An edited video of former Vice President and democratic front-runner Joe Biden lolling his tongue and smiling in a deeply unsettling way made waves across the internet since it was posted on April 26. Besides being altogether disturbing, concern arose when President Donald J. Trump retweeted the video of his 2020 presidential opponent, inspiring an article in The Atlantic about the cost of deepfakes and what it means for U.S. democracy.
Deepfakes are manipulated videos that basically fabricate something that's never happened before, using really convincing and deceptive data - the manipulated components just look so real.
A Vice article soon fired back against the pience inThe Atlantic, describing how the uploaded video is not an actual deepfake or a concern for democracy, but should be instead sen as Trump trying to tear down a political opponent.
Regardless of whether the video is an actual deepfake, it's no secret that politicians and others specifically use confusion and misinformation for political gain, and often as a form of censorship. The weird Biden video serves as a reminder that disinformation and media manipulation are being used in political arenas, and can have disastrous effects.
While this conversation is altogether unpleasant - nobody wants to think about how deeply concerning social media is -with the upcoming 2020 presidential election and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), increased media literacy is essential. Knowing what the digital terrain looks like is a must for managing every day life in order to combat both misinformation and user exploitation, whether it come from Big Data or politicians.
Here are some books that can help you better make sense of the dark underbelly of social media:
"The Age of Surveillance Capitalism"
You know when you talk about or search for something online and then you see an advertisement for it on the next site you visit? Most of us joke about how it's our FBI agent spying on us, but it's actually our data being sold to other companies to sell us more stuff. You know, no biggie!
"The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" is a 700 hundred page book written by one of the most brilliant minds of our age, Shoshana Zuboff. It's about how we've traded privacy for convenience, which is harmfully distorting democracy and each of our lives in ways that most of us haven't even imagined.
Although I haven't read the whole book, Zuboff's work is paramount in understanding how our information is being used as currency for a class of tech elite to accumulate more wealth and affect the general public en masse. As a huge admirer and student of Rutgers Professor Naomi Klein, I'll read anything she calls an "act of digital self defense."
"Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy"
This was a required reading for one of my classes, but I couldn't put the book down. In the novel, data scientist and mathematician Cathy O'Neil breaks down what algorithms are in a very accessible way. She starts by introducing how we use our own algorithms - even when we don't even realize it - each time one of us makes a decision based on past experience. She goes on to use this framework to help the reader understand how Big Data uses coded algorithms that dictate not only social media applications, but also many other important decisions, anywhere from the college education system to housing.
The problem that O'Neil highlights is that digital algorithms are designed by private companies which are often looking to make a lot of money. These algorithms are often not made available to the public but are making decisions that have huge ramifications - like deciding who gets freed from prison. Despite the assumption that numbers can't be prejudice, O'Neil highlights that these algorithms contain a lot of biases and often reinforce discrimination.
"Twitter and Tear Gas"
The novel, written by Zeynep Tufekci, is a dive into how social movements use digital tools to spread their message on the networked public sphere. Rather than saying a digitally inspired movement was a "success" or "failure," Tufekci completely unveils what social media looks like and how it's being used to influence political organizing on all levels. The book is a must-read to help us better understand how social movements are working on these privately-owned platforms, and how often, these platforms are working against them.
To show you how much of a baddie Tufekci is, the book is free and can be accessed here. The reporter also does a lot of research that can help us better understand the coronavirus situation, and you can follow her Twitter for some of the best information and updates on this current pandemic.
As soon as you pick up George Orwell's epic dystopian novel, you'll see how the life he imagines of the future seems eerily familiar - in many ways, we're living the book's reality.
The novel wrestles with a lot of information about truth, media manipulation, autocracy and more in a fictional tale that you won't be able to put down. In a time of "alternative facts" and increased autocracies around the world, a book like this that involves how autocracies consolidate and operate is mandatory reading.
It's important that, at the very least, each person who uses social media and other digital tools understands what these things are at face value. We interact with social media every day and we know almost nothing about it outside of what billionaire CEOs with ulterior motives tell us.
Given all of this, I can't help but be reminded of another dystopian set of novels, but one that is far more familiar to our generation: "The Hunger Games" trilogy. One of the characters, Peeta, would play a game to help him make sense of his tampered memories to decide whether something was "real" or "not real." Peeta would ask his friends about some of his memories, and they'd reply with if the event was real or a government torture-induced fabrication.
Now, each time we interact on social media and we face those same challenges, it's up to us to educate each other and ourselves on what's "real" and "not real."
May the algorithms be ever in your favor.