Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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Behind the Scenes of Digital Aggression Research: Identity, Method, Action, and Self-Care

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Below is my contribution the 2018 Computers and Writing roundtable, “Behind the Scenes of Digital Aggression Research: Identity, Method, Action, and Self-Care.”


[Link to PDF]

I want to start by recalling last year’s Computers and Writing conference in Findlay, Ohio. In the last session on the last day, I stood on a big stage with a big projector screen and showed a few internet memes depicting violence against women and girls. Specifically, the memes I discussed in my presentation featured provocative text and photographs of beaten or partially naked women; the primary intent of these memes was to inflame social media users’ reactions to rape and sex scandals that emerged during the 2016 Presidential election. My purpose in showing these images was to provide examples of networked misogyny and demonstrate how memes work rhetorically to spread hateful political ideology—xenophobia, male power, and white nationalism—within an online community.

My larger collection of memes from the election season also touches on anti-feminist and sexist themes more broadly, such as the denigration of women’s political activism and agency, the scapegoating of Muslim and immigrant women, and the portrayal of feminists as targets of violence. Since I don’t have much time today, I won’t go into detail about the project, but I would be happy to share more information about it later.

Erika’s idea for this roundtable has been an opportunity for me to think harder about, not only why I have chosen to study communities that deal in hatred and vile bigotry, but also how to pursue this subject matter while honoring my commitment to feminist research methodology. Heidi McKee and James Porter have defined a feminist research methodology as one that entails “reflective and ethical inquiry procedures” and is “strongly attuned to power in gender relations and to gender inequity” (154, 155). They go on to identify six key “ethical dispositions” (155) or practices of feminist researchers. Many or all of these are at odds with the approach I have taken in my project. In particular, I would like to use their framework to introduce some dilemmas when a feminist researcher is in an antagonistic relationship with the community or group being researched.

For example, McKee and Porter define care and respect as qualities of a feminist research position, writing that “respect for participants means acknowledging their agency, heeding their wishes, consulting their wisdom” (155). But how can feminist researchers acknowledge the agency of community members who make and circulate texts that deny and attack the researcher’s own agency, identity, and personhood? What if a researcher, in fact, does not fully respect the people or groups that she studies?

McKee and Porter also write that feminist research should be dialogic and transparent (156). They advocate for an open line of communication between researcher and participant, with the research process clearly documented and visible to others. However, some concealment or avoidance of openness may be necessary in situations when the researcher does not feel “ideologically compatible” (Falcone) with the community being researched. The anthropologist Jessica Falcone, who studies extremist religious communities, writes that while an “observer” stance is ideal, in reality online researchers also do a fair bit of “spying” or straight-up “lurking” (Morrow, Hawkins, and Kern), and even more so in antagonistic research relationships. Controversial topics may also demand some “ethical leeway” in terms of how much a researcher reveals and conceals about herself. In my case, I did reach out to some prolific alt-right meme makers to find out more about their rhetorical strategies and the material, embodied conditions behind the immense labor they were investing. Unsurprisingly, with my political views so clearly visible on my own social media, I had no luck. But I did consider, could or should I create a “dummy” account to better hide—or perhaps protect—my identity, especially in light of how often women academics and journalists experience harassment and organized attacks online?

Lastly, McKee and Porter say that feminist research methodology pursues not only production of knowledge but also improvement of the lives of others (155). In showing violent memes on that projector screen last year—in using my platform to extend the reach of hate speech into the space of our conference—did I really work to improve the lives of others? Or did I amplify these messages and create a noxious space for my audience? In her just-released report on this topic, Whitney Phillips outlines best practices for journalists covering extremists, aggressors, and other bad actors online. Her overall conclusion is that publishing stories about harassment campaigns and harmful online content does indeed amplify this content. To minimize risk of harm, Phillips recommends a reflective, critically conscious decision-making process, not unlike the feminist research ethics outlined by McKee and Porter. Feminist researchers who study hostile groups may benefit from following some of the best practices that Phillips puts forward in her report.

