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14 February 2018

The Bots Have Arrived

It’s hard to know exactly who, or what, an online persona actually is. We’re relatively sure that the people we know in real life are who they claim to be online (though their online life is likely nicer than their real one), but as for anyone else, it’s anyone’s guess. The fact that some larger social media sites, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in particular, are also home to the persona of brands further blurs the line of what’s real and what’s not. Then, there are the bots.

Social media bots come in a variety of flavors. At their simplest, they’re helpful and provide things like unit conversions, periodic market prices, or other non-conversational information. At their more complex, they stand in for brands or people, tweeting about current news and even trying to talk to other users. With the more complex bots, it can be hard, if not impossible, to tell a bot from a real person. Due to that difficulty and the ability to manipulate online conversation by influencing ...

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04 February 2018

The Unraveling Social Ecosystem

Social media promises to connect people across distances big and small, no matter where people are physically located. Social networks do provide a platform for that, but only if you become a member of the network that connects the people you want to connect with. If you use Facebook, while a friend uses Twitter, that’s a no-go unless you both use the opposing platform or look at things without interacting with them. It’s worse when it comes to interest groups that operate primarily on a particular social network. Without using the platform, it’s impossible to keep up with and to participate with the group. Many social platforms aren’t as open as they pretend to be, and limit how much you can see (if anything at all) and stop you from interacting until you sign up.

Physical communities have been using online platforms to connect for a long time. Technologies such as email have provided open ways for anyone to be involved before the rise of social networks. The move to soc...

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11 January 2018

Your Internet Might Be Different From Mine

When we get online, we may not see the same Internet as others. All of us are living in what’s referred to as the “filter bubble,” or a manufactured version of reality produced by algorithms tailoring content to our interests. The effect produced is an echo chamber that reflects the beliefs social media and search engines think we hold. We may feel more connected and educated, even though the opposite is true.

The online world has quietly evolved from one of openness and community to one divided by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, human nature makes challenging our beliefs uncomfortable so we haven’t noticed as our feeds changed to reflect us. Our social media is comfortable but more divisive than we could have ever imagined. It’s relatively rare for our feeds to show us oppo...

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22 December 2017

We're Censoring Our Own Reality

The Internet is a place where freedom of speech reigns; except where it doesn’t. While everyone is free to share their thoughts, in whatever form they take, most sites impose limits on what can be shared. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; unlawful or hateful content don’t share a platform with lawful free speech. Sites usually explain what’s acceptable to share in their Terms of Service or equivalent document normally written in more pages of legal language than any normal person would ever care to read. These limits don’t stop everything and sites rely on users to report unacceptable content, which invites human moderation or prompts the site to automatically take things down.

Content moderation invites problems as much as it solves others. Algorithms that try to moderate content automatically are not perfect. YouTube, for example, has been combating videos that are built to make it through...

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14 December 2017

The Net Neutrality Fight is not Over

Today, December 14th, the FCC passed the Restoring Internet Freedom proposal which repeals net neutrality rules in a 3-2 vote, to nobody’s great surprise. While the result is disappointing, this is not where net neutrality ends! We need to make a lot of noise and support organizations that are fighting on our behalf. The University of Maryland Program for Public Consultation and Voice of the People reports that 83% of Americans were against the repeal. Popular opinion is on our side.

Where we go from here is uncertain but it’s not over. Fights for net neutrality are already gearing up and lawsuits are being filed. The New York Attorney General announced he will sue the FCC, and other organizations will likely follow suit.

He...

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07 November 2017

We Can't Tell When the Internet is Lying

We’ve long been told that we can’t trust everything on the Internet. At one point, that was a primary lesson taught to people new to the Internet. It turns out that we’re not very good at figuring out what online is true. In an effort to show more ads (and to keep people around longer) sites have made it harder to tell when something is true versus an ad. Many people have trouble telling when an image has been manipulated. With the rise of fake news, more people are confused or doubting real news, or simply care less about the truth as long as what the Internet claims matches their beliefs. Even the people we expect to be the most Internet-savvy are not good at figuring out what to trust in some cases.

In a study of 700 men and women, only about 60% of participants were able to tell when a picture had been manipulated, which is only slightly better than guessing at random. Of the ones who were able to identify manipulated images, less than half could tell what in the imag...

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30 October 2017

Who Owns Your Thoughts?

Targeted advertising and targeted news feeds are commonplace online. Services try to tailor what they show to keep you interested so you’ll spend more time on their site, and hopefully, click more ads. Using the information from how you react to what they show you, they build a profile of your interests to better tailor what they show you. Unfortunately, those services don’t have an interest in making sure you see a neutral view of the world or even that you see every post from the people or brands you follow. They’re interested in providing results that are relevant to you, whether or not they’re always correct, so they can gather more information and continue selling advertisements.

Interest targeting takes a lot of different forms online. The most obvious is online advertising, which comes as no surprise to people accustomed to the Internet showing them ads for things they searched for recently. Much of the online economy and free-to-use services rely on this to fund w...

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16 October 2017

Beyond Network Neutrality

Net neutrality is immensely important to keeping the Internet open for every voice and for ensuring that no ISP can curate what information its customers have access to. However, it’s not the only neutrality fight important to keeping the Internet alive. While net neutrality requires ISPs to provide access to the entire Internet and deliver every site equally, there are few neutrality requirements for online services themselves. As the world moves online and hosting services and social media become critical platforms for independent voices, there is no guarantee that those platforms will be neutral. With allegations around foreign interference via online platforms in the 2016 election and actions various cloud providers have occasionally taken to silence sites, the discussion of how online services can curate what their users see is building.

Hosting and social media platforms h...

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04 September 2017

What does "metadata" actually mean?

One of the buzzwords around online surveillance and leaked NSA data collection programs has been the word “metadata.” The government doesn’t collect content of communication, just the “metadata” we’ve been assured, which seems to imply that collecting only metadata—though at times, far more than just metadata has been collected—is acceptable and respects our privacy. Unfortunately, “metadata” is a broad term and allows for a large amount of data collection. Not only that, but collecting metadata is not subject to regulations as stringent as those requiring warrants for wiretapping.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “metadata” as “data about other data.” Everything stored digitally has some sort of metadata associated with it, such as where it lives on a computer, who created it, who owns it, or where it came from. Th...

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26 July 2017

Opposing net neutrality threatens the viability of open source communities

The net neutrality discussion is, at its core, about free speech on the internet. Free speech online is a driving force for the online community; an average of 1.32 billion people each day share their voices on Facebook alone (as of June 2017). It’s possible to be heard as well, with more than half of Americans using the internet as their primary source of information. Unfortunately, internet service providers (ISPs) want their own say in how free speech actually is online, with some claiming their own rights to free speech when it comes to what people can access.

ISPs are serious about their free speech claims when it comes to net neutrality. Several ISPs and telecom associations have filed briefs with the U.S. Court of Appeals arguing that net neutrality prevents them from favoring their own servic...

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