May 5th 2021, 1:45pm-3:15pm ET
Platforms, power, populism
Chair: Tanner Mirrlees (Ontario Tech University)
Alex Dean Cybulski (University of Toronto)
Paper Title: Taking the NSA Open Source: A Political Economy Approach to the Ethics of Hacking and the Identity of Hackers
Using a structuralist political economy approach, this paper will analyze the open source production of Ghidra, the American National Security’s Agency’s reverse-engineering tool to critique the positive notion that “commons-based peer production” of open source software is a democratizing alternative to production (Benkler, 2006). By analyzing the labour of open source production of state-sponsored hacking software, the paper will argue how perceptions of “ethical hacking” in western hacker culture and the information security industry are culturally situated to an individual or institution’s relationship to geographically oriented state and corporate power. While hackers have been recognized for their work in opposing state surveillance efforts (Kubitscho, 2015) and advocate for greater political transparency (Schrock, 2016) this paper reconciles this radical identity with the ‘everydayness’ of those hackers who work in the information security industry and whose expert labour is just as likely to be captured by state and corporate interests in the production of signals intelligence and the maintenance of global capital. By analyzing Ghidra’s GitHub repository, the NSA’s marketing of the project and the hacker/information security’s reception of the tool, as well as perceptions of the signals intelligence agency in these communities this paper will dispute the tendency to align hackers with any particular ethical valence (Tanczer, 2020) and use political economy to contend that the morality of a hacker is instead contingent on those who their production serves.
Nick Dyer-Witheford and Alessandra Mularoni (University of Western Ontario) (Presented by Nick Dyer-Witheford)
Paper Title: Big-Tech and Anti-Trust: Left Dilemmas
This paper analyzes the policy proposals of new “left populisms” (Mouffe 2017) for the regulation and reform of the “platform capitalism” (Srnicek 2017). The 2008 crash and subsequent recession saw the emergence in North America and Europe of new left-wing electoral parties or party fractions. These include, in the USA, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Democrats; in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party; in Spain, Podemos; in Germany, Die Linke; in France, La France Insoumise. While many might be described as socialist, or democratic socialist, they often also distinguish themselves from older socialist or social democratic formations; we call them left populisms. Left populisms are connected in contradictory ways to the platform capitalism exemplified by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Uber. Left populist parties emerged from the anti-austerity movements (Occupy in the USA, the Indignados in Spain, student campus occupations in the UK) organized with the help of social media platforms. However, the failures and scandals of platform capitalism have also been important to left populism. Edward Snowden’s revelations of ubiquitous surveillance and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-Russian hacker imbroglio around the 2016 US election have fueled a “techlash” against giant digital corporations that is now an important component of left populist sentiment. Drawing on policy documents, manifestos, speeches, position paper, this paper analyzes the policy platforms in which left populist parties confront platform capitalism around issues of content regulation; concentration of ownership; the rights of digital workers; alternative ownership models; and proposals for a high-tech driven transition to “postcapitalism” (Mason 2016). It considers the similarities and difference between and within left populist parties on these issues; the extent of their departure from neoliberal policies; and their differences, and occasional similarities, with right-wing populisms, such as that of Trump. It then reviews critiques of left populism made from Marxist and ecological anti-capitalist positions, with particular reference to technological issues. The paper concludes with a summary of the opportunities and problems for a left wing “data populism” (Morozov 2016) in the current political conjuncture.
Andrey Miroshnichenko (York University)
Paper Title: Platform design for anger and polarization in old and new media
Social media are designed to encourage user engagement. Users get involved in self-actualization through the recognition by others – through their likes, comments, shares and other forms of automated and accelerated social exchange. But this service comes with a disservice. As many studies have shown, social media posts that express odd or radical views and ideas have a higher potential of being liked, commented on and shared. The same features that provide an amazing service of self-actualization – rapid responsiveness, engagement, virality – simultaneously propel the extremization of expression.
The news media experience dramatic shift in their business model, which leads them to inciting polarization, too. Circa 2014, the news media business switched from collecting plentiful ad revenue to struggling to get some reader revenue. The news media increasingly solicit subscriptions as donations. Donations require triggers, so the media supply those triggers. As a result, the media need to induce frustration and polarization in order to keep the audience engaged. The ad-driven media used to manufacture consent, but the reader-driven media manufacture anger. The former served consumerism. The latter serve polarization.