I know I’ve brought more questions than answers, advice, or wisdom to our conversation, but I selfishly hope that in raising these questions I am taking steps towards enacting a feminist research approach in my own work.

 

Works Cited

Falcone, Jessica Marie. “‘I Spy…’: The (Im)possibilities of Ethical Participant Observation with Antagonists, Religious Extremists, and Other Tough Nuts.” Michigan Discussions in Anthropology, 2010, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.0522508.0018.108.

McKee, Heidi, and James Porter. “Rhetorica Online: Feminist Research Practices in Cyberspace.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, edited by Eileen E. Schell and K.J. Rawson, U of Pittsburgh P, 2010, pp. 152–70.

Morrow, Oona, Roberta Hawkins, and Leslie Kern. “Feminist Research in Online Spaces.” Gender, Place & Culture, vol. 22, no. 4, Apr. 2015, pp. 526–43. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2013.879108.

Phillips, Whitney. “The Oxygen of Amplification.” Data & Society, May 2018, https://datasociety.net/output/oxygen-of-amplification/.

 

The post Behind the Scenes of Digital Aggression Research: Identity, Method, Action, and Self-Care appeared first on Delirium Waltz.

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betajames
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Flint estimates 14,000 lead water service lines still in the ground

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"During the first four phases of FAST Start, the city has conducted excavations at approximately 8,843 homes," Bincsik's letter says. "Of those ... excavations, 6,256 lead or galvanized steel service lines were identified or replaced ... approximately 30 percent of the lines were identified as already being copper from the water main to the house."



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betajames
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How everything on the internet became clickbait

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The “Laurel or Yanny?” phenomenon was the logical endpoint of 300 years of American media.
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acdha
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betajames
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The whole world is The Onion now

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(A version of this story is an excerpt from this week’s Noticing newsletter. You can read more about Noticing here.)

In a rare interview, Italian author Elena Ferrante observes that between corruption, poverty, violence, fear, and the deterioration of democracy, “today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask.” The world of Ferrante’s novels is the world in which we’ve all been living; the rest of us are just catching up to what Neapolitans have known all along.

It seems you could make a similar case for The Onion in the time of Trump: the world was already absurd and buffoonish, and now it’s taken off its mask. It does make telling jokes a touch more tricky. Editor-in-chief Chad Nackers explains the site’s approach, admitting that the writers’ job would probably be easier if Hillary Clinton had been elected.

What strikes me is how much he attributes to the site’s changes over the years isn’t to the administration, but to the atmosphere, which has changed since the days of Bill Clinton (and not just because of who’s been elected since).

When I started, there weren’t really too many humor sites. There definitely weren’t any humor news sites. A lot of times, nobody else was going to get their comment out as fast as we were going to get it out, by virtue of us having a website. Now it almost seems like on Twitter there are people who are professional comedians who are online all day. A story breaks and they’re making jokes about it.

Andy Baio recently posted a link that shows you your Twitter timeline as it would have looked ten years ago if you followed all the same people that you do today. For me, at least, it’s amazing how different the tone is — even in the middle of an historic election, in the early stages of an enormous economic meltdown, there’s a lot less politics, a lot less sniping, and a lot more diaristic writing. It’s not necessarily better; it’s just very different. And all of those things were happening then — it’s just that Twitter wasn’t understood as the venue where every stance was to be articulated, every statement was to be critiqued, and every line was to be drawn. There were fewer people around, it was a lot more homogenous, and far fewer people were paying attention.

I wonder often how future historians will think about this time (you know, with the usual grisly caveat that people survive to do history in the future): how much of today’s ugliness, violence, and corruption they will think of as an aberration of one man, or one family, one political party, one social media network, one television network, etc.

Or will they see it as an interlocking, self-contradictory system, all of which had a history, and all of whose parts shaped and enabled what happened — hopefully, good and bad things. I mean, even the people who’ve argued that the coup has already happened can’t agree on whether it began with the election, with Congress, or some time long before.

