Tufekci on Informed Consent

There have been a lot of discussions lately about Facebook, social media and connected society in light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Here are my thoughts on what it might mean to be more informed consent.

Secret and Safe?

At the start of Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins inherits a ring from his cousin, Bilbo Baggins. He is unaware of the power it holds. After leaving Frodo to find out what it is, Gandalf returns. He promptly askes Froddo,

Is it secret, is it safe?

Still unaware of the ring’s power. Gandalf explains to the hobbit the gift he has been bestowed and the journey he must go on.

I think that connected education and social media pose us with the same challenges. There comes a time, when after signing up and dipping our toes in, we need to stop and ask ourselves,

Are we secure, are we safe?

Our responses to this can go in a number of directions. On the one hand we can don our silver suits like Chuck in Better Call Saul and become possessed by fear.


Or we can become completely paranoid like Elliot in Mr Robot, where we always think the worst and react accordingly.


We need some sort of compromise. We need to, together, demand better.

Informed Era

A few years ago, Doug Belshaw made an attempt at mapping the internet. He divided it into five eras:

  • 1993-1997: The Information Superhighway
  • 1999-2002: The Wild West
  • 2003-2007: The Web 2.0 era
  • 2008-2012: The Era of the App
  • 2013+: The Post-Snowden era

I have been thinking lately, with fake news and data breaches, maybe we are entering a new era, what Belshaw mooted as an ‘informed era’.

Although there has been a call for companies to improve the clarity of their terms and conditions and governments to put in place policies to protect citizens, I think that ‘informed consent’ needs to go beyond that. If we are to demand better then the conversation needs to go beyond the features and affordances of digital technology. For tools themselves are just one actor in a larger play.

“EdTech Enablers – Modern Learning Canvas” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

A useful framework for making sense of technology is Belshaw’s Eight Elements of Digital Literacies. Split between four mindsets (Critical, Civic, Confident and Cognitive) and four skillsets (Creative, Communicative, Constructive and Cultural), these elements provide a means of appreciating the complexity at work.

“The 8 Essential Elements of Digital Literacies #digilit” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

These elements though do not provide a checklist to tick off, but rather the start of a richer conversation. They should not considered all times, but they help in realising that there are always other aspects to consider.

Take for example an application like Hapara. It provides an added layer of control on top of GSuite, which allows teachers to organise and manage learning in the classroom. Using digital literacies as a lens provides an insight into a number of aspects which help to inform our use.

  • From a cultural perspective, Hapara posits that teachers are largely responsible for creating the conditions for learning.
  • Cognitively and confidence involves appreciating new ways of working. Although it may be more efficient, if you have been using GSuite, these are still habits to unlearn and relearn.
  • Constructively, there is a blur between empowering students with the power to participate in actions and the dangers in excessively moderating their learning.
  • From a communicative point of view, GSuite allows a number of ways to engage, Hapara provides the means to manage and moderate this within different cultural norms.
  • Connecting with GSuite through the use of APIs, Hapara has the ability to both hinder and help the creative process depending on how it is deployed.
  • From a critical and civic point of view, it is important to consider why there is a need to manage learning at all and the consequences associated with such actions.

What this example highlights is that you cannot meaningfully consider all these elements at once. Each offers the possibility of digging deeper or stepping back to develop a wider perspective.

Becoming Informed

One of things I have noticed about the current discussions around Cambridge Analytica, fake news and polarisation is that there are no quick fixes or simple solutions to any of this. As Seth Godin points out,

Advertising has shaped our culture. Not the ads, but the money. And Facebook’s woes are a symptom of that.

Being informed is not some sort of process where one day you wake up certified. This is a problem with things like cybersafety programs. They are often designed to get everyone to a particular level of knowledge, but fail to address the mindset and ongoing practice. The real problem that needs to be addressed is what next?

The challenge as I see it is to understand that consent is something that we inadvertently give each time we tap into an application. I would argue then it is a constant state of becoming more informed. In an ever changing world, with goals forever moving, it is a case where we can never quite be fully informed. Here then are some strategies to start with.

Critically Reflect and Ask Questions

I think that the most important thing we can do is wonder. This helps go beyond the how-to to the how-do-they-do-that. Ian O’Byrne has written a useful series of posts with questions to consider in staying safe online. He touches on issues such as passwords, backing up and protecting your connection. In part, I think this a part of the push for computational thinking.

Learn from and through others

For me, being informed takes a village. If we are to ask questions, then it is useful to have people to talk about them with. Dean Shareski wrote a post a few years ago that that has really stuck with me. In it, he spoke about leaving conferences with new connections, not just new content. I think that this is important. Meeting people beyond your own context helps extend your thinking and develop new ideas.

Engage in new challenges.

Reflecting upon his digital workflow, Clay Shirky talks about each year getting rid of perfectly good habits. He fears that if he doesn’t he will stop noticing the ever changing digital environment around him. For me, such change starts with reading widely. There are so many places to find content these days. Whether it be on social media or reading books. I am an advocate for feed readers. All you need to do is find a few interesting sites, add the feeds and you are away.

So to come back to the start: “Are you secure? Are you safe? And are you informed?” Maybe the answer is actually the question itself? As always, thoughts and comments welcome.

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Secret, Safe and Informed: A Reflection on Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the Collection of Data by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

53 thoughts on “Secret, Safe and Informed: A Reflection on Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the Collection of Data

  1. Jessica Leigh Hester discusses the challenge of digitally disappearing. Sadly, the answer is that in today’s world of surveillance you cannot. Hester instead shares some stratagies for at least reducing what is shared. This is compared to washing your hands to improve personal hygiene.

