Episode 6: Christine Apa and the 24 Foundation

christine apa

On today’s episode we will be discussing the 24 Foundation (www.24foundation.org) and their work to help people heal through art with their founder and CEO, Christine Apa.

Episode 6: Christine Apa and the 24 Foundation

Thanks for listening, I hope you enjoyed today’s episode and feel free to email me any questions, comments or concerns at speakfaithfully@gmail.com

-SF

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The Weaponization of Social Media and Sociology

The Power of Perceived Consensus

Many years ago I learned about the Asch Conformity Experiment. I could explain it, but this video, with footage from the actual tests probably introduces it best.

This study highlights the powerful effect that our perception of the consensus around us has on our behavior. In this study it was found the majority of people would deny what they knew to be objectively true if the group around them unanimously denied that truth. People either convinced themselves that their perception must have been wrong because everyone else around them held a different view, or they just went along with the group to avoid being criticized or making waves.

Additionally, while only one dissenting voice was enough for others to also break ranks from the group consensus, people who yielded to group pressure served to increase the pressure to conform on those around them by adding another voice supporting the group’s denial of reality.

In an individual situation this may not be to dangerous or harmful.  However, according to Alasdair MacIntyre’s theory of tradition-constituted rationality, humans perceive and define what is reasonable or appropriate based largely on tradition. Tradition itself may be thought of as a group consensus that is transmitted over time. This means that in a larger perspective, the yielding to group pressure, despite plain evidence to the contrary, is the first step towards something clearly false evolving into something that is so widely accepted as true it is rarely, if ever, examined or criticized

I bring this up because it is in light of humanity’s propensity to yield to the consensus we perceive around us that a number of recent revelations regarding the State and Social Media should be seen. Understood and seen together, these revelations should be quite alarming to anyone paying attention. In this post I will examine recent stories regarding the Facebook “emotional contagion” study, the Minerva Research Initiative, and revelations regarding GCHQ programs and what they mean for the future.

The Facebook “Emotional Contagion” Study

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It was recently revealed that the Facebook corporation carried out a social experiment on hundred of thousands of its users. (The actual manuscript published from this study can be found here.) In this study they manipulated the number of positive and negative messages a user saw on their timeline and they observed the impact this had on the nature of the posts the user themselves put forward. The result was that they discovered they could manipulate the emotions of their users through controlling the type of content they saw. People who saw less positive postings posted more negative messages, while those who saw less negative postings posted more positive messages.

Before I say more I should just say that as someone working in mental health research, having such a gigantic population that is uploading a vast trove of data, information and interactions at your disposal and open to your manipulation for experiments is just about any researchers dream. However, I believe this study was unethical because Facebook and their Cornell collaborators carried out this research without properly obtained informed consent. Facebook’s terms of service include a clause that states that users release their information for “data analysis, testing, [and] research,” so this study had legal consent, but this is not the same thing as informed consent required by most social disciplines. “Participants” who were manipulated were never informed of this study nor of any dangers it may have posed to them. This research was unethical but carried out anyway for the benefit of Facebook, not its users.

Considered by itself, this study might not be that unnerving. In fact, ethical issues aside, similar studies have shown the same phenomenon occurs with text message and other forms of community. But it does act as a proof of concept that someone with the power to control the Facebook feed can influence large groups of people in certain ways. This becomes more alarming when we look at what else was recently revealed.

The Minerva Research Initiative

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Around this same time new information came to light about the Minerva Research Initiative. The Minerva Research Initiative or Project Minerva is a series of studies and research programs at various academic institutions being funded by the Pentagon. While individually they appear to be rather normal research efforts that are undertaken by universities, as a whole they reveal that the Pentagon is spending millions of dollars studying civil unrest and social movements in the hopes of better understanding them, controlling them, and preparing for a possible social collapse. This, in the words of Natasha Lennard of Vice, is an example of “using the academy for the militaristic purposes of studying and stemming dissent.”

There are two aspects of this initiative that are especially troubling and relevant to note here. First, one of the researchers from the Facebook “emotional contagion” study, Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University, has also received funding from the Minerva Research Initiative. In his work funded by the Pentagon Hancock has been studying the spread of ideas through social media under oppressive state regimes. Where one study tracks “emotional contagion” another tracks “social contagions” or the spread of ideas and popular opinion. The desire to understand the spread of ideas and beliefs in social movements is not being funded by the Pentagon to in a desire to contribute beneficial information to the discipline of sociology, but is to increase the Pentagon’s ability to stop, undermine or control social movements and the spread of ideas that challenge the State.

