Emotion Threatens Reason in Tech Policy

Our political process is increasingly dependent on emotion and manipulation. This the theme of recent posts on this blog, and others have noticed it as well. Cornell law professor James Grimmelmann bemoans the dearth of rational persuasion and compromise in a post on emotional mobilization:

…the mechanism of control over government is no longer reasoned persuasion but emotional mobilization. This is partly a function of living in a partisan age: Trump may have revealed that base-activation is the dominant electoral strategy. But I’m becoming convinced that it’s even more a function of living in a social-media age. The way to build mass political power is to get something emotionally powerful and politically activating go viral among people who agree with you.

The recent Senate FCC oversight hearing was lambasted by some activists for its relative lack of emotion:

Net neutrality advocates were left furious on Thursday that there wasn’t more fury directed at the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at Congressional hearing despite the fact he killed off net neutrality several months ago.

Advocates hoped the hearing would provide grist for the emotional mobilization campaigns and were upset that it was mainly collegial and productive. When hysteria becomes the norm, good government is a disappointment.

The Emotional Impact of Social Media

I believe Grimmelmann is right to put the blame on social media, but it’s not entirely a neutral force. Powerful agents spend a lot of time and money using social media to accomplish both political and economic ends.

An academic study finds that trolls in Russia’s Internet Research Agency posted bizarre tweets on vaccines when they weren’t busy ginning up support for their presidential candidate in 2016. Oddly, the vaccine tweets were split across both sides the debate.

This is different from Russia’s use of both social and traditional media to gain support for its anti-GMO campaign. In the case of GMOs, the trolls created clickbait:

In contrast to US media coverage about GMOs, the paper notes, the Russian sites almost always portrayed them in a negative light. What also startled Dorius was that many of the Russian stories with “GMO” in the title had little to do with genetic engineering or agriculture at all. Rather, the term seemed injected into the story to connect it with negative emotions; the team dubbed these types of stories as “clickbait.”

Gaining Eyeballs

Injecting emotionally-loaded terms such as “vaccines” and “GMOs” into political articles helps attract eyeballs and followers. Once a social media user has a significant number of followers or regular readers, it becomes easy to carry out the real agenda.

This explains Russia’s tweets on both sides of the vaccination question: it doesn’t have a dog in the vaccine argument, it simply wants attention for its political agenda. But Russia does have a dog in the GMO fight, as it appears to be positioning itself as a leading producer of organic food. This may well be the case, but the vaccine revelation suggests a broader agenda.

Russia is not alone in using emotional manipulation to win support for its agenda, obviously. We’ve shown that John Oliver has used the emotionally-charged issue of net neutrality to win audience share, but there’s more to the Oliver story.

Following the Activist Script

Last Week Tonight ran a recent story on “astroturf” organizations that singled out the American Council on Science and Health for abuse:

So what was the editorial source of Oliver’s vicious attack? His producer cited a hit piece put out by U.S. Right To Know, an advocacy group well known in the science community as quack, anti-GMO campaigners who relish in trying to destroy the reputations of independent scientists, science journalists and science organizations. It’s funded by one of the most notorious fringe advocacy groups in the United States, the Organic Consumers Association, whose claim to fame is its vaccine denialism, promotion of kooky alternative therapies like homeopathy, a belief that Zika is a conspiracy caused by global chemical companies and a host of other anti-science crackpot ideas.

ACSH is many things, but astroturf isn’t one of them. It doesn’t pretend to be a grassroots organization as the net neutrality and organic food activists do. Just as Oliver copy-pasted claims from Free Press in his net neutrality piece, he cribbed factoids and arguments from USRTK for his attack on GMO advocates. If nothing else, these attack pieces are plagiarism.

It’s Not Just the Media

While it’s easy to blame all of this manipulation on media, social and otherwise, it’s not entirely honest. Even if we didn’t have audience-hungry comedians on cable and political operatives on Twitter and Facebook, we would still see irrational discussions of science and technology.

Carl Sagan warned of this in his last TV interview, with Charlie Rose:

We’ve arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?

This was in 1996, when Congress had just abolished its Office of Technology Assessment. Science, Sagan explained, is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking that is critical to the enabling of democracy. Without this critical faculty, Sagan said, we’re vulnerable to every charlatan that comes along. Ahem.

A Candle in the Dark

Sagan’s last book was titled A Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  Twenty years later, we’re past the point where candles can help; we need now need floodlights.

Last week the Environmental Working Group, a fake environmentalist group, published a bogus study claiming Cheerios are contaminated with an unsafe level of weed killer. The study was nothing more than sleight of hand.

