Study reveals scale of antisemitism online (tldr; no it doesn't)

Researchers analyzing millions of posts across an assortment of popular social media assert that 63% of antisemitic posts were to be found on Twitter. The writers suggest:

The larger proportion of such hate speech found on Twitter could be because it’s easier to search for comments than other social sites – as many Facebook pages will not be public – and it’s easy for individuals to open and run multiple accounts.”

Maybe so, but that’s not the whole story. There is no information given about the methodology used for this, but the nature of the social software systems being studied means that any pronouncement over relative percentages of antisemitic content in these different systems must be inherently flawed. The only thing that the researchers could really have been looking at here was not the extent of antisemitism on different social media, but the ease with which they could find it. Twitter discourse is predominantly public and set-based (only partly network-based), so finding stuff is not just easy but a design feature, notwithstanding Twitter’s own restrictions on quantity of data returned.  There is no reliable way to query the entire blogosphere, nor even a significant or representative part of it, so the fact that 16% of antisemitic comments were found on blogs is neither here nor there and, even if it were, there would be no way to reliably gauge the numbers of individuals affected.  Similarly, there is no ethical way to find such things in predominantly closed social networks like Facebook: access rights and the uneven nature of the social graph mean that much must remain hidden from researchers’ eyes (unless they are Facebook themselves). There could well be clusters of millions of anti-Semites that are entirely invisible to them, so the figure of 11% is equally spurious.

The study’s sponsors use the results to say, “We hope this serves as a wake-up call to all internet forums to maintain moral standards, rid themselves of offensive content, and make the digital world a safer place for all.” This really doesn’t follow.

It is horrible and shocking that antisemitism still occurs at all. I don’t know the solution to that, but I am pretty certain that it is not crass censorship. You don’t kill hatred by hiding it: quite the opposite. You kill it by confronting it, with education, with compassion, with reason, with opposing sentiment, by example, and so on. To use a flawed study like this as a means to promote censorship seems at best contrived, at worst a means to frame the problem as an ‘us vs them’ war that exacerbates an already horrendous problem.

I came across a wonderful example of how to deal with hatred online the other day, at philosopher Dave Webster’s ‘Dispirited’ book blog. In response to Dave’s sensitive, open, and spiritual discussion of his own atheism, a person calling themselves Sheila Hale shockingly wrote:

What confused and empty views you have of faith in the One true God. Not surprising you present as a sad and miserable person.

I was stunned to read this, especially knowing Dave (a thoroughly nice fellow). How unkind, how unchristian, how full of hate. It must be so tempting to mute the response, or to respond angrily, or to highlight the hypocrisy of the comment, or at least to throw in a witty riposte from her One true God to tell her he is angry with her now and will smite her mightily. But Dave didn’t do any of that. He left it as it is, to speak for itself, and it makes a more profound and eloquent point than any other response could hope to achieve. By leaving this hate act visible, raw and jarring in a context of gentle and supportive discourse, Dave lets the comment itself do all the heavy lifting, and rises above it by choosing to both show it and ignore it.

Yes, some things need to be censored: I have removed a ton of junk from my blogs over the years, mostly advertising dubious sex sites, Canadian meds vendors, or fake Rolex sellers. Sure, if it offends you, don’t feel bad about getting rid of it.  If it is illegal, report it. If it breaks your terms and conditions, by all means do what you see fit with it. I don’t have a problem with individuals making their own moral or pragmatic choices in their own literal and figurative domains. And I accept that there are some complex issues involved: Trump’s continuous barrage of blatant lies, for instance, seem to benefit from repeated exposure even when self-evidently false. But censorship is not always the right response, and it is often the wrong response. If we are going to change the world for the better, we need to acknowledge the evil in it and, at least sometimes, to face it directly. And we really have to stop using what Richard Feynman calls cargo-cult-science to back up our choices.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/social-media/1005634/study-reveals-scale-of-antisemitism-online

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Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse

Excellent post from Mike Taylor on the inevitable consequences of the use of incentives to shape a system (in this case, an educational system). As Mike notes, the problem is well-known and well understood, yet  otherwise intelligent people continue to rely on extrinsic incentives to attempt to shape behaviour. It’s a classic Monkey’s Paw problem – you get what you wish for but something very bad will inevitably happen, often worse than the problem you are trying to solve. We can make people do things with extrinsic incentives (reward and punishment), sure, but in doing so we change the focus from what we want to achieve to the reward itself, which invariably destroys intrinsic motivation to do what we want done, reinforces our power (and thus the weakness of those we ‘incentivize’), and ultimately backfires on us in tragically predictable ways, because what we actually want done is almost never the thing we choose to measure.

some consequences of incentives, Edwards and Roy (2017)

Our educational systems (and many others) are built around extrinsic incentives, from grades through to performance-related pay through to misguided research assessment exercises, evaluations based on publication records, etc. The consequences are uniformly dire.

