Reflections on Fear in a Networked Society

I’ve been trying to work through some ideas on how fear operates in a networked society. At Webstock in New Zealand, I gave a talk called “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?!” Building on this, I gave a talk at SXSW called “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics.” While my thinking in this arena is still relatively nascent, I wanted to make available what I’ve thought through so far in the hopes that you have feedback and critique.

Enjoy!

Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing

Mike Daisey lied to us – but how much you think he lied depends on how you think about ‘truth’.

Some background: in his one-man show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’ and a highly popular This American Life episode, Daisey tells several stories about how Apple manufactures products in China.  He presents stories—powerful in their details and emotional resonance—not just as examples but exemplars.  That is, they aren’t meant to be seen as isolated incidents with limited scope.  In his show and on This American Life, he presents them as rich and rigorous accounts that are typical of wide-spread practices and systemic problems for Apple and other Western manufacturers.  The problem is, as This American Life painstakingly detailed in its hour-long retraction this weekend, much of Daisey’s story wasn’t true.

He fabricated sources, exaggerated the number of people he talked to, invented conversations with his translator, presented his own age-estimates as well-sourced truths.  He seems to have intentionally used This American Life and its genre of communication—long-form journalism that works to verify its sources and claims—to underpin a different kind of communication: theatrical storytelling meant to evoke emotional connections to states of the world the storyteller believes to be true.

Reactions [e.g., 1, 2, 3] to Daisey’s fabrications have been varied.  Some say he’s simply from a different tradition and is being judged unfairly.  He’s a storyteller who personally believed something to be true, took too much license in his retellings, and erred in lying to This American Life.  Essentially, he’s a storyteller who strayed too far from his craft and mislabeled his work.  He’s a less skilled, modern day version of Upton Sinclair who didn’t carefully enough distinguish his love of his subject from his responsibilities when doing genre-bending work.  He’s still saying something that’s essentially true (backed up by NYT reports) and we shouldn’t let his personal failings distract us from the larger goal of labour reform.  In one respect he failed because he lied; but in another sense he succeeded because his lies resonated enough to draw attention to a situation we feel to be true.

Others say that labour reform must be a fact-based endeavour that aims to affect policy.  Thus, storytellers who work in this space (performers and journalists alike) cannot ever play fast and loose with the truth or walk fine lines between genres.  Reform will come only from rigorously researched facts that can cause companies to change their behaviour.  It matters a great deal that Daisey strayed from the theatre and into the press: the theatre is where emotions might resonate, but the press is where facts can convince.  Daisey’s failings make it easier for manufacturers to earn a pass on labour compliance because he’s shown that advocates let their love of storytelling overtake their interest in reform.

There’s a lot here to untangle, but what I want to focus on is this knotty question of “truth”.  This is a huge simplification, but pragmatist philosophers (people like John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James) essentially believed that truth—social truths, not stuff like 2+2=4—cannot live in the head of any one individual or system of knowledge.  Essentially, the very idea of truth (what people understand to be a fact) is tightly linked to epistemology (how people come to know).  Truth is what we find it impossible not to believe.  It’s what our minds, hearts, friends, families, classes, races, ethics, ideologies, histories, and imagined futures demand that must believe, if we are to be functioning people in society.  Truth is what makes us act, makes us do things in the world to achieve change.  Truth isn’t a mirror of reality, it’s what we can’t doubt.

The pragmatists help us see three levels of truth in the whole Daisey debacle.  The first—a mundane kind of level—is about the details of Daisey’s narrative.  Did he talk to 3 people or 10 people?  Did he talk with someone who had used n-hexane or not?  Was the girl he talked to 12- or 13-years old?  These details matter for sure.  The second type is focused on what different genres have to say about truth.  Is a theatre story that makes us feel something “true” because the emotions are real, regardless of their origin?  Is a journalistic story “true” because we trust news organizations to follow fact-checking conventions that we might not understand first-hand, but that tradition, professional scrutiny and investigative reporting outcomes have convinced us are the gold standard of fact-based public storytelling?  Do we trust Daisey more or less to influence our beliefs if we know which genres and traditions he’s using?

The third type of truth, though, is where pragmatists are the most helpful and where internet-based learning is trickiest: what do we want to do because of the story?  What is it about the mix of emotion, evidence, argument, and narrative compels us to action – to believe something or do something?  What  do we want to be true?  What do our social worlds make it hard for us to doubt?  What makes us act because of—or in spite of—the story?  Would we let ourselves believe that Daisey is telling us about a problem that does or doesn’t exist?

