470 “ads,” 📌Home Decor, and the Internet

Pinterest “autocomplete” for liberals

Exclusive: Blaming Russia for the Internet Sewer’ — millions in free taxpayer cash available to “researchers!”

Dear Robert,

Although I disagree with the issue framing (“only 470 accounts and pages” and “supposedly found some links at the home-décor/fashion site Pinterest”), I understand your concerns about finger pointing and the Russia blame game.

Apart from my research on “home-décor,” I’d like to clarify a few details related my work as well as my funding sources.‬ ‪ To date, no work I’ve done on the election data and misinformation ecosystem has been funded through “taxpayer money” giveaways.

Home-décor, home decor, or heritage decor?

Outside of the obvious fact that I work at a private university, this is a personal research track has never even been my primary job. And don’t forget that I started this work over a year ago at a different, also private, university. No deep state conspiracies here.

To date, I’ve never undertaken any research in the form of a contractual obligation or “side job.” I have also never been compensated in return to publish work on this topic, nor have I undertaken any work with the expectation that I will be compensated.

Public Interest Data

I strongly view my work as public interest data — data that increases understanding one of the largest and most complex fissures ever in American democracy.

Disagree with what I have to say? Don’t see the value in my work? I’m completely fine with that. But it’s unfair to try to delegitimize my work on the basis of falsely linking it to unethical funding sources, million-dollar “taxpayer” giveaways, or deep-rooted motivations. The snippets and headlines that editors and reporters choose to include for their story material and sound bites is their prerogative.

My “sewer” comment actually relates to a longer, and admittedly strongly opinionated statement on the online environment where “outrage politics,” including misleading images, clickbait headlines, false information, and hate-inspired memes and spam have been growing over the past several years.

And I, too, have been “operating on the internet since 1995.” Actually, for me, it’s 1993, when I first discovered the Web through Mosaic, Netscape, and email through telnet and PINE.

This isn’t about 470 “ads.” It’s about who is allowed to target Americans through their own personal data with politically-themed propaganda content.

The purchasing of “ads” — which is really just a polite way of saying “algorithmically boosted content” — is important, but it’s only one part of the problem.

I use the words content and sewer instead of ads and spam because I’m concerned that where we are going to end up— “we” meaning the left, the right, and every political ideology in between — is with private multinational corporations like Facebook as the prevailing (and algorithmic) arbiters of truth, the determinants of “public” conversation, and the enforcers of free speech and assembly.‬

This will drive us in protected online silos where ideological polarization becomes the norm and civil debate the exception.

The Internet will be left a place where everyone talks, but content moderation, harassment detection, and ranking algorithms are the only thing that’s really listening. This outcome, to me, is a dystopian online future that’s more worrying than #Russiagate.

‪I’ve tried to keep my work open and all tools and data accessible to the public for exactly this reason: if there is no data to hold mega-lobbying companies like Facebook accountable for their actions, there will be no accord in forming better policies and laying new groundwork to avoid similar problems in the future.

‪I’ve repeatedly argued in my own research that this is far more complicated than yelling about what “the Russians” did.

The distinct lack of strong foreign and domestic policymaking, sensible industry regulation, rules about consumer data privacy, Silicon Valley culture, and the cultural shift to constantly connected devices all have fostered the current environment through which speech is increasing likely to be censored on the basis of it being labeled as misinformation, propaganda, and pornography.

‪In the years leading up to the election, America was an incubator for this type of outrage politics and hate propaganda campaigning. I don’t necessarily disagree with that argument.

Do I feel the Russian state influence was an effective factor in amplifying this? Yes. Is it measurable? Yes.

But having said that, much of the success involved pushing the problem downhill— meaning that Russian efforts encouraging discord and racial division existed in America long before modern Russia, or even the USSR, came into the equation. ‬

‪Does that mean that Russian state influence operations should be given a pass? Absolutely not. What about Facebook and other global tech companies?

It means that Americans need to figure out how to come to terms with the enormous economic, social, and cultural problems and there needs to be more consideration before too much money and time get spent on prematurely racing towards “fake news solutions.” ‬

‪Over the past year, as well as in a number of written statements, and in talks and tweets, I have argued that shifting the bulk of the blame and incessantly focusing media attention on one foreign actor as the root of everything that happened around 2016 doesn’t fix the problem.

In fact, I suspect it’s likely to make matters worse, since there will just be another country or president to demonize next time around, and an even more complex media and information ecosystem to navigate.

Remember “Freedom Fries?”

To extend this “outside of Twitter” response to your story, I do agree that the issues leading to easy media manipulation, foreign election hacking, and “outrage politics” — especially during the 2016 election — are inherent to American society and online culture.

Many of the darker undercurrents — the negative feelings and voter sentiment that surfaced and was echoed around issues like immigration, religion, and race — existed well before the 2016 campaign.‬ But this doesn’t make it okay.

‪My view is still that Russian influence is one of the most visible symptoms. It’s important to research, but to me (and feel I share this view with many other researchers), it’s not the fundamental problem.

American innovators and technologists will at some point will have to come to terms with the online monster they have created. The way the internet has been measured and monetized through clicks, likes, and engagement will have to be redefined. Companies will have to admit that attention metrics such as “retweets” and “likes” are not a sustainable form of advertising, participation, and especially for commerce.

Troll Farm Soup

What’s more, automation and bots have helped scale the online “attention metrics” problem to a new level — especially through the fraudulent inflation of emotional signals (e.g., Facebook likes).

In this regard, the tech companies, advertisers, and “platforms” — mostly American-based — all share varying degrees of responsibility. While the Internet has been of enormous benefit to the freedom of information, few — if any — safeguards were put into place to put checks and balances in to control its potential to change society by “connecting the world.”

I think 2016 showed us that the idealistic views about “connecting the world” can sometimes be very problematic.

And I’m aware that even Russia has established ground rules on what companies — especially foreign ones like Facebook — can and cannot do with citizens’ personal information.Additionally, in Russia, as well as in other many modern countries, social media “celebrities” and high-profile “bloggers” are required to register as businesses and/or news media.

Data => weapon

Russia’s 2014 local data storage laws (still in the process of widespread enactment and enforcement, I believe) suggest an understanding of the significance and potential power of access to citizens’ personal information.

‪Circling back around to the beginning of this response, from the time I started my recent election data work and news research to now, I have never taken nor have I considered soliciting money in exchange for publishing or undertaking any of my research. Sadly it’s more the opposite: when I present or give talks about my work, although the travel is often reimbursed, most of the smaller expenses end up on my own credit card.

This work is a labor of love, and it’s what amounts to a second volunteer job that I’ve done mostly on my own time. I’m careful to push back and clarify other people’s over-assertions — especially journalists and students I speak with — that our problems are ultimately all about “Russia” when in reality they are more about companies like Facebook.

Attention Metrics

I always try to bring up the point that “attention metrics” are a sham — meaning that the measures by which digital media and online news are understood and monetize simply are not real:

I believe in the future this will change. But it’s going to take Facebook and Google, a lot of bipartisanship, smarter government, active citizens, and “big tech” to take the devaluation that will occur as they abandon attention currency and personal data siphoning in lieu of more sustainable (i.e., “real”) ways of monetizing the internet.

I hope my this response helps you understand the basis of my work, and helps place your suspicions about my research in a better light. If not, at least I can say I tried.



Professor and researcher in news, journalism, and #hashtags. Award-nominated data journalist. Media, communication, and technology.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jonathan Albright

Professor and researcher in news, journalism, and #hashtags. Award-nominated data journalist. Media, communication, and technology.