Mike quotes Tim Harford (from http://timharford.com/2016/09/4035/) as providing what seems to me to be the only sensible solution:

“The basic principle for any incentive scheme is this: can you measure everything that matters? If you can’t, then high-powered financial incentives will simply produce short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness or outright fraud. If a job is complex, multifaceted and involves subtle trade-offs, the best approach is to hire good people, pay them the going rate and tell them to do the job to the best of their ability.”

Well said. Except that I would add that the effects on motivation of any incentive scheme are always awful, and that’s the biggest reason not to do it. It’s not just that it doesn’t achieve the results we hope for: it’s that it is unkind and dehumanizing. With that in mind, I wouldn’t tell them to do the job to the best of their ability. I might ask them. I might help to structure a system so that they and everyone else can see the positive and negative consequences of actions they take. I might try to nurture a community where people value one another and are mutually supportive. I might talk to them about what they are doing and offer my support in helping them to do it better. I might try to structure the system around what people want to do rather than trying to make them fit in the system I want to build. At least, that’s what I would do on a good day. On a bad day, under pressure from multiple quarters, overworked and overstressed, I might fall back on a three line whip or a plea to do their bit. I might make trades (‘do this and I will take away that’) or appeal to a higher authority (‘the Dean says we must…’) or to my own authority (‘this has to be done and you are the best one to do it..’), or to duty (‘it is in our contract that we have to do performance assessments…’).  And that’s where the problems begin.

Mike recommends Tim Harford’s ‘The Undercover Economist’ as a way out of this loop. I will read this, as I have read many books offering similar insights. It seems at first glance to fit very well with the findings of self-determination theory as well as behavioural economics. However, though the causes described here are the result of a failure to understand human motivation, this is, at heart, a systems problem of a broader nature: I recommend The Systems Bible (formerly Systemantics) by John Gall Systemantics by John Gall (formerly the Systems Bible) for a comprehensive set of explanations of the kinds of phenomena that give rise to stupid behaviour by groups of intelligent people. The book is deliberately funny, but the underlying theory on which it is based is extremely sound.

Address of the bookmark: https://svpow.com/2017/03/17/every-attempt-to-manage-academia-makes-it-worse/

Babies in the learning-style bathwater

A recent Guardian article reports on a letter sent to the paper by 30 eminent academics from neuroscience, education, and psychology disciplines, voicing concerns about the absurd popularity of learning styles among teachers.

They are, of course, correct to be concerned. There is no good evidence that being taught according to your learning style has any positive value, despite decades of spurious attempts to show a correlation. Moreover, even if there were such a correlation, it would behoove teachers to help learners to learn using different styles because real-life learning doesn’t come neatly packaged in forms that fit with how we want/are constituted to learn, and teaching should primarily be concerned with supporting learners’ capacity to learn. The fact that there are scores if not hundreds of incompatible learning style theories, most of which have similarly (un)compelling evidence to support them, should be a clue that there is something seriously wrong with the whole idea. And it’s not a harmless foible. Not only is it a massive waste of time and money, not to mention a terrible example to set in truthiness acceptance, it can be actively harmful to learners, teaching them to believe that they can only learn properly if things are packaged to suit their style.

What’s shocking in the article is the report on the number of teachers who, despite a total lack of evidence and copious amounts of debunking, continue to use and believe in the things. To our shame, I have even seen examples of it at AU (our own Math Site mentions them) where we really ought to know better. But we are not unusual in this. Not at all. In the UK and Netherlands in 2012, 80% of teachers apparently believed that individuals learned better when doing so in a manner according with their preferred learning style. This is like discovering that 80% of the world’s scientists believe that their horoscopes determine the results of their experiments.

That said, there’s a baby in this very dirty bathwater that should not be thrown out.

