This chapter defines words and phrases that pertain to networked information. As the course progresses, we might add to this list.
ADTECH – advertising technology that directs advertising to individuals through systems such as behind-the-scenes auctions and the use of data to tailor ads to individual histories and susceptibilities and to analyze the results of advertising (also called “tailored advertising” or “targeted advertising”; if highly personalized it might be called “microtargeted advertising”). One common practice used in digital advertising is A/B testing in which people are shown two different messages to determine which is more successful and to tailor messaging to specific populations. Adtech is not just used to sell consumer goods; it’s also influential in political campaigns and, unlike in print or broadcast political advertising, disclosures about who paid for the ad are not required.
ALGORITHM – the set of logical rules used to organize and act on a body of data to solve a problem or to accomplish a goal, usually carried out by a machine. Typically, an algorithm is modeled, trained on a body of data, and then adjusted as the results are examined. Because algorithms are generally processed by computers and follow logical instructions, people often think of them as neutral or value-free, but the decisions made by humans as they design and tweak an algorithm and the data on which an algorithm is trained on can introduce human biases that can be compounded at scale. Humans who interact with an algorithm may also find ways to influence the outcomes, as when a marketer finds ways to push a website up in the results of a search.
ATTENTION ECONOMY – contemporary technology platforms benefit when people use them both to place ads in front of potential consumers and to increase their acquisition of personal data. Since our attention is a limited resource, companies (both platforms and people who use the platforms to sell, entertain, or persuade) try to engage and keep people’s attention. This rewards clickbait and influences the design of algorithms and platforms to maximize time spent online.
BIAS – Everyone has a limited perspective and, to that extent, every human utterance is subject to bias, but the word is generally used to mean an unfair and disproportionate preference for one side against another. For example, a journalist may make every effort to avoid having their reporting influenced by personal beliefs, but still must decide how to frame a story, including what examples to provide and who to consult as sources. A scholar will take steps to avoid personal beliefs from influencing their research, but will always struggle with the impossibility of total objectivity. When thinking about bias, it’s important to distinguish between deliberate and unfair weighting of a perspective from the inescapable limits of a person’s position.
BULLSHIT – communication without regard to truthfulness. Claims are invented or adopted to suit a purpose and the speaker doesn’t care whether they are true or false. Unlike a lie, which is a deliberate falsehood, bullshit is created without any particular truth or falsity in mind; it’s invention that purports to be true without any concern about truth itself and without employing or respecting methods used to distinguish truth from falsity . The concept overlaps at times with clickbait (statements are invented for profit) and propaganda (statements are invented for a political purpose) and, of course, can be both profitable and political. See Harry Frankfurter’s On Bullshit for a philosophical treatment of the concept.
CLICKBAIT – headlines or teasers for stories that are designed to encourage clicking through to view the digital content by using scandalous, sensational, exaggerated, gross-out, or misleading information. Because success of advertising and of digital platforms is measured by click-through rate, there is an incentive to create clickbait both among new media sites and traditional journalism. Some platforms have begun to minimize those incentives. For example, in 2014 Facebook announced it would automatically demote content if those who clicked through left a site quickly because the headline didn’t live up to its promise. Whether that has actually been accomplished is unclear.
DATA VOID – a word or phrase that can be manipulated in search results for ideological purposes. When something new enters the culture, pages can be quickly created to fill a void by providing information geared to the interests of a particular viewpoint. Manipulators may also introduce new names for concepts that will surface propaganda in a search or take advantage of problematic expressions to provide their preferred definitions when others aren’t available. Any void in search results is ripe for manipulation by filling it with misinformation or propaganda..
DISINFORMATION – the deliberate communication of false or misleading information for political purposes. The origin of the word is Russian and dates to the Stalin era when disinformation was used by intelligence organizations to foster state aims. It began to be included in dictionaries of the English language in the 1980s. While some disinformation is intended to convince people something false is true, the larger goal is to disillusion the populace by making it seem impossible to believe in the truth of anything.
FAKE NEWS – a phrase that in its early use described content that looked like news but was invented simply to attract clicks for profit. It evolved into a description of new media outlets that presented news stories that aligned with a political perspective while being largely indifferent to traditional journalistic practices. The phrase flipped its meaning and became a synonym for traditional mainstream news organizations when President Trump began to call them “fake news,” essentially setting up a binary opposition between right-wing publications that supported Trump and mainstream and left-wing publications that either opposed Trump or reported news he didn’t like.
