JessieNYC #ir14
<climate change denial>

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
“Americans for Balanced Energy Choices”

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
<my argument>

@JessieNYC #ir14
<epistemology>

@JessieNYC #ir14
how we know what we say we know

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
Enlightenment notions
of ‘truth’ rooted in
empiricism and
rationalism have been
the cornerstone of racist
culture, ideolog...
Enlightenment notions
of race, racism and
slavery were
foundational to Ivy
League institutions in
the U.S.

@JessieNYC #ir...
@JessieNYC #ir14
<political struggle over knowledge>

@JessieNYC #ir14
“Social movements
in the Information Age are
essentially mobilized around

cultural values...
[and seek] to seize

power o...
individuals

social movements

corporate interests

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
affordances become deceptions

@JessieNYC #ir14
on the anti-social web,
URLs are propaganda tools

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
truth v. truthiness = impasse

@JessieNYC #ir14
@JessieNYC #ir14
<new technologies require new epistemologies>

@JessieNYC #ir14
Thank you!
@JessieNYC
@JessieNYC #ir14
Deception, Propaganda & Epistemology on the Anti-Social Web
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Deception, Propaganda & Epistemology on the Anti-Social Web

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The Internet enables new discursive strategies that are simultaneously deceptive, difficult to detect and potentially effective at eroding the epistemological foundation of progressive political action. I examine online deception used by white supremacists, anti-abortion activists, and climate change deniers as a way to explore epistemology in the digital era. Specifically, I examine the strategy of cloaked sites. Avowed white supremacists have, since the early days of the popular Internet, owned the URL MartinLutherKing dot org, which appears to be a tribute page but is in fact, a form of white supremacist rhetoric intended to undermine civil rights. Anti-abortion activists use cloaked sites such as Teen Breaks dot com to exhort young women about the dangers of so-called “post –abortion syndrome,” a pro-life rhetorical strategy disguised as a medical diagnosis. And, climate change deniers, often backed by corporate interests such as the coal industry, launch cloaked sites like Americans for Balanced Energy Choices to challenge facts of global warming. I argue that the struggle across a range of issues over “truth,” and “facts” are ultimately epistemological questions that are raised by the digital era.

