Tag: democracy (page 2 of 5)

Using WhatsApp is a (poor) choice that you make

People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don’t use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.

Given that I don’t usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I’d create one.


WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.

US mobile messenger apps (iPhone) graph from August 2012 to March 2013
A document obtained by the DCMS as part of their investigations

As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).

So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we’re led to believe, WhatsApp is ‘end-to-end encrypted’ then Facebook don’t have access to the messages of users. So what’s so valuable?


Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users’ privacy to Facebook.

Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”

Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.

Parmy Olson (Forbes)

The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give “analytical insights” on how users interacted with WhatsApp.

Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?

In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn’t harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they’re peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.

Cory Doctorow (EFF)

So Facebook is harvesting metadata from its various platforms, tracking people around the web (even if they don’t have an account), and buying up data about offline activities.

All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.


Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it’s always the responsibility of the user to be ‘vigilant’.

Man reading a newspaper
A WhatsApp advert aiming to ‘fighting false information’ (via The Guardian)

So you might think that you’re just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that ‘everyone’ uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.

The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.

[…]

A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.

William Davies (The Guardian)

I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I’m happy with taking.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Header image by Rachit Tank

Saturday scrapings

Every week, I go back through the links I’ve saved, pick out the best ones, and share them here. This week is perhaps even more eclectic than usual. Enjoy!


Marcus Henderson

Meet the Farmer Behind CHAZ’s Vegetable Gardens

Marcus was the first to start gardening in the park, though he was quickly joined by friends and strangers. This isn’t the work of a casual amateur; Henderson has an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford University, a Master’s degree in Sustainability in the Urban Environment, and years of experience working in sustainable agriculture. His Instagram shows him hard at work on various construction and gardening projects, and he’s done community development at organic farms around the world.

Matt Baume (The Stranger)

I love this short article about Marcus Henderson, the first person to start planting in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.


The Rich Are ‘Defunding’ Our Democracy

“Apparently,” comments [journalist David] Sirota, “we’re expected to be horrified by proposals to reduce funding for the militarized police forces that are violently attacking peaceful protesters — but we’re supposed to obediently accept the defunding of the police forces responsible for protecting the population from the wealthy and powerful.”

Sam Pizzigati (Inequality.org)

A lot of people have been shocked by the calls to ‘defund the police’ on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests. The situation is undoubtedly worse in the US, but I particularly liked this explainer image, that I came across via Mastodon:

Teapot with label 'Defund the police' which has multiple spouts pouring into cups entitled 'Education', 'Universal healthcare', 'Youth services', 'Housing', and 'Other community investments'

Peasants’ Revolt

Yet perhaps the most surprising feature of the revolt is that in-spite of the modern title, Peasants’ Revolt didn’t gain usage until the late nineteenth century, the people who animated the movement weren’t peasants at all. They were in many respects the village elite. True, they weren’t noble magnates, but they were constables, stewards and jurors. In short, people who were on the up and saw an opportunity to press their agenda.

Robert Winter

I love reading about things I used to teach, especially when they’re written by interesting people about which I want to know more. This blog post is by Robert Winter, “philosopher and historian by training, Operations Director by pay cheque”. I discovered is as part of the #100DaysToOffload challenge, largely happening on the Fediverse, and to which I’m contributing.


Red blood cells

Three people with inherited diseases successfully treated with CRISPR

Two people with beta thalassaemia and one with sickle cell disease no longer require blood transfusions, which are normally used to treat severe forms of these inherited diseases, after their bone marrow stem cells were gene-edited with CRISPR.

Michael Le Page (New Scientist)

CRISPR is a way of doing gene editing within organisms. sAs far as I’m aware, this is one of the first times it’s been used to treat conditions in humans. I’m sure it won’t be the last.


Choose Your Own Fake News

Choose Your Own Fake News is an interactive “choose your own adventure” game. Play the game as Flora, Jo or Aida from East Africa, and navigate the world of disinformation and misinformation through the choices you make. Scrutinize news and information about job opportunities, vaccines and upcoming elections to make the right choices!

This is the kind of thing that the Mozilla Foundation does particularly well: either producing in-house, or funding very specific web-based tools to teach people things. In this case, it’s fake news. And it’s really good.


Why are Google and Apple dictating how European democracies fight coronavirus?

The immediate goal for governments and tech companies is to strike the right balance between privacy and the effectiveness of an application to limit the spread of Covid-19. This requires continuous collaboration between the two with the private sector, learning from the experience of national health authorities and adjusting accordingly. Latvia, together with the rest of Europe, stands firm in defending privacy, and is committed to respecting both the individual’s right to privacy and health while applying its own solutions to combat Covid-19.

Ieva Ilves (The Guardian)

This is an article written by an an adviser to the president of Latvia on information and digital policy. They explain some of the nuance behind the centralised vs decentralised contact tracing app models which I hadn’t really thought about.