Where the EPA has set the safe level of the particular weed killer at 140 milligrams per day for a person of average weight, EWG decided on its own that the safe level should be 10 micrograms, one 14,000th of the EPA’s level. This story was widely reported by the media in a completely uncritical manner.

Those Crazy California Juries

The EWG story was released just days after a California jury ignored all the scientific evidence and found that the same weedkiller – Monsanto Roundup – caused a groundskeeper to develop a rare cancer just months after took a job that required him to spray weeds.  Even if the compound could cause mycosis fungoides, it couldn’t have done so this quickly.

This week, the fire chief in Santa Clara County, California (home of San Jose, the former capitol of Silicon Valley) claimed Verizon unlawfully reduced the data rate of an LTE device affixed to one of his fire trucks. But this action was according to the data plan the department had chosen to purchase.

And this wasn’t the first time SCCFD had network issues: it had the same problem with its limited data plan in December.

It’s Called FirstNet, Have you Heard of It?

Even if the story were true, most first responders in California use FirstNet instead of consumer-grade LTE for critical services:

California has opted in to using the FirstNet system, and the Santa Clara Fire Department itself uses FirstNet. According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, Fire Captain Bill Murphy says they use FirstNet “as a supplement” to Verizon. Why the county would rely primarily on a general-purpose commercial network for coordinating the fight against this historic fire and only subscribe to a dedicated first responder network “as a supplement” is beyond me.

As an aside, the claims of the Santa Clara County counsel—that this incident “has everything to do with net neutrality”—are also ironic considering FirstNet actively prioritizes public safety over other traffic on commercial networks. This shouldn’t be controversial—we want first responder video from an apartment fire, for example, to get through with higher priority than a bunch of spectators trying to stream to Facebook Live or Snapchat. It is in the public interest to have a mobile broadband network for public safety that is the antithesis of “neutral.”

Nevertheless, activist groups and eyeball bloggers tout the story as some sort of magic proof that the Title II net neutrality repeal is to blame for the apparent mismanagement of the fire department even though the same happened under the old regime.

Consequences of Getting Tech Policy Wrong

I’ve combined two aspects of tech policy here: Internet and biology. These two fields are more closely connected than you may think.

Common Dreams is one of the organizations that blasted the Senate Commerce Committee for not piling on Chairman Pai after he explained why he kept quiet about the Oliver attack:

Anyone who was expecting Democrats to aggressively and intelligently grill FCC chair Ajit Pai over his egregious lies about his agency’s fabricated “cyberattack” story or his deeply unpopular net neutrality repeal was disappointed after the Senate Commerce Committee’s much-anticipated oversight hearing on Thursday, which ultimately ended up being a “complete joke” that produced little of substance and few answers to important questions.

Common Dreams also praised the verdict in the Roundup case and even printed a press release from OCA, one of the advocacy groups behind the Oliver astroturf show. At the Tech Policy Institute’s Aspen Forum this week, the opening keynote ended with the example of the anti-vax movement as a barrier to rational policy.

Genuine Existential Threats Call for More Tech

The UN predicts that the world population will reach 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. This means we need to get a whole lot better at producing food without increasing the land area under the plow or wrecking the rivers and the air.

We also need to keep infectious diseases from spreading as people live closer together. The only way this is going to happen is with more and better technology.

The critical areas of improvement are plants, cultivation techniques, vaccines, and the networks that tie everything together. Precision agriculture, for example, provides plants with the nutrients and pesticides they need without causing runoff.

Better Networks are at the Heart of Technology

Precision tractors are connected to broadband networks. And the new farm fields are mesh networks of sensors helping tractors know what’s needed.

Vaccine developers communicate with each other electronically, and databases track children’s health before and after they’re vaccinated.

Genetic engineering relies on genome models developed with combinations of biology and computers.  The CRISPR/Cas9 process that precisely edits genes is modeled on computer-based text editing (even though it’s not nearly the same process) and it enables trait recipes to be communicated electronically.

New Models of Regulation

Giving into fanaticism and emotion in one sphere of technology development impairs progress in all other areas. Lawmakers are scared of many of these new technologies, as are ordinary citizens with limited understanding.

Enjoying the benefits of ICT and the Information Age requires us to adopt new models of regulation that are fit for the task. For this to happen, we’ll need to stop demonizing every new invention for the sake of eyeballs, audience, and ad revenues.

It’s unwise to sit back and hope that common law develops optimal outcomes for the regulation of new tech. We tried that and it didn’t work. But for legislation to be effective, we need to do something about these fear campaigns and their inherent human appeal.

Tune in next week for some ideas.