18th January 2021

Managing disinformation; Sea shanties

Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to write daily, five days a week, if I can manage it. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.

#1: Managing disinformation

The single most surprising statistic I read over the weekend was that the amount of disinformation about the US election circulating in social media had fallen by 73% since Donald Trump and others were banned by social media companies.

Leaving aside the spurious precision of the data point, it was clearly a big drop.

The Washington Post summarized it like this:

The research by Zignal and other groups suggests that a powerful, integrated disinformation ecosystem — composed of high-profile influencers, rank-and-file followers and Trump himself — was central to pushing millions of Americans to reject the election results and may have trouble surviving without his social media accounts.

But the restrictions on Trump and US alt-right organisations across social media (including Amazon’s decision that AWS would no longer host Parler) have opened up a valuable discussion about the nature of private control over what ought to be public decisions.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a useful model of the whole technology ‘stack’ (their word) that helps illuminate this:

At the top of the stack are services like Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter, platforms whose decisions about who to serve (or what to allow) are comparatively visible, though still far too opaque to most users.  Their responses can be comparatively targeted to specific users and content and, most importantly, do not cut off as many alternatives…

At the other end of the stack are internet service providers (ISPs), like Comcast or AT&T. Decisions made by companies at this layer of the stack to remove content or users raise greater concerns for free expression, especially when there are few if any competitors…

In between are a wide array of intermediaries, such as upstream hosts like AWS, domain name registrars, certificate authorities (such as Let’s Encrypt), content delivery networks (CDNs), payment processors, and email services. EFF has a handy chart of some of those key links between speakers and their audience here. These intermediaries provide the infrastructure for speech and commerce, but many have only the most tangential relationship to their users.

Although it’s easy to identify that Parler and QAnon groups raise concerns of many kinds about the use of political speech, and more, most decisions about censorship involve marginalised groups, often for the flimsiest of reasons.

And the reason these quasi monopolists exist is because of repeated failures of competition regulation, especially in the US, over the last decade or so. Lobbying was also a factor. At HBR, Joan Donovan argues that the tech companies pursuit of scale—their basic business model—has come at the expense of safety.

She quotes the researcher Siva Vaidhyanathan:

In his book Anti-Social Media, Siva Vaidhyanathan writes, “If a global advertising company leverages its vast array of dossiers on its two billion users to limit competition and invite antidemocratic forces to infest its channels with disinformation, democratic states should move to break it up and to limit what companies can learn and use about citizens.” In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, we’re seeing a growing interest in doing just that.

One of the issues that gets thrown up here is about the difficulty of regulating global businesses. But as John Naughton notes in his Guardian column, we have the same issue with global banks, yet manage to regulate them at national level.

The big tech companies are going to be regulated, and we’ll see innovation around this. I suspect, looking at the EFF article, that regulating them as infrastructure utilities is the likely way forward, as danah boyd anticipated more than a decade ago.

#2: Sea shanties

I’m approximately the second last person in the world to notice the sea shanty explosion on TikTok, and have the same puzzlement as others: Why sea shanties? Why now?

Most coverage has stuck to the trope of the ‘obscure Scottish postman catapulted to digital fame, etc etc’, which I’m going to skip here. I’m also going to skip the discussion of whether Wellerman is a sea shanty or just a sailors’ song.

But if you go no further with this note, do put a smile on your face and go and look at the Kermit version (50 seconds).

Dazed (which I took this tweet from) has the best account of how Nathan Evans’ original solo performance on TikTok was built on by others, and also the best selection of videos.

At CNET Erin Carson has a tentative go at some sociology, and connects this phenomenon to people trying to manage the relative isolation of lockdown:

It's hard to say why exactly this happened. It could be the quirk factor, or the appeal of watching talented people do cool things. Or perhaps, as some studies have suggested, choral singing might have positive effects on people's sense of well-being. Maybe after a year of peak stress and turmoil, rich harmonies and a 4/4 beat provide some kind of balm.

It might be relevant, as Jeremy Gilbert said on Twitter, that sea shanties are a deep cultural form that combine British and American folk traditions and African musical forms.

All the same, asking, “why sea shanties,” is the wrong question. One of the first things you learn when you study popular culture is that culture needs genre—familiar types of format—and the key feature of genre is that it’s “always the same and always different.” Familiarity constantly needs to innovate, in other words.

But innovation is often relatively random. There are always hundreds or thousands of new (and old) cultural ideas out there offering themselves for selection. There are more of these, more widely distributed, in the digital world than they used to be in the analogue. Many are called, but only one or two are chosen.

In short: TikTok’s success is about its skill at building connections in digital spaces, especially connections around content and remixing, which became more valuable during the pandemic months. Nathan Evans, the shanty-singing Scottish postman, just got lucky. As did the British Library, now rushing its book on sea shanties into print.


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