If a belief in learning styles means that teachers feel challenged to design learning experiences in different ways to suit more diverse needs, that’s not a bad thing, apart from that it increases the costs of learning development. In fairness, it would work at least as well if they used astrological star sign personality characteristics as a basis but, whatever the reasons, giving students choices is a worthwhile outcome. And, just like horoscopes, there is value to learners themselves in providing an opportunity and a framework for reflection, even if the framework itself is erroneous and based on fallacies.

I’m a sceptic, but even I use variants on the theme. For example, I often try to provide versions of learning content that are meant to cater for serialist and holist ways of learning (Gordon Pask’s approach to categorizing learning strategies). Notwithstanding the extra effort and cost of designing at least two ways to approach a topic, it’s a good creative catalyst for me, and it gives students greater choice and control over their own learning.

And, in fairness, not all learning-style types of theory are equally awful. Slightly less harmful variants talk of learning preferences rather than styles, which does not necessarily imply that those preferences are a good idea nor that they even need to be catered for, though it still perpetuates the myth that there are relatively fixed characteristics in such things. Much better ones, including Pask’s, talk of selectable learning strategies rather than stable characteristics or preferences of learners, which seems eminently sensible to me: it’s just about general pedagogical patterns. It’s not about labelling learners, though (sadly) some do try to apply the labels to learners, and even Pask himself (arguably) sometimes seems to present it in that way. The best of breed models recognize that learning strategies can and should change in different learning contexts as well as over time, and make no attempt to label or pigeon hole learners themselves at all. I think it is really useful to find regularities and patterns in learning designs, and that’s the baby we should not throw out when we (rightly) reject learning style theories.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education

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Free download of 'Digital Habitats'!

Wenger, White, & Smith’s excellent “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities” is now available for free, in major ebook formats!

I really like this book: though it is a bit of a patchwork in places, longer than it needs to be, and heavier on practice than theory, it is an absolute goldmine of ideas for those creating, managing, and nurturing online communities, covering technical, managerial, social, and many other issues in an admirably holistic fashion. Very well written by people that really get it. This is going to be high up among the “highly recommended” readings for my Social Computing course (there are and never will be required readings) because the approach – which gives no special priority to tools, processes, social engagement, management, etc – fits it to a T.

Address of the bookmark: http://technologyforcommunities.com/2016/12/happy-holidays-free-download-of-digital-habitats/

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post-reality fictoid-facts

Satirists are mostly flummoxed by Trump, because there’s no absurdity they can dream up that is more absurd than the evil orange turd itself, and that is not out-trumped by some yet more appalling and improbable excrescence oozing from its tiny bitter orifices. Armando Iannucci does, however, make a pretty good stab at the problem in this letter to Trump. He accurately captures the essence of Trump’s underlying modus operandi thus:

“They used to tease you about your attitude to the truth, didn’t they? All your post-reality fictoid-facts, like how global warming was a myth invented by the Chinese, how you respected all women without exception, except the greedy, grasping, ugly ones who were trying to suck you dry, how Obama wasn’t born in America, and also how you put everyone right when you said he was.

And that rigged election: you had evidence the election was rigged against you and you were going to lose, and then, when you won it fair and square, you had proof you would have won it even more fairly and squarely had it not been rigged against you so you couldn’t win so bigly. And now they say the Russians rigged the election, and you say the election wasn’t rigged, it was never rigged, and you’ve been saying for months: it was never rigged.”

Logic fails in the face of contradiction, and fails badly. If both A and not-A are true, the moon is (logically) made of green cheese. If you can persuade people to believe both the thing and its contradiction, then the consequences are dire. As Iannucci puts it:

You’ve taught people to believe not what is empirically true but what is emotionally true, which is a better truth. You’ve set free the credulity of the people.”

This is how most religions work too, as it happens. 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/21/letter-to-donald-trump-president-armando-iannucci

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The Ghost in the Machines of Loving Grace | Library Babel Fish

An article from Barbara Fister about the role and biases of large providers like Google and Facebook in curating, sorting, filtering their content, usefully contrasted with academic librarians’ closely related but importantly different roles. Unlike a library, such systems (and especially Facebook) are not motivated to provide things that are in the interests of the public good. As Fister writes:

“The thing is, Facebook literally can’t afford to be an arbiter. It profits from falsehoods and hype. Social media feeds on clicks, and scandalous, controversial, emotionally-charged, and polarizing information is good for clicks. Things that are short are more valuable than things that are long. Things that reinforce a person’s world view are worth more than those that don’t fit so neatly and might be passed over. Too much cruft will hurt the brand, but too little isn’t good, either. The more we segment ourselves into distinct groups through our clicks, the easier it is to sell advertising. And that’s what it’s about.”