Second, the Minerva Research Initiative is focused in some cases explicitly on peaceful activists, not militants or extremists. The rationale underlying this is that any activist, peaceful or not, who is critical of the state or corporate status quo is on or part of “a conveyor belt to extremism.” Again, studying the behavior and actions of peaceful activists, including their utilization of social media, is being pursued to enable ways for the Pentagon to limit the effectiveness or even manipulate such persons. This isn’t about fighting terrorism; this is about fighting challenges to the status quo.

For more on the Minerva Research Initiative check out Unauthorized Disclosure’s interview with Nafeez Ahmed, one of a small number of journalists who has been following this Initiative for some time, or his interview with Abby Martin of RT.

State Manipulation of Society Through Social Media

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While perhaps unethical or unsettling, some might suggest the pursuit of this research isn’t indicative of the State’s desire or ability to exert control over society through social media. I would disagree and recent revelations from The Intercept back me up.

Edward Snowden has recently provided evidence revealing that the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), an extension of the British spy agency GCHQ, has developed tools to do exactly that. Glen Greenwald reports that the documents reveal JTRIG “has developed covert tools to seed the internet with false information, including the ability to manipulate the results of online polls, artificially inflate pageview counts on web sites, ‘amplif[y]‘ sanctioned messages on YouTube, and censor video content judged to be ‘extremist.’”

I encourage my readers to look at the actual document and read over the extent and scope of these programs. Twitter, Linkedin, Tor, Youtube, Google+, Paltalk, Facebook, MSN Messenger, SMS text messages, Dailymotion, Blackberrys, eBay, IRC, and GSM/Satellite phones are just some of the technologies and social media platforms targeted by these tools.

This is clear evidence that governments are not just attempting to monitor social media, and they are not just attempting to silence or discredit dissenters on social media, but they are looking for ways to very directly manipulate social media and to manipulate people through social media to their own ends. Frighteningly enough JTRIG has boasted most of the programs it advertised internally are “fully operational, tested and reliable.” Call me suspicious, but I doubt the NSA does not already have similar programs in place or not also pursuing them.

State and Corporate Collusion and Lack of Public Oversight and Accountability

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The reality of research into and the weaponization of Social Media is additionally troublesome considering Social Media corporations have proved willing to continue the longstanding tradition of State and Corporate collusion. While many of the corporations implicated in revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program denied their involvement and feigned outrage and ignorance, some of these statements have been proved false. Additionally, Google has moved towards becoming a defense department contractor on the payroll of the U.S. Government. Maybe Google just realized how lucrative war is. Huge U.S. corporations such Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft have also already proved they are willing to censor their services at the request of foreign governments and their “we were legally bound” stance on NSA programs shows they are willing to work for and with the U.S. government in the same manner.

Making things even worse is the reality that in this arena both the State and Social Media corporations are operating behind the scenes with no real oversight. The State hides behind the claims of the need for secrecy to maintain national security. Even government officials tasked with providing oversight are prevented from discussing what they believe the public would be appalled by and others indicate they have been kept in “utter ignorance” regarding the full extent of these programs. Social Media corporations hide behind claims of proprietary technology and algorithms. The public is kept in the dark on how the systems they use work and who really controls them. How does Google decide will be on what page of your search results? How do Facebook and Twitter decide what will be displayed on your newsfeed? According to what criteria do some of the algorithms make these determinations? Can these algorithms be manipulated or specific results altered, and if so by whom? We know, at least with Facebook, there is apparatus in place to alter the newsfeed of hundreds of thousands of people in very nuanced ways with basically no way for anyone to detect this. So who has the power to do this, what scrutiny are they under and who do they answer to?

So far the only way the public has become aware of abuses of these powers is through whistleblowers like Snowden, people who the current administration, an administration that promised transparency, and has consistently prosecuted with vigor.

State (and Corporate) Efforts to Manipulate Through Media Are Not New

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Now the State has always looked to use media to quell dissent and shape public perception and opinion in favor of State interests, which often turn out to be corporate interests. This is nothing new. For example, public opinion in the U.S. was so anti-imperialist and anti-expansion that the annexation of Hawaii in 1883 was seen as un-American. However, after a deluge of jingoistic newspaper articles, “Five years later, this consensus evaporated. Almost overnight, it was replaced by a national clamor for overseas expansion. This was the quickest and most profound reversal of public opinion in the history of American foreign policy.” And the annexation of Hawaii was ultimately so that missionaries-turned-sugar-barons could avoid paying a new tax on their sugar being sent to the U.S.