Maybe the future historians will be better at disentangling these things than we are. Or maybe we’re just all hopelessly tangled.

Tags: media   politics
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betajames
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satadru
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Dammit. Now I really need to see Gomorrah.
New York, NY

As Michigan’s Municipal Water Crisis Drags on, its Bottled Water Industry Booms

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Michigan recently approved Nestlé’s request for permission to pump 400 gallons of water per minute from a well in the rural town of Evart, about 80 miles northeast of Grand Rapids. State environmental authorities approved this 60 percent increase despite poor timing and unprecedented opposition.

Public outrage is still simmering, partly because the private company pays relatively little in exchange for its ability to profit off what many Michiganders see as a public resource.

Based on a decade of water law and policy research, I believe that Michigan should either collect taxes on companies like Nestlé that harvest water or significantly raise the fees water bottlers must pay.

Water wealth

Michigan, the “Great Lakes state,” sits in the middle of one-fifth of the Earth’s surface freshwater. It has a higher percentage of surface water than any other American state.

But even in water-rich places, long-term groundwater pumping can harm wetlands while dangerously decreasing the amount of water in rivers, lakes and streams—diminishing water supplies.

Nestlé pays Michigan a pittance in exchange for the 4.8 million bottles of water a day the multinational company bottles at its Ice Mountain factory there: a $200 annual permitting fee for each of their groundwater wells. Nestlé does purchase water from the town of Evart municipal water system at other locations, which generates $313,000 in local revenue.

But Michigan does not tax bottled water production. State Representative Peter Lucido, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would charge Nestlé and its competitors like Absopure, Coca-Cola and Pepsi a 5-cents-per-gallon tax on the water they harvest. Lucido estimates that Nestlé would have to pay $20 million in taxes if his legislation were to become law.

The lawmaker is calling for the state to spend this new revenue on water infrastructure, a long-neglected spending priority, as the Flint water crisis illustrates.

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave Michigan’s infrastructure a D+ grade, estimating that the state underfunds drinking water systems by as much as $563 million per year. Governor Rick Snyder says Michigan should invest $4 billion more each year to fix decaying infrastructure of all kinds, including roads, bridges and waterworks.

Yet the state’s leaders have not adjusted tax rates accordingly.

Public resource, private use

When state authorities sought public feedback, more than 80,000 Michiganders called on the state to deny Nestlé’s permit and only 75 people said they supported it.

This unusually high number of comments surely owed something to do with the Flint water crisis and Detroit municipal water shutoffs, which have raised awareness regarding the importance of abundant clean water. The state acknowledged that public sentiment was strongly against the permit application, and then granted the permit anyway, citing its laws and regulations that provide limited grounds for denying this type of permit.

At least one nonprofit group intends to mount a legal challenge.

This contentious permit probably sparked more public outrage than it might have had the state not granted it the same week it announced that it would stop providing free bottled water to Flint residents impacted by a water crisis. The government there harmed tens of thousands of people by distributing lead-tainted water, a problem compounded by insufficient oversight and an inept response to the disaster.

Seeking to help, and perhaps sensing a public relations opportunity, Nestlé belatedly announced plans to supply Flint residents with 100,000 free bottles of water every week.

Taxing water bottles

Should Michigan’s leaders become ready to take action, they would have several options to consider in addition to Lucido’s proposal.

Other states like Connecticut and Maine collect fees for bottled water production. The revenue collected from these states and others are minimal, however.

Another approach would be to tax bottled water sales. Chicago has done that since 2008, collecting 5 cents for each bottle of water retailers sell. Chicago’s tax, designed to reduce plastic pollution by discouraging bottled water sales, generates about $10.5 million in annual revenue for the city and offers a model other communities may want to replicate.

Michigan already collects a severance tax from oil and gas production and runs a Natural Resources Trust Fund derived from those royalties. This fund helps cover the cost of public outdoor recreation opportunities across the state. I contend that it’s a great model for what the state might do with revenue from a similar arrangement with water bottlers.

