Big Data Dystopia?

In M. Lévy’s Théories des medias (UOTM), students learned about a lot of different things, such as digital currency, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, artificial intelligence, and even the use of emojis to convey emotion! It was a course geared towards 21st century developments in communications and showed students a glimpse into the future of teaching as we tweeted our weekly notes and tapped into the collective intelligence found on social media. The class was riveting from beginning to end, but the thing that I learned the most from UOTM was the extent to which new technologies, specifically Big Data and social media, are used to provoke social change.

I’ve always believed in the power of the internet to reach out to others on an individual level, but my thinking was restricted to this. For example, I frequently use crowdsourcing on social media, particularly to gain some insight regarding my peers’ views concerning social/political issues. I’ve also seen some wonderful examples of crowdfunding for great causes from some of my friends. I’ve made use of online libraries and journals to do research. Furthermore, I personally use Facebook and other communication platforms to share my own ideas about mental wellness and try to encourage positive change in the world, trying to show others that this new technology of ours can be used for good, and not only as an evil distraction.

Despite all of this, I had never paused to reflect on the level of change that might be possible by strategically targeting a large portion of the population through the use of algorithms, and I was intrigued by the prospect. M. Lévy’s class last semester got me interested in the use of propaganda in a new era, but I didn’t really understand how it worked, and UOTM gave me a lot of the missing pieces I needed in order to further comprehend the subject.

At the core of what I’m talking about is Big Data. This is a relatively recent concept which basically involves huge datasets that have previously been too large and complex to deal with. The most impactful social function of Big Data is able to use analytics to predict consumer behaviour and target individuals based on their online activity. (Note: Big Data is also used for scientific data analysis and research, but this is not my topic of choice.) The course highlighted some pertinent examples to better explain the ability of technology to enact largescale social change, which I will now briefly outline.

Cambridge Analytica, BREXIT, and the Trump Campaign

cambridge x prop.jpgThe media is seen as largely influential in its traditional state where billboards and magazines are said to “warp young minds” and influence our standards of beauty. But imagine how much more effective media messages would be if they were targeting to each individuals’ interests. This is precisely what Cambridge Analytica, a company that has developed algorithms to categorise individuals based on their digital footprint, aims to do. Their algorithms use psychometric principles in order to know how to best influence individual people according to for politic purposes. As mentioned in my tweet above, this is essentially new-age propaganda. Cambridge Analytica was employed in both BREXIT and the Trump campaign, and is seen as one of the influencing factors for the separation and election to presidency respectively.

Aside from the strategic use of Big Data through Cambridge Analytica, Trump also made unprecedented use of social media to reach out to potential voters and garner attention. By refusing to conform to mainstream political etiquette online, Trump encouraged frustrated citizens to vote for him, in hopes of changing the country’s capitalist status quo.

Big Data and China’s “Social Credit” System

This new technological age is being heralded as being a “post-privacy” society and, in many ways, I believe this to be accurate. Individuals’ behaviours are able to be tracked and interpreted for commercial and political purposes, as clearly exemplified through the use of Big Data in the context of Cambridge Analytica and similar companies. However, even more intrusive and shocking than online propaganda is, in my opinion, the potential future use for Big Data technology.

“Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how ‘trustworthy’ you are.”

Simon Denyer for Washington Post 

This sounds like the beginning of a dystopian novel or movie, but it is a conceivable reality due to the extensive ability of technology, harnessed to store and interpret individuals’ data. What China is proposing to do is to basically create a social system as a means of “motivating” the populace to behave in ways which meet ideal behaviour, as defined by the government. Medical, legal, and commercial records, family history, social media, and more, could all be targets of governmental assessment and sanction.

While this system is proposed allegedly to support social reform and decrease crime, it is obvious to most that this is a huge invasion of privacy and highly reductionist of human nature.

Towards a Dystopian Future?

Living in a post-privacy world has many people scared, and for good reason. Clearly, Big Data can be used irresponsibly and gives tremendous power to influence people to an unprecedented extent. However, being scared will do nothing to ameliorate the situation. These technologies are already available, and becoming more efficient, effective, and accessible by the day. Going forward, we, as a society need to focus our attention on a more proactive response. At a societal level changes need to be made, such the adaptation of legislation to reflect technological developments, to continue to protect individuals’ liberties and freedoms. And what can you do? Educate yourself, of course. Critical thinking is crucial to surviving this 21st century world and to avoid falling prey to propaganda.

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CMN1560: My Perception of Propaganda & PC Culture

Last year when I tried to take “Introduction à l’étude des médias” (CMN1560) online, I was left feeling uninspired and uninterested, ultimately dropping the course. Luckily for me, my second attempt has been amazing thanks to interesting and relevant material, an engaging professor (shout-out to M. Lévy!), and a revolutionary teaching style using social media such as Twitter and Facebook. I am so genuinely excited about what I have learned and how I was able to express it that I even made my friends read my midterm assignments and have supplemented some of the material we learned with my own research!