Radio and television media have likewise been used. The centralization of all media in the U.S. has increased the ease with which media is controlled and the danger it poses to everyone. Today in the U.S. six companies control 90% of the media, and directly determine what stories get reported and in what way. To think these forms of media are not already being used to shape public opinion and steer public discourse in favor of State and corporate interests would be absurd. So what’s the big deal about the weaponization and manipulation of Social Media?

Social Media as a Democratic, Unauthorized, Uncontrolled Space for Discourse

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Social Media has created a space for unauthorized and uncontrolled discourse where the “social contagion” of ideas can spread rapidly. Social Media and the internet in general have also allowed us to connect to alternate sources of information from which to fact check and criticize the dominant narrative being pushed by centralized State and Corporate controlled Media. Today, regardless of whatever information or narrative a State or Corporation might be disseminating about a people, a situation, or a policy, I could go online and educate myself by connecting with other people and information available online. This was not possible a couple decades ago without time, travel and serious effort on my part. So, for example, despite media stories consistently being slanted against Hugo Chavez, I could examine his actions and the actions of his administration for myself thanks to the internet, connecting with people on the ground in Venezuela or by reading news sources not controlled by the State or Corporations.

Social Media in particular has proved especially important as a platform for silenced and ignored voices. Things we would never consider or learn about have been brought to our attention by connecting with people or ideas via networks outside the mainstream historic media systems. For example, #BringBackOurGirls hashtag on Social Media made Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping an international story. While the State’s use of this crisis to advance its agenda regarding the militarization of the African continent, one would not have expected this story to reach international levels without Social Media.

The Bottom Line: This is New Territory With Frightening Possibilities

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Social Media then represents a threat to the ability of the State to exert control over its populace. It’s only natural then that the State would then seek to understand how Social Media operates and how to manipulate it thus bringing Social Media into their already considerable influence it has over other existing forms of media.

Just as the advent of drones has sparked a revolution in warfare and policing, so the State’s efforts to manipulate bring Social Media under its influence will also represent a revolution in the State and Corporate ability to influence and control society.

The Facebook “emotional contagion” study proved that large scale secret manipulation of Social Media and of people through Social Media is possible. The Minerva Research Initiative has and will continue to increase the State’s understanding of and ability to influence and undermine social movements, civil unrest and peaceful activists. The GCHQ programs are evidence that the State has already developed ways to secretly manipulate the content of Social Media in many ways.

As it stands, it is currently possible for certain persons to secretly manipulate the information millions of people take in, crafting it to suit whatever agenda they have in mind, in real-time. We have no idea who these people are, who they answer to, or what apparatus, if anything, holds them accountable. This all adds up to the weaponization of Social Media, and we are just at the beginning of this new push for control by the State.

What makes this new situation so frightening is that underlying all of this is what the Asch Conformity experiment pointed to: the incredible power of our perception of consensus. If it only took three or four people unanimously denying reality to get another person to yield to group pressure and also deny reality, what happens when a person sees a story, message or video with literally millions of views, hundreds of positive comments, likes and other evidence of agreement and consensus by their peers? How many people can be scared into silence or convinced to abandon their true perception of reality due to a false consensus being presented through Social Media? How could a person ever consider the alternatives to the status quo if every story they see through Social Media and other media about these alternatives is a straw-man caricature of these alternatives or a story that demonizes and embarrasses people who espouse them?

Because of this, secret State manipulation of Social Media does not just hinder or cripple Social Media’s ability to allow us to step outside of State and Corporate controlled narratives but will also expand the State’s ability to influence people through Social Media. Due to the prolific use of Social Media, previously impossible Orwellian forms of shaping public perception about the world are now possible, leaving us to consider the possibility of a rather dystopian future even worse than what we have now. We would do well to pay attention to this situation, prepare for more research and development from the State on this issue, and do whatever we can to enable and require transparency and fairness regarding the flow of information through Social Media.

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Suey Park and the Dire Need for the Prophetic Tradition

“Where are all the prophets who love God?”