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  • First, special thanks to…Daniel Greene for organizing + putting together this session…delighted to be here.
    In my talk today, I’m going to make the argument that the Internet enables new discursive strategies that are simultaneously deceptive, difficult to detect and potentially very effective at eroding the epistemological foundation of progressive political action.
    To make this argument, I’m going to examine a form of online deception &amp; propaganda I refer to as “cloaked sites” – and look very briefly at 3 case studies - used by white supremacists, anti-abortion activists, and climate change deniers as a way to explore epistemology in the digital era.
  • Cloaked site consistently appears third (3rd) or fourth (4th) in the results --- I really need to update this in light of the “filter bubble.”
  • A student typed in “martin luther king” into a search engine and came to this site….
  • ….it is hosted by Stormfront, an overtly white supremacist site.
    Avowed white supremacists have, since the early days of the popular Internet, owned the URL MartinLutherKing dot org, which appears to be a tribute page but is in fact, a form of white supremacist rhetoric intended to undermine civil rights.
  • By that I mean, deception and propaganda certainly did – and do – exist in print or radio (both of which were very popular in WWII – the era that most of the scholarship on propaganda draws from) – but what I mean is that there are some things about the Internet that are unique to this medium such as URLs – and cloaked sites make use of these in order to more effectively propagandize.
  • The placement of MLK.org on the first page of Google results … site consistently appears third (3rd) or fourth (4th) in the results … is an important factor for assessing value, trustworthiness of the information according to the young people in this study, like this young woman:
  • The cloaked site www.martinlutherking.org consistently appears third or fourth on the first page of results in Google when using the search terms “martin luther king,” and this, along with the URL, has implications for how young people find information about race, racism and civil rights.
    Typical of the way participants in this research evaluated the cloaked site when it appeared in search engine results was this young woman:
    [Computer screen: Opens Google, uses search terms “martin luther king” without quotations. Once the search results are returned, she scrolls the page quickly, using the mouse button.]
    Right now, I’m just reading the sites, to see what they’re about, to see which ones are easier for me.
    Ok, and what kinds of information do you look at? What pops out at you?
    I guess maybe something like this would pop out, an article from The Seattle Times….about his life, and impact.
    Ok. And is that a link that you might click on?
    I would just look at it, I wouldn’t click on it yet… but this one….
    [Computer screen: Points her mouse to the martinlutherking.org link returned third in the list of results from Google.]
    … this one looks good.
    You think you would click on that one?
    Yeah, because the site itself, it says, “Martin Luther King dot org” so I guess they’re dedicated to that. (age 18, Latina)
  • When asked about how they evaluate the search engine results, most said that they relied on the order that search results appeared as a valid and reliable way to evaluate whether or not a site was trustworthy. This was a consistent theme across the interviews and is reflected in this quote from a participant reported that they would “never” go beyond the first page of results in their research of a topic, as did this participant:
    I actually have never, I think, in my life gone to like the third page, or the second page, because I just stop at the first page. … because I mean, there must be a reason why everything’s on the first page and the rest of the stuff is later. (age 16, white)
    In a sense, this young woman is correct when she says, “there must be a reason” for the results on the first page. There is a reason and it is an algorithm. Given the huge popularity of Google as the search engine of choice by so many, we might expect that there would be wide familiarity with how the search engine works. As it turns out, this is not the case. Actually, different search engines work differently, and the way Google works is through a fairly complex algorithm that includes a web crawling robot, the Google indexer, and a query processor. PageRank is Google’s mechanism for ranking one web page higher than another. Central to this mechanism are links from outside pages; each link from an outside page to a website is, in Google’s evaluation schema, a vote for the “importance” of that site (Sherman and Price, 2001). So, while there is a reason that those results appear on the first page, it is not because someone sitting in an office at Google headquarters has read and evaluated each site and rank ordered them based on an agreed upon set of criteria. In fact, because of the way Google&apos;s algorithm works, it is possible to intentionally manipulate the ranking of a site by linking to a page using consistent anchor text. This is commonly referred to as “Google bombing” and has been used a number of times as a form of political critique of the Bush administration; thus, because people on a number of websites across the Internet have repeatedly used the same linking anchor text, now anyone can type the search terms “miserable failure” into Google and get the first result to be a link to the “Biography of George W. Bush” (Byrne, 2004; Kahn &amp; Kellner, 2004). When I asked the participants if they had ever heard of a “Google bomb,” not one said that they had and were perplexed and amused when I showed them the “George W. Bush” results for the “miserable failure” search. Trusting the results on the first page of Google might not be issue for understanding race except for two key issues: 1) when searching for information on race, racism and civil rights, cloaked white supremacist sites appear alongside results for legitimate sites; and 2) people, like the young woman quoted above, implicitly trust the order of results as a valid and reliable mechanism for assessing trustworthiness.