    Lee Tien advocates a certain degree of self-protection. He views these measures as a kind of digital hygiene—the “equivalent of washing your hands when you go to the bathroom,” or getting a flu shot. But he stresses that they’re only a partial prophylactic: “Nothing that will make you immune from the problem.”

    This is something that I tried to capture in my post on being safe, secure and informed.

  2. I find this such an interesting topic David. As I have said previously, it is a topic that Kin Lane has recently been diving into. Personally, managing everything from my own space has made me more mindful of what I share. I think that being more informed about what sort of information and data we are both collecting and collating. Although I am not sure what this looks like for the future, I think that centralising my data and practices makes archiving more doable.

  3. Janine Aldous Arantes argues that banning phones in schools is a helpful measure in that it makes the management of data and consent easier. Building upon the ACCC’ Digital Platforms Inquiry, Aldous Arantes argues that with the rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data that the potential for harm is almost impossible to understand. For me, this is why modelling social media and supporting students in exploring online platforms is so important in being better informed.

  4. In a presentation for EdTech KnowHow conference, Stavanger, Norway, 26 September 2019, Ben Williamson discusses the topic of resistance to technology in education. This is a useful post as it provides a broad survey of the different ways that people have been critically engaging in this space. Whether it be general questions about technology, concern over diversity, push back from students, scepticism from investors, new regulations and issues with algorithms. I think what this highlights the need to be better informed when engaging with technology.

  5. Craig Mod shares some notes from a lecture he shared at Yale to 70 or so publishing CEOs, marketing, editorial, and PR folks on the topic of contracts:

    It’s an essay about “contracts” — and I don’t mean the formal things we sign upon joining a company or getting a divorce, but the more implicit contracts we enter into with a piece of media, software, or an application. Contracts can become proxies for thinking about “media accounting:” What we gain or lose by engaging with different media and mediums. Consider this missive a little bit of Media Accounting 101.

    It is about the agreements we make that we may not always be aware that we are making. This is another interesting examination about being informed.
    Central to this discussion is attention and in particular James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.

  6. I really like your point about being sloppy Kara.

    We’re digitally sloppy, even if it can be very dangerous, as evidenced by a disturbing New York Times story this week about an Emirati secure messaging app called ToTok, which is used by millions across the Middle East and has also recently become one of the most downloaded in the United States.

    This is what I was trying to touch upon in my post on being better informed.
    I think the challenge is that there is always more that we can do. I guess something is better than nothing.

  7. In an excerpt from Build for Tomorrow, Jason Feifer provides insight into Amy Orben’s four-step Sisyphean cycle of technology panics. This is cycle that has been repeated again and again over time.

    Something seems different
    Politicians get involved
    Scientists slam the gas
    The low-information free-for-all

    Feifer explains that the way to break out of this cycle is to start collecting evidence prior to being aware.

    It’s time to keep a record. The next time you surprise yourself by loving something you thought you’d hate, write it down. Memorialize it in a notebook, or on a Word doc, or just an email to yourself. It doesn’t matter. Describe why you didn’t want to do this thing, and then what happened after you did it, and how you feel now. Then store that piece of writing somewhere that you can easily find — because one day, I guarantee, the boulder you just rolled up a hill will roll back down, and you’ll be at the bottom, feeling lazy and defeated, and you will not want to push it back up. That’s when you need the reminder that you’ve been there before — but that there are great things on the other side of these feelings. All you need to do is say yes.
    Jason Feifer https://future.com/cycle-of-tech-panics-build-for-tomorrow/

    The question I am left wondering what the difference is between being critical compared to the act of panicking? Is concern over something like Facebook panic or is it something different?
    “wiobyrne” in Sisyphean Cycles – Digitally Literate (10/01/2022 23:12:21)

  8. For me, being critical goes beyond critique and scepticism: it includes subscribing to critical theory and critical pedagogy – developing awareness of social justice issues and cultivating in learners a disposition to redress them. The elements of critical AI literacy in my view are:

    Understanding how GenAI works
    Recognising inequalities and biases within GenAI
    Examining ethical issues in GenAI
    Crafting effective prompts
    Assessing appropriate uses of GenAI

    Where are the crescents in AI? by Maha Bali

    Maha Bali discusses the need for cultivating critical AI literacy. She reflects on ideas and exercises that she has used as a part of her course on digital literacies and intercultural learning. After unpacking each of the areas, with elaborations and examples, she ends with a series of questions to consider:

    I think we should always question the use of AI in education for several reasons. Can we position AI as a tutor that supports learning, when we know AI hallucinates often? Even when we train AI as an expert system that has expert knowledge, are we offering this human-less education to those less privileged while keeping the human-centric education to more privileged populations? Why are we considering using technology in the first place – what problems does it solve? What are alternative non-tech solutions that are more social and human? What do we lose from the human socioemotional dimensions of teacher-student and student-student interactions when we replace these with AI? Students, teachers, and policymakers need to develop critical AI literacy in order to make reasonable judgments about these issues.

    Where are the crescents in AI? by Maha Bali
    This discussion of critical, more than just critique, reminds me of Doug Belshaw’s digital literacies:

    Digital literacies are about process as much as product
    Lets move beyond good and evil and focus on choice and consequence
    Literacy starts with you, curate rather than be curated

    In Search of an Understanding of Digital Literacies Worth Having by Aaron Davis
    As well as my piece on Cambridge Analytica and the need to critically reflect and ask questions.

    I think that the most important thing we can do is wonder. This helps go beyond the how-to to the how-do-they-do-that.

    Secret, Safe and Informed: A Reflection on Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the Collection of Data by Aaron Davis

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