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Introduction: Mapping Network Pollution

Published onFeb 12, 2020
Introduction: Mapping Network Pollution
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(Phillips)

That morning in 2014, I was a little late getting outside for my run. I was a lecturer at Humboldt State University, my alma mater and favorite place on earth; green and cheerful and full of hippies, the university and surrounding town of Arcata sits on the northernmost California coast, nestled among the Redwoods. Normally I was out the door by 6:45, but as I didn’t have office hours or class to rush to, I could dawdle. Plus there were tenure track job applications to stare blankly at, so I didn’t leave my house until close to 8:00. This was fine; my studio apartment on G Street butted up against the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, and on days I didn’t have time to run the mile or so up to the community Redwood forest, I’d hop on the dirt trail just beyond my backyard. From there I’d trot around Brackish Pond and the various marshes, past the restored tidal habitat, up and around Mount Trashmore, and towards Klopp Lake, beyond which was Arcata Bay, beyond which was the Pacific Ocean.

The marsh was a great place to go running, and generally, a great place for people to be. Once the sun was up, and especially during sunset, the whole place was golden and gentle and there were birders everywhere and people walking their dogs as grasses whispered in the breezes. Unless you knew what to look for, you’d have no idea that the marsh was a 307-acre wastewater treatment plant, one that replicated an expansive wetland environment in order to filter all the toxins and sludge that made its way into the City of Arcata’s sewage system (Mount Trashmore, indeed). Those who did know this didn’t mind; the artificial marshes were constructed to do exactly what natural marshes do on their own. It was all part of the charm.

That morning, though, the marsh felt different. As the sunlight crested over the mountains, it cast a strange, yellow, gangrenous light on a wall of clouds gathering just beyond the shoreline. The result was an oddly split scene. Towards the ocean was a terraced, soupy, mustard-looming stormfront, and towards the mountains, a perfectly placid everyday scene of ridges silhouetted against a calm blue sky. Because it was the way I’d been planning on going, and I suppose because it was scarier, I ran to the ocean. As I made my first turn onto Brackish Pond trail, my whole field of vision was consumed, suddenly, by a towering, vivid, sharp-edged rainbow overlaying the sickly mass of clouds. I stopped cold. Looked closer. And realized that actually, just above me, there were two rainbows, the second a faint halo above the first. I was sure I was about to be lassoed and flung out to sea.

And yet, again, I decided to keep running. Within a few minutes, the storm made landfall, sending big fat raindrops splattering at my feet, then smaller drops, faster and harder. The sky continued to darken. Salt air became wet earth. Rather than feeling distressed about being poured on, I was distressed that it had been so long since I’d been poured on. When I first moved to Humboldt as an undergrad in 2003, rainstorms were common, even incessant. It rained, and it rained, and it rained. Of course it did; California’s North Coast is a temperate rainforest. But droughts engulfed the state in 2011, and so far 2014 had been the driest year in California’s history. Things were a little less bad up in Humboldt than they were in Southern California, where I grew up, but even in the rainforest, the rains had become fewer and further between.

The drought would last through 2017, a crackling dryness just waiting for sparks. Those would come soon enough. I didn’t know any of that then, of course. What I did know was that the storm was something to remark upon—it was raining!—which I did as soon as I got home. Sopping, remembering with pained fondness what ocean raindrops tasted like, I wrote my new collaborator Ryan Milner an email describing my run and the clouds and the rainbows.

With hindsight, I’d come to think of this moment—at first, just another sign of a climate in crisis—as the perfect symbol for 2014’s false comforts. Bigotry, lies, and harassment were growing increasingly visible, and increasingly coordinated, online. Those facing the ocean by choice or necessity saw what was looming on the horizon. Those facing the mountains got to live a different life. They could still enjoy a perfectly normal sunrise on a perfectly normal day. Everything was fine. Everything was great, even. But that was a failure to look.