  • Task II: Participants were asked to evaluate pairs of websites:
    Cloaked site (www.martinlutherking.org)
    Legitimate site (www.thekingcenter.org )
  • Thinking critically about race is crucial to being able to distinguish cloaked websites from legitimate civil rights websites because this is, ultimately, a political distinction. Without the ability to think critically, all websites are reduced to the level of personal opinion without reference to the power relations that imbue racial politics. And, without a critical race consciousness, one website is just as “legitimate” or “biased” as another. A number of the young people in the study evaluated websites in a way that reflected a lack of critical race consciousness, and it made evaluating the sites more difficult: quote from above.
    In this instance, the legitimate civil rights website sponsored by the King Center is evaluated as a less than reliable source of information because it is affiliated with Mrs. King, and therefore, “biased.” This young woman is doing what she has been taught in skills-based approaches to Internet-literacy, to “look for bias.” Yet, in this instance, it leads to the erroneous conclusion that the King Center site might not be a good source of information about civil rights or Dr. King. While the King Center site certainly presents information from a point-of-view, it is precisely this point-of-view -- situated in the struggle for civil rights and against racism -- that gives it credibility.
  • Thinking critically about race is crucial to being able to distinguish cloaked websites from legitimate civil rights websites because this is, ultimately, a political distinction. Without the ability to think critically, all websites are reduced to the level of personal opinion without reference to the power relations that imbue racial politics. And, without a critical race consciousness, one website is just as “legitimate” or “biased” as another. A number of the young people in the study evaluated websites in a way that reflected a lack of critical race consciousness, and it made evaluating the sites more difficult: quote from above.
    In this instance, the legitimate civil rights website sponsored by the King Center is evaluated as a less than reliable source of information because it is affiliated with Mrs. King, and therefore, “biased.” This young woman is doing what she has been taught in skills-based approaches to Internet-literacy, to “look for bias.” Yet, in this instance, it leads to the erroneous conclusion that the King Center site might not be a good source of information about civil rights or Dr. King. While the King Center site certainly presents information from a point-of-view, it is precisely this point-of-view -- situated in the struggle for civil rights and against racism -- that gives it credibility.
  • In this case, the young woman assesses that this site, as just another “point of view,” another “side” on a two-sided argument. She is also unable to ascertain who it is that’s publishing the site, which is hosted by anti-Semite and racist Frank Weltner who is advocating on this page for a re-writing of the history such that plantations were “sanitary, humane and relaxed,” workplaces rather than institutions predicated on human misery. As in the previous example, this illustrates how a lack of critical thinking about racial politics offline can lead to misreading information online.
  • In this case, the young woman assesses that this site, as just another “point of view,” another “side” on a two-sided argument. She is also unable to ascertain who it is that’s publishing the site, which is hosted by anti-Semite and racist Frank Weltner who is advocating on this page for a re-writing of the history such that plantations were “sanitary, humane and relaxed,” workplaces rather than institutions predicated on human misery. As in the previous example, this illustrates how a lack of critical thinking about racial politics offline can lead to misreading information online.
  • I enjoy the Yes Men and my politics are much more aligned with them than with white supremacists, anti-abortion activists, and climate change deniers… but I do not think it is a coincidence that most of the examples of cloaked sites I’ve been able to find (and this is by no means systematic, so it’s hard to say for sure), but not coincidental these are right-wing conservative and/or extremists.
  • As much as I enjoy and appreciate the work of the Yes Men, my research causes me to seriously question whether the strategy of ‘cloaked sites’ will ever be an effective part of progressive politics because the goal of is really about “finding new ways to tell the truth.”
  • So, to re-state my argument (which I said at the beginning) is that these deceptive cloaked sites are a form of propaganda that the Internet enables &amp; simultaneously makes these sites more difficult to detect than offline forms of propaganda and, thus, potentially very effective …
    And, what are they effective at? Not social movement recruiting! I do not think that anyone is joining the ranks of the KKK because they read the martinlutherking.org site.
    RATHER, I contend that the harm from cloaked sites is that they are (potentially) effective at eroding the epistemological foundation of progressive political action.
