John Palfrey: I want to just note one thing, that as I’ve lis­tened over the course today I think we should keep chal­leng­ing our­selves on, is this ques­tion of whether or not this real­ly is an issue where the left or the right is more or less like­ly to be pur­vey­ors of truthi­ness. Or whether the sort of open net, in a sense—on the sub­stance in fact favors in the SOPA exam­ple or oth­ers that Yochai used—favors a cer­tain kind of truth or the process of let­ting truth spread.

I sus­pect we are more in this room… Well, I should say we’re prob­a­bly not by and large devo­tees of Fox News, just lis­ten­ing to the com­men­tary. And I guess I resist a lit­tle bit this impulse that this is, you know, the left is always right or cor­rect, and that the right is always pur­vey­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion. That may not be right, but I do want to just note that I think we should keep chal­leng­ing our­selves in that way. The open­ness of the net itself as an exam­ple, in the SOPA case seems, to be one where there actu­al­ly might be some favor­ing of cer­tain kinds of cul­tures and tech­nolo­gies and top­ics, where the spread of the kind of thing that Yochai laid out might actu­al­ly have some­what more grip than that left/right thing. Anyway, I throw that out as just an obser­va­tion as we switch over to Christian and Eszter. Thank you.

Christian Sandvig: Thanks so much, John. Okay, while I get set up wel­come to Interventions for Individuals: Tools and Personal Empowerment. I’m Christian Sandvig. Like the ses­sions in the morn­ing, we’re mov­ing to a for­mat now where we’re gonna do some rapid-fire pre­sen­ta­tions, so I appre­ci­ate your patience with our brevity.

I have two big points for you, and then Eszter, my co-moderator, will say her points to frame the pan­el, and then we’ll intro­duce the peo­ple on the pan­el in the order indi­cat­ed in the program. 

So my two big points are these. I’d first like to tell you a way to think about inter­ven­tions for indi­vid­u­als that I think might be use­ful. And then sec­ond I’d like to throw down a research and tool-building challenge.

So for the first point, how many peo­ple have ever run across this book? Anyone? It’s obscure and old. Right, so it’s Mark Stefik’s book way back in 1996. Did they even have the Internet in 1996? That’s so long ago. But he said in 1996 that actu­al­ly there are four ways to think about the Internet that he called arche­typ­al metaphors.” And his point was that the Internet is a real­ly com­pli­cat­ed tech­nol­o­gy and it can be used for many dif­fer­ent things. But that the metaphor that we have under­ly­ing our thoughts about the Internet is real­ly going to con­di­tion what pub­lic pol­i­cy or reg­u­la­tion seems use­ful, what design inter­ven­tions seem use­ful, and so on.

So his four ideas about the Internet is that we think about Internet, num­ber one as a library. And this was the 90s and we had this elec­tron­ic library, the dig­i­tal library. That does­n’t mean that we dig­i­tized libraries, it means that that’s the metaphor we used to think about the Internet, as a place that has infor­ma­tion that we can look up. His sec­ond was we think of it as the mail. Or you could say the tele­phone. And so that’s more about indi­vid­u­als and inter­per­son­al­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing in some way. The third is that we think of it as a vir­tu­al world. And the fourth is that we think of it as a marketplace.

Now, I find these real­ly valu­able in think­ing about this con­fer­ence as it’s unfold­ed so far today. I think the dom­i­nant metaphor in this room so far has been the Internet as a library. The library’s where you go to look at news­pa­pers in the read­ing room, right, and it’s where you go to look up facts. But you know, obvi­ous­ly that metaphor does­n’t real­ly work with the Internet. The library is pub­licly fund­ed. And the library has these trust­ed inter­me­di­aries called librar­i­ans, right, and the Internet does­n’t have that. It has this oth­er class of intermediaries. 