These are not new points but they are well stated and well situated. I particularly like the point that lies and falsehoods are not a reason to censor a resource in and of themselves. We need the ugliness in order to better understand and value the beauty, and we need the whole story, not filtered parts of it that suit the criteria of some arbitrary arbiter. As Fister writes:

“There’s a level of trust there, that our students can and will approach a debate with genuine curiosity and integrity. There’s also a level of healthy distrust. We don’t believe it’s wise to leave decisions about truth and falsehood up to librarians.”

Indeed. She also has good things to say about personalization:

“If libraries were as personalized, you would wave your library card at the door and enter a different library than the next person who arrives. We’d quickly tidy away the books you haven’t shown interest in before; we’d do everything we could to provide material that confirms what you already believe. That doesn’t seem a good way to learn or grow. It seems dishonest.”

Exactly so.  She does, though, tell us about how librarians do influence things, and there’s only a fine and fuzzy (but significant) line between this and the personalization she rejects:

“Newer works on the topic will be shelved nearby that will problematize the questionable work and put it in context.”

I’m not sure that there is much difference in kind between this approach to influencing students and the targeted ads of Google or Facebook. However, there is a world of difference in the intent. What the librarian does is about sense making, and it accords well with one of the key principles I described in my first book of providing signposts, not fenceposts. To give people control, they have to first of all have the choices in the first place, but also they need to know why they are worth making. Organizing relevant works together on the shelf is helping students to make informed choices, scaffolding the research process by showing alternative perspectives. Offering relevant ads, though it might be dishonestly couched in terms of helping people to find the products they want, is not about helping them with what they want to do, but exploiting them to encourage them to do what you want them to do, for your own benefit, not theirs. That’s all the difference in the world.

That difference in intent is one of the biggest differentiators between a system like the Landing and a general-purpose public social media site, and that’s one big reason why it could never make any sense for us to replace the Landing with, say, a Facebook group (a suggestion that still gets aired from time to time, on the utterly mistaken assumption that they duplicate each other’s functionality). The Landing is a learning commons, a network of people that, whatever they might be doing here, share an intent to learn, where people are valued for what they bring to one another, not for what they bring to the owners and shareholders of the company that runs the site. Quite apart from other issues around ownership, privacy and functionality, that’s a pretty good reason to keep it.

 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/ghost-machines-loving-grace

Teens unlikely to be harmed by moderate digital screen use

The results of quite a large study (120,000 participants) appear to show that ‘digital’ screen time, on average, correlates with increased well-being in teenagers up to a certain point, after which the correlation is, on average, mildly negative (but not remotely as bad as, say, skipping breakfast). There is a mostly implicit assumption, or at least speculation, that the effects are in some way caused by use of digital screens, though I don’t see strong signs of any significant attempts to show that in this study.

While this accords with common sense – if not with the beliefs of a surprising number of otherwise quite smart people – I am always highly sceptical of studies that average out behaviour, especially for something as remarkably vague as engaging with technologies that are related only insofar as they involve a screen. This is especially the case given that screens themselves are incredibly diverse – there’s a world of difference between the screens of an e-ink e-reader, a laptop, and a plasma TV, for instance, quite apart from the infinite range of possible different ways of using them, devices to which they can be attached, and activities that they can support. It’s a bit like doing a study to identify whether wheels or transistors affect well-being. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. The researchers seem aware of this. As they rightly say:

“In future work, researchers should look more closely at how specific affordances intrinsic to digital technologies relate to benefits at various levels of engagement, while systematically analyzing what is being displaced or amplified,” Przybylski and Weinstein conclude. 

Note, though, the implied belief that there are effects to analyze. This remains to be shown. 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-01/afps-tut011217.php

Moral panic: Japanese girls risk fingerprint theft by making peace-signs in photographs / Boing Boing

As Cory Doctorow notes, why this headline should single out Japanese girls as being particularly at risk – and that this is the appeal of it – is much more disturbing than the fact that someone figured out how to lift fingerprints that can be used to access biometric authentication systems from photos taken using an ‘ordinary camera’ at a considerable distance (3 metres). He explains the popularity of the news story thus:

I give credit to the news-hook: this is being reported as a risk that young women put themselves to when they flash the peace sign in photos. Everything young women do — taking selfies, uptalking, vocal fry, using social media — even reading novels! — is presented as a) unique to young women (even when there’s plenty of evidence that the trait or activity is spread among people of all genders and ages) and b) an existential risk to the human species (as in, “Why do these stupid girls insist upon showing the whole world their naked fingertips? Slatterns!”)