  • The whole notion of “truth” comes to us from the Age of Enlightenment (aka, the Age of Reason) – whose goal to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method rather than ‘faith’ or tradition. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange and is part of the reason we’re all sitting here today, discussing ideas.
    Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment
  • As a consequence, ‘race’ is one of the central conceptual inventions of modernity, one that shapes our perceptions of “social subjects,” fellow human beings, in terms that are foremost racial terms
  • Craig Steven Wilder research on race, slavery and the Ivy League is not an aberration but rather a logical extension of such thinking, of such ways of knowing.
  • Many postmodern theorists and some feminists and have argued that knowledge is always partial, situated, and embodied. Such an epistemology makes universal Truth as an impossibility since only a relational truth between knower and known is possible. Postmodern epistemologies also make claims for social justice problematic (if not impossible) since there can be no standard upon which to base such claims Steven Best and Doug Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, (New York: The Guilford Press, 1991); Steven Best and Doug Kellner. The Postmodern Turn, (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997); Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash. Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage 1999); Sandra Harding. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Kathleen Lennon and Margaret Whitford. Knowing the Difference: Feminist Perspectives in Epistemology, (New York: Routledge, 1994).
    An important intervention – about the situated-ness of knowledge – but, as a number of critics have pointed out, such a critique is not tied to any ethical ground from which to launch a claim for social justice.
  • People with political interests + financial/economic interests what to persuade you that their view is true… and sometimes (perhaps even often) the political and the economic overlap.
  • Powerful interests are making use of cloaked sites.
  • The emergence of cloaked sites, which feature uniquely web-based mechanisms of undermining values of racial equality, the right to access an abortion, and the very idea that the climate is changing – rapidly warmer - and that we, human beings, are causing that change - calls into question how we make and evaluate knowledge claims, as well as our vision for social justice, in this new digital terrain.
  • In this new landscape, technological affordances become deceptions.
  • More reasons it’s necessary for feminists to hack Wikipedia....
    Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/wikipedias-sexism.html
    Wikipedia’s Sexism
    By AMANDA FILIPACCHI
    April 27, 2013
    Early last week I noticed something strange on Wikipedia. It appeared that, gradually, over time, the volunteer editors who create the site had begun moving women, one by one, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory. Female authors whose last names began with A or B had been most affected.
    The intention appeared to be to create a list of “American Novelists” made up almost entirely of men. The category listed 3,837 authors, and the first few hundred were mainly men. An explanation at the top of the page said that the list of “American Novelists” was too long, and novelists had to be put in subcategories whenever possible.
    People who might have gone to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and looked at that list of “American Novelists” for inspiration, might not even have noticed that the first page of it included far more men than women. They might simply have used that list without thinking twice about it. It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.
    Many female novelists, like Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt and some 300 others, had been relegated to the ranks of “American Women Novelists” only, and no longer appeared in the category “American Novelists.”
    Male novelists on Wikipedia, however — no matter how obscure — all got to be in the category “American Novelists.” In an Op-Ed article I wrote, published on The New York Times’s Web site on Wednesday, I suggested it was too bad that there wasn’t a subcategory for “American Men Novelists.” And what do you know; shortly after, a new subcategory called exactly that appeared.
    But there was more. Much more. As soon as the Op-Ed article appeared, unhappy Wikipedia editors pounced on my Wikipedia page and started making alterations to it, erasing as much as they possibly could without (I assume) technically breaking the rules. They removed the links to outside sources, like interviews of me and reviews of my novels. Not surprisingly, they also removed the link to the Op-Ed article. At the same time, they put up a banner at the top of my page saying the page needed “additional citations for verifications.” Too bad they’d just taken out the useful sources.
    In 24 hours, there were 22 changes to my page. Before that, there had been 22 changes in four years. Thursday night, a kind soul went in there and put back the deleted sources. The Wiki editors instantly took them out again.
    I knew my page might take a beating. But at least I’m back in the “American Novelists” category, along with many other women.
    For the moment anyway.
  • These competing epistemologies, one rooted in Enlightenment ideals of objective truth supposedly disconnected from lived experience and the other, recognizing lived experience, but not tied to any ethical ground from which to launch a claim for social justice, seem to create a theoretical impasse.
  • Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins suggests a way out of the conundrum of these competing epistemologies by offering an alternative epistemology in which ideas cannot be divorced from the individuals who create and share them.
     