- Ramone, spoken word poet

Suey Park, (who was mentioned last on this blog regarding the furor over #CancelColbert) recently posted about her experiences in the church, and before you continue please give it a read (LINKED HERE and also HERE).

Our trajectories out of Christian ministry and to a place with one foot in conservative faith communities and another in activist communities are eerily similar.

We both had become ardent members of evangelical circles involved in parachurch ministries. We both endorsed the “narratives of ascent” and “before and after” stories of faith exalted in these spaces. We both got stuck in weird stances on LGBT issues where we tried to maintain the traditional condemnation of queer identities as sinful but at the same time attempted to avoid marginalizing queer people. We both began questioning the culture of faith we knew. We both began connecting with other communities in order to learn and connect, not to proselytize. We both began to recognize the damage common Christian theology and practice does to marginalized and traumatized people. We both looked upon the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the Christian nationalism it evoked around us with criticismWe both were accused/questioned of being lesbian/gay when we began standing in solidarity with the queer community. We both began to see how Christianity often supported or was complicit in a variety of injustices.

Ultimately both of us failed to keep quiet, we rocked the boat too much, and have since begun sorting out how to pursue justice beyond the traditional boundaries of the Church.

To this end Park has recently co-founded with a number of others Killjoys and Prophets, “a consciousness-raising faith collective centering on women of color, feminism and activism.” Their hashtag is #killjoyprophets and their Twitter is @KilljoyProphets. Please take the time to check them out if this is something that sounds like your kind of deal.

Currently Park states that she is pondering two huge questions that I think are the right kind of questions to be asking of Christianity:

1) Will Christians embrace justice if it means letting go of the privileges they often find comfort and safety in?

2) Is the church willing to look within at its creation and perpetuation of systemic inequity rather than simply pointing fingers to the “secular” world?

The Death of the Prophetic

I wish all those involved with Killjoys and Prophets the best of luck. Their second piece, on racial reconciliation within the Church, especially in regards to AAPI communities, dropped a few days ago and it seems they are not pulling any punches with their critique and their desire is for real substantive change.

However, Park is not the first Christian that I’ve come across who has found themselves alienated from their faith community because of their faith inspired pursuit of justice and criticisms of the Church. I have met many people with very similar stories over the years.

While no community enjoys receiving criticism, the Christian church seems especially averse to any sort of exposure of its own problems. It has become incredibly adept at utilizing sophisticated deflections to avoid critique from anyone, Christian or not.

I believe this situation is in a large part due to the death of the prophetic tradition within Christianity. While the prophetic tradition exists in our Bible, and Ephesians 4:11 makes it clear this tradition was supposed to continue, Christianity rather quickly adopted structures and systems of power that mirrored secular institutions around them. The prophetic tradition had no place in this new order and any understanding or practice of the prophetic tradition was rather thoroughly eradicated from Christianity, to Christianity’s own detriment.

The Work of the Prophets

Before I say anymore I should make it clear what my understanding is of the prophetic tradition, and what its function was and is supposed to be.

Contrary to how I have heard the term commonly used, acting as a prophet does not mean standing up for vaguely defined Christian values as they become unpopular or condemning the sins of the secular world and speculating about the coming judgment of God.  Reading the prophetic works of the scripture it is clear the prophets often explained the judgments of God and this was at least part of their role, but it was rarely focused on the sins of outsiders and foreigners. They would explain the punishments that would befall (or had already befallen) the people of God and what sins or problems in the community had prompted these judgments.

Sometimes this problem was cultic (how the people of God were worshipping God). Sometimes this problem was idolatry (who the people of God were worshipping). More often than not the problem was in regards to justice (what the people of God were doing or failing to do).

In regards to that last point it should be noted that while that some of the moral codes in the Bible have changed or been modified over the centuries, providing justice for the vulnerable has been a consistent exhortation throughout scriptures. The people of God were and are judged as righteous or unrighteous according to how they are treating the poorest and weakest among them. Are they providing justice to the foreigner, the widower, the orphan and the poor or are they exploiting the most vulnerable among them?

The prophets or prophetesses were calling the people of God back to their senses and inviting them to return to the ways of the God of Israel, the ways of justice. In his book The Challenge of Jesus N.T. Wright labels this important function of the prophets as “critique from within.” While criticism from the outside might be merited and important to pay attention to, it is indispensable to have people within our own communities calling us to live aligned with our own ideals, people from within calling us to be true to ourselves.