The main thing that I’ve learned from Professor Lévy is that each major change in communication media has brought (and continues to bring) new potential and new challenges which pervade all areas of society. For me, our discussion about 20th century propaganda coupled with the classes about the algorithmic medium have most inspired me to change my way of thinking about the world we live in today.

An Introduction to Propaganda

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The first image that enters my mind when I think of propaganda is an Uncle Sam, pointing and telling passer-bys “I Want You!”, but propaganda has a much longer history than 20th century wartime. For example, before writing was even invented, messages could be propagated through society via social institutions such as the theatre and the church.

In 1450, the printing press was invented; finally there was a way to disseminate written material in a more efficient way to a large population. Following this development, the telephone (1870), the cinema (1900), the radio (1920), and the television (1900) were all invented, each a new channel for propaganda to be spread first across the country, and then around the world. These methods of propaganda were quite effective, especially since the powers that controlled them and dictated their content were very centralised.

The true beginning of systematic propaganda by the press was seen in WWI, but war propaganda was further and more famously used during WWII (1939-1945, examples below). Mussolini had his speeches played through radios on street corners, forcing his ideologies on his citizens. Hitler used Mussolini’s technique of propaganda to share his ideas, helping helped him to gain power in Germany. Other countries, such as the US used similar techniques, and short films (such as the one made by Disney featured below) were created to criticise the opposition.

These examples demonstrate that constant exposure to a streamlined ideology whilst restricting freedom of expression has been used time and time again to create brainwashed societies, and that this it is  very effective way to control a population.

Propaganda and the Algorithmic Medium

In more recent years, classic media has slowly begun to become obsolete and rather irrelevant to the masses at large. In its place is a new media superpower: the algorithmic medium. An example of the relevancy of this statement is Donald Trump’s recent victory, making him the U.S.A.’s president-elect. Throughout the election, the majority of classic media was against his presidency, and it was predicted that he would lose. Still, he won. propaganda-media-controls-us

The above image is no longer completely accurate; whereas traditional media such as newspapers and news stations are largely controlled by political groups and corporations, the Internet is a free-for-all! Anyone can publish content on the web, and infinite opinions on an infinite number of topics are easily accessible through search engines such as Google.

Of course, propaganda exists everywhere on the Internet, and it is able to reach people more instantaneously than ever before. At its core, propaganda is simply the creation and dissemination of a message in an attempt to convince an audience of something. Although we tend to associate it with negative or extreme concepts, such as Hitler’s Germany, propaganda is not found in these unique instances. Below are some “positive” or “every day” forms of propaganda.

Importantly, M. Levy pointed out that freedom of expression was previously uniquely theoretical, but is now a practical concept for those who have access to the Internet (a predicted 99% of the world by 2035). Plainly stated, the algorithmic medium provides a means to speak up in support of our beliefs.

Freedom of Speech

My perception freedom of speech has been forever altered by this course.

Weirdly enough, one of my classmates spawned a controversy via Twitter and Facebook by deliberately posting instigating messages in order to see my classmates’ responses and discuss them in his own final blog post.

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Image/example used with permission from Eric Charron.

He did not post anything insulting or degrading – and definitely nothing hateful – but he received many attempts to silence him. One person went so far as to post on our class Facebook group, pleading with the T.A. and our professor to make him stop – something that she had every right to do, even if Eric’s actions were only slightly irritating at worst, because of freedom of speech. As unimportant as this incident may seem, for me it highlighted the importance of freedom of expression: speech should not be censored. What is offensive for one is not always offensive for all, and individuals should not be allowed to silence someone for voicing a controversial opinion or for acting in a way that is outside of the accepted norm. Just as technology  cannot advance without accepting innovation, society and humankind cannot advance by permitting people to voice their opinions only when it suits the current ideology.

Interested in pursuing this topic further, I spoke with one of my friends via Facebook (another example of learning through social media) and he had the following to say:

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Recently, there has been a movement within the educational community and otherwise regarding what many have called “PC (politically correct) culture” and its adverse effects on freedom of speech and, ultimately, learning and progressing. While I’m more than happy to do what I can to make people feel as comfortable as possible, I believe there should always be a place for logical debate and that all opinions (given that they are not directly harming another) have the right be freely expressed under appropriate circumstances.

The Internet provides an incredible forum for expression, learning, and engagement. For the first time in human history, we truly have the ability to enact freedom of expression. However, the Internet also exposes us to a vast variety of opinions, some of which we may find offensive or hurtful. In my opinion, we should not try to diminish and insult their authors, but ignore them or engage in a meaningful discussion. This is how we can truly make the most of this brand new communication medium.

