Facebook Copyright Hoax is Another Example of Why We Need Digital Literacy for Data and Privacy

Facebook users are up in arms about their privacy again. And that would be a good thing, if it wasn’t sparked by a hoax. For days now my Facebook stream has been filled with copy and pasted posts about “new Facebook guidelines.”

The New York Times and Wired have good take downs of the hoax, but for me this is yet another example of why we need an expansive digital literacy campaign focused on helping people understand how their personal information is used online, and how they can better control their privacy.

I make that case for such a campaign – and for why I think Facebook and others should help pay for it – in the post below. This was originally published by PBS MediaShift two weeks ago.

We Need a ‘Truth’ Campaign for Digital Literacy and Data Tracking

by Josh Stearns

Earlier this year, Bill Diggins, a marketing executive at Verizon Wireless, revealed a chilling fact about how much information the company collects about its customers. “We’re able to view just everything that they do,” he told a crowd at the Paley Center in New York. “And that’s really where data is going today. Data is the new oil.”

We know that companies are collecting enormous amounts of data about us every day, on and offline. Retailers track our purchases and make detailed predictions about our life events. Cell phone companies regularly hand over detailed phone logs to government agencies. Social networks collect volumes of data from every click. Political campaigns follow our web browsing. And, on top of that, we have seen a dramatic increase in government surveillancein the United States over the last decade.

For the most part, people have no idea the extent to which they are being followed and watched, analyzed and targeted, bought and sold. Now, more than ever, we need a national digital and data literacy effort on the scale of the anti-Big Tobacco ‘Truth’ campaign to address the escalating privacy and security issues facing citizens and their data.

Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Data

In an important post called “Big Data is our generation’s civil rights issue, and we don’t know it,” Alistair Croll argues, “Data doesn’t invade people’s lives. Lack of control over how it’s used does.”

In the post, he looks at the ways that our personal data can be used against us. Data predictions are already being used to guess people’s age, gender and race. It isn’t hard to imagine how this data could lead to discrimination in pricing, loans, and more. The threat of digital redlining is very real.

He concludes, “Governments need to balance reliance on data with checks and balances about how this reliance erodes privacy and creates civil and moral issues we haven’t thought through.”

Most of the debate over personal data has centered on Do Not Track, which is in part a technological fix and in part a policy fix. While important, Do Not Track only tackles part of the problem and wouldn’t address information you provide on social networks (like the kinds of data that contributed to this heart-wrenching story) or the data your credit card, cell phone and other companies collect about you.

While I think legislation will be both inevitable and necessary, it will be a long time coming. Changes in technology are developing faster than social and cultural norms can adapt. What’s needed right away is a massive digital literacy effort that can fundamentally shift people’s understanding and relationship with their personal data.

Digital literacy isn’t just about how to use a computer securely or how to tweak your Facebook privacy settings. It is fundamentally about how we communicate online and move through the world. In her white paper on digital literacy for the Knight Foundation, Renee Hobbs wrote that there is a growing recognition that “we must work to promote people’s capacity to simultaneously empower and protect themselves and their families as everyday lives become more saturated and enmeshed with information.”

Big data is a double-edged sword, with huge potential and equally enormous pitfalls for everything from health care to home loans, education to the economy. Whether this data is used for us or against us largely turns on how we control what data we share and how it’s used. At its core, this is a problem of attention and awareness.

Creating a National Digital Literacy Campaign

truth vids.jpg

You have likely seen the bold, inventive tactics and advertisements from the “truth” campaign, which works to educate people about the heath risks of smoking and the tobacco industry’s long history of misleading and manipulative effort to sell cigarettes. They have employed a range of clever,aggressive, guerilla marketing efforts to raise awareness about smoking.

Perhaps most interesting is that the truth campaign got its start through funding from Big Tobacco itself. When the cigarette industry settled a landmark lawsuit being brought by 46 states a small portion of that settlement was set aside to start The American Legacy Foundation, the parent organization of the truth effort.

As more and more companies get rich on our data, why not ask them to fund a new national media and digital literacy campaign? This could be achieved through a new tax on those companies that collect and dissect personal data. However, I think companies actually have a pretty strong incentive to participate without legislation.

Voluntary donations to start a digital literacy campaign could be much less costly than legal fees or lobbyist bills to fight back the kind of lawsuits and legislation we are starting to see emerge. In addition, helping set up such an effort could help build trust with users, and head off misinformation about their services that currently spread like wildfire. If done right, the campaign could also increase broadband adoption, which would benefit these companies.