This whole incident is definitely about journalism, storytelling, labour practices, and fact-checking.  But it’s also about how belief, trust, and doubt intersect to make us make things true for ourselves.  On the internet there are countless sources, genres, stories, traditions, networks, and appeals to authority.  The case of Mike Daisey, Apple, and This American Life isn’t about the internet per se; but it does serve as an examplar for thinking about contemporary truth-making.

The Daisey incident can help us understand why we believe and why we act.  (It means, for example, being able to distinguish between the three kinds of truth-making described above the next time an incident like this happens.)  Such beliefs and actions are at the heart of internet-based ways of knowing and the accompanying shifts away from traditional sources of power and truth-making.  Being a good pragmatist means always being open to questioning not only what you believe but how you believe.  It not only means knowing how to work across multiple epistemologies (when to use journalism and when to rely on theatre, when to tell stories and when to use statistics, when to use an example as an exemplar) but understanding the impact that different ways of knowing can have on your openness to believing later what you might doubt now.

(The pragmatist philosophers probably didn’t anticipate being so relevant today, but they’d surely have been open to considering the possibility.)

Putting aside for a moment questions of labour reform, Daisey’s lies, journalistic traditions, and genres of storytelling: what is it that’s impossible for you to doubt in this story?  Where does this impossibility come from?  What needs to change for you to doubt a little more – and thus be a different kind of certain?

Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

On Friday, Dharun Ravi – the Rutgers student whose roommate Tyler Clementi killed himself – was found guilty of privacy invasion, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation (a hate crime). When John Palfrey and I wrote about this case three weeks ago, I was really hopeful that the court proceedings would give clarity and relieve my uncertainty. Instead, I am left more conflicted and deeply saddened. I believe that the jury did their job, but I am not convinced that justice was served. More disturbingly, I think that the symbolic component of this case is deeply troubling.

In New Jersey, someone can be convicted of bias intimidation for committing an act…

  1. with the express purpose of intimidating an individual or group…
  2. knowing that the offense would cause an individual or group to feel intimidated…
  3. with which the individual or group on the receiving end believes that they were targeted…

… because of their race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In Ravi’s trial, the jury concluded that Ravi neither intended to intimidate Clementi nor believed that his acts would make Clementi feel intimidated because of his sexuality. Yet, the jury did conclude that, based on computer evidence, Clementi probably felt intimidated because of his sexuality.

As someone who wants to rid the world of homophobia, this conviction leaves me devastated. I recognize the symbolic move that this is supposed to make. This is supposed to signal that homophobia will not be tolerated. But Ravi wasn’t convicted of being homophobic, but, rather, creating the “circumstances” in which Clementi would probably feel intimidated. In other words, Ravi is being punished for living in a culture of homophobia even though there’s little evidence to suggest that he perpetuated it intentionally. As Mary Gray has argued, we are all to blame for the culture of homophobia that has resulted in this tragedy.

I can’t help but think of Clementi’s parents in light of this. By all accounts, their reaction to their son’s confession that he was gay did more to intimidate Clementi based on his sexuality than Ravi’s stupid act. Yet, I can’t even begin to imagine that the court would charge, let alone convict, Clementi’s distraught parents of a hate crime. ::shudder::

I can’t justify Ravi’s decision to invade his roommate’s privacy, especially not at a moment in which he would be extremely vulnerable. I also cannot justify Ravi’s decision to mess with evidence, even though I suspect he did so out of fear. But I also don’t think that either of these actions deserve 10 years of jail time or deportation (two of the options given to the judge). I don’t think that’s justice.

This case is being hailed for its symbolism, but what is the message that it conveys? It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time, while politicians and pundits who espouse hatred on TV and radio and in stump speeches continue to be celebrated. It says that a teen who invades the privacy of his peer will be condemned, even while companies and media moguls continue to profit off of more invasive invasions.

I’m also sick and tired of people saying that this will teach kids an important lesson. Simply put, it won’t. No teen that I know identifies their punking and pranking of their friends and classmates as bullying, let alone bias intimidation. Sending Ravi to jail will do nothing to end bullying. Yet, it lets people feel like it will and that makes me really sad. There’s a lot to be done in this realm and this does nothing to help those who are suffering every day.

The jury did its job. The law was followed. I have little doubt that Ravi did the things that he was convicted of doing. But I am not celebrating because I don’t think that this case made the world a better place. I think that it simply destroyed another life.