The Dire Need for Prophetic Voices

Over the centuries, the loss of the prophetic tradition has been problematic for Christianity as a whole. Time and time again both within scripture and in the history of Christianity, the followers of the God of Israel have drifted far from that God’s teaching and will. Time and time again Christianity has needed prophets and prophetesses to provide a critique from within and call us back to ourselves. Yet Christianity continued in its injustices and drifted farther away because it had silenced the very voices it needed.

This has been especially problematic for Christianity in the United States. During the Second Great Awakening Christianity in the United States took a dramatic turn for the worse. The legacy of the manufactured revivals and camp meetings was that Christianity became easily enthralled by spectacle and theatrics, Charisma became the most sought after trait among its leaders, and the faith of many was founded upon an extremely narrow understanding of the Gospel. (I will deal with this in greater detail in my next post.)

Since the Second Great Awakening, the devolution of Christianity in the U.S. has continued, in part due to the lack of a robust prophetic tradition to bring it to its senses. This has left us with an easily distracted civil religion, led by charismatic leaders who may or may not follow Jesus’ teachings, that is easily co-opted by other agendas and ideologies. Christianity again finds itself excusing, participating in, and even advocating for various injustices often in violation of some of Jesus’ most basic teachings. (How many Christians serve in the U.S. empire’s military, perhaps the largest single source of violence and oppression in the world today, without a second thought despite Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemy?)

Looking out upon the current state of affairs, in which I see a highly problematic and ultimately apostate status quo dominating much of Christianity, I, as Niebuhr, am forced to ask, “What must the church do to save itself?”

Ultimately I think a rebirth of the prophetic tradition is an integral part of any serious attempt to address longstanding issues within Christianity. Christianity desperately needs prophets who love God more than their acceptance within Christian culture. Indeed any answer to Park’s two questions will require that Christianity create a space where it can receive criticism and enact reforms, and what better way to do this than to revive what it has lost?

So while people like Park and the other Killjoy Prophets, people asking the tough questions of the Church, people pointing out injustices in the Church, are often branded as insufficiently Christian, silenced, alienated or are put out of the Church, I hope they continue to keep speaking up. Like the prophets of old, they may find themselves operating from the margins, calling to the establishment in the city from the lonely places in the desert, but how else will the injustices and problems within Christianity be challenged or changed?

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Speakfaithfully Podcast Episode 5: The Walk for Change at UND with Dani Miller and Emmy Scott

 

walk for change

Today’s episode focuses on the Walk for Change at UND, a Native American organized event that was created in response to a variety of racist and insensitive incidents at UND. At the end of the walk organizers put forward a number of demands to the UND administration and laid out the consequence if these demands were not met by December 2014. For more on this and the larger context at UND we turn to Native American UND alumnae Dani Miller and Emmy Scott.

Episode 5 – The Walk for Change at UND with Dani Miller and Emmy Scott

Thanks for listening, I hope you enjoyed this episode. Stay tuned for next week’s interview!

 

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Speakfaithfully Podcast Episode 4: Creating Safe Spaces for LGBT people within Christianity with James and Rebecca Farlow

On today’s episode we discuss one straight couple’s efforts to create safe spaces for LGBT people within Christianity , including their new non-profit Sanctuary.

Episode 4 - Creating Safe Spaces for LGBT people within Christianity 

I hope you enjoy this episode. Next week may be an off week due to scheduling issues with my other job but stay tuned for more conversations to inform and challenge you.

-SF

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Speakfaithfully Podcast Episode 3: Issues with Veterans Affairs with Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson and Speakfaithfully

Guest Joe Jackson and Host Speakfaithfully back in Modesto

On today’s episode we discuss issues with Veterans Affairs with Joe Jackson, a former Navy corpsman who served in Iraq with the U.S. Marines.

Episode 3 – Veterans Affairs with Joe Jackson

I hope you enjoy this episode. Next week, we will be discussing the relationship between the queer community and the Christian community and one straight Christian couple that is working to mend that relationship.

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Speakfaithfully Podcast Episode 2: Socialism with Mike Anderson

socialism

For today’s episode of the Speakfaithfully podcast we discuss Socialism with Mike Anderson.

Episode 2 – Socialism with Mike Anderson

I hope you enjoy this episode. Next week, we will be discussing the treatment of War on Terror veterans with Joe Jackson, a former corpsman with the Marines who served in Iraq.

Feel free to email comments and questions to speakfaithfully@gmail.com

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