Filter Bubbles, Anonymity, Doxxing, and How They Inform my Concepts of Online Identity and Existence

With a footnote of the difficulties underlying anonymity, legality, and a ‘free speech’ defense

(the good news is almost a third of this post is a footnote, so you can ignore it)


The term ‘filter bubble’ isn’t exactly new:
Eli Pariser wrote the book and did the TEDTalk in 2011, but it‘s still unknown to many. Well, here’s the gist; websites, particularly Google, are personalizing your web experience, including your search results, and they’re not particularly interested in letting you know. Why would they be? Well, at least we know why we should care about personalized information. Pariser identified what he sees as the fundamental problem of filter bubbles in an interview he did over at Brain Pickings:

 

…personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world. We ought to have more control over that — one of the most pernicious things about the filter bubble is that mostly it’s happening invisibly — and we should demand it of the companies we use.

The filfilterbubbleter bubble makes things convenient—easier to find what you want when your search engine or browser is diligently trying to offer up things it thinks you’ll want—but there are downsides; commercial sites will see you coming back and charge you more (airlines are notoriously suspected for this) and your search results will bury links that are of less interest to you, shuffling dissenting opinions under the carpet because Google knows they’ll displease you or won’t be of interest—you won’t click, Google won’t get ad revenue. I use Chrome as a browser because it runs the lightest, though I also use Firefox, but I’ve been seriously considering switching Chrome out for Tor. At the very least I like to keep Google on its toes, running searches from Duckduckgo and frequently browsing or signing in and out of my accounts through proxy servers in the Netherlands and UK, but I know that it’s still got plenty on me—I use Gmail, I may as well give up privacy-wise. Every so often I think about entire sections of the Internet that are hard for me to access because I don’t know the ways in and they can be hard to find—the difficulty of discovering the French Internet always bothered me and filter bubbles make only make this harder.

 

It may be safe and warm inside your own cultural or ideological bubbles, but it’s irresponsible not to be aware of it. Getting outside of the realm of the familiar is important—filter bubbles have a serious potential to limit an individual by preventing exposure to new things, on many levels. It’s easier for this to happen online than in physical life—hard to ignore a protest on the street, but easy when news stories about it might be buried. Obviously this is a specific example, but a person shouldn’t let themselves be limited to things that are catered to them.

 

On a more fundamental level, the Internet is a great place to be exposed to differing and opposing views. That’s the great thing about it. Sure, I read sites that are created for my specific demographic—a blog for geeky feminist women? Don’t mind if I do. But I visit sites whose target audience is not me—a straight cisgendered white woman. I try to find and frequent sites intended for people with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, sites aimed at an LGTBQ audience, because to simply read what’s targeted at me is limiting and I risk being blind to views held or issues faced by others. I also know the sites that I think perpetuate or insulate views I find illogical or even reprehensible. Anti-vaccine advocacy sites, for example, or MRA site (Men’s Rights Activists, who may have legitimate concerns, but frankly delegitimize their own causes by expounding the rhetoric of modern men being crushed under the boot of the cruel and tyrannical feminazi oppressors), or SafeLibraries (which touts the American Library Association as nefarious peddlers of pornography to children). Not all the time, but I won’t just immediately close a site I disagree with. It’s important to know your values and to understand those of others, even if they challenge yours—especially if they challenge yours. If your beliefs can’t hold up against challenges, then what good are they? Of course, eventually I need a hug because the Internet made me sad/mad, but hey, that’s what friends and partners are for.

 

Chris Baraniuk, in an article on the filter bubble, makes note of what he’s termed ‘The Elective Filter Bubble,’ created by unfollowing or blocking those people on social media whose views you disagree with. This is essentially a reflection of real life social interactions where you hang out with people like you, but he finishes his article by asking ‘knowing that we, as a species, are inclined this way, is it any wonder that the Filter Bubble exists?’ Well, no, it isn’t, because we know it’s created artificially. That’s the problem; it’s created through algorithms, not through deliberately made choices. The big issue with the filter bubble is not knowing about it, not realizing the dangers of that ignorance, and not keeping an eye out for increasingly tailored access to online information. It’s getting between us and information, shaping the way we search, and it’s by and large doing so without our knowledge.