Polluted Information and You

Phillips’ story is about running through a sewer, set against the backdrop of the climate crisis. You Are Here is about running through the internet, set against the backdrop of the network crisis. In some obvious ways, these crises are very different: most basically, one unfolds in the natural world and one unfolds in the digital world. But in other ways, the overlaps are striking. As Olaf Steenfadt of Reporters Without Borders explains of each, temperatures are intensifying on both ends of the scale, extreme events are becoming more and more common, and the pollution that’s generated doesn’t respect territorial lines.1

Online, the first feature of the network crisis is hardening polarization. Masses of people didn’t wake up one morning in 2016 suddenly repulsed by those with opposing political beliefs, any more than the sun rose one morning to record-breaking high and low temperatures. Polarization reflects, instead, fundamental changes in the information ecosystem. As science and technology scholars Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts show, these changes have asymmetrically pushed the right towards extreme ideological temperatures.2 They’ve also, international affairs scholar Anne Nelson argues, occurred slowly over a long period of time.3 One consequence is that the left and the right increasingly struggle to agree even on basic facts. False and misleading information only entrenches these ideological silos, media scholars Safiya Umoja Noble, Lee McIntyre, and Francesca Tripodi each demonstrate, making it increasingly difficult for everyday people to peer outside them.4 The problem, in other words, isn’t merely polarization itself; it’s the fact that polarization emerges from the world around us. More distressingly, journalist Ezra Klein explains, it emerges not from a broken political system, but one working exactly as designed.5

The second feature of the network crisis is the intensification of what social media researchers Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakshan call information disorder, a media landscape overrun by pollution.6 With compounding consequence and frequency, the public faces disinformation, false and misleading information deliberately spread, misinformation, false and misleading information inadvertently spread, and malinformation, information with a basis in reality spread pointedly and specifically to cause harm. The crash and thunder of attack after attack, hoax after hoax, manipulation after manipulation has wrought a media landscape so inundated that it can be difficult to distinguish what’s true from what’s trash. As sociologist Zeynep Tufecki and legal scholar Danielle Citron each argue, the stakes of information disorder could not be higher; it threatens civil discourse, democratic participation, and a shared sense of reality.7

The third feature of the network crisis is its disregard for borders. As in the natural world, polluted information moves seamlessly between communities, nations, and indeed, the very notion of an online/offline split. This is by design; platforms encourage the fastest spread of the most information. Far-right media in Brazil provides one example of pollution’s flow across national borders. As explained by Wilson Gomes, coordinator of the Center for Advanced Studies in Digital Democracy at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazilian reactionaries heading into Brazil’s 2018 general election emphasized issues—like gun rights, free speech, and attacks against “political correctness”—not indigenous to Brazilian politics.8 Instead, they were imported from the US via many of the platforms and tactics perfected by the far right during the 2016 US election. Just as Trump had done two years earlier, populist demagogue Jair Bolsonaro rode to the presidency on a wave of rightwing anger—and a campaign promise to clear-cut the Amazon, illustrating how seamlessly online pollution dovetails with offline catastrophe.

The diffuse spread of pollution online is central to our study. There are a number of benefits to this framing. First, subsuming mis-, dis- and malinformation under the broad term “pollution” sidesteps questions of motive, which can be especially tricky to parse in digital environments. Whether someone meant to spread a false story knowing it was false, or spread it earnestly thinking it was true, is something that, very often, only the poster knows. Motives are certainly interesting; motives are certainly important. But motives don’t always matter to outcomes, and outcomes matter more than motives. “Polluted information” allows us to table the question of intent, and focus instead on how the pollution spreads, why it was allowed to spread, and what impact the pollution has both at the initial waste site and, later, downstream.

