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One Thing To Do Today: Who decides what you know?

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In 1913 Justice Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” in objection to bankers hiding money trails to commit crimes.  Any activist will tell you that “getting the word out” builds the scaffolding for all future calls to action. Our threat actor counts on none being the wiser to pull of their shenanigans. Chances are good they’ll move, or have already, to keep unflattering information out of our view.

Helping “the baddies” hide their behavior in shadow, the U.S. public gets news from a small number of sources with a limited amount of time to spend on them. By listening to only a handful of voices, we leave ourselves vulnerable to misinformation propagated by both carelessness and malice. The fewer perspectives heard, the more power each has to shape our world view.  The people invited to have that kind of power over your mind should be chosen with extreme care.

I am a huge fan of the new media distribution methods made possible by the internet. The tricky part of the low barrier to entry means that everyday all day the internet splurts out a whirling, whiplashing firehose of data. This makes handing curation over to powerful algorithms naturally tempting. The damage Facebook algorithms do is well trod territory. When tracking down information I try to put my queries through at least two search engines, never forgetting that the results will reflect the biases dominant in society and in tech company hiring practices.

Being cautious of automated systems means learning how to manually vet your news sources. I am so deeply deeply grateful to my high school U.S. History teacher for hammering in how to work with primary sources. It’s the same skill set for identifying fake news and bad arguments.  It maybe harder than you think.  Be scrupulous. Just because someone has won lionized hero status from all your friends doesn’t make them de facto credible.  It makes them dangerous. When you identify a crap news source, cut it out of your life.   I’m going to go against the pack here and take a stand against hate reading poor quality new sources “just to know” if you aren’t a paid professional media watchdog. I am 100% opposed to letting nut jobs have regular access to your mind.  Eyeballs are revenue. Attention is currency.  Follows attach credibility. Let them whither and die.

Cutting a site out of your life should be based on its veracity and integrity, not code for “the author disagrees with me.”  Another important step when cultivating a regular list of news outlets is to go look for news sources that hire people who don’t look like you, love like you or live where you live.  I am very very comfortable making the diversity for diversity’s sake argument from a security mindset. More points of view, more ways to perceive attacks, richer pool of options generated. It’s math, people.  Authors from different walks of life may tweak some confirmation bias reflexes making their message uncomfortable or even appear unbelievable.  Don’t flinch. Listen.

Depending on your country of origin you may need to use a proxy, Tor and/or a VPN to even get access to certain news websites. More insidiously your geolocation, based on IP number, GPS, nearby WiFi networks or location information you’ve given with your account, might determine what information shows up on the page. The vanishing of content will be seamless and untraceable without an active effort to compare what’s loaded from a different “place.”

People are human. They perform to their incentives. Always always always always always always know who or what is paying for the lights to be on. Always. My suspicious, skeptical nature makes me a huge fan of public television and public radio stations, at least the ones registered as 501(c)3 organizations.  There are podcast umbrella organizations that serve the same purpose. Everyone putting out a story has motivations, at least with this specific class of nonprofits they have published mission statements and publicly available financial records.   Cordcutters can get the PBS Newshour via YouTube.

I’m going to be kind of radical here, but consider… print. (Ducks behind arms.) I find it much easier to stay with long form in depth articles when I don’t have the rest of the internet ready to whisk me away with a click or a tap. A compromise might be an app, but be careful with those.

This all harkens back to that early post on having a news rotation.  Some people use twitter lists or feed readers or email newsletters (shudder). I advocate:

  • bookmark folders in the browser bar organized by day
  • a time on the calendar that they get checked
  • an actual timer to make sure the whole day doesn’t get wasted

This browser folder set up allows for a diversity of link types, too. Podcasts, YouTube channels, twitter accounts/list and forums can all be popped in a folder with more traditional news sites.  I like the topic-a-day approach, but alternatively one site per topic per day could be another choice. Maybe there is a folder for the must-read-everyday crowd.  I look at sites in the tech and security fields, but also the arts, design, hard science, activism, teaching, the environment… people from different fields maybe focusing on a different aspect of a problem or have a different perspective on the world.  Even in the middle of a crisis, one can have a cup of tea. It can be nice to remember that Pluto is just out there, doing its thing. Your priorities will be your own.

This set up gets more complicated for Tor users who need to disguise traffic for personal safety reasons rather than just a simple geofence hop.  Read all the links on Tor safety on the Tor post.  DO NOT use the same browser as your usual sites. Heck, use a whole different computer/bootdrive, and never look at them from your home. If your life’s on the line, this guide will help but its not nearly enough. The EFF and the new Security without Borders seem like other good places to turn.

We are, at least in part, what we know. What we know determines what we think. What we think changes how we behave. Our behavior creates real impacts on the world. The people who control accepted givens, control everything.  Choose, diversify, curate, refine what gets into your head.  If you think you’re above that kind of influence, you’re the biggest fool of the bunch.

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I make things that do stuff. The best, though, is teaching others to do the same. Founder of @crashspacela Alum of @ITP_NYU

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