It is now Friday morning and the I am synthesising the last four days that I have been embedded at the News and Media Research Centre (NMRC), here a the University of Canberra. This is the first of three visits I will make here, and I will be back in July to undertake the next phase of research wonder.

The plan from the outset was to come to NMRC, share my research, mentor some emerging scholars and higher degree researchers and work on potential research connections. I think I did that in probably the best possible way! Also, props here to David Nolan who has been the host with the most – not only was this trip scholarly stimulating, it was also fun.

I gave a two–hour workshop on industry research and mentored a few PhD candidates on Tuesday – you can read about that here.

Wednesday was a chance to meet with one of the Directors at the National Gallery of Australia who looks after the digital media programs. This was a chance to talk through my research, get an overview of where the gallery is heading (particularly around automation and collections) and lay the foundations for future collaboration. Wednesday was also a chance to meet with the Associate Dean of Research and talk through the purpose of the Fellowship. Meeting and greeting was on the agenda over sensational Asian treats.

I also had a great brainstorming session with David Nolan around the potential of research within the Discovery Project space. We talked through evolving media ecosystems and worked through our foundational scholarly position within our research and where the cross over points are. I think we have something that is starting to flourish here.

Thursday was the last chance to make it all come together, which David and I did through more collaborative discussions about research. We really found a stride here and are moving towards a project.

Thursday was also a great chance to sit down with all (well Most) of the scholars of the NMRC. We exchanged our research areas, which is always refreshing to take time out of our everyday and talk about what really interests us as scholars. As expected, the NMRC is a powerhouse of scholars, ‘punching well above their weight’.

NMRC Researchers

Here’s some take aways form that moment:

Professor Kerry McCallum

Associate Professor Mathieu O’Neil

  • Free software and work and new forms of collaborations, volunteer work potential from a survey, Ford and Sloan, Digital Commons Council was established, mapping email addresses in GitHub.
  • w/Rob Acland, Online networks, grant from VW Scheme working on echo chambers and online discourse
  • w/ faculty on media literacy with kids, orient them to Wikipedia as a fact checking source.

Professor Sora Park

Associate Professor David Nolan

D

Senior Research Fellow Kate Holland

Postdoctoral Research Fellow Kieran Mcguinness

  • Postdoc – generalist
  • Split between audience and news consumption, trust misinformation, social media use, attitudes towards news
  • Political comms, policy and politic and discourse analysis, PE focus
  • Client facing in last two years, Judith Neilson Institution, the ACMA, The SBS, partner orgs, specialist skill sets for short term projects
Sydney Protests

I was asked to write an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald last week as a reaction to the anti-lockdown protests in Sydney, which took place the week before.

I found it incredibly interesting how those who attended the event left a trail of ‘evidence’ across social media, and who that would be the first place that police agencies, who are incredibly angry, would go for that evidence. There self-posted celebrations would be their downfall ultimately.

What is more interesting is that this is an event which is master-minded by a far-right group in Germany, who has brought quite disparate groups together to march on the status quo. They, who are at an arm’s length, will not be touched by any form of Sydney based policing.

Below is a version of the final article which appears here in the SMH.

Hiding in plain sight: Facebook a ‘honeypot’ for police to monitor protests


Calls for tighter regulation on Facebook are the standard reaction to the spread of disinformation across the social media giant, but considering the recent anti-lockdown protests, perhaps the platform should do nothing.

Activist groups are calling on Facebook to tighten measures on misinformation, claiming “disinfo kills”. Killer disinformation was potentially manifest in the anti-lockdown protests in Sydney last weekend, where the social media platform was likely used to promote and organise. The protest organisers are again encouraging their networks to take to the streets on Saturday to call for change against mandatory vaccinations and lockdowns. These protests have prompted renewed pressure to monitor Facebook’s capacity to attract problematic groups.

However, digital traces of the anti-lockdown protesters on Facebook serve as aides to law enforcement agencies who seek to identify and prosecute hundreds of individuals since the chaos erupted in Sydney. The platform also provides insights for planned activities of these same groups.