Another benefit of the polluted information frame is that it foregrounds issues of social justice. Paralleling decades of environmental justice research, polluted information online disproportionately harms marginalized and underrepresented communities.9 Online and off, those with less power and privilege are simply more likely to be poisoned where they live, work, and play. To add insult to injury, these communities often lack the political and legal resources, as well as the broader public sympathies, necessary to push back. Failure to act doesn’t just cosign the dangers these communities face; the spread of polluted information ultimately impacts everyone. Failure to act is inhumane, and puts us all at risk.

A pollution frame also redirects attention to less obvious, but just as damaging, sources of pollution. Currently—particularly in the United States—the focus of journalists, scholars, lawmakers, and tech companies is trained to the most egregious offenders: white nationalists and supremacists, click-bait sensationalists, state-sponsored propagandists, and unrepentant chaos agents. Without doubt, each pumps out a great deal of muck, and each warrants targeted research, resources, and intervention. But the conversation shouldn’t begin and end there. As we show throughout the book, pollution that isn’t so easily traceable, from sources that aren’t so obviously toxic—from everyday citizens going about their everyday lives to journalists doing their best to be thorough—can do just as much damage.

This isn’t to suggest that these smaller sources of pollution are wholly distinct from their more obvious, extreme, and daunting counterparts. Instead, “big” polluters and “small” polluters are fundamentally intertwined, reflecting, once again, pollution’s disregard for boundaries between this and that. The everyday actions of everyone else feed into and are reinforced by the very worst actions of the very worst actors—and vice versa. Focusing only on the bigots, profiteers, propagandists, and chaos agents, while ignoring the well-meaning citizens who carry contaminated messages inadvertently, risks weakening, if not hopelessly stymying, efforts to clean up our shared informational mess.

This is not, of course, the first mess we’ve faced. For generations, around the globe, polluted information has had devastating effects on the health and safety of countless millions. We foreground this point in a number of case studies from US history, including the amplification of white racial terror during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and 90s. It’s a profound and typically unexamined privilege to look around and be shocked by the pollution now suffusing every strata of society. While polluted information isn’t new, however, the hypernetworked reach of information sure is, as are the powerful social, technological, and political changes strengthening that reach. Again, the issue isn’t just pollution, any more than the issue is just polarization. The issue is how the world around us brought us to this moment, and how it reflects a system working exactly as intended.

A system that damages so much because it works so well requires systemic solutions. It’s not just about cleaning up this or that toxic waste dump; it’s about government regulation and civil rights protections and investing in jobs and education and fundamentally restructuring the attention economy. It’s about securing a Green New Deal for digital media. Given the current political and economic climate, however, we don’t foresee government or industry signing on to the necessary structural changes any time soon. It simply wouldn’t benefit them. And so, we’re not too focused on their policies here, and not holding our breath for them to start acting in the public’s best interest.

What we are focused on is what we can do now. And what we can do now, what we must do now, is start thinking differently about the problem. With enough energy and enough pressure on corporations and governments, it might be possible to trigger the beginnings of a structural sea change. Might, or might not. Either way, the only place to start is with our own hands. And that’s what this book is about.

On Thinking Ecologically

This isn’t to suggest that we should tackle polluted information as rugged individuals. The widespread belief in the West that we exist as atomistic, self-contained islands unto ourselves, responsible only for our own fates, is part of the problem. We’re never alone, and our actions are always entangled with all the other actions of all the other beings all around us. The shift from self to others aligns with the communitarian ethics described by media scholars Clifford C. Christians, John Ferré, and P. Mark Fackler.10 Communitarian ethics deemphasizes “negative freedoms,” individual freedoms from external restriction, and instead foregrounds “positive freedoms,” freedoms for the collective. It’s the difference between asserting that an individual has the right to spew whatever poison they want without restraint, and asserting that those within the collective have the right not to be poisoned.