A Message Of Hope

In grade 10, I was depressed. There’s no doubt in my mind that what I experienced for a few years in high school was one of the lowest experiences I’ll probably ever face in my lifetime, although there’s still much time ahead of me. I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD, as some of you may know from other blog posts/by knowing me, and had a general indifference towards life and being alive.

I’m sharing this as a message of hope.

I know there are lots of protestations when the phrase “It Gets Better” gets thrown around but, for myself and many others, it really can get better. Thanks to counselling, my openness with my experience, amazing friends and family, and my passion for mental health and helping others, my life really has gotten so much better since then & I have healed so much!

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I was talking about this with one of my best friends the other day. We’d both gone through very low lows throughout high school, which was a mere few years ago through both of us. While we were discussing it, we realized how remarkable it was that a few short years ago, we experienced so much self-loathing and truly thought nothing would ever get better. Today, we’re both overall happy people and are surviving and thriving, and I think it’s just so cool to look back on how far we’ve come.

Of course, I still have many dark days where I don’t feel like I’m good enough and feel hopeless. I think everyone does. The important thing is is that I’m no longer forcing a smile on my face and pretending that I’m okay – I actually am. You can be too!

If you’re in a dark place right now, I hope you are able to reach out and overcome what you’re going through. I hope you can one day realize that, not only is life beautiful but that you are too. There are so many resources available to you. There’s no shame in accessing them! If you ever need help or someone to listen, I’m here.

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Good luck in your journey!

International Day of Happiness!

Today is the International Day of Happiness (note: check out that link. There are awesome things there)!

Today, take a moment to do some things that make yourself and other people happy! You can use this article as a guideline if you’re having trouble thinking of examples 🙂

1. A quote that makes you happy

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I live my life by this quotation! It always makes me smile and serves as a reminder that there are so many wonderful things in the world; sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

Also:

What makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale?

—Boyhood

2. A picture that makes you happy

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My dog in a field of wildflowers. The fact that I get to see him in a few days makes it even better!

Also, selfies with my dog:

3. A place that makes you happy

The beach by my house is one of my favourite places in the world. Whenever I’m stressed out and need to calm down, I take a walk by the lake and automatically feel better.

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4. A song that makes you happy

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5. A movie that makes you happy

Any Marvel movie ever.

All in all…

… There are so many wonderful & happiness-inspiring things & people in this world! Today, on #InternationalDayofHappiness, let’s all try to take a moment, breathe, and be mindful of the things that put a smile on our faces and a SPRING in our steps!

PS – happy first day of Spring!

 

 

“You’re Stupid and You’re Wrong!”

Picture this:

You’re sitting across the room from me in a lecture room crowded with a few hundred of your acquaintances, when the teacher asks a question. After a few minutes of awkward silence and the noise of papers being shuffled around, you decide to try to answer, even though you’re not sure if you’re right. You mix up a term though, and the teacher gets in your face and yells “YOU’RE WRONG! WHAT YOU SAID IS INVALID AND YOU’RE IRRELEVANT AND WRONG AND NOW YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL THE CLASS! I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW WRONG YOU ARE! HAVE YOU EVEN BEEN LISTENING IN MY CLASS?!”

– wtf, right? Chances are, you’d be really confused if the above situation ever happened to you. Teachers are there to teach you and help you to learn, because they supposedly want you to succeed and become more informed about their subject of interest.

Let me get something straight: I’m not one for censoring reactions to oppression. People who have been systematically and repeatedly oppressed, mistreated, and silenced have every right to address their perceived oppressors in any way they feel just. Some people are incredibly rude and disrespectful and spew their hate speech to whomever will listen to them, and they totally deserve to be called out on it.

But here’s the thing… 

What I’m frustrated by is the fact that A LOT of people who claim to want social reform through education and understanding refuse to educate…

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And that just doesn’t make sense.

[From here on out, I’m just going to be talking about people who may say/do something offensive without realizing it; people who genuinely don’t get it. Bear that in mind.]

When somebody tells you you’re wrong and refuses to explain it any further – or explains it in condescending, hostile/aggressive language – what are the chances that you’ll actually take something positive from it? Next to nothing, I’d bet. You’d either retaliate and become equally heated, become defensive and avoidant, or become really upset and think the other person is just mean or a bully. The same thing happens when trying to address oppressive language or actions from someone who may not understand the issues or terminology at hand: you won’t get very far if you try to “correct” them by attacking them.