So the way that I think about the pre­sen­ta­tions that we’re going to see about inter­ven­tions for indi­vid­u­als are real­ly that we have kind of two areas of work that I’ve seen a lot on. One is a kind of help the patron of the library” metaphor. Or empow­er the indi­vid­ual.” Or you could say blame the patron.” So in oth­er words the library does­n’t pro­duce the infor­ma­tion that you want, and the solu­tion should be that we should get the patron up to speed. But you don’t know how to use the card cat­a­log prop­er­ly. If we can just help you out, then we’ll help solve this prob­lem about information.

What I’d like to do is also draw atten­tion to I think what was Yochai’s chal­lenge in the morn­ing. And that was to move away from this library metaphor to say that what might be hap­pen­ing is that on the Internet we actu­al­ly have a metaphor of the library, but what’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing is a mar­ket­place. So you think of it as a library where you’re look­ing things up, but Facebook thinks of it as a mar­ket­place where it’s sell­ing you, or Google thinks of it as a marketplace. 

And so a sec­ond class of tool that I haven’t seen as much work on but that would be great to do would be a class of tool that tries to point out to the user that they are in fact in a mar­ket­place when they think they’re in a library. And that could involve the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of the Internet. It could involve mon­ey flows. We’ve heard some­thing about that.

But then I’d like to depart from these two areas in which I think we’ve done a lot of work and issue a kind of research chal­lenge where I don’t think there’s been a lot of work, although the pan­elists that’re com­ing up may prove me wrong. 

I want to move to my sec­ond big point and talk about Robert Merton. This is not Robert Merton. This is not Robert Merton. Anyone who this is? Kate Smith! Alright, Kathleen Hall Jamieson nails it. Yes. 

So Robert Merton, very famous Columbia soci­ol­o­gist. He coined the phrase role mod­el.” He coined the phrase self-fulfilling prophe­cy.” He wrote in 1945 about Kate Smith. And he was afraid. He said you know, Kate Smith is such an amaz­ing media celebri­ty in this year of 1945. She is so pow­er­ful as a media celebri­ty that it may be that she can get peo­ple to believe things that aren’t true, just because she is this real­ly pow­er­ful celebrity.

And I imag­ine, I don’t know that he did, but I imag­ine maybe in 1945 he had a con­fer­ence at Columbia that would be just like this one. So it would be like our con­fer­ence. He did­n’t have the gift of nam­ing that the Berkman had. Because he called this idea pseudo-gemeinschaft.” He did have a gift of nam­ing but just not in this case. And what he meant by that is that in 1945 peo­ple were think­ing about pro­pa­gan­da, right. It was on the mind. And he said tech­nol­o­gy is real­ly inter­est­ing because what’s hap­pen­ing is that tech­nol­o­gy is cre­at­ing this false com­mu­ni­ty of val­ues where peo­ple will believe that they are in a com­mu­ni­ty of val­ues with Kate Smith and they’ll believe what she has to tell them about issues of the day, when in fact it’s an instru­men­tal rela­tion­ship and they should­n’t believe her. And he was real­ly con­cerned about this. 

He actu­al­ly said in 1945, though— He had this dif­fer­ent take that I haven’t seen at the con­fer­ence here today. Instead of say­ing what we need to do is to find the facts that are wrong and com­bat them, he took it in a very dif­fer­ent direc­tion. He said real­ly what we have is a sit­u­a­tion where we could cre­ate what he called a cli­mate of rec­i­p­ro­cal dis­trust” when there’s too much empha­sis on facts and mis­in­for­ma­tion. And the dan­ger, he said, is that soci­ety will be expe­ri­enced as an are­na for rival frauds,” and that this is the major chal­lenge that we face. It’s not that there is mis­in­for­ma­tion and we must respond with fact, but rather that all facts will be devalued.

And he said that what might hap­pen is that we would begin to fetishize sin­cer­i­ty, and the nat­ur­al, and the spon­ta­neous. And I was real­ly struck by that with Tim’s com­ments about his bot­nets that would fake sin­cer­i­ty, you know, by using Mechanical Turk. So his big con­cern was not that there are facts that are wrong or that peo­ple could be per­suad­ed to believe things that weren’t true by say, Kate, but rather that all facts are being devalued. 

And so this is my research chal­lenge. I won­der if it’s pos­si­ble to have a tool that would be empow­er­ing for indi­vid­u­als, but that it would­n’t actu­al­ly address spe­cif­ic fac­tu­al prob­lems. Instead it would address this cli­mate of rec­i­p­ro­cal dis­trust, or address the sta­tus of all facts and say how do we make soci­ety as some­thing that’s not expe­ri­enced as an are­na for rival frauds.

So okay. So that’s my chal­lenge. Hack day, you guys can solve that one for me…he’s not look­ing. Alright. There’s no hope, then. They’re not going to address it. 

Okay. So alright. And now I’m going to hand it over to Eszter, and and she’s going to speak briefly. And then we’ll move on to the rest of the pre­sen­ters in the schedule.

Eszter Hargittai: Thank you. Okay, so let’s start with a fac­toid. Where did Stephen Colbert go to school? 

Audience mem­ber: Northwestern.

Hargittai: Yeah. So, he is a Northwestern University School of Communication alum. Although you might think you he’s a Dartmouth alum. No? God, do you guys actu­al­ly watch his show?

So the Steven Colbert on The Colbert Report did go to Dartmouth. But the Stephen Colbert in real life went to Northwestern. Anyway. I thought I’d throw that out there as a lit­tle thing to start with. We’re very proud of him at Northwestern of course.

So, we’ve got­ten all sorts of chal­lenges. Things that we have addressed and things that we haven’t real­ly addressed. And so I’m going to through my part into that mix. Part of the title of our ses­sion is tools” and then part of it is per­son­al empow­er­ment.” And I think we’ve heard a lot about tools. And we’ve heard a lot about what con­tent is out there and what is the mis­in­for­ma­tion that gets around, how much of it is around.

What I don’t think we’ve talked about that much is how peo­ple actu­al­ly see the con­tent that’s out there. So, peo­ple. What are they actu­al­ly doing? How do they under­stand what’s out there, right? So we can come up with all sorts of tools. But if there’s a tool out there and no one uses it, did it make a dif­fer­ence, right? So that’s just anoth­er angle to think about all this.

And so I want to share just a tiny bit of my research about how your aver­age per­son out there actu­al­ly encoun­ters some infor­ma­tion that they see online. So, thanks to sup­port from the MacArthur Foundation I’ve been study­ing young adults and how they approach the Internet for the last five or so years. And here I just want­ed to report on a ques­tion that I posed on a sur­vey to some young adults about being able to read URLs cor­rect­ly, right. 

So here’s a mul­ti­ple choice ques­tion and I’ll give you a moment to look through the options. And I have a feel­ing in this room most of you will prob­a­bly get this right. Think for your­self what you think you would pick. Well, here’s the one that’s right, and hope­ful­ly that’s not too sur­pris­ing to too many of you.

But what did these young adults, the sup­pos­ed­ly dig­i­tal­ly savvy net gen­er­a­tion pick? Well, they picked all sorts of oth­er things. Just over 10% of them actu­al­ly got this ques­tion right.

So what does this say about our peo­ple’s abil­i­ty to fig­ure out the cred­i­bil­i­ty of con­tent they encounter when they can’t even tell what web site con­tent is host­ed on? So that’s the point here.

Just want­ed to show you just two exam­ples of web sites that I think are inter­est­ing lit­tle case stud­ies of what you might encounter, depend­ing on what web sites you’re surf­ing. This par­tic­u­lar exam­ple I did­n’t know about until we were run­ning a study and we asked peo­ple to— We gave them a hypo­thet­i­cal about an unfor­tu­nate inci­dent with a bro­ken con­dom and how would they deal with it. And so one of the search terms one might put in in that instance is morn­ing after pill.” And if you do that search on Google, one of the results you get is morningafter​pill​.org, which sounds poten­tial­ly relevant. 

So you click on it and if you just sort of go with the flow, you read this site. But even­tu­al­ly if you’re real­ly care­ful, which most peo­ple it turns out are not, it turns out that this is a web site that is very much against the morn­ing after pill and will in no way let you know how you can obtain it. 