Communitarian ethics is perspectival; it asks that we reorient ourselves to the world around us. Reflecting on the impacts of global climate change, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer identifies narrative as an especially powerful reorienting force. “The stories we choose to shape our behaviors,” she writes, “have adaptive consequences.”11 Stories about the natural world that restrict our focus to exploitation and commodity, Kimmerer argues, will never inspire the long-term transformations necessary to address the climate crisis. We need, instead, stories that foreground interconnection and interdependence. Similarly, stories about the digital world that restrict our focus to individual people and individual rights will never inspire the long-term transformations necessary to address the network crisis. Here, too, we need different stories.

To that end, we adopt throughout this book a series of grounding ecological metaphors.12 We use these metaphors—and the stories they inspire—to encourage reflection about how deeply entwined we are with our environment and with each other. We also use them to emphasize the material consequences of digital information. These consequences are wide-ranging, made all the more so when information is polluted; they include everything from acts of physical violence to voter suppression to the slow dismantling of democracy. How and where and why information travels online also has explicit and often devastating environmental consequences. The relationship between Brazilian disinformation and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is a case in point, as is the proliferation of climate change denialism across social media. Metaphors featuring actual stuff help us articulate the stakes for other actual stuff—flesh and blood people, mappable places, and tangible things in the world.13

Applying this methodology to Phillips’ 2014 Arcata Marsh run serves as proof of concept; it shows how communitarian thinking helps us tell different stories, and how those different stories can inspire different actions. Offline, and particularly for those who are environmentally-conscious, the progression from new thoughts to new choices (“leave it better than you found it”) is intuitive. But that’s all the more reason to turn first to the natural world, so we can apply its lessons to the digital world.

First, while Phillips didn’t encounter any other runners that morning, she was hardly alone. Standing on the trail heading towards Brackish Pond, she was physically planted in a specific location and politically situated within complex economic, ecological, and social networks. As a taxpaying, voting constituent in the City of Arcata, she, like all Arcata residents who paid taxes and voted, influenced how the city was run and therefore indirectly influenced how the marsh was managed. As a person who produced various forms of waste, she, like all Arcata inhabitants who contributed to the marsh’s workflow, determined what wastewater needed treating. As a person who ran or walked in the marsh every day, she, like all Arcata visitors who wandered its trails, determined whether the land was respected or treated as an open-air trash pit.

The marsh, in other words, was everybody’s marsh. Not everybody realized it, of course. Regardless of that awareness, and regardless of why residents contributed to the marsh—basic biological necessity, carelessness about what they poured down the drain, willful criminality—no one stood outside the water treatment process. If you were in Arcata, you were part of it. Explaining that connection isn’t just to show how people fit within their environments. It’s to invite, as Kimmerer says, the adaptive consequences of seeing the self linked to so much else.14 When we learn to see places like the marsh not just as a source of our potable water, but as a water source for everyone else, and not just as a calm, quiet place for us, but as a calm, quiet place for our neighbors and our neighbors’ neighbors, we’re more likely to modify how we act when we’re there. We’re more likely to realize we need to treat it well, for everyone’s sake.

Shifting focus to connection, embeddedness, and reciprocity also helps generate better—more thoughtful, more targeted, more effective—responses to the pollution we encounter. If the Arcata Marsh were to experience a sudden uptick in toxins, the answer wouldn’t be to throw an extra bucket of chlorine into the affected holding tanks and call it good. The pollution itself is just one part of the story; treating it as the story means that story won’t be very helpful.15 Pollution happens, and can very quickly spiral out of control, because of all the other overlapping variables, all the people, all the technologies, all the everything that filters it into the ecosystem and directs where it’s able to travel. Increased toxicity would indicate something systemic: a financial shortfall, or gross mismanagement, or some shift within the population resulting in more pollutants being dumped into the water supply (the marsh is fine, though, everyone should go visit). Failure to address the underlying issues all but guarantees that the toxins will intensify.

