The art of digital fakery…

Sock puppets, twitterjacking and the art of digital fakery in the Guardian reinforces the need for digital literacies as social practices. The examples show the ways we operate online are mirrors – but more about aspirations than true reflections. With varying degrees of accuracy, we can be who we want to be, or even create an identity which is totally false. There is nothing new in this. People have always reinvented their past. What is different is the affordances of the Internet to persuade other people of the truth of your lies, or more worryingly, the lies you tell about others.   

I’ve long been interested in construction of human identity. My first piece of postgraduate research used the Internet for communication and information (this was 1999), when opportunities for interaction were limited to textual exchange via email and the chat rooms which derived from early MUDS and MOOS. I had a 56k dial up modem and Web 2.0 hadn’t happened. I remember debates around the freedom offered by online environments for experimentation; how you could present an identity without barriers created through attribution and stereotyping. This was seen as positive but it’s all different now.  Just this week the media has reported fraudsters posing as would-be romantic partners on internet dating sites and pedophile rings use social media for grooming. This article not only lists multiple instances of ‘digital fakery’, it assumes fake identities are reflect negative aspects of our personalities eg sadist, masochist and weirdo. Maybe ‘only bad news sells’ but the degree to which we can post content which is incorrect and edit graphics so they appear to tell a different story has never been so easy. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger says: “The digital age is difficult. We’re in a Foucauldian postmodern world where we can’t tell the truth from fakery.” The need for embedding digital literacies into graduate attributes and teacher education has never been more important.

The Internet supports what US Psychoanalyst Christopher Lasch called The Culture of Narcissism. Writing in the 1970’s, long before the digital revolution, Lasch describes a capitalist society constantly searching for new markets. As the consumerism of material goods is no longer enough, so attention is turned to exploiting the ego; achieving this through the creation of false identities and blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. Lasch describes as resultant new illiteracies as the failure to think critically; something which lies at the heart of digital literacy in the 21st century.   

The hope lies in the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ effect; that there will be enough people online to challenge errors and mistakes and that the processes of critical reflective practice, which are integral to higher education, will be applied to all Internet encounters. Within learning technology we say it isn’t the tool. It’s what you do with it that counts. A parallel philosophy for digital literacies could be is it isn’t the message, it’s the interpretation which matters.

labels r not us

I hate labels and the label I hate the most is ‘disabled people’.  I hate it because people with impairments are disabled by society’s failure to recognise categories of difference and reduce subsequent barriers to participation.  This is the social model of disability. It’s society that disables individuals; you don’t disable yourself.

Today the BBC and the Guardian have reported on a poll commissioned by Scope from ComRes, where 91% of people stated they believed disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else (it doesn’t say what the other 9% thought). It then goes on to tell us how ‘disabled people are largely hidden’ away and socially excluded.  Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of Scope, said: “This is shocking evidence that shows that disabled people are still relatively invisible in day-to-day life. We are deeply concerned that the Government’s spending cuts will end up pushing disabled people even closer to the fringes of society.”

Note the label’ disabled people’ throughout. When problem with labels is they’re seen first and accompanied with all the stereotypical images and cultural attributions associated with them.  If these are predominantly negative then the reader or listener experiences them first.  Labels reinforce and reiterate. When you see the label disabled people, add socially in front of every occurrence of disabled and see how the radically the meaning changes.

Sixes and sevens and eights

Quick, study your Christmas cards for snowflakes lest they be falsely represented. There are six sides to a snowflake; any more or less is heresy. Comments to this piece about Professor Thomas Koop,  specialist in ice crystal formation at the University of Bielefled, Germany, who is upset about the corruption of  snowflakes, include pretty flaky arguments, crystallising opinion, sixism in science and, my favourite so far, hell hath no flurry like a scientist scorned.   Internet journalism at its best!

Public journalism is best

You can learn more from the comments than news items themselves. Journalism should be impartial; a balanced account of the issues without emotive vocabulary.  The BBC have posted the headline ‘Should homosexuals face execution?’

The beeb say they wanted to “reflect the stark reality” of a Ugandan bill being debated in their parliament which would see some homosexual offences punishable by death. Comments left the reader in no doubt that homophobia is alive and well and living in the UK. The decision to print this headline was considered permissible. Substitute homosexual for a medical condition, an ethnic minority or a religion, and it would not be. The same applies for the comments. If the context was another section of society supposedly protected by equality and diversity legislation, they would have been moderated out..  

Bias and prejudice are expected in some areas of the media but you would hope for impartiality with the BBC and the Guardian (where I picked this up). Thankfully most comments were rational and reflected a more tolerant society. The contrast between the news report and reader’s opinions offers the best combination of left and right thinking creating a perfect journalistic balance.

The BBC have (as I write!) changed the headline to Should Uganda debate gay execution? The original screenshot can still be seen on the Guardian link. A response to the power of public journalism?