Illustration of Lévy walks

Random Search Wired Into Animals May Help Them Hunt

Lévy walks are now seen as a movement pattern that a nervous system can produce in the absence of useful sensory or mnemonic information, when it is an animal’s most advantageous search strategy. Of course, many animals may never employ a Lévy walk: If a polar bear can smell a seal, or a cheetah can see a gazelle, the animals are unlikely to engage in a random search strategy. “We expect the adaptation for Lévy walks to have appeared only where they confer practical advantages,” Viswanathan said.

Liam Drew (QUanta Magazine)

If you’ve watched wildlife documentaries, you probably know about Lévy walks (or ‘flights’). This longish article gives a fascinating insight into the origin of the theory and how it can be useful in protecting different species.


A plan to turn the atmosphere into one, enormous sensor

One of AtmoSense’s first goals will be to locate and study phenomena at or close to Earth’s surface—storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mining operations and “mountain waves”, which are winds associated with mountain ranges. The aim is to see if atmospheric sensing can outperform existing methods: seismographs for earthquakes, Doppler weather radar for storms and so on.

The Economist

This sounds potentially game-changing. I can see the positives, but I wonder what the negatives will be?


Paths of desire: lockdown has lent a new twist to the trails we leave behind

Desire paths aren’t anything new – the term has been traced back to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote of “lignes de désir” in his 1958 book The Poetics of Space. Nature author Robert Macfarlane has written more recently about the inherent poetry of the paths. In his 2012 book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Macfarlane calls them “elective easements” and says: “Paths are human; they are traces of our relationships.” Desire paths have been created by enthusiastic dogs in back gardens, by superstitious humans avoiding scaffolding and by students seeking shortcuts to class. Yet while illicit trails may have marked the easier (ie shorter) route for centuries, the pandemic has turned them into physical markers of our distance. Desire paths are no longer about making life easier for ourselves, but about preserving life for everyone.

Amelia Tait (The Guardian)

I’ve used desire paths as a metaphor many times in presentations and workshops over the last decade. This is an article that specifically talks about how they’ve sprung up during the pandemic.


Header image by Hans Braxmeier

People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character

Actions, reactions, and what comes next

We are, I would suggest, in a period of collective shock due to the pandemic. Of course, some people are better at dealing with these kinds of things than others. I’m not medically trained, but I’m pretty sure some of this comes down to genetics; it’s probably something to do with the production of cortisol.

It might a little simplistic to separate people into those who are good in a crisis and those who aren’t. It’s got to be more complex than that. What if some people, despite their genetic predisposition, have performed some deliberate practice in terms of how they react to events and other things around them?

I often say to my kids that it’s not your actions that mark you out as a person, but your reactions. After all, anyone can put on a ‘mask’ and affect an air of nonchalance and sophistication. But that mask can slip in a crisis. To mix metaphors, people lose control when they reach the end of their tether, and are at their most emotionally vulnerable and unguarded when things go wrong. This is when we see their true colours.

A few years ago, when I joined Moodle, I flew to Australia and we did some management bonding stuff and exercises. One of them was about the way that you operate in normal circumstances, and the way that you operate under pressure. Like most people, I tended to get more authoritarian in a crisis.

What we’re seeing in this crisis, I think, are people’s true colours. The things they’re talking about the most and wanting to protect are the equivalent of them item they’d pull from a burning building. What do they want to protect from the coronavirus? Is it the economy? Is it their family? Is it freedom of speech?


Last week, I asked Thought Shrapnel supporters what I should write about. It was suggested that I focus on something beyond the “reaction and hyperaction” that’s going on, and engage in “a little futurism and hope”. Now that it’s no longer easier to imagine the end of the world as the end of capitalism, how do we prepare for what comes next?

It’s an interesting suggestion for a thought experiment. Before we go any further, though, I want to preface this by saying these are the ramblings of an incoherent fool. Don’t make any investment decisions, buy any new clothes, or sever any relationships based on what I’ve got to say. After all, at this point, I’m mostly for rhetorical effect.


The first and obvious thing that I think will happen as a result of the pandemic is that people will get sick and some will die. Pretty much everyone on earth will either lose someone close to them or know someone who has. Death, as it has done for much of human history, will stalk us, and be something we are forced to both confront and talk about.

This may not seem like a very cheerful and hopeful place to start, but, actually, not being afraid to die seems to be the first step in living a fulfilling life. As I’ve said before, quoting it is the child within us that trembles before death. Coming to terms with that fact that you and the people you love are going to die at some point is just accepting the obvious.


If we don’t act like we’re going to live forever, if we confront our mortal condition, then it forces us to make some choices, both individually and as a society. How do we care for people who are sick and dying? How should we support those who are out of work? What kind of education do we want for our kids?

I forsee a lot of basic questions being re-asked and many assumptions re-evaluated in the light of the pandemic. Individually, in communities, and as societies, we’ll look back and wonder why it was that companies making billions of dollars when everything was fine were all of a sudden unable to meet their financial obligations when things weren’t going so well. We’ll realise that, at root, the neoliberalist form of capitalism we’ve been drinking like kool-aid actually takes from the many and gives to the few.

Before the pandemic, we had dead metaphors for both socialism and “pulling together in times of adversity”. Socialism has been unfairly caricatured as, and equated with, the totalitarian communist experiment in Russia. Meanwhile, neoliberals have done a great job at equating adversity with austerity, invoking memories of life during WWII. Keep Calm and Carry On.

