A Narrative of Bits and Pieces

Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, and once police identified the accused bombers, the manhunt began. The police and other teams scoured Boston and the surrounding area for the Tsarnaev brothers. Meanwhile, the rest of the country scoured the Internet for their Internet presence. However, this had a new effect in light of the tragedy of the bombing:

The social media droppings the Tsarnaev brothers left behind not only attest to their own immersion in the interactive, electronic world, but they have also provided everyone else with plenty of digital data from which to try to extract patterns and possible meaning — fulfilling that very human need to try to make narrative sense of the tragic and the overwhelming. (Unraveling Boston Suspects' Online Lives Link by Link, New York Times)

With the continuing revelations surrounding the extent of NSA surveillance of, and indeed, spying on, Internet traffic and cell phone transmissions, the reality becomes that a more sinister narrative could arise. With the “social media droppings”–combined with location data provided by cell phone metadata, the content and recipients skimmed from our email messages, and decrypted VPN and SSL traffic–a very new, and more elaborate pattern and meaning could be constructed. As Sarah Kendzior points out in her most recent piece for Al Jazeera:

The greatest danger of data collection lies not in the information, but in its interpretation. With billions of pieces of intelligence stored in a given month, the ability to gather data has exceeded the ability to analyse it. The trail supersedes the target. Data becomes its own context.

She goes on to elaborate:

The greatest threat of online surveillance is not that they know us, but that they think they do, and we are hostage to their interpretation. They will spy until “something happens”, and what we naively called “life” will be spit back as evidence.

As the Internet bears witness to ever more facets of our life, and indeed as “big data” becomes more popular and social media sites continue to  gain popularity (and the binge/throwaway cycle of preferred sites perpetuates), not only the NSA but also the general public or our casual circles of friends and followers, will begin to create a narrative of our lives quite different from our personal one. Kendzior points this out, indicating that much of the initial difference in narrative is intentional:

Social media structures time into status, making ordinary people the PR agents of their own lives. Encouraged to “share”, we do, but we also exaggerate and omit. The average Facebook profile is not a mirror reflection, but a Cubist portrait of contradiction and selective truth.

Much of what we share is designed to craft an image often designed to entertain and/or invoke jealousy in others. However, when in the hands of people that don’t know us, or those with a vendetta against us, or perhaps if we commit a grave crime in public, this image and the data that we freely reveal to the public (and the data we don’t) can turn malicious. Ordinary data such as status updates, vacation photos, and tumblr reblogs are combed for signals: How is your friend doing post-breakup? How was the weather in California? What did your sister make for dinner? We attach meaning to it in light of what we already understand of the person. We add that piece to an in-progress narrative of what defines that person. But when we have a malicious intent to comb for information, a lens is created that distorts the personal data to feed into a pre-defined narrative that meets and confirms expectations and bias. This happens not only with personal data and bits shared on social media, but is most potentially harmful in these cases. Kendzior continues the previously quoted paragraph to address this issue, pointing out:

One can find out everything about a person on the internet and come away knowing nothing. But try explaining this to law enforcement, or anyone in the business of determining your identity through a digital lens. How do you defend yourself against yourself? Every explanation comes out like a lie.

The quandary that Pax Dickinson, recently ousted from his position as CTO of Business Insider due to a backlash over very offensive tweets, found himself in a more complex case study for this sort of situation. The public, based on the racist, homophobic, and sexist tweets composed by Dickinson himself, formed