The Power of Youth: How Invisible Children Orchestrated Kony 2012

To many people unfamiliar with Invisible Children, the Kony 2012 campaign looked like a brilliant example of “viral” media spread. The center of the campaign is a compelling 30-minute film where a father talks to his son about the evil practices of the Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony. The father makes it clear that his number one goal is to make Kony a household name in order to “raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” In the days that followed, critics stepped up and critiqued the simplistic narrative (and colonial rhetoric) put forward by Invisible Children. (If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend Ethan Zuckerman’s “Unpacking Kony 2012.”) Yet, what about the media campaign itself? Activists (and brand marketers) everywhere are in awe of what appears to be a magical campaign that came out of nowhere. But there’s more than meets the eye here.

Over at the SocialFlow blog, Gilad Lotan (my partner) analyzed two aspects of the Invisible Children campaign:

  1. how pre-existing networks helped create the viral spread;
  2. how people targeted celebrities to garner attention philanthropy. There are many important aspects of this blog post, but I want to focus on the role of youth in this process.

Invisible Children is not a new organization. They have spent tremendous effort over the last decade reaching out to youth. They have widespread reach in high schools, colleges, and churches throughout the United States. Many youth are (uncritically) committed to helping stop bad things from happening to other children in Africa. Invisible Children has focused for years on the value of attention philanthropy. They work diligently to do whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to bad things happening in the world. They raise money to raise attention. They leverage celebrities and Hollywood film tactics to reach wide audiences in a hope to activate them to create more attention (and, thus, both funding and political pressure). They engage directly with churches, where word-of-mouth networks in the U.S. are strongest. For the last decade, they have worked on creating films and bringing in celebrities to raise attention to what is happening in Africa, first in Sudan (Darfur) and then in Uganda.

Much to the horror of many human rights activists, Invisible Children is not known for spreading accurate information as much as it’s known for spreading information widely.

Most of how they’ve gotten the message out is by engaging youth. Earlier films have been shown directly to youth (in schools and churches) and youth are actively encouraged to join the organization and participate in their campaigns. They provide toolkits for participation with the primary goal being to amplify attention to a particular issue.

The stories that Invisible Children create in their media put children at the front and center of them. And, indeed, as Neta Kliger-Vilenchik and Henry Jenkins explain, youth are drawn to this type of storytelling. Watch Kony 2012 from the perspective of a teenager or college student. Here is a father explaining to a small child what’s happening in Africa. If you’re a teen, you see this and realize that you too can explain to others what’s going on. The film is powerful, but it also models how to spread information. The most important thing that the audience gets from the film is that they are encouraged to spread the gospel. And then they are given tools for doing that. Invisible Children makes it very easy to share their videos, republish their messages on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, and “like” them everywhere. But they go beyond that; they also provide infrastructure to increase others’ attention.

Invisible Children knew that it was targeting culture makers and youth. And Twitter users no less. Indeed, check out the list of “culture makers” that they encouraged youth to target. It’s an interesting mix of liberals (George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Bono), conservatives (Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly), geeks (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), big philanthropy names (Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Warren Buffett), and pop stars (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber). Plus others. They also recommended contacting political figures. (Interestingly, they start with G.W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice and don’t list Obama at all.) As Lotan points out, these celebrities got pummeled with thousands upon thousands of messages from fans, predominantly young fans. And many of them responded.

When celebrities receive this kind of onslaught from their fans – and, especially their younger fans – they pay attention. And so they post out about this. This is exactly where the fuzzy feelings towards attention philanthropy kick in. Young people feel like they did something by getting a celebrity to pay attention to a cause. A celebrity feels like they’ve done some by talking about the cause to a wide audience. And, voila, Invisible Children taps into the attention economy to get their message out.

Yet, there’s more to this. It’s not just anyone who’s paying attention or a small cluster of people that are paying attention from which things radiate. This tag cloud from the SocialFlow blog represents the words that were in the bios of the accounts of those who posted about #stopkony or #kony2012.

Now, check out this network graph of the tweets:

The initial tweets that came out came from seemingly disconnected youth living in Midwestern and Southern towns who frequently refer to Christian values in their bios. In other words, these tweets appear to be coming from communities that Invisible Children had already activated prior to launching Kony 2012. Not only did they then each turn on, but they spread the messages to their friends. This allowed the conversation to “pop” and then spread. The one profile that does have a lot of cluster is the Invisible Children profile, highlighting how their audience was indeed ready to respond to them. But you also see tight clusters that geographically disparate who bridged from the organization and then spread in their local community with a level of intense density. With this kind of graph structure, it’s not surprising that it quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. And then, it could easily spread. Attention begets attention.

