Kinzen's Weekly Wrap - May 14, 2021

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System is a good idea. It allows the public to report concerning effects from vaccines to health authorities. But it’s constantly being abused. 

Every day there are new horror stories promoted by the anti-vaccine movement based on VAERS. The problem is this data is not reliable. Anyone can put anything into VAERS. This is how it’s been designed - but it’s been weaponised. 

For instance, in recent weeks plenty of anti-vaccine activists and websites have been spreading stories that a two-year-old died from a COVID vaccine, based on VAERS data. But, Reuters found, that data was entirely fabricated. There was no real death. But there was real outrage. According to Buzzsumo, stories about the case garnered thousands of engagements on social media. 

Clearly, crowdsourced initiatives like VAERS can have critical design weaknesses. We’ll have to figure out better ways to design such systems so that the public can meaningfully have their say.

Editor’s Pick: Book Slot

I recently finished Hate in the Homeland by Cynthia Miller-Idriss. Much of our discussions about white supremacy and the far-right focus on how and why such movements gain momentum. This book instead looks at the questions of when and where. 

Miller-Idriss documents how concerts, MMA gyms, and even t-shirt marketplaces all play a role in radicalising people to far-right beliefs. Think tanks, research institutes, publishing houses and training academies are all part of this. And of course she dives into the world of online spaces too. Excellent insights throughout.

Recommended Articles: From the Kinzen Slack channels this week

The AtlanticThe Blue Check Mark’s Evil Cousin 

This one from Will Oremus stirred some debate internally this week, and touches on similar themes as the VAERS story above. It details the attempts by Clubhouse to involve the community in moderation, and how that can backfire. Wikipedia and Reddit’s decentralised moderation often gets praise, but this article shows how tricky it is to get right, and how platforms can’t simply copy practices from elsewhere. 

BBC. The volunteers using 'honeypot' groups to fight anti-vax propaganda

This profiles two people who are creating decoy Facebook groups to trick anti-vaccine activists into joining, and then providing them with accurate information about vaccines. This stealth method seems like yet another evolution in the ongoing battle for truth in the age of misinformation. And another headache for platforms. 

The Robot Brains Podcast. Yann LeCun explains why Facebook would crumble without AI

Lots of insights in this podcast episode on Facebook’s technological evolution, and the role of AI.