I genuinely don’t understand people’s logic when it comes to things of this manner. I understand that “we don’t need to tiptoe around oppressors feelings” and that “oppressors shouldn’t feel like their oppressive opinions are valid because that’s harmful”, I really do. But, like it or not, they’re still people with thoughts and feelings and experiences that are likely very different from the people that they (maybe inadvertently) are offending. And yeah, you’re right; they don’t have the same experience as you. They don’t get it and, in an ideal world, these clueless people would take the time to peruse the internet for hours and attend meetings and events to in an attempt educate themselves… but, clearly, this is not an ideal world, and the people who actually do actively learn about these issues tend to only be those who are already involved and enlightened – I want more people than that to join positive social movements.

So what? Should the oppressed be forced into being patient and painstakingly explain to these people why what they’re saying/doing is wrong?

Of course not. If you’re a member of a group that has been wronged, I don’t think that should be forced to cater to anyone, but I really don’t see what you’re hoping to accomplish otherwise. For example, when a male doesn’t understand the concept of “male privilege” and gets defensive about the concept, you probably won’t gain an ally by calling him a misogynistic, sexist women-hater who wants all women to suffer horribly. But, if you take a few minutes to explain that the concept of male privilege does not refer to every single male individually, but to males as a gender due to the systematic historical oppression of and violence against women, you might get him to understand. You might even get him to care, agree with you, and support you. Personally, I think that’s a much better alternative.

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As a final thought, continue to react to perceived oppression in whatever way you please. That’s on you. But before you do, think about your goals and values. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, because I think you can accomplish so much. Will you fight ignorance by forcefully standing up for yourself, even if it means missing out on an ally? Or will you be willing to have the possibility of failing after you have the patience to truly and compassionately teach someone who doesn’t understand the struggle? The choice is yours.

Yes, We Exist Too.

There are certain things that I’ve always struggled to put into words for fear that I will hurt others when I speak them. Topics of equity and equality seem to be at the forefront of the list of things I want to talk about, but never know where – or how – to even start. So I’m just going to start, and hope that my ramblings make some coherent sense and don’t offend.

Black history month is a beautiful thing. I truly, truly love it. I love that the often unheard history of a marginalized group is brought to the forefront for once; I love that the triumphs and beauty of black folks are heard alongside the struggle that they too often bear. I think it is extremely crucial to celebrate diversity and encourage pride in every facet of our identities, whether it we’re talking about sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, genre of music, or anything in between.

During the University of Ottawa’s 101 Week, there was an amazing event called Take Back the Night (TBTN). TBTN is a rally/educational opportunity where women “take back the night” for themselves. It is an event to raise awareness about the pervasive danger that women face, and the threat that we feel, whenever we walk at night. This is something very near and dear to my heart, and it’s so applicable to so many. Who among us females have never been followed by a sketchy guy in a car? Who hasn’t had a random man on the streets come up to us and persist that we allow them to take us home? It is an event that occurs far too often, and TBTN works to call perpetrators out and support individuals who have experienced/will experience/fear experiencing this sort of incident. Furthermore, the event additionally is a way to support women in all aspects of gender-based violence. I was very excited to attend.

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I was even more excited when, at the beginning of the ceremony, the audience was informed that there would be a focus on marginalized groups of people whose voices often went unheard. (Intersectionality – yay!) There were a few pieces on gender-based violence as a whole, and then members of the black community spoke about their instances of gender-based violence and explained how racial discrimination against them often interacted with the sexism that they endured. These pieces were eye-opening and moving, and I felt myself (as an Oriental-Canadian) relating to the concept that racial stereotypes and gender stereotypes are often experienced hand-in-hand.

And then the event was over.

The problem for me is that, in trying to be intersectional, there is a tendency to perpetuate a hierarchy, and certain groups of people are left feeling even more marginalized than they previously did. This is where it gets tricky, because I want to stress that I am deeply happy that the voices of marginalized groups, like the black community, are being heard. I do not feel resentment towards events that focus on issues faced by black folks, nor do I wish they would stop. In fact, I believe much more needs to be done to eradicate systematic racism. However, I really wish that it wouldn’t stop there.

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I have seen so many posts about stereotypes and discrimination that affects certain oppressed groups, but I’m concerned about the rest of us. We all know about Black History Month because it is taught in our schools and there are galas and assemblies, but did you know that Asian Heritage Month exists too? I didn’t until yesterday, and I think that’s a problem. Japanese people were historically oppressed and enslaved here in Canada, and so many people don’t even know that! And what about Aboriginal rights, because (holy crap) this still have a very long way to go. We’ve all heard of the Gay Pride Parade (yes, I’m aware that in this case ‘gay’ represents the wider LGBTQA* spectrum), but what about bisexual pride, and asexual pride, and everything and anything else?

Again, I want to stress that I am not advocating that these events stop taking place, but rather that more events for different groups start. I acknowledge that it’s so difficult to find the space and time to advocate for all of these groups, and there are so many intricacies involved. It’s hard to care about people who you do not identify with, but I’m tired of not seeing people trying.

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