I’m especially intrigued by Gilad’s note on the role of religious youth in all of this. Gilad has only begun looking at the data so he doesn’t have a good scope on all of what’s happening, but I’m not surprised by the presence of religious language in the accounts of those who tweeted this message. I very much suspect that a lot of what made this pop has to do with strong pre-existing Christian networks. I’m always surprised at how often people in the tech community regularly underestimate the power of religious networks.

Architecturally, this is a brilliant campaign. It’s really too bad that the message is so deeply flawed. (Again, if you haven’t read Ethan’s post, read it now.)

The fact that privileged folks – including white American youth – can spread messages like this is wonderful, but my hunch is that they’re structurally positioned to spread information farther and wider than those who are socially marginalized. What happens when they try to speak out on behalf of marginalized voices instead of helping marginalized voices be heard? I’m really bothered by how Kony 2012 is all about white people – and primarily white Americans – talking about what should be done in a foreign country to help “poor black people.” I’m glad that NPR and a few other news organizations have sought out Ugandan/African perspectives, but none of those perspectives have broken through the tornado of chaos that has followed this event. So I can’t help but wonder… with the rise of attention philanthropy, are we going to see a new type of attention colonialism?

A Message to the “First Responders” in Gay Kids’ Lives: Why We Need to Ditch the Politics of Blame, Stop Talking About “Cyberbullying,” and Move Toward Sharing Responsibility for the Loss of Tyler Clementi

2 March 2012 

A Message to the “First Responders” in Gay Kids’ Lives: Why We Need to Ditch the Politics of Blame, Stop Talking About “Cyberbullying,” and Move Toward Sharing Responsibility for the Loss of Tyler Clementi

 By Mary L. Gray

Cross posted on HuffingtonPost; maryLgray.org; Cultural Digitally

Senior Researcher Microsoft Research New England, Cambridge, MA

Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, Indiana University

Tyler Clementi’s death on 22 September 2010 was one of several highly publicized youth suicides that fall. In several cases, media coverage and political discourse connected these tragedies to cases of on and offline harassment saturated in homophobic sentiment. Research among students suggests that these hostilely charged environments are the norm rather than the exception. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth contemplating suicide, parents, peers, educators, faith leaders, and LGBTQ community advocates are key “first responders”—caring individuals on the scene, providing support—in the wake of this ubiquitous animus. Rallying to punish Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student standing trial for 15 criminal counts, including tampering with witnesses and evidence, invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation of Tyler Clementi, does not do justice to Clementi’s life nor does it move us one step closer to preventing another young person, like him, from turning to suicide.

Yet, for the past 2 years, anti-bullying advocates have had their collective frustration and political clout harnessed to further criminalize bullying rather than bolster the roles and resources of invaluable LGBTQ youth “first responders” on the ground. States and school districts rushed to crack down on bullies, prompted, in some cases, by their own convictions but, surely in others, by a political desire to appease constituencies without having to take an explicit stand on anything (who could be for bullying, after all). As a result, a record number of anti-bullying policies are now on the books. However, we have no concrete evidence that such top-down policies prevent or counteract bullying, particularly so-called “cyberbullying”—harassment carried out through texting and online social networks. Worse yet, some research on violent harassment among youth suggests that framing the problem as “bullying” actually works against youth reporting violence or identifying themselves as targets of it (Marwick and boyd 2011).

As we move forward, we need to shift from a dead-end politics of blame to build out the sources of support and ethos of shared responsibility that could make a difference, literally, between life and death for LGBTQ young people.

Rethinking homophobia. Tracing a causal link between Ravi’s homophobic actions and Tyler Clementi’s suicide dangerously oversimplifies homophobia. This formula suggests that homophobia is something “individuals have” rather than what our cultural norms perpetuate. Rather than presume homophobia vents an individual’s fear of homosexuality, researchers, such as sociologist CJ Pascoe (2009), have persuasively argued that it is a portable (I would argue concealable) weapon for policing sexuality and shoring up the fragile gender identities emblematic of tween and teen life. Young people, like Clementi, searching for communities to reflect who they are must constantly weigh if talking about how they feel, whether it’s with parents, close friends, or complete strangers, will work for or against them. If we are serious about preventing bullying and suicide, we need a calculus that always works in a young person’s favor.