This is why, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, despite the giant strides and inroads into our collective consciousness, made by the Occupy movement, it ultimately failed. When it came down to brass tacks, we were frightened that destroying our current version of capitalism would mean we’d be left with totalitarian communism: queuing for food, spying on your neighbours, and suchlike.

So instead we invoked the only “pulling together in times of adversity” meme we knew: austerity. Unfortunately, that played straight into the hands of those who were happy to hollow out civic society for financial gain.

Post-pandemic, as we’re rebuilding society, I think that not only will there be fewer old people (grim, but true) but the overall shock will move the Overton Window further to left than it has been previously. Those who remain are likely to be much more receptive to the kind of socialism that would make things like Universal Basic Income and radically decarbonising the planet into a reality.


Making predictions about politics is a lot easier than making predictions about technology. That’s for a number of reasons, including how quickly the latter moves compared to the former, and also because of the compound effect that different technologies can have on society.

For example, look at the huge changes in the last decade around smartphones now being something that people spend several hours using each day. A decade ago we were concerned about people’s access to any form of internet-enabled device. Now, we just assume that everyone’s gone one which they can use to connect during the pandemic.

What concerns me is that the past decade has seen not only the hollowing-out of civic society in western democracies, but also our capitulation to venture capital-backed apps that make our lives easier. The reason? They’re all centralised.

I’m certainly not denying that some of this is going to make our life much easier short-term. Being on lockdown and still being able to have Amazon deliver almost anything to me is incredible. As is streaming all of the things via Netflix, etc. But, ultimately, caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care.

Right now, we relying on centralised technologies. Everywhere I look, people are using a apps, tools, and platforms that could go down at any time. Remember the Twitter fail whale?

The Twitter ‘fail whale’

What happens when that scenario happens with Zoom? Or Microsoft Teams? Or Slack, or any kind of service that relies on the one organisation having their shit together for an extended period of time during a pandemic?

I think we’re going to see outages or other degradations in service. I’m hoping that this will encourage people to experiment with other, decentralised platforms, rather than leap from the frying pan of one failed centralised service into the fire another.


In terms of education, I don’t think it’s that difficult to predict what comes next. While I could be spectacularly wrong, the longer kids are kept at home and away from school, the more online teaching and learning has to become something mainstream.

Then, when it’s time to go back to school, some kids won’t. They and their parents will realise that they don’t need to, or that they are happier, or have learned more staying at home. Not all, by any means, but a significant majority. And because everyone has been in the same boat, parents will have peer support in doing so.

The longer the pandemic lockdown goes on, the more educational institutions will have to think about the logistics and feasibility of online testing. I’d like to think that competency-based learning and stackable digital credentials like Open Badges will become the norm.

Further out, as young people affected by the pandemic lockdown enter the job market, I’d hope that they would reject the traditional CV or resume as something that represents their experiences. Instead, although it’s more time-consuming to look at, I’d hope for portfolio-based approaches (with verified digital credentials) to become standard.


Education isn’t just about, or even mainly about, getting a job. So what about the impact of the pandemic on learners? On teachers? Well, if I’m being optimistic and hopeful, I’d say that it shows that things can be done differently at scale.

NASA Earth Observatory images showing emissions dramatically reduced over China during the coronavirus outbreak (via CBS)

In the same way that climate change-causing emissions dropped dramatically in China and other countries during the enforced coronavirus lockdown, so we can get rid of the things we know are harmful in education.

High-stakes testing? We don’t need it. Kids being taught in classes of 30+ by a low-paid teacher? Get over it. Segregation between rich and poor through private education? Reject it.


All of this depends on how we respond to the ‘shock and awe’ of both the pandemic and its response. We’re living during a crisis when it’s almost certainly necessary to bring in the kind of authoritarian measures we’d reject at any other time. While we need to move quickly, we still need to subject legislation and new social norms to some kind of scrutiny.

This period in history provides us with a huge opportunity. When I was a History teacher, one of my favourite things to teach kids was about revolutions; about times when people took things into their own hands. There’s the obvious examples, for sure, like 1789 and the French Revolution.

But perhaps my absolute favourite was for them to discover what happened after the Black Death ravaged Europe in particular in the 14th century. Unable to find enough workers to work their land, lords had to pay peasants several times what they could have previously expected. In fact, it led to the end of the entire feudal system.

We have the power to achieve something similar here. Except instead of serfdom, the thing we can escape from his neoliberal capitalism, the idea that the poor should suffer for the enrichment of the elite. We can and should structure our society so that never happens again.

In other words, never waste a crisis. What are you doing to help the revolution? Remember, when it comes down to it, power is always taken, never freely given.


BONUS: after writing this, I listened to a recent a16z podcast on Remote Work and Our New Reality. Worth a listen!


Enjoy this? Sign up for the weekly roundup, become a supporter, or download Thought Shrapnel Vol.1: Personal Productivity!


Quotation-as-title by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Header image by Ana Flávia.