 

In terms of the elective filter bubble, well, for all of Facebook’s constant and dubious changes to privacy settings, you have reasonable control over what you see. Throw in AdBlocker and it’s relatively easy to ignore the ‘suggested links’. Yeah, it’s pushing stuff that it thinks I’ll like to the top of my feed, but my Facebook feed isn’t exactly where I get all my news. Facebook, for me, is not a forum for the wider world, fair game for outside voices, like the rest of the Internet. Someone says something I find offensive, they’re gone. Bring on the elective filter bubble. I make an concerted effort not to filter the rest of the world, but primary uses for Facebook are the chat feature, to talk to friends who I’ve moved away from, or events, where I rsvp for in-person attendance. Sure, I upload photos, post to walls, ‘like’ things, but ultimately it’s a site I use to communicate with a non-virtual crowd, not the world at large. Facebook is—more or less—a reflection of IRL (In Real Life) relationships, where, yes, I tend not to befriend people who might hold different values that ‘challenge’ my views because there’s only so much time for real friends, and I’m not wasting it on someone if their views kind of make me think they’re jerks. It’s mostly just old school friends or new school friends, anyway.

 

That said, my Facebook and WordPress/Twitter/Goodread accounts may be separate, even though it’s not like I’m running a secret identity here. I link to the posts I write all fairly frequently because this is a public blog, why wouldn’t I want IRL friends on it too? The disassociation between online identities and ‘real’ life is hardly unusual.

Internet_dog

For years I was a serious lurker—a peculiar status built from watching Internet communities over years without engaging. I watched with amazement as people created and built, watched with resignation as trolls sought to anger or offend. Honestly, I’m not sure anything on the internet could really shock me. It started because when I was younger, you never disclosed personal details online. Sure, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but you don’t know that the person you’re chatting with isn’t a dog. A sketchy dog that could be be trying to ingratiate themselves to you so they could get your personal information, show up at your house and murder you. Yeah, things have changed a bit since then.

 

For myself, any online presence is preformative in a way that doesn’t feel as natural as real life—something about words, I think. I find choosing words is harder than choosing an outfit, knowing that anything put online is going to linger, to be perused. Maybe you keep a private blog, but even then, it’s not the same as keeping a journal. There’s always the possibility of exposure. Maybe some do it because the difficulty of access makes it more private to them personally—post privately to a blog and no sibling can read it without the password, whereas they could pilfer a book journal from under your mattress. But online you can get hacked by a total stranger. (I mean, they probably wouldn’t bother, but they could.) Whatever you put online, no matter the venue or intent is ‘out there.’
 
 
This doesn’t mean that anonymity shouldn’t be valued, it means that you weigh anonymous actions against the possibility of the linking of your online and offline identity. A
n anonymous whistleblower, for example, knows the possible consequences of being uncovered. The notorious troll Violencrantz/Michael Brutsch—creator and/or moderator of subreddits (forums within Reddit) like ‘Jailbait’ and ‘Creepshots’ among other, truly horrifying titles—being interviewed by the journalist who had discovered his real-life identity, begged the man not to dox him (reveal his identifying information), saying “I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time.” When asked if he regretted anything he’d done now that he was to be ‘unmasked’, Brutsch said he didn’t: “I would stand by exactly what I’ve done.” Alright, fine. He was a total creep, but he won’t disown his online actions. Kind of:

 

The problem was, he explained, that if his identity got out, his many enemies would start attaching lies to his name because they simply don’t like his views. They would say he was a child pornographer, when all he had done was spearhead the distribution of thousands of legal photos of underage girls. They would say the fact that he created a subreddit dedicated to Hitler meant he was anti-Semitic, when really it was just trolling. (Brutsch says he’s got Jewish blood himself: “If you see a picture of me, I’m about as Jewish looking as they get.”) They would Google-bomb his name and the word “pedophile” along with his publicly-traded company’s name.

Clearly Brustch knew what would happen. He asked the journalist, Adrian Chen, multiple times what he could do to stop Chen from outing him:

 

“I’m like the spy who’s found out,” he said. “I’ll do anything. If you want me to stop posting, delete whatever I posted, whatever. I am at your mercy because I really can’t think of anything worse that could possibly happen. It’s not like I do anything illegal.”