The amplification of social media messaging left a trail of videos, images, chats and discussion among thousands of individuals who opposed the current public health orders to stay at home, wear a mask when in public and get vaccinated against COVID-19; a veritable honeypot of data for use by law enforcement agencies seeking to identify and prosecute those who flout public health orders.

So Facebook needs to weigh the potential for the disinformation it hosts to be destructive with the intel it can gather on groups who spread it. And the intel can be vast. We now know that a combination of activity on Instagram, Telegram and Facebook, supported by a German-based group, Freie Bürger Kassel (or the Free Citizens of Kassel), was able to mobilise thousands of individuals in a number of cities around the globe. The Worldwide Rally for Freedom, of which the Sydney protest formed a part, saw a collection of somewhat aligned cohorts of anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, lockdown-opposers, health and wellness groups and far-right extremists come together to protest for their freedom.

This prompts the question: What will Facebook do to prevent these sorts of ill-intent events from occurring in the future? The answer is likely to be nothing. This is the approach that remains consistent with Facebook’s right to freedom of speech position, which enables a wide variety of opinion and conversation to continue. Given the array of horrific moments that have been broadcast live, organised and discussed by its users, one might ask why there isn’t more done to protect the safety of others on Facebook. But perhaps the best thing Facebook could do after the recent Worldwide Rally for Freedom is nothing.

While this approach may be counter to a growing public opinion of Facebook’s responsibility for safe and civil societies, the platform finds itself in a unique position that sees it collecting and profiling the personal data of those who seek to “remain free”. Inherently, through its crowd gathering and mobilisation applications – for example, Facebook Events – the platform is able to collect, sort, organise and archive the personal and network data of those who participated in the rally and documented their efforts on Facebook.

By not de-platforming, silencing or delisting the public event, has Facebook provided law enforcement the breadcrumb trail and the evidence it needs to identify those at the heart of the protest and to prosecute accordingly? This unique and insightful database may indeed be the last chance that police and law enforcement agencies have before these sorts of organisations disappear to the dark web. From there, it becomes increasingly difficult for the law to find and follow leaders of such groups.

The regulatory pressure of this moment places Facebook again in the challenging position to decide on how, in a post-Christchurch massacre world, to manage free speech against the negative and ill-conceived events that are harmful to our societies. But as we saw in the fallout of the ANOM app that brought down more than 200 members of Australia’s underworld, digital databases remain unfriendly to activities that contrast with lawful directives. In that sense, it is the users themselves who are undertaking the detective work.

Ironically, those who wish to be “free” are further incriminating themselves through their public digital traces left on social media platforms. NSW Police have used these traces to administer hundreds of fines to the anti-lockdown protesters.

Hans Bredow Cast

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Johanna Sebaurer, the producer of the Hans Bredow Bredowcast and social media expert of the Institute, to discuss some of my work while I have been a Visiting Research Fellow here. Just to remind everyone following along at home, I am undertaking research on the Algorithmed Public Sphere project here Hans Bredow Institute (which recently became the Leibniz Institute for Media Research) with a number of leading global researchers, where my key area of interest is in automated media, influencers and public service media.

Johanna pressed record on her DAT during our conversation and then produced our discussion into Episode 44 of the Bredowcast Podcast for the Institute! Apparently, this is the first podcast in English, so I am honoured to be the guest (although slightly sheepish my Deutsch is not strong enough at this point).

It was an amazing discussion that flowed really well, where we spoke about the things I have been doing here, my background and most importantly, how I have been working on a new methodology, data ethnography.

It’s always interesting to speak about developing work, and yes talking live is also very helpful, to spot holes in the work and think through areas that you have not given much time to previously. I found it especially helpful to explain the research process and the preliminary results to someone else, especially considering Johanna has not been that close to the development of this work.

The article that introduces Data Ethnography is almost complete and just about to be submitted to a journal, but until then you can get an idea of what the methodology is in this Bredowcast (along with some other fun stuff, too).

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