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Numbers Are Not Always as Simple or as Neutral as They Seem and the Internet Has Given Birth to a ‘Digital Extractive Economy’

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Thursday, 26 December 2019 11:21

Human rights: Food for a declining authority thought ‘Statistics and the Internet’


Human Rights Reader 509

-The problem with using statistics to sing the praises of autocracy is that collecting verifiable data inside closed societies is nearly impossible.


1. The data that ‘proves’ that an authoritarian regime is doing good is often produced by that very same regime. [According to the Human Rights Foundation, 93 countries, comprising nearly 4 billion people, are ruled by authoritarian regimes that typically block impartial human rights (HR) and other investigators from entering their borders]. Often, local data collectors are forced to work with the strongmen in charge. When surveys do not go according to plan, dictators can simply shut polling down. The international development reports using such numbers further wind up giving these regimes institutional legitimacy.


2. Worrisome is the fact that statistics flow directly from many dictatorial governments into the SDG reports. Authoritarians then use these numbers in their propaganda, which hampers efforts to more forcefully defend and promote HR.


3. The numbers are actually used to whitewash crimes ranging from the jailing of dissidents to the theft of billions and including ‘official’ economic data being falsified to whitewash human suffering. Often, the reason data from dictators remain unchallenged is that so many economists, financiers, diplomats, and external funders rely on these data to cynically do their (mercenary) jobs.


4. Without more rigorous inquiry into the origin and quality of socio-economic data, the grim reality of dictatorships often remains obscured. Beyond that, intellectuals and world leaders might do well to reflect on their worship of development numbers over HR concerns. After all, even if the data behind the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals could be verified, what do they signify if not a single one mentions the words individual rights, civil liberties, or democracy --even once? (A. Gladstein)


The declining authority of statistics (William Davies)


5. As we see above, the ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is declining. In its wake, a new age of Big Data controlled by private companies is taking over --and putting democracy in peril. In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone --no matter what their politics-- can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in Northern ‘liberal’ democracies.


6. Reducing social, economic and HR issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency.  There is always an implicit choice in what is included and what is excluded, and this choice can become a political issue in its own right. Politicians have, no doubt, leaned heavily on statistics to bolster their authority. There is no middle ground in this.* Often, they lean too heavily, stretching evidence too far [believing without evidence is always morally wrong. (Francisco Mejia U.)], interpreting data too loosely, to serve their cause. Take the GDP: As proven over-and-over, the term GDP fails to capture anything meaningful or credible. Furthermore, opinion polling --an early instance of statistical innovation occurring in the private sector-- immediately became the object of public and political fascination, Nowadays, the flaws of polling are endlessly picked apart. Polling is a clumsy tool. In this new world of Facebook and Google, data is captured first and research questions come later. The implications of this are profound --not less for HR.

*: Here is a good definition of the ‘political center’: At the end of the day the  ‘political center’ is defined by those who receive the bulk of their information on political and social issues from mainstream commercial media sources. To be a part of (extreme?) centrist thinking you have to accept the rules of the theater. Once you exit the theater you are no longer an asset to the corporate media. (Marc Ash)


7. The rise of Big Data provides even far greater opportunities for quantitative analysis than any amount of polling or statistical modeling. These vast new big data sets can be mined in search of patterns, trends, correlations and emergent moods. It becomes a way of tracking the identities (but not the rights!) of people. There is nothing that anchors this new capacity in the public interest.


8. The anonymity and secrecy of these new analysts potentially makes them far more politically powerful than any social scientist. What is most politically significant and worrisome about this shift from a-logic-of-statistics to one-of-big-data is how comfortably the shift sits with the rise of populism. In a world where the political feelings of the general public are becoming this traceable, who needs pollsters? (Think Cambridge Analytica). Now that numbers are being constantly generated behind our backs and beyond our knowledge, the question to be taken more seriously is: Where does the crisis of statistics leave representative democracy and HR?