We can—we must—apply a similar framework to polluted information online. We must begin to think differently so we can begin to act differently. The trick is to draw from ecological metaphors—above, below, and all around—to locate our own “you are here” stickers on the network ecology map. As with Phillips and the Arcata Marsh, that triangulation isn’t solely based on what we, as individuals, are personally doing or seeing. We all fit within a complex tangle of ideological, social, and technological connections. Knowing where we’re standing in relation to all those other forces and all those other people allows us to better understand the consequences of sharing, and even simply being, in our networked environments. Most important of all, a “you are here” triangulation reveals how our individual me entwines with a much larger we—and how the fates of both are connected.

The Cartography to Come

Polluted information is as damaging as it is perfectly calibrated to our contemporary information ecosystem. It thrives when technological and economic systems function at peak efficiency. It thrives when platforms maximize user engagement. It thrives when publications pursue clicks. It thrives when everyday people do the clicking. It thrives when everything is working well—at least working well for some. That, precisely, is why pollution is so difficult to contain.

Efficient systems have long yielded catastrophic outcomes. Offline, that’s why we’re embroiled in a climate crisis. Online, we’ve arrived at our present precarity because of long-established ideologies and their material consequences. Understanding that past is a prerequisite for making sense of the present, and so, the first four chapters of this book consider old histories alongside the contemporary dynamics of network pollution.

Chapter One, “The Devil’s in the Deep Frames,” explores the Satanic Panics of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The panics provide a two-pronged prehistory of the contemporary media landscape. First, they contextualize the “evil internal enemy” subversion myth central to many far-right conspiracy theories. This myth is reinforced by centuries-old deep memetic frames: ideological ways of seeing and being that, in the case of the Panics, transformed everyday information into apparent evidence of a vast Satanic conspiracy. Besides establishing continuity between conspiracy theories past and present, the Satanic Panics exemplify, and in fact emerge from, network climate change. Critical to network climate change was the widespread adoption of read/write media in the 1960s and 70s, media industry and policy shifts during the 1970s and 80s, and the political consolidation of the New Right in the 1980s and 90s. Similar to environmental climate change, network change emerged slowly over time, as existing filtration systems became more and more taxed by more and more pollution. The result was a full-blown network crisis, making the Satanic Panics a harbinger of the disaster to come.

Chapter Two, “The Root of all Memes,” draws inspiration from Redwood roots systems. In digital networks, as in Redwood forests, pollution introduced into one grove swiftly filters out, feeding into surrounding groves and groves beyond that. The chapter argues that the negative freedoms of liberalism shaped the digital forest and infused it with pollution. Two deep memetic frames in particular, the white racial frame and fetishized sight, obscured the vision of the people who cultivated the forest and the vision of those it was cultivated for. The result was a widespread failure to recognize ecological threats; those ringing the alarm bells simply weren’t being heard by those standing behind comfortable, safe, utopian frames. “Internet culture,” a term adopted in the mid aughts by a tangle of academics, tech industry insiders, and subcultural trolls epitomizes this failure. The white racial frame and fetishized sight embraced by so-called internet culture allowed a deluge of pollution to flow into the pop-cultural landscape under the guise of fun. And it was fun, for some people. As young scholars studying this landscape, it was for us as well; our unexamined frames resulted in years of extraordinary obliviousness. All that fun didn’t stop the pollution from flowing; it just rendered the pollution invisible to those of us who weren’t being poisoned by it. Yet.

Chapter Three, “Cultivating Extremism,” picks up where Chapter Two leaves off.16 It uses the metaphor of land cultivation to show how individual social media users influence their networks simply by inhabiting them. Whether the land a person tends is the size of a backyard garden or a factory farm, anyone can loose polluted information into whole other environments regardless of intent or awareness. As evidence, the chapter analyzes the rise of white nationalism and supremacy, along with a whole gamut of chaos entrepreneurship and weaponized disinformation, during the 2016 US Presidential election cycle—not as a shocking twist to the American experience, but as a continuation of well-worn historical patterns. As has long been the case, the actions of the violent racists, chaos entrepreneurs, and disinformation agents themselves played a critical role in this rise. But so did the actions of everybody else. Center-left journalists did a great deal to amplify reactionary messages; young reporters raised on internet culture especially so. Because of their online experiences, these reporters were primed to see violent ideology as “just” trolling, on “just” the internet. The roots below thus merged with the land all around, further demonstrating the need to consider exactly what we’re putting into our networks—even when we’re trying to help.

