An Article a Day: 10 July 2017

by Maha Rafi Atal

Our roundup has been on hiatus while the rounder-upper has been on holiday, but we're back, and here's what we've been mulling over:

1. The US journalism nonprofit ProPublica has gained access to some of the 'rules' Facebook uses to decide what kinds of posts are allowed on the site. While much content moderation is done algorithmically, there is also a team of human content reviewers who have to decide on each post sent to them within seconds. The pace of this work may explain why the guidelines for the human moderators sound suspiciously like algorithms: "Protected category + attack = hate speech," reads one slide. This rule, for deciding what counts as 'hate speech' on Facebook, throws up some unusual exceptions - while it is, the training slides instruct, acceptable to insult 'female drivers' and 'black children' and to deny the Holocaust, attacks on 'white men' are forbidden. As the article argues:

Facebook’s rules constitute a legal world of their own. They stand in sharp contrast to the United States’ First Amendment protections of free speech, which courts have interpreted to allow exactly the sort of speech and writing censored by the company’s hate speech algorithm. But they also differ — for example, in permitting postings that deny the Holocaust — from more restrictive European standards.

The investigation, which also considers similar systems at Google and other online media platforms, speaks to growing concerns about online 'filter bubbles' and the way in which hate groups are able to organise online. 

2. David Runciman, Professor of Politics here in Cambridge, has a long essay in the Guardian examining the growth of 'climate skepticism,' the movement of those who deny the scientific consensus on climate change, and what it says about contemporary politics. Runciman argues that beyond the specific issue of climate change and energy policy, the success of the 'climate skeptics' (whom he calls 'climate cynics') has played a crucial role in undermining the value of experts and facts in our politics. But rather than fighting back with a strong defense of climate science or expertise, Runciman advises experts to reclaim the idea of 'skepticism' from the cynics, as a vital part of critical inquiry. 

3. Even as Brexit remains the principal policy challenge facing the UK, the details of negotiations and what's realstically on the table can be hard to follow. David McCandless at Information Is Beautiful is here to help, with this graphic - which he is updating as news changes - of the different options and who supports them:

4. Anthropologist Farhan Samanani has a new take on the fraught politics of migration and diversity in Britain's towns and cities. Looking at relations between residents of all ages and races in North London's famously diverse Kilburn (where Zadie Smith grew up and where much of her fiction is set), he argues that by framing different groups' claims to public space as 'competing rights,' liberals have made it harder to find common ground. Instead, he argues for a politics of trust, in which by assuming that others will treat us fairly, we make it more likely that they will do so:

The difficulty with Arendt’s model of public life is that it requires the suppression of self-gratification: it involves thinking that no one has a default right to public space, but that public space becomes usable only when we find ways to work with others. This takes practice, in at least two senses. For one, it requires us to become familiar with communicating across difference – learning the language and the subtle physical cues that signal straight away that we are on the same side. On the other hand, it requires a belief that others will also make a similar effort to understand and accommodate us. This belief becomes more solid over time, as we accumulate more and more evidence that mutual accommodations are, in fact, possible. But initially it involves a gamble. Both these acts, then, require trust – trust that it is possible to learn to understand others, and trust that they will try to understand us.


About the Author

Maha Rafi Atal

Maha Rafi Atal is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and the Senior Editor of In The Long Run.