9. A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it will drastically privatize them (consequently relegating HR to the far back burner). (W. Davies)


Today advertising budgets in commercial media are ten times larger than budgets for education, and education only lasts a few years compared with a lifetime of exposure to advertising (R. Savio)

10. With the development of social networks, people --now more consumers than citizens-- have become objects for marketing goods and services, and recently also in (dishonest) political campaigns. The Internet has given birth to a ‘digital extractive economy’, where the raw material is no longer minerals, but we humans. On the other hand, the digital extractive economy has created unprecedented wealth. A new sector is evolving, the ‘surveillance capitalism’ sector, where money is made not from the production of goods and services, but from data extracted from people (certainly not from their HR status). This new system exploits humans and their rights to give to the owners of this technology a concentration of their wealth, knowledge and power without precedent in history.


11. The meaning of democracy is thus changing. International relations are moving away from the search for common values via multilateralism, to a tide of nationalist, xenophobic, human rights-bashing and selfish views of the world. Terms like HR, peace, cooperation, accountability, participation and transparency are made to become outdated. What is clear is that the present system is no longer sustainable.


12. Policies disappear from the debate, now referred-to only as ‘politics’. Visions of new paradigms are getting scarce. Young people are largely absent from the political institutions that still call the shots. If we cannot bring back horizontal communication to the Internet and if we do not free it from the commercial fracturing of young people, the future is hardly rosy.


13. Yet, as the marches against Climate Change clearly demonstrate, if young people want to change the world, values and vision, including HR and the rights of nature, will return. It is evident that the Internet can be a very powerful tool. But who will redress its failings? Will the Internet become a tool for genuine participation? How will this be done? These are questions that political institutions, if they really care for democracy, must address as soon as possible. The Zuckerberg era must make this choice now; in a few years time it will already be too late… (R. Savio)


Non-disaggregators are human rights violators


14. Yes, disaggregation is important. But it is a fallacy that indicators, even if properly disaggregated to highlight HR violations of traditionally discriminated groups, will automatically make decision-makers bend to new overwhelming evidence presented to them. Instead, indicators ought to be used for social mobilization so as to unleash the creative anger that will eventually make duty bearers bend.


15. Information alone is no more than data, and data have not much power. Information has to be applied and only thus acquires its power! Therefore, the HR activists’ challenge is to persuade rather than only show/share/present information. (James Austin) Particularly important for this is to gather and have politically-relevant information data for claim holders, as well as to gather and have other data demanded by relevant decision-maker/duty bearers (so the activists can then hold duty bearers accountable when further data become available). In this context, crucial is too ask: For whom does it make a difference to receive information; Will they act? Are there needed resources for action available? Under whose control? [Warning: Avoid suffocation by too much data …or as I have said elsewhere do not fall in the trap of ‘paralysis in analysis’].


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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-These days, the attention span of people has declined dramatically. The majority of internet users do not stay on an item more than 15 seconds; in the last five years, books have been shortened by an average of 29 pages; today, articles longer than 650 words are not accepted by columnists’ services; newspapers are for people over forty. Despite the fact that one line in a newspaper is more effective than a 30 pages of a consultant’s report, good/truthful analytical journalism is disappearing. (Roberto Savio)

-How to Disagree: The internet has turned into an outrage machine. If we are all going to be disagreeing more (and it is definitely deemed worth the time!) we ought to be careful to do it well. What does it mean to disagree well? Here is an attempt at a Disagreement Hierarchy: DH0Name-calling. DH1Attacking the character rather than the substance. DH2Responding to tone. DH3Contradicting. In this stage we finally get responses to what was said, rather than how or by whom. The lowest form of response to an argument is simply to state the opposing case, with little or no supporting evidence. DH4Counter-arguing. Counterargument is contradiction plus reasoning and/or evidence. When aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing. But, unfortunately, it is common for counterarguments to be aimed at something slightly different. DH5Refuting. To refute someone, you probably have to quote them. You have to find a ‘smoking gun’, a passage in whatever you disagree-with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it is mistaken. DH6Refuting the central point. Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So, a truly effective refutation would look like: “The author’s main point seems to be x. As he says: But this is wrong for the following reasons…” (Paul Graham) your social media marketing partner
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