The democratization of manipulation


by danah boyd, an excerpt from her Apophenia blog:

danah boyd is founder/president of Data & Society ( and author of the book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”

Note: Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people.

In the early days of blogging, many of my fellow bloggers imagined that our practice could disrupt mainstream media. For many progressive activists, social media could be a tool that could circumvent institutionalized censorship and enable a plethora of diverse voices to speak out and have their say. Civic minded scholars were excited by “smart mobs” who leveraged new communications platforms to coordinate in a decentralized way to speak truth to power. Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street. Black Lives Matter. These energized progressives as “proof” that social technologies could make a new form of civil life possible.

I spent 15 years watching teenagers play games with powerful media outlets and attempt to achieve control over their own ecosystem. They messed with algorithms, coordinated information campaigns, and resisted attempts to curtail their speech. Like Chinese activists, they learned to hide their traces when it was to their advantage to do so.

Of course, it wasn’t just progressive activists and teenagers who were learning how to mess with the media ecosystem that has emerged since social media unfolded. We’ve also seen the political establishment, law enforcement, marketers, and hate groups build capacity at manipulating the media landscape. Very little of what’s happening is truly illegal, but there’s no widespread agreement about which of these practices are socially and morally acceptable or not.

The techniques that are unfolding are hard to manage and combat. Some of them look like harassment, prompting people to self-censor out of fear. Others look like “fake news”, highlighting the messiness surrounding bias, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. There is hate speech that is explicit, but there’s also suggestive content that prompts people to frame the world in particular ways. Dog whistle politics have emerged in a new form of encoded content, where you have to be in the know to understand what’s happening. Companies who built tools to help people communicate are finding it hard to combat the ways their tools are being used by networks looking to skirt the edges of the law and content policies. Institutions and legal instruments designed to stop abuse are finding themselves ill-equipped to function in light of networked dynamics.

The Internet has long been used for gaslighting [manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity], and trolls [a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages] have long targeted adversaries. What has shifted recently is the scale of the operation, the coordination of the attacks, and the strategic agenda of some of the players.

For many who are learning these techniques, it’s no longer simply about fun, nor is it even about the lulz [beginning as a plural variant of lol, lulz was originally an exclamation but is now often used as a noun meaning interesting or funny internet content]. It has now become about acquiring power.

A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.

I only wish I knew what happens next.

Jonathan Edwards on beauty, desire, and the sensory world

A theological paper by Belden C. Lane

Jonathan Edwards perceived the natural world as a school of de- sire. He thought that by carefully attending to the sensory splendors (and terrors) of creation, believers learn to apprehend God’s glory, which is itself more sensory than anything we can imagine. The human task of bringing the world to a consciousness of its beauty in God is full of ecological implications. As George Marsden says in his new biography of Edwards, “The key to Edwards’ thought is that everything is related because everything is related to God.

BELDEN LANE received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is currently the Hotfelder Professor in the Humanities, Theological Studies, at Saint Louis University. He has recently published Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality (Johns Hopkins University, 2001) and The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University, 1998). He is now working on a book provisionally entitled Nature and Spirituality in the Reformed Tradition from John Calvin to Jonathan Edwards.


Seven mysteries revealed in the New Testament

1.  The mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory: the mystery of the Church. (Colossians 1:27)

2.  The mystery of godliness and Christ the God-man. (Timothy 3:16)

3.  The mystery of the hardening of Israel. (Romans 11:25)

4.   The mystery of the resurrection of believers. (I Corinthians 15:51)

5.  The mystery of the gospel. (Ephesians 6:19)

6.  The mystery of lawlessness. (II Timothy 2:2)

7.  The mystery of faith. (I Timothy 3:9)

Hananiah Part II: Prepare for the long haul

Jeremiah 28:12-17

Hananiah’s message to the people was a positive one, proclaiming God’s triumph over the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar.  The message was packaged with tasty details (“within two years” and “I will…bring back…Jeconiah”) and heroic images of release from exile.  Jeremiah in so many words said, “Great message — I wish it were true!”  But it was a lie and the people believed it and, in the end, it constituted “rebellion against the Lord.”

For me, I understand the desire of God’s people (including myself) to sound heroic on God’s behalf.  But maybe He is planning a period of darkness before the light finally dawns.  I may not even see the light in some cases!  Many Israelites must have died before they could see what they wanted to see: God take away the 70-year iron yoke of Nebuchadnezzar.

Therefore I need to keep working on my daily relationship with God and making sure it’s genuine and not drift off into pleasant-sounding diversions because, in the end, God’s ways can be a mystery, and I need to be prepared for the long haul.