Thus, the entire media environment, comprised of both new and old media, rewards now the rage and polarization of their actors and users. Digital platforms give regular people power that they otherwise would have never had access to. The mass media reinforce and articulate this power into political discourses. In return, people provide platforms and the media with a degree of engagement that allows for monetization. Populism and polarization are structurally embedded into this social-economic symbiosis. This media hardware can and must work only with this cultural software.
I explore the issue from a media ecological point of view with employing the political economy of communications.
Zeinab Farokhi (University of Toronto)
Paper Title: Islamophobization of a nation: the nexus between news channels and Twitter in India
In an increasingly digital world, right-wing Indian mainstream media are taking an increasing interest in incorporating SNS as a standard communication strategy in an attempt to instill their muscular Hindu nationalism onto wider audiences. In particular, an adaptation of Twitter by right-wing news media outlets is noteworthy. While many of the Indian right-wing news channels use Twitter on a regular basis to spur audiences to stay in tune with any potentially breaking news, to get engaged with them and/or to follow the regular updates, Twitter is being increasingly used to amplify Hindu nationalist propaganda.
In this paper, I argue that the two prominent Indian English news channels, Time Now and Republic TV, have co-opted Twitter to install the political project of Hindu nationalism within Indians. Drawing on the theory of digital governmentality, I argue the modality of Twitter serves the news channels to advance their Hindu nationalist agenda and exert power over users by constraining their online conduct in specific ways. This paper posits that the nexus of both media technologies (i.e., mainstream media and Twitter) gives rise to the proliferation of hatred against Muslims and result in Hindu-Muslim polarization, which may lead to an extreme Islamophobization of India. In other words, the main motive of these channels in co-opting Twitter into their debates, I suggest, is to create a strong and wide base of audiences both offline and online who succumb to the channels’ Hindu nationalist and Islamophobic viewpoints. The co-option of Twitter seems to be beneficial to Republic TV and Times Now to produce, amplify and, circulate anti-Muslim rhetoric in a subtle yet effective way. Furthermore, by using Twitter, these channels perpetuate fear and anxiety against Muslims, thereby polarizing Hindus and Muslims and mobilizing Hindu voters to maintain a ‘Hindu’ party into power.
Tanner Mirrlees (Ontario Tech University)
Paper Title: Privatizing Hate Speech Governance on Social Media Platforms: Outsourcing, Downloading and Automating Hate Content Moderation
Over the past few years, research has highlighted how white supremacists have used the services of social media platforms to produce, circulate and consume hateful content. For example, early in 2018, many hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center were running Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels. What policy tools do Canadian Federal government agencies possess for regulating the flow of hate speech on the world’s largest social media platforms, and how are the US corporations that own and operate these platforms regulating, or failing to regulate, user-generated hate speech on their sites? For much of Canadian print and broadcasting history, the Canadian Federal government used legal, policy and regulatory tools to prohibit the free flow of hate speech in society, but in the age of platforms, the Canadian Federal government is taking a laissez-faire approach by empowering platform companies to act as judge, jury, and executors of their own “terms of service” and “community guidelines” pertaining to hate speech. As a consequence, the work of governing hate speech on platforms is being exempted from democratic, public and national communication policy deliberation and decision-making, and uploaded to the market-oriented, private and international US corporations that own and operate platforms. This paper identifies and assesses three ways that platform companies are privatizing hate speech governance: outsourcing to waged human content moderators, downloading to unwaged users, and automating with algorithms.
Rianka Singh (University of Toronto)
Paper Title: Toward a Feminist Platform Studies
“Toward a Feminist Platform Studies” offers an intervention in the field of Platform Studies by showing how a materialist Feminist Media Studies perspective lends itself to recognizing how platforms are media with capacity to structure social and political life.
It proposes a new feminist media theory of the platform that positions the platform as a media object that elevates and amplifies some voices over others and renders marginal resistance tactics illegible. I introduce the term “Platform Feminism” to describe an emerging view of digital platforms as always-already politically useful media for feminist empowerment. I argue that Platform Feminism has come to structure and dominate popular imaginaries of what a feminist politics is. In the same vein, the contemporary focus on digital platforms within media studies neglects the strategies of care, safety and survival that feminists who resist on the margins employ in the digital age. If we take seriously the imperative to survive rather than an overbearing commitment to speak up, then the platform’s role in feminism is revealed as limited in scope and potential.