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About this book

Human attention is in the highest demand it has ever been. The drastic increase in available information has compelled individuals to find a way to sift through the media that is literally at their fingertips. Content recommendation systems have emerged as the technological solution to this social and informational problem, but they’ve also created a bigger crisis in confirming our biases by showing us only, and exactly, what it predicts we want to see. Data versus Democracy investigates and explores how, in the era of social media, human cognition, algorithmic recommendation systems, and human psychology are all working together to reinforce (and exaggerate) human bias. The dangerous confluence of these factors is driving media narratives, influencing opinions, and possibly changing election results.
In this book, algorithmic recommendations, clickbait, familiarity bias, propaganda, and other pivotal concepts are analyzed and then expanded upon via fascinating and timely case studies: the 2016 US presidential election, Ferguson, GamerGate, international political movements, and more events that come to affect every one of us. What are the implications of how we engage with information in the digital age? Data versus Democracy explores this topic and an abundance of related crucial questions. We live in a culture vastly different from any that has come before. In a society where engagement is currency, we are the product. Understanding the value of our attention, how organizations operate based on this concept, and how engagement can be used against our best interests is essential in responsibly equipping ourselves against the perils of disinformation.


Who This Book Is For
Individuals who are curious about how social media algorithms work and how they can be manipulated to influence culture. Social media managers, data scientists, data administrators, and educators will find this book particularly relevant to their work.

Table of Contents

The Propaganda Problem

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. Pay Attention

How Information Abundance Affects the Way We Consume Media
Abstract
This chapter will explain the shift from an information economy to an attention economy and lay out the implications for how information is created, shared, and consumed on the internet. Having transitioned from a time of information scarcity to information abundance, information is no longer a sufficiently monetizable commodity to drive an economy. The focus of human attention as the monetizable commodity in limited supply gives content recommendation algorithms a pivotal place in our information landscape and our economy. This chapter lays out the general economic, cognitive, and technological backdrop for the emergence of those algorithms.
Kris Shaffer

Chapter 2. Cog in the System

How the Limits of Our Brains Leave Us Vulnerable to Cognitive Hacking
Abstract
In an attention economy, understanding cognitive psychology gives an informer (or a disinformer) a major advantage in influencing opinion. What attracts attention? How do you hold attention? And how, over time, do you manipulate attention in ways that serve your purposes? These are key questions that we need to find answers to before we can fully grasp the role technology plays in influencing opinion.
Kris Shaffer

Chapter 3. Swimming Upstream

How Content Recommendation Engines Impact Information and Manipulate Our Attention
Abstract
As we have shifted from an information economy to an attention economy in the past two decades, we have almost simultaneously shifted from mass media to social media. The drastic increase in available media necessitates a way for individuals to sift through the media that is literally at their fingertips. Content recommendation systems have emerged as the technological solution to this social/informational problem. Understanding how recommendation system algorithms work, and how they reinforce (and even exaggerate) unconscious human bias, is essential to understanding the way data influences opinion.
Kris Shaffer

Case Studies

Frontmatter

Chapter 4. Domestic Disturbance

Ferguson, GamerGate, and the Rise of the American Alt-Right
Abstract
For two whole days after the shooting of Michael Brown, major protests and rallies were taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, with hardly a mention in the mainstream news media, or even on Facebook. Yet a major portion of the country knew about the protests, the major influencers, and the emerging movement known as Black Lives Matter. Through Twitter, protestors were able to coordinate their activities, avoid tear gas and LRADs (long-range acoustic devices), even get phone charging battery packs to movement leaders. That activity on Twitter (and Vine) brought the events directly to the public eye and eventually to American mainstream news media. This watershed movement made many aware of the limitations of mass news media and the power of participatory media to shape conversations and effect social change. But those haven’t been the only effects.
Kris Shaffer

Chapter 5. Democracy Hacked, Part 1

Russian Interference and the New Cold War
Abstract
Social media empowers communities of activists, as well as groups of extremists and abusers, to discover each other and coordinate their activity. The same tools can be used to spread political messages, both by legitimate communities and by disingenuous actors—even foreign states seeking to interfere in the electoral process of another country. That’s the environment we find ourselves in today, as the United States, NATO, the EU, and their (potential) allies are under attack from a Russian campaign of information warfare. In this chapter, we’ll unpack some of their operations, culminating in the 2016 US presidential election, and conclude with a view toward future threats and defenses.
Kris Shaffer

Chapter 6. Democracy Hacked, Part 2

Rumors, Bots, and Genocide in the Global South
Abstract
New technology is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad, nor inherently neutral. When it comes to new ways to communicate and to share information, new technology irreversibly alters the social structure of a community, making new things possible and rendering the old ways of doing things inaccessible. When a community is already experiencing social change or tension, this only adds fuel to the fire. New access to information can lead to positive social change, but tools like social media can also be turned into a weapon. New tech plus new social structures can bring great instability and uncertainty to a society. That story—far more than foreign meddling—has played out repeatedly throughout the Global South.
Kris Shaffer

Chapter 7. Conclusion

Where Do We Go from Here?
Abstract
Information abundance, the limits of human cognition, excessive data mining, and algorithmic content delivery combine to make us incredibly vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation. The problem is massive, cross-platform, and cross-community, and so is the solution. But there are things we can do—as individuals and as societies—to curb the problem of disinformation and secure our minds and communities from cognitive hackers.
Kris Shaffer
Additional information