LISTICLE – a form of clickbait that uses lists, such as “Top Ten . . .” “100 most . . .” or “50 ways . . .”, a style particularly popular in the non-journalistic articles at BuzzFeed.
MEME – small units of culture, often humorous, frequently visual in nature, that are spread through imitation and alteration. Though the term was coined in the pre-internet age, it now refers primarily to digital works that riff off a common image or idea. Memes may form within a specific community and require a kind of “insider” knowledge to decode or remix. They can spread quickly through social media, offering a multitude of variations on a theme. The origin and meaning of specific memes can be explored at Know Your Meme.
MODERATION – the process of screening user-contributed content online. Every online platform that allows users to contribute, whether uploading videos to YouTube or making a comment on a news article, has to put rules in place to screen out illegal or offensive content as well as automated advertising messages (i.e. spam). Moderation usually involves a mix of algorithmic screening that uses machine learning to identify problematic material and human reviewing of material either before it is made public or after it is flagged. It also involves responding to harassment and trolling, developing rules and procedures for making decisions about suspending or banning users from a platform. For more information about these practices, see Sarah Jeong’s The Internet of Garbage and Tarleton Gillespie’s Custodians of the Internet.
PLATFORM – in computing, platform traditionally referred to a combination of hardware and operating system software, such as Windows for PCs or IoS for Macs; now it has extended to sites (such as Facebook) that provide proprietary software that runs on the internet and may allow third party developers to create new applications specific to that site.
PROPAGANDA – communications designed to influence a population so it will form beliefs and behave in ways that are consistent with the propagandist’s political and social objectives. Disinformation is a technique often employed for propagandistic purposes. In some definitions, propaganda is intentionally aimed at a specific audience with a political aim in mind, distinguishing it from commercial marketing, though both may use similar persuasion techniques and technologies. In the early 20th century propaganda was associated with the new field of public relations and was used extensively to recruit support for involvement in World War I, but the word began to have a negative connotation thereafter as anti-democratic and misleading. In their book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman used the phrase “corporate propaganda” to mean efforts to protect corporate power against political or democratic intervention.
RED PILL – inspired by the film The Matrix, in which a character is offered a blue pill (which will allow them to live comfortably in a world that is an illusion) or a red pill (where they will experience the truth and therefore freedom), this phrase indicates a revelation that what people generally accept as true is completely false. It’s often used as a sort of meta-conspiracy theory that feminism, the mainstream media, the economic system, and the existence of racism are false narratives that are woven together to oppress the gullible masses and those who are “red-pilled” have broken free. It’s generally a term adopted by the far right, particularly white men on the far right, except when used to describe those who claim to have taken the red pill. In the context of this course, it’s significant in that no amount of fact-checking or argument can persuade a person who believes “common reality” is a delusion, or rather that their reality is the only true reality and most people have been seduced by an illusion.
SJW – acronym for “social justice warrior,” a term of opprobrium for feminists and those who express concern about social justice, particularly if it threatens aspects of culture that were traditionally male and white such as comics, science fiction, or gaming. The term became popularized during “gamergate” in which angry gamers conducted a harassment campaign against woman who created or wrote about games with progressive themes. Those who use the term claim those who express progressive views in these cultural arenas do so only for self-aggrandizement to discount the validity of their views.
SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM – a concept developed by Shoshana Zuboff (most thoroughly in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) meaning the monetization of massive amounts of personally-identifiable data in order to predict and influence human behavior for profit. Zuboff considers the development of surveillance systems that constantly capture intimate details of human life at a global scale an “expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above” and “an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty” because this process appropriates human experience as free raw material for building proprietary systems of prediction and control. Initially seen as a way of selling targeted advertising, this form of capitalism is now being built into phones that we carry everywhere with us, cars, home appliances, smart homes, even smart cities with the data used for more than advertising – for example, to allocate benefits, determine sentences, or to train machines to replace human labor. As Zuboff put it in an interview, “Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.”
TROLL – a person, often operating in groups, who deliberately upset targets by sending them unsettling or offensive material, often in an attempt to damage their reputation or drive them from a platform. Originally trolling was purposeless other than “for the lulz” – a warped sense of humorous mischief. More recently the term describes anyone who engages in offensive or destructive attacks online. Used as a verb it often means coordinated and frequent attacks in disputes about social, cultural, or political issues or the practice of using various strategies to derail or disrupt a discussion. Trolls employ a winning strategy because they tend to either attract shocked attention (a win) or to force those they attack to leave the argument or platform (also a win). For a full ethnographic analysis, see This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips.