By Tim Redmond
JULY 3, 2104 — I love Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. It’s a trade association for people who want to try to bring the Bad Guys to justice, to expose corruption in private industry and government. I don’t share the same politics or approach as everyone else, but when we get together for conferences, I always learn something.
IRE conventions aren’t about thumb sucking or debating the state of the industry. The panels are all about finding information – anything, about anyone, anywhere. Digging shit up is what we do, and we don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying if we’ve found out too much — in fact, we’re constantly at war with the Forces of Secrecy, corporations and corrupt officials who don’t want us to know what’s going on. We want to fight back, to get more access to more data.
But at last week’s gathering in San Francisco, I had one of those moments where I had to stop and say: Huh.
I was sitting in a packed room at the Marriott Marquis, listening to a presentation on a new app called Banjo. It is, we were told, a phenomenal reporting tool, one that gives journalists the opportunity to connect in real time with witnesses to events on the ground almost anywhere in the world.
See, Banjo geolocates tweets. And Instagram posts. And Facebook posts.
To demonstrate, out presenter hooked her phone up to the projector, typed in “San Francisco,” narrowed the map down to the block the hotel is on, and started pulling up data: Images of the room we were in, and tweets by IRE members talking about her presentation, right as she was giving it. Cool.
Even better, you can point Banjo to, say, Kandahar, or the West Bank, or Tikrut. You find people who are there watching whatever’s going on – war, kidnappings, police violence. You get pictures. You can contact them through their social media and get interviews. Amazing shit.
You can also, of course, go to Golden Gate Park and listen in as people tweet about the ducks in Stowe Lake. Or you can check to see if your kids have friends over at the house, because they’re all on Instagram all the time. In fact, you can see who’s meeting with whom, and where.
It’s kind of like everyone’s on Grindr … except that they aren’t all looking for love (or something like that) — and they didn’t sign up for this.
No: They didn’t sign up for it. Most of them have no idea that their Twitter accounts are set to geolocation, and that people who aren’t their followers can see what they’re saying and who they are associating with and where they are.
Somewhere in the crowd, a woman raised her hand and asked: “Aren’t there privacy implications to this?” Um, no, the presenter said: Everyone knows that tweets and Instagram posts are public.
I was sitting next to Josh Wolf, the reporter and videographer, and we looked at each other and I said: “There is no privacy anymore.” Except, he reminded me, for private property.
I teach investigative reporting, at City College, and I always ask my students: Are you more afraid of the NSA – or Google? They say: What’s the difference?
Hey, if Google has it, and Banjo has it, the NSA has it, and suddenly the Constitutional right to freedom of association becomes freedom of association as long as the government knows where you are and who you’re meeting with. Unless you turn off your cell phone and stop social media, there’s no point in having the FBI follow you around; they already know where you are.
Which, I think, is why so many people were so creeped out by the news that Facebook has been conducting human experiments on its users, trying to manipulate their emotions through altering the content of their news feeds.
As this fascinating analysis by Danah Boyd notes, it’s complicated. Facebook makes no secret of the fact that it does research and routinely changes the news feed algorithm. And, of course, if this becomes a huge PR issue, all the company will do is stop publishing the results. In which case we won’t even know what they’re doing to us. Hey: aren’t you glad you know?
Advertising tries to manipulate your emotions all the time. Retail stores learned long ago that the right type of music would change shopping habits. Why is what Facebook did any different?
Well, for one thing, no legit academic institution would ever allow this kind of research. Universities insist on strict rules for human-subject studies, and they mandate informed consent. But private corporations have … well, privacy. They aren’t bound by any research rules. They can investigate their customers all they want, and choose whether or not to tell anyone.
The algorithm that does all of this is tightly protected by intellectual property laws. The research Google does is often top secret. We don’t even get to know what they know about us. Because they are private companies, and they have all the rights.
Of course, we can opt out. You gonna do that?
Or we can think about what happens when computers control our brains.
Or we can maybe get together as a society and say that, just as we once demanded social responsibility from corporations that were given access to the radio and TV broadcast spectrums, we should regulate social media companies. Just a tiny bit. Because, frankly, Facebook and Twitter are just as important to modern communications as NBC, ABC, and CBS once were.
Can I even talk about that without getting skewered? Probably not.
Meanwhile, I downloaded the Banjo app. It’s the best thing ever. Way cool. I love it. Go figure.