    Instead, Collins’ black feminist epistemology calls on lived experience, ethics, and reason as interconnected, essential components in assessing knowledge claims.
    In this alternative epistemology, values lie at the heart of the knowledge validation process such that inquiry always has an ethical aim. For those who share the cultural value of racial equality, it is imperative to have an apparatus for evaluating knowledge claims while simultaneously keeping the ethical aim of racial equality in focus.
     
  • People with political interests + financial/economic interests what to persuade you that their view is true….and to evaluate these knowledge claims we need an alternative epistemology – such the one Collins puts forward that connects lived experience, ethics and reason.
  • Deception, Propaganda & Epistemology on the Anti-Social Web

    1. 1. Deception, Propaganda & Epistemology on the Anti-Social Web AoIR14 Conference – Denver, CO October 25, 2013 Jessie Daniels, PhD CUNY-Graduate Center and Hunter College
    2. 2. @JessieNYC #ir14 @JessieNYC #ir14
    3. 3. The first page of search engine results @JessieNYC #ir14
    4. 4. @JessieNYC #ir14
    5. 5. <cloaked sites> : disguise authorship in order to conceal political agenda @JessieNYC #ir14
    6. 6. @JessieNYC #ir14
    7. 7. <cloaked sites> : examples of deception & propaganda with features that are unique to the web @JessieNYC #ir14
    8. 8. @JessieNYC #ir14
    9. 9. <cloaked sites> : used by individuals, social movements, corporate interests @JessieNYC #ir14
    10. 10. “Yeah, because the site itself, it says, ‘Martin Luther King dot org’ so I guess they’re dedicated to that.” (study participant, age 18) @JessieNYC #ir14
    11. 11. “I actually have never, I think, in my life gone to like the third page, or the second page, because I just stop at the first page…because I mean, there must be a reason why everything’s on the first page and the rest of the stuff is later.” (study participant, age 16) @JessieNYC #ir14
    12. 12. evaluating pairs of websites @JessieNYC #ir14
    13. 13. The Racial Politics of “Bias” @JessieNYC #ir14
    14. 14. “Well, you know, in looking at this site, it appears to be created by his widow, or his family, so, it could be biased.” (study participant, 17) @JessieNYC #ir14
    15. 15. “Two Sides to Everything” @JessieNYC #ir14
    16. 16. “I mean, I don’t think I would disagree with it. I’m sure there are some slaves that were treated well. So, I can understand their point of view. There’s always two sides to everything.” (study participant, age 17) @JessieNYC #ir14
    17. 17. <anti-abortion cloaked site> @JessieNYC #ir14
    18. 18. @JessieNYC #ir14
    19. 19. @JessieNYC #ir14
    20. 20. “complications for girls” @JessieNYC #ir14
    21. 21. “post-abortion syndrome” @JessieNYC #ir14
    22. 22. not a medical condition @JessieNYC #ir14
    23. 23. rhetorical strategy of the pro-life movement @JessieNYC #ir14
    24. 24. @JessieNYC #ir14
    25. 25. brick-and-mortar “crisis pregnancy centers” @JessieNYC #ir14
    26. 26. <climate change denial> @JessieNYC #ir14
    27. 27. @JessieNYC #ir14
    28. 28. “Americans for Balanced Energy Choices” @JessieNYC #ir14
    29. 29. @JessieNYC #ir14
    30. 30. @JessieNYC #ir14
    31. 31. @JessieNYC #ir14
    32. 32. <my argument> @JessieNYC #ir14
    33. 33. <epistemology> @JessieNYC #ir14
    34. 34. how we know what we say we know @JessieNYC #ir14
    35. 35. @JessieNYC #ir14
    36. 36. Enlightenment notions of ‘truth’ rooted in empiricism and rationalism have been the cornerstone of racist culture, ideology and ‘science.’ @JessieNYC #ir14
    37. 37. Enlightenment notions of race, racism and slavery were foundational to Ivy League institutions in the U.S. @JessieNYC #ir14
    38. 38. @JessieNYC #ir14
    39. 39. <political struggle over knowledge> @JessieNYC #ir14
    40. 40. “Social movements in the Information Age are essentially mobilized around cultural values... [and seek] to seize power of the minds, not state power.” the ~ Manuel Castells, 1997 @JessieNYC #ir14
    41. 41. individuals social movements corporate interests @JessieNYC #ir14
    42. 42. @JessieNYC #ir14
    43. 43. affordances become deceptions @JessieNYC #ir14
    44. 44. on the anti-social web, URLs are propaganda tools @JessieNYC #ir14
    45. 45. @JessieNYC #ir14
    46. 46. @JessieNYC #ir14
    47. 47. @JessieNYC #ir14
    48. 48. truth v. truthiness = impasse @JessieNYC #ir14
    49. 49. @JessieNYC #ir14
    50. 50. <new technologies require new epistemologies> @JessieNYC #ir14
    51. 51. Thank you! @JessieNYC @JessieNYC #ir14

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