Chapter Four, “The Gathering Storm,” tracks the weather systems that scale up and envelop the whole media ecosystem. It focuses on some of the most ferocious storms online: the pro-Trump Deep State conspiracy theories that swirled from the earliest days of Trump’s candidacy to his 2019 impeachment. Each new element of the Deep State narrative—including the social media responses the stories generated—fused with preceding elements, resulting in an ever-expanding superstorm. While the Deep State narrative is unique to the Trump Era, there are a number of historical continuities between the Deep State and similar theories of the past, like their embrace of the generations-old deep memetic frame known as Make America Great Again. The unique contours of the digital environment, however, from platform architecture to algorithmic amplification, coupled with growing asymmetric polarization, makes modern conspiracy theories more consequential and more dangerous than ever. Ignoring these dangers leaves out information essential to weathering the storm, weakens efforts to prepare for impact, and most destructive of all, can cause the maelstrom to grow more powerful as it travels. And so, we must look up.

As we track how polluted information seeps through our networks, how everyday choices spread that pollution, and how overlapping energies fuel media superstorms forward, a network ecology map emerges, bit by bit, into view. Affixing our respective “you are here” stickers to that map is the next step. The final two chapters thus pivot to practice: what can, what should, everyday people do when confronted with so much polluted information? Chapter Five, “Cultivating Ecological Awareness,” lays the foundations for an answer. A prominent call is to check facts, verify sources, and critically analyze everything you see. While these strategies can be beneficial in some cases, for some people, they aren’t universally effective. In fact, they can outright backfire in hypernetworked social environments. What’s needed, instead, is an approach that works with the contours of online environments, not against them, and which doesn’t draw from the same taproot as the problem itself—namely, the negative freedoms of liberalism. Ecological thinking is the answer. By foregrounding interconnection, embracing positive freedoms for the good of the collective, and always considering how the things happening here might impact people over there, an ecological framework is uniquely primed to address the network crisis that threatens us all. It allows us to cultivate different fruit from a different grove.

Chapter Six, “Choose Your Own Ethics Adventure,” applies that framework to what we all can start doing today. The structural changes we need might be a long ways off, but that’s even more reason to undertake the slow, steady task of cultivating network ethics: of telling different stories, and acting differently because of those stories. Network ethics looks beyond the messages being spread and beyond the messengers who spread them, to what effects are felt throughout the environment. Who’s standing downstream; whose water supply is poisoned; whose bodies are nourished and whose bodies are harmed. The most obvious sources of pollution clearly still require a response. And, network ethics maintains, everyday actions are equally deserving of ethical reflection and intervention. The individuals responsible for small-scale pollution may not mean to cause harm. They may have the best of intentions. Even so, everyday people, without even realizing it, can still flatten the lives of others into one-dimensional pixels, sidestep consent, and cause dehumanizing damage. They can still provide industrial grade polluters a direct line into the water supply. Network ethics is a critical bulwark against the spread of these polluted deluges, especially when that pollution is unintentional. More than that, they’re key to ensuring the pollution isn’t generated in the first place.