In its National Broadband Plan for America the Federal Communications Commission actually calls for the launch of a national digital literacy corps to “organize and train youth and adults to teach digital literacy skills.” At the time, the FCC believed it was critical that America “ensure every American has the opportunity to become digitally literate.” Given the priority   has placed on digital literacy, such a campaign could be developed as a unique public/private partnership that matches contributions from companies with funding from the government and foundations.

Digital Literacy for Civic Agency

We don’t need to start from scratch. There is already a sizable network of people and organizations working on media literacy. Between non-profit groups, schools and social networks themselves, we have a powerful infrastructure for conducting this kind of campaign. With the right funding, a dose of strategic communications, clever campaign tactics, and more coordination, we could make digital and data literacy a critical part of the conversation about media and technology in America.

A massive, broad-based digital literacy effort could have huge benefits for our nation. Beyond helping people better control how they share their data, it could encourage more people to use new digital tools to become active media makers and smarter media consumers. It could help people debate and better understand our fundamental freedoms in a digital age. And a moredigital savvy workforce will help protect against the cyber-attacks on government and industry that are escalating every year.

However, perhaps most importantly, we need a digital literate citizenry. More and more of the daily details of democracy are moving online, from registering to vote on Facebook to watching a livestream of the school board meeting. If information is the lifeblood of democracy, we have to ensure that citizens understand how to foster more healthy media habits. And if data is the new oil, citizens need the knowledge, tools and agency to control how their lives are being mined.


Curation, Creation and Participation: What You Need to Know About the New Storify

What are the atomic elements of journalism? The story? The article? The interview? The beat? The tweet?

Storify was created as a platform to weave together incredible stories from the diverse and scattered pieces of the social web. But as it has developed, it has become as much about those social elements, as the stories that are told with them. With its relaunch and redesign today, that transformation is nearly complete. The question is, like the person who could not see the forest for the trees, will people lose site of the stories in the stream of social content?

Rethinking Curation

The new homepage of Storify pulls together the most interesting bits of social media from around the web and lets you quickly see what people are saying about them, add them to your own story, or comment on and share them yourselves. I first noticed Storify heading in this direction when they introduced the ability for people to like, share and comment on any individual element in a person’s story a few months ago. In so doing, any element of a story could become a story in and of itself. Continue reading

Networks Versus Institutions: Lessons from Occupy Sandy and the Red Cross

In the title of her post at Slate Katherine Goldstein asks “Is Occupy Wall Street Outperforming the Red Cross in Hurricane Relief?” It’s a provocative question, but the article doesn’t really go very far in answering it. While it provides a glimpse of the tremendous effort and coordination behind Occupy Sandy, it doesn’t really provide any evidence with which to compare Occupy’s effort to the Red Cross’s work.

I’m not on the ground in New York so I’m in no position to assess the tactics or impact of either group, and as Andrew Katz argued on Twitter, it may be “Unfair to pit Red Cross against Occupy in a ‘who’s helping more’ debate. Similar priorities, diff abilities.” However, I’ve watched as many of my friends have headed out to help with Occupy Sandy and connected to other self-organized grassroots relief efforts around the city. What Goldstein’s post raises, and what I have witnessed online, is how fundamentally the way we respond to disasters is changing. Continue reading

Nate Silver, the New York Times, and the Challenge of Being Your Own Disruptor

Earlier this week I wrote about longtime public broadcaster KCET merging with the independent, nonprofit online and satellite news org, LinkTV. I believe a key benefit for KCET is bring a great, global web savvy team into their newsroom. More and more we are seeing longtime news organization bringing outside innovation in-house.

However, the tension between the New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, and one of their leading election year stars, statistician Nate Silver, shines a spotlight on the difficulties of bringing in innovation from the outside.

Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog is licensed by The New York Times. He also writes for the Times on occasion but is still considered a kind of contract or freelance employee. In August of 2010 when Silver announced that FiveThirtyEight was moving to NYTimes.com he called the relationship a partnership. The terms of the agreement were for three years, so time is almost up.

As many have noted, Silver’s method of analysis and prediction has disrupted and contradicted the long time pundits who peddle in horserace politics. This, and the fact that his predictions have been leaning in Obama’s favor, have made him a target for partisans and pundits alike. This debate has been covered extensively.

However, this controversy has now spilled over into his own host organization, and is raising questions for all news organizations who want to “disrupt themselves.”  This is a debate we need to be having, but it shouldn’t devolve into picking sides. Changing institutions from the inside out is incredibly challenging work, but incredibly important.