The homophobia expressed in Ravi’s disgust for Clementi’s intimacy with another man, as much as the racism conveyed in Clementi’s joking suggestions that Ravi’s South Asian parents owned a Dunkin’ Donuts, signal our limited capacity to celebrate difference. We need to stop telling young people what they shouldn’t say or do and start teaching them—and ourselves—the social and emotional literacies they need to challenge the way they see themselves and each other. It’s time to start having direct conversations with students (beyond the platitude that such name calling “isn’t nice)” about the power that words like “fag,” “no homo,” “bitch,” and others circulate, not only through the person targeted by the slur, but also the person hurling it. Only then can we hope to turn homophobia from an easy insult to a powerful analytic tool for mining our own fears, insecurities, and discomforts with difference.

Expanding parental support/holding parents accountable. One of the few things we know for sure is that parents, guardians, and adult mentors make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth. A young person, for example, who lives in fear of a parent’s condemnation is more likely to hurt themselves than a young person who feels supported and accepted at home (Ryan 2009). This is not surprising. But by not explicitly recognizing parents’ roles, we undermine their importance as a strategy for combating LGBTQ youth bullying and suicide. Parents and guardians provide a measure of incomparable respite when they celebrate, rather than stand neutral or second-guess a young person’s decision to question what it means to be straight. A modest expression of acceptance makes a measureable difference. But even that can be a tall order. Adults must negotiate and account for their own doubts and anxieties when a child asks such questions before they can effectively offer first responder support. Parents shouldn’t have to go it alone and, realistically, can’t do it all. They need allies, from family, faith communities, and other positive social networks, to counter the violence and hostility rampant in school environments and circulating online. We will know we’ve reached our goal when every young adult imagines they’d celebrate, rather than endure or suffer through, having an LGBTQ-identifying child of their own.

Focusing on basic research. Educators, researchers, and policy makers need to acknowledge that we know next to nothing about the quality of young LGBTQ people’s lives before we can even begin to contribute to meaningful strategies for supporting them. The data we arm ourselves with, even the universally cited statistics on higher suicide rates among lesbian and gay youth perpetuate a rudimentary, generic picture (Waidzunas 2011). But we have no idea what daily life is like for the average LGBTQ-identifying teen. Right now, there is no national instrument for measuring young people’s positive experiences around sexuality and gender. Most states don’t ask a single question about LGBTQ youth on their annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, effectively erasing them from the discussion at the state and district level. Indeed, Massachusetts remains the only state with a standing Commission on GLBT Youth that funds support programs in its public schools through its department of education that gather data on the effectiveness of LGBTQ-specific outreach and education. What we need is a nationally funded, coordinated effort that links programming, outreach, and research on behalf of LGBTQ youth. Harvard University’s Born This Way Foundation, launched February 29, and the Massachusetts GLBT Youth Commission’s Research Consortium are 2 good examples of what needs to be done.

Where to go from here. Focusing our collective outrage on prosecuting an individual, whether seeking the harshest punishment we can wring out of Ravi’s case or lobbying for so called “zero-tolerance” policies that automatically expel any student implicated in bullying, implies that homophobia can be rooted out, one bad apple at a time. Turning this into a case of one individual driving Clementi over the edge moves us no closer to seeing the journey that brought Clementi to that edge. When it comes to understanding and preventing youth suicide, our research, educational policies, and legal actions can’t stop at weeding out the presence of homophobic individuals but must demand systems of accountability that address how we individually and collectively perpetuate homophobia in everyday ways. That is why the “first responders” fighting for young people’s federal rights to an equal education and the human right to free expression must call on us to more broadly share responsibility in making those rights universal over narrowly seeking the right bully to blame and lock up.

Citations:

Alice Marwick and danah boyd. (2011). “The Drama! Teen Conflict in Networked Publics.” Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22.

http://ssrn.com/abstract=1926349

CJ Pascoe. (2007). Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Caitlin Ryan, David Huebner, Rafael M. Diaz, and Jorge Sanchez. (2009). “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults.” Pediatrics January 2009; 123:1 346-352; doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3524

Tom Waidzunas. (2011).Young, Gay, and Suicidal: Dynamic Nominalism and the Process of Defining a Social Problem with Statistics.” Science, Technology & Human Values, 0162243911402363-. doi:10.1177/0162243911402363

 

BIO

Mary L. Gray is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, with affiliations in American Studies, Anthropology, and the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University. She draws on an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and critical media studies to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press, 2009) examined how youth in rural parts of the United States fashioned “queer” senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media—particularly internet access—played in their lives and political work.