Standpoint, Audience, and an Invitation

The internet is global. Its problems are global. But the United States plays an outsized role in those problems, and so, as American scholars focused on US media and politics, we’ve applied our critique to the culture, history, and shortfalls we know best. It begins with the world’s largest and most powerful technology platforms, which are based in the US and steeped in American norms. Most consequential to global politics are free speech absolutism, an unchallenged faith in the marketplace of ideas, and an obsession with individual autonomy, all of which American companies blithely project onto parts of the word operating under totally divergent political and legal frameworks. For instance, as Julia Carrie Wong of the Guardian observes, Mark Zuckerberg’s impassioned free speech defenses of Facebook’s laissez-faire political ad policy ignores 90% of its global users, who are not, have never been, and will never be subject to the First Amendment, but are nonetheless subject to Facebook’s US-colored glasses.17

The United States’ role in global pollution isn’t limited to the norms it exports. It also flows from its cultural production—the actual stuff of media and memes. As an example that still makes us nauseous, we didn’t merely read Wilson Gomes’ conclusions about reactionary American imports to Brazil. We heard him say the words at a May 2019 symposium on memes hosted by Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. We were the only scholars from the States in attendance, and also the only people in the room who didn’t speak Portuguese; we were therefore the only snowflakes wearing simultaneous translation headphones. They set up a whole booth with two translators just for us; the symbolism was already thick. As Gomes laid out his case, we began sinking in our chairs. We had no idea. But as we soon learned, this was common knowledge. Everybody we talked to knew that American extremism and manipulation tactics and memes—so many memes18—had drifted south. In his talk, Gomes was absolutely gracious about this, referring to us as “our American friends.” Not once did he say out loud, not once did anyone say out loud, what we both knew to be true: the US needs to get its shit together.

We care quite a lot about the US, and all the other countries we share so much with, including our pollution. With that global ecosystem in mind, even as our cherished, deeply flawed United States lumbers large at the forefront, this book is animated by three overarching objectives that we hope will help readers no matter where they’re from. The first is to present a novel framework for understanding how polluted information spreads across networks and what kinds of actions help spread it. The second is to situate the present moment within the broader arc of media history—all the better to map not just where we are, but where we’ve been, and where we should be going. The third is to provide all citizens of good faith, from journalists to educators to public figures to casual social media users, a set of best practices for participating in these networks as ethically, mindfully, and humanely as possible.

“Citizens of good faith” is key. Politically, we’re both progressives. The chapters to follow draw from feminist theory and critical race theory, and the overarching ethos of the book is explicitly anti-fascist, with a particular focus on the dangers of white supremacy in all its forms. That said, we aren’t writing solely for people who think like us. Ideally, a range of people with a range of political views will read this book. Conservative readers, that means you too; we’re glad you’re here, because we’re all knee deep in the same slop. What we ask from readers regardless of their politics is sincerity and the resolve to help, or at the very least to not make things any worse. Citizens of bad faith, those who actively choose to sow confusion and discord for cynical, opportunistic, or bigoted reasons, aren’t who we’re talking to. We’re not sure if any conversation could convince them to do or think otherwise. Luckily, there are more citizens of good faith than there are citizens of bad faith—evidenced, ironically, by the fact that citizens of bad faith rely on the good faith majority to spread their toxicity.

And so, we conclude with an invitation. Without question, it’s difficult to linger on the chaos and uncertainty of our dizzying political moment. It’s difficult to linger on rancor and abuse. It’s easier to look away, or at least to point our fingers elsewhere, to social media companies, to media manipulators, to bigots, to politicians, to journalists, to the people we disagree with. We invite you, instead, to run towards the storm. To reflect on roots connecting to soil connecting to sky, and all the overlapping energies that collapse one thing into another. To situate yourself within the network map, one ever-moving dot among hundreds of millions of other ever-moving dots, all feeding into and being fed by social media companies and media manipulators and bigots and politicians and journalists and people we disagree with. To consider your responsibilities to your neighbors and your neighbors’ neighbors.

We hope you’ll join us.

Footnotes
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Comments
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Samuel DiBella: soft power out of control
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Samuel DiBella: Spread of information pollution as part of how information economy is currently defined
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Samuel DiBella: footnote: critiques of ecology metaphor
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Samuel DiBella: Metaphor of pollution for information (the toxic life cycle)
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Samuel DiBella: Transborder information issues affecting politics / globalization