Michigan water law attorney Jim Olson has also suggested creating a water ombudsman’s office. This new ombudsman would carefully study the potential water conservation and revenue generation benefits from taxing bottled water.

As long as private companies are selling Michigan’s water, I believe, the state should at least tap portion of their profits to fund public water infrastructure improvements and wetland restoration. Taking this step might also discourage bottlers from endangering the public, wildlife, and Michigan’s farmers by harvesting too much water.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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betajames
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Blackboard and the arse end of the internet

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There’s no doubt there is no dearth of cesspools on the web, and I wouldn’t want to get into a debate about which is the worst. But Blackboard is it’s own special circle of internet hell.

As I’ve mentioned a few times here, after ending my stint as WPA, I’m back to teaching a regular load this year. So I decided to use UB’s course management system for at least part of what I was doing. There were really two basic reasons I did this. First, the students use UBlearns (as well call our version of Blackboard) for many of their classes and just expect to see things there. Second, it had been a long time since I’d even considered using a CMS. As WPA, I was teaching grad classes which were small, so there’s wasn’t really a need for it. Before that, I had sought out all manner of alternatives to using a university CMS, because the things were so awful 15 years ago.

Apparently they are still awful. In some respects they are even worse as the capacities of the web around them have left them in the dust. Think about WordPress, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google Docs, or Reddit. Consider how easy they are to use, how flexible, how fast, how mobile. Think about how easy it is to create, edit, and share content. UBneverlearns, as I’ve now decided to call it, like any CMS, is basically a graveyard of content and conversation. Or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a morgue, where the instructors do their version of CSI before pronouncing a grade.

Of course these other sites present their own pedagogical problems. There are privacy concerns, not only in terms of the data these sites collect but also in terms of how, as faculty, one will communicate grades and such to students. There’s the problem of having to ask students to create multiple accounts (e.g., we’ll have discussion on WordPress but upload your videos on YouTube, then let’s use Google Docs to work collaboratively on a document, etc.). And the reality is that a fair segment of students will struggle with the digital literacy demands of using multiple sites, even though there maybe is a legitimate argument for saying that they should learn how to do that.

From the faculty perspective, one can either take the default route of using Blackboard and following its path of least resistance, or one can devote a non-trivial amount of time to rolling one’s own learning environment. At least for me, as a digital rhetorician, there’s some overlap between figuring this stuff out for pedagogical purposes and the research that I do. For 99% of faculty this isn’t the case.

This is why I get a sardonic chuckle out of views like that offered by the Horizon Report, a document produced by experts in educational technology, who steadfastly claim that teaching digital literacy is a “solvable challenge” by which they mean one that they understand and know how to solve. Show me evidence that a significant portion of faculty are digitally literate? Products like Blackboard do little to convince me that even educational technologists are digitally literate. I mean higher education can’t even manage to produce a platform where one could even start to teach digital literacy.

The more I think about this, the more sick it makes me. 18 year olds entering college in the fall would have typically started kindergarten in 2005. Still we’ve spent the last decade teaching them to sit quietly in rows, take notes, read textbooks, complete worksheets, and pass standardized exams. Pretty much like I did in the 70s and 80s. While they may get the majority of their entertainment from the web, they’re barely better prepared to learn, communicate, collaborate, or work in a digital environment than I was at their age. And, obviously, faculty, overall, are barely better prepared to teach them such things and universities are barely better prepared to support such teaching and learning. Instead they give us products like Blackboard as if their sincerest wish is to persuade faculty to keep learning in meatspace. That’s the oddest thing about this since we all know that universities desire those online students.

So one of my goals for this summer will be figuring out some constellation of applications that I can integrate to teach my classes. I’m sure I will use UBneverlearns in a minimal way since the students will look there first: probably as a syllabus and a gradebook but nothing beyond that.



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betajames
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