White supremacists see website traffic increase; air pollution v. big data; and more.
Editorial comment: While the focus of Civicist and this First Post morning round-up is on civic tech—the use of technology for public good—we believe it is also important to pay attention to larger trends as well. Civic tech cannot be neutral. It is for improving the lives of the many, not just the few. It is for expanding and improving democracy, not for narrowing or reducing it. It is for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. It is for creating a more just and equitable society.
It is not civic to try to close state borders to innocent and desperate refugees fleeing a genocidal dictator. It is not civic to single out people of one religion for special state surveillance and control. To be sure, racist and xenophobic attitudes in America didn’t appear out of nowhere a week ago, and many good people have been battling these trends for a very long time. But since the Paris terror attacks, American politics has taken a decidedly darker and meaner turn. The civic tech community should not be silent in the face of these developments. Bad things happen when good people fail to speak up. So, please dear readers, do not click away when we talk about these issues. Join in.
Ill tidings: Thursday night, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said he “would certainly implement” a database system tracking American Muslims, including signing them up at mosques and giving them a special form of identification. Asked by NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard if there was a difference between requiring Muslims to register and requiring Jews to do so in Nazi Germany, he said, “You tell me.”
As Philip Bump reports for the Washington Post, Trump asserted that he was opposed to a federal registry for gun owners but refused to explain “why a database of gun sales would be an invasion of privacy and subject to abuse, while those risks don’t concern him with an index of Muslim Americans and migrants.”
Not to be out-Trumped, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees seeking to enter the United States to “rabid dogs,” Carrie Dan reports for NBC News. He added, “We have to have in place screening mechanisms that allow us to determine who the mad dogs are, quite frankly.”
Also Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 289-137 to stop allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States until top national security officials certify that they don’t pose security risks. When CNN Politics reporter Elisa Labott tweeted that news, adding “Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish,” she was suspended for two weeks. Eight hours later, she tweeted, “Everyone, It was wrong of me to editorialize. My tweet was inappropriate and disrespectful. I sincerely apologize.”
Many public figures responded on Twitter to Labott’s apology, telling her that she was right to speak up and wrong to apologize, including Twitter investor Chris Sacca, Egyptian democracy activist Wael Ghonim, Daily Beast executive editor Noah Schachtman, Atlantic senior writer James Fallows, documentarian Alex Gibney and Reported.ly’s Andy Carvin.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a highly unusual public statement on Syrian refugees, which read in part: “Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees. The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.”
On the “compassionate crowdfunding” site YouCaring, people are raising money to personally help resettle Syrian refugees.
More crypto-wars: Ex-CIA director James Woolsey says NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has “the blood” of Paris on his hands and that he should be convicted of treason and “hanged by the neck until he’s dead,” Bradford Richardson reports for The Hill.
GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul told a crowd of undergraduates at George Washington University that, “When they stand up on television and say, the tragedy in Paris means you have to give up your liberty, we need more phone surveillance—bullshit!” as David Weigel and Jose DelReal report for the Washington Post.
Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, also tells the Post, “Frankly I think the speed with which surveillance hawks leapt ahead of the facts—blaming everything from Snowden to encryption to surveillance reforms that haven’t even taken effect yet—is likely to backfire. It’s so clearly reflexive and not grounded in any kind of concrete evidence about this specific case. Playing on people’s fears to shut down debate was a pretty effective strategy for many years after 9/11, but I think we saw in the debate over the USA Freedom Act that it’s lost a lot of its effectiveness.”
Tech bubbles: Yesterday, on his Facebook page, tech investor and founder of Code.org Hadi Partovi asked Mark Zuckerberg “if the newsfeed algorithm can help decrease America’s political divide.” He wrote:
My feed shows only pro-immigrant posts, boosted by Likes from my pro-immigrant friends. I’m certain there are anti-immigrants on Facebook, and in their network they may see a unanimous chorus in the opposite direction. Perhaps the algorithm amplifies a divide, and can it somehow make our world slightly more connected? With dialogue we can build bridges not walls, but not if we don’t even see posts from those whose viewpoints differ.
An hour later, Zuckerberg replied, arguing that Newsfeed “actually shows much *more* diverse opinions than you’d typically see on any other media,” and citing a 2012 research paper by Facebook data scientist Eytan Bakshy that argued that users in 2010 were getting “the vast majority of information..from contacts that they interact with infrequently.” It’s kind of crazy that Zuckerberg is relying on five-year-old data to argue that Newsfeed doesn’t form echo chambers—especially when you consider that Facebook has made several major changes in the Newsfeed algorithm since 2010 (adding more hard news to it, for example).
Pressed by another Silicon Valley VC, Sherwin Pishevar, to consider if there “might be creative ways for the feed/algorithm to present opposing views from friends, friends and friends and even strangers,” Zuckerberg admitted There’s always more to do and we always think about this in our work.” But then he dug in his heels, writing, “My point was only that the narrative that social media is dividing us based on our own viewpoints is incorrect. It turns out social media is much better for exposing us to diverse viewpoints than anything we’ve had to date.” If you say so, boss.
Talking with TechCrunch’s Andrew Keen, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom says American politics needs “systemic change,” of the kind that Silicon Valley specializes in. You’ll have to watch the video to truly appreciate Newsom’s facility with Valley buzzwords.
This is civic tech: New on Civicist: Just in time for the release of the final episode of The Hunger Games, Katie Bowers of the Harry Potter Alliance explains “how to use pop culture to increase civic engagement.”
Good Jobs First has launched Violation Tracker, a database of corporate misconduct that contains 100,000 cases involving government penalties of $5,000 or more issued by the EPA, OSHA, and 11 other government agencies. You can use it to find out which corporations are big violators of environmental, health and safety laws in the United States. Banking, antitrust and wage violations are to be added later.
Stefan Baack has updated his network map of Github’s global civic tech community, noting that it is “an inaccurate proxy” for that entire community: “Individuals or groups who are not using GitHub’s social features (such as following or starring) are underrepresented in this data. Moreover, when we talk about civic tech on a global scale we are not only talking about developers. Naturally, activist groups are not using GitHub as much so they are underrepresented as well.” Nonetheless, his visualization of the contributor network to GitHub repos is spectacular.
Coming up Thursday, December 3 here in NYC: “When Free Speech and Democracy Conflict: Campaign Finance in the Age of Citizens United,” a talk by Jonathan Soros, who is a Senior Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute. RSVP here.