The technical feat intrigued me, so I found a few high-res scans of pictures of Churchill making the V sign, taken on very good medium or large format film cameras (from that era, 5″x4″ press cameras were most common, though some might have been taken on smaller formats and/or cropped) with excellent lenses, by professional photographers, under various lighting conditions, from roughly that distance. While, on the very best, with cross-lighting, a few finger wrinkles and creases were partly visible, there was no sign of a single whorl, and nothing like enough detail for even a very smart algorithm to figure out the rest. So, with a tiny fraction of the resolution, I don’t think you could just lift an image from the web, a phone, or even from a good compact camera to steal someone’s fingerprints unless the range were much closer and you were incredibly lucky with the lighting conditions and focus. That said, a close-up selfie using an iPhone 7+, with focus on the fingers, might well work, especially if you used burst mode to get slightly different images (I’m guessing you could mess with bas relief effects to bring out the details). You could also do it if you set out to do it. With something like a good 400mm-equivalent lens,  in bright light, with low ISO, cross-lit, large sensor camera (APS-C or higher), high resolution, good focus and small aperture, there would probably be enough detail. 

Address of the bookmark: https://boingboing.net/2017/01/12/moral-panic-japanese-girls-ri.html

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

A short article from Lisa Legault that summarizes self-determination theory (SDT) and its findings very succinctly and clearly. It’s especially effective at highlighting the way the spectrum of extrinsic-to-intrinsic motivation works (including the integrated/identified/introjected continuum), and in describing the relationships between autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Nothing new here, nothing inspirational, just a useful resource to point people at so they can learn about the central tenets of SDT

Address of the bookmark: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lisa_Legault/publication/311692691_Intrinsic_and_Extrinsic_Motivation/links/5856e60d08ae77ec37094289.pdf

Bridge champion who played her cards right (From The Argus)

Sandra LandySad news for the world of bridge, about which I know almost nothing apart from what Sandra Landy, several-times world and European bridge champion, occasionally shared with me, and sad news for me. I learned today that she died last week, at the age of 78.

Though she never persuaded me to take up bridge, Sandra was a great influence on both my computing and my teaching careers. Firstly, she created (though was at the time no longer leading) the innovative and well-respected MScIS from which I graduated in the early 90s at the University of Brighton. On the course, she taught me Cobol, and supervised my project. At the end of the course, it was because of her recommendation and support that I became a principal software technician and, later, academic support manager for the university’s IT department and, some years later (again with her enthusiastic support and encouragement) became a lecturer, leading me fairly directly to my current career. She used to live down the road from me in a huge house in Hove (which was convenient when she wanted me to fix her computers!).

Sandra was an incredibly intelligent woman, a force of nature to be reckoned with whose influence on the teaching of computing at the University of Brighton, and beyond, was vast. Her subject knowledge was immense, her curiosity intense. She had conducted the first ever lecture on the first ever computing degree in the UK (at Brighton) in 1964 when I was just a toddler, and had played a major role in getting it off the ground in the first place. She was an intellectual powerhouse with a strong will, a clarity of vision, and a total lack of fear in critiquing anything and anyone, including herself. In fairness, as a result, she intimidated a lot of staff and students at the university, but she and I always got on famously. We amused and entertained each other. She had a marvellously dry sense of humour and a wonderfully rich, cigarette-sanded voice that could charm the birds off a tree as easily as it could leave strong people quivering like jelly. Suffice to say, she usually got her way, and her way was usually a very good one, but she was as compassionate as she was passionate. She listened as intently as she spoke and, if the idea made sense to her (after she had challenged it, of course!), she would lend it her full and considerable support. Quite a lot of the more disruptive innovations I was able to bring in during my time in a support role at Brighton were only possible because Sandra stood behind me and barged through any objections.  Her indelible stamp on the computing courses at the University of Brighton gave them a very distinctive character, an enviable mix of rigour and humanity, that persisted long after she retired. The world is a poorer place without her. 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/15015130.Bridge_champion_who_played_her_cards_right/

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