However, there seems to be a very inter­est­ing mis­con­cep­tion about the whole idea of .org domain names. For those of you who know how domain names work, .org and .com are pret­ty much equiv­a­lent. You can buy it the same way. There’s real­ly no dif­fer­ence in terms of the cred­i­bil­i­ty of con­tent that might be host­ing on a .org or a .com. Interestingly that’s not at all how the aver­age per­son per­ceives these sites. .org seems to have much more cred­i­bil­i­ty. So that’s just one example.

Another one that you may have heard of or may have seen before, and this one came to me— Again, I did­n’t know about this web site until a stu­dent actu­al­ly used it for a home­work assign­ment and then I incor­po­rat­ed into a project. This one is if you search for infor­ma­tion about Martin Luther King. One of the web sites you gets is mar​tin​lutherk​ing​.org. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen that web site. Okay, so some of you know where this is going. By the way, not to be tough on Google. On Bing it comes up pret­ty much on top as well, or near the top. 

So if you go to mar​tin​lutherk​ing​.org, this is the web site you get. I’ll give you a moment to look at some of the con­tent. If you’re actu­al­ly some­what crit­i­cal, and if you’re in the con­text of a truthi­ness meet­ing so you know that I must be show­ing you this for a rea­son, you might start notic­ing things that might not real­ly make sense on a web site about Martin Luther King? So if you scroll down, you see a link to Stormfront, which takes you to this web site. 

And here you find out who spon­sors this web site. And then you might think hmm, that might not be the most cred­i­ble infor­ma­tion for Martin Luther King content. 

What we did— So first of all, again because it’s a .org site a lot of peo­ple think it is cred­i­ble. They actu­al­ly talk about it as a source they would use if for exam­ple they were doing a home­work assignment. 

So one thing we did and this is one of these chal­lenges where I think we need way more work of this sort. Because basi­cal­ly what hap­pens is we cre­ate all sorts of tools and on occa­sion if we’re lucky they’re inter­ven­tions that peo­ple think of, train­ing ses­sions, but we nev­er eval­u­ate them, right. We don’t know if train­ing ses­sions we have out there to improve peo­ple’s skills actu­al­ly work. 

So I designed a very tiny—I mean these are expensive—a very tiny ran­dom assign­ment train­ing inter­ven­tion where the idea was to help peo­ple learn about this web site and the ques­tion­able cred­i­bil­i­ty. And sev­er­al months lat­er, then observed peo­ple who had got­ten the train­ing and peo­ple who had­n’t, and basi­cal­ly found that of the peo­ple who went through the train­ing about URLs and specif­i­cal­ly this web site (so it was a very tar­get­ed pro­gram) almost nobody would have relied on this web site, where­as almost half of the peo­ple who did­n’t get their train­ing would have relied on this web site.

So there are actu­al­ly ways of inter­ven­ing and help­ing peo­ple under­stand bet­ter the con­tent of what’s out there and the cred­i­bil­i­ty of con­tent that they find. But cur­rent­ly we just don’t seem to be doing a lot. So I thought it was inter­est­ing when Ethan was talk­ing about the cul­ture of MIT/Harvard, I thought where that was going is that at MIT we have the tools and then Berkman it’s the poli­cies and sort of institutional-level questions. 

A lit­tle bit miss­ing from this is I think then the peo­ple. But what’s great about Berkman is that actu­al­ly it’s real­ly good about incor­po­rat­ing social sci­ence and see­ing how peo­ple actu­al­ly use ser­vices, and how can we study peo­ple on the ground. So we do have that. So my call for where to go with the rest of the con­ver­sa­tions is not to for­get the peo­ple that we’re actu­al­ly talk­ing about, right, the aver­age users. What do they know? What can they do? And how can we not just cre­ate tools but actu­al­ly make sure that they know about the tools, and know how to under­stand what’s out there bet­ter? So that’s my call for the con­fer­ence. Thank you.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site