Maybe Brutsch didn’t do anything illegal, but he did things that many would consider immoral. Can you really claim that you stand behind the things you’ve done, but turn around and say ‘but just don’t say that it was me that did them. Alright, I mean, some people may have seen it that way, but I would like to avoid consequences, please’? Yes, he got fired. As he knew he would if he were outed—he made enemies online for fun. ***

 

I’m not condoning doxxing and I think there’s a complicated conversation to be had about online anonymity and its abuse, but the real crux of the issue here is Brutsch’s ambivalence about the separation of the two factions of his identity.  Maybe the notion that anonymous identities are somehow truly inauthentic or separate from ‘real’ identities is a comfortable fiction left over from the early days of ‘no one knows you’re a dog’-Internet. Sure, no one knew you were a dog but did that ever actually stop you from being a dog? This isn’t ReBoot, you’re not inside a virtual, as essentially a synonym for magical, alternate reality. Online identity and ‘real life’ identity are not separate, they’re fragments of the same whole. You can’t claim independence from your online identity. It wasn’t me, it was jessy_488! (Sorry to any jessy_488’s getting thrown under the bus here). Online may not be a space, but it’s certainly a place, and is that sense is just a real as your bedroom, your classroom, your workplace. These physical spaces don’t bleed over, but online the lines are nebulous. Post something casually and it can come back to bite you professionally. Every move you make online is recorded and permanent in the way that real-life factions of your identity are not.

 

comicbookresources_sm100% accurate depiction of the Internet, courtesy of comicbookresources.com

 

I differentiate and draw lines between my fragmented online identities for personal reasons, but ultimately I know they aren’t separate. So, sure, I just don’t do anything online that I would be ashamed of. Things I might be embarrassed by? Yeah, obviously, I’ve been online since sixth grade. Of course, it’s the same principle I apply in ‘real life’ but frankly even if I didn’t, things can’t follow you around quite as easily. In the case of trolling, well, if I did troll, then I would be using a different calculation to decide what I do online: thrill of upsetting others vs. social fallout if revealed.

 

That’s how it works for me personally but I know that it’s because I’m lucky; I don’t have to make any tough decisions about things like whistleblowing; I don’t live in a country where online censorship is an issue that could cause serious danger to myself as an individual; I’ve never been stalked or been in an abusive relationship; and I don’t get involved in flame wars or piss off trolls who might dox to encourage harassment. It’s easy for me to say because I have a fairly limited presence online and have never encountered real trouble with anonymity. I’ve never needed to be anonymous. Doxxing isn’t illegal, but it has the deeply problematic intention: not of bringing people to justice under the law, but of being used to harass and intimidate, whether as a tool for hacktivists or simply people who feel they’ve been crossed and want some personal revenge. Ultimately it runs up against the fundamental problem of what gives someone the right to dox or to decide who deserves doxxed.

 

It’s not that I don’t believe people are entitled to anonymity online, it’s that anonymity online should never be assumed or taken for granted.

 

a note on free speech & anonymity

Penguin Redesigns

I just discovered these cover redesigns that artist Amy Fleisher did for Penguin in 2010 in celebration for the company’s 75th anniversary. (I know I’m late, but whatever, this is my blog, I do what I want.) She also made custom plushies and USB drives based on the penguin designs. Well, except for the invisible penguin—too bad, because that would have been a neat trick. You can click through to check ’em out.

ImageImage

I always get confused about which Invisible Man people are referring to when they talk about the book—H.G. Well’s sci-fi classic about, well, exactly what you’d think, or Ralph Ellison’s novel about a disenfranchised black man and the issues facing African Americans in the 1930s-ish. (Yes, I know H.G. Well’s officially has a ‘The’ in front of it; somehow that never seems to change my reaction.) Obviously I realize quite quickly which book we’re talking about based on context, but there’s still that first half-second of confusion after whatever statement follows the words “Invisible Man.” Because somehow I always, always manage to assume we’re talking about the other book. Always.

It feels, not so much like catching the wrong end of a stick, more like getting poked in the eye by the stick and being momentarily half-blinded.

Both very good books, both very, very different.

Distrust and Other Lessons My Mother Taught Me: Digital Information Literacy and Growing Up with a Media Educator

Mnet_mediasmarts2I am my mother’s daughter in many ways. There are a lot of things which we share—similar tastes in books and a love of good food, for example. And then there are the similarities that exist because I learnt them from her. Chief among these is a strong sense of the importance of critical thinking and, by proxy, a refusal to take sensationalized or suspect information at face value.

My mother works at an non-profit called MediaSmarts (formerly known as Media Awarness Network or ‘MNet’) which promotes digital and media literacy; researching, raising public awareness, and creating resources for educators. She has been there for all of my living memory, earning her current position as Co-Executive Director, and in some ways it feels like MNet and I grew up together. I was born in 1988 and I’m not a digital native, but the Internet and associated technologies did come into my life at a fairly young age. Sometimes I feel privileged to be in the position I am—I had a childhood in the pre-‘new media’ world, but was introduced to it young enough that a lot of the technology feels intuitive. And I remember MNet evolving to deal with the same changes.

When I was growing up in the 90s, ‘media awareness’ or ‘media literacy,’ to myself and many others, meant a lot of talk about advertising, television, and movies. I still acutely remember the video (on VHS, of course) that we borrowed from the library that showed how fast food was ‘styled’ for television ads—no, really, I still talk about it to this day. (“They glue the sesame seeds on the bun one-at-a-time! By hand!”) I also probably irritated many childhood friends with whispers of “product placement!” during movies. I still have trouble internalizing it sometimes. (Oh right, they expect me to believe this ‘super-hacker’s hardware of choice happens to be a Sony VAIO laptop? Suuure.) Yeah, I’m kind of annoying.

Then the Internet happened. Suddenly Media Awareness was dealing with cyberbullying and hate sites, and providing information about digital literacy to educators who, in some cases, had no idea what they were dealing with. Mnet, and my mother too, were deeply entrenched in the forefront of a serious change in our society. So I approached the new world of information with a very real education in many aspects of digital literacy, and having adopted my mother’s scepticism of online information from potentially sketchy sources as my own. I don’t think this is an unusual mindset, per say, but it’s developed to the point that when I see something that makes me think ‘That doesn’t sound right…’ then I have absolutely no choice but to chase it down, because it’s under my skin now. Sometimes it’s actually something I can use, but more often than not it’s for the personal satisfaction of knowing. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. ***

In the title to this entry I used the term ‘distrust’, and I don’t see that as being a particularly negative term in this context. No one defaults to trust of online information; even if you aren’t aware of it, you make a choice to trust an online source. I may not trust YahooAnswers for anything important, but if I want to know how long I should be baking a pie out of the freezer, well, I’m going to be keeping an eye on it anyway, so a rough idea is all I’m looking for. It’s important that you be aware of how you made the move from distrust to trust—maybe you decided, like me with my pie, that in this individual case that accuracy wasn’t that important, or maybe you decided that you trust the authority of the site providing the information, but then ask yourself why.

I bring all this up because I recently read a blog posting by Ingrid at ‘The Magpie Librarian: a librarian’s guide to modern life and etiquette’, about a series of class visits with middle school and high school classes where she’s teaching them basic online research skills and discovering they have no idea what they’re doing. Digital natives may navigate new media in day-to-day life, but they haven’t just absorbed information literacy by osmosis. Both of the sites that she uses in her demonstrations are ones that I know—I have a distinct memory of my mother talking about kids falling for the ‘North American Tree Octopus’ site and talking about its resemblance to the Concerned Children’s Advertisers’ ‘North American House Hippo’ television spot (Tell me I’m not the only one that remembers that classic piece of Canadiana). I was particularly amused by her revelation that interns at her library had created a mockumentary about the fictional ghost of a little girl, Agatha Ann Cunningham, who had disappeared in the library and haunted it still. They screened their video on Halloween, ready to be discovered—or at least questioned—at any time. But the ‘outing’ never came. In fact, the entire incident was followed up with an absolutely absurd encounter with a journalist who didn’t bother to ask if Agatha was real until she was talking to her third librarian.

North American House Hiipo North American Tree Octopus

Seems legit.

How did you learn about judging the accuracy of online information?—aside from those of us who were told by a high school teacher that you couldn’t use Wikipedia as a source because anyone could have written that, never mind that they had cited their sources, and hearing the whole “well, it’s alright it’s it ends in .org or is from the government” spiel. Maybe the tendency to filter information by the criteria we’ve personally established which marks it as ‘good’ or ‘reliable’ becomes so entrenched as we get older that we’ve forgotten what it was like when we first started out.

It’s something I’m always aware of, because I know exactly how my online information literacy developed. Every so often, when talking with my mother she’ll say something along the lines of “You won’t believe the email so-and-so forwarded to me” or “I don’t know how I feel about information circulating about this current dietary trend” and off we go.

Now enjoy this landmark of Canadian advertising.

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Views of Librarianship from the Newly Admitted

vocational guidanceWatching this ever-so informative video about library careers from 1947 only highlights the oddness of the panicky mindset that seems to pervade a lot of librarianship. Yes, many things have changed for the field, but many things remain. All of the jobs in the video—cataloguer, reference librarian, outreach librarian—haven’t exactly gone the way of computers. If anything, technology just means an expansion of possibilities.

The rhetoric surrounding librarianship is what has really changed; in 1947, there was a certain amount of Do you like BOOKS? Also people? Also READING? Did we mention that libraries have BOOKS? BOOKSBOOKSBOOKS. Maybe some other stuff, who knows. Whereas today the unofficial motto of libraries everywhere seems to be: More than books.

The literature of librarianship reflects a lot of theorizing around the nature of the field itself—I’m speaking not just of trends or developments, but about what it is or what it should mean to be to be a librarian, or why libraries are important—and I find myself alternating between being really engaged by the introspection and thinking ah yes, more navel-gazing. Is librarianship in a unique position? I have a hard time imagining that this is the case, that this is the one truly ill-defined career path—but at the same time I’m finding grad school to be a peculiar mix of high ideals, academia, and practical skills, and I wonder what sort, or what amount, of readings are assigned to other Master’s students relating to the ethics and varying visions of their prospective fields. Be warned, I’m about to do some librarianship navel-gazing. But I’m not a librarian, I’ve just dipped my toe in recently, so it’s a little more like gazing at someone else’s navel. Which sounds deeply weird. Watching them navel-gaze? Nope, still weird. Whatever, you get the idea.

Not having any enforceable code of ethics is one of the main reasons why many see librarianship as failing to gain the status or marker of ‘profession.’ At the same time, it’s a career choice that is built on skills, but in tandem with incredibly lofty ideals, which feels plenty ‘professional’ to me—I went through a half dozen of those ‘this is who I am, this is why I chose to pursue an MLIS’-style introductions along with my cohorts during our first week of classes, and my classmates overwhelmingly echoed the sentiments of library code of ethics worldwide; a belief in the importance of free and equal access to information and intellectual freedom were near universal statements. Maybe this is entire ‘profession’ issue just underscores the sense of disconnect I feel between academic and public librarianship—I am interested in public librarianship, and I don’t personally care whether librarianship is defined as a profession because, let’s face, we all know that’s just an arbitrary social-constructed distinction. We can talk lofty ideals all we want, but when push comes to shove, librarians are operating in a larger context.*** With funds allocated by people who are not librarians.

The Internet certainly has changed things for information dissemination and seeking, but the extent to which it threatens libraries—well, is the rest of the world really still talking about this? In some ways it feels like librarians have moved on: they know what they are capable of, and they know how to make themselves useful. But then, in certain ways, we rely on public perception: it informs the funding public libraries get, and the understanding prospective employers have of the skills or knowledge librarians can bring to bear on a job or project. And so librarians seem oddly defensive by still talking as if to justify their own use and their place in the world. This is not a conversation that needs to happen inside the field—’why yes, fellow librarian, I too agree that libraries are relevant!’ oh god, what if everyone else decides they aren’t!—this is a conversation we need to be having with everyone else. Not by justifying the existence of libraries, just by being good at being libraries. Getting better and better at being libraries. I suppose that’s an easy thing for a first term MLIS student to say, but I think it’s something libraries have been doing for a while now, anyway. According to PewResearchCenter “fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities.” I mean, that number is ridiculous. (Not all of those are using the library; only 76% say libraries are “important to them and their families,” but public opinion is pretty clear on the importance of libraries.)

It reminds me of discussing eBooks in the final year of my undergrad, in a publishing course run by Simon Dardick, the manager of Vehicule Press in Montreal. This was a few years ago, when a lot people were still maintaining that odd notion that physical books and hardcopy books are some how mutually exclusive, and that moving to digital copies and eReaders was somehow a betrayal of books. Dardick described the reaction of the publishing industry in a manner that later reminded me strongly of the ‘crisis culture’ of librarianship—always worried that the old models of the profession were two seconds away from obsolescent or that they’re about to become completely useless—every time there was a new form of media, publishers were convinced it was the demise of the book and of publishing. Magazines, radio, television—the publishing industry was done for. Even books were the demise of books: the release of the ‘original pocket book’ in the 1950s (books that are released as a paperback instead of the usual hardback with later release of a paperback copy) apparently had the potential to “undermine the whole structure of publishing,” according to the amazingly named LeBaron R. Barker of Doubleday.

The situations aren’t a perfect comparison, but it’s nice to see librarianship isn’t the only field dealing with a crisis culture and the fear of becoming culturally obsolete. (I’m looking at you, publishers. How’s the Internet treating you these days? You guys still sweating over there? …Or have you decided to pass the buck on to retailers? Or are you two just playing hot-potato with the buck?)

I’m certainly not saying that libraries and publishing houses are going to keep looking just the way they do now in the future—that would be absurd—but I do think they ought to take a moment to reflect on the variety of changes that they’ve adapted to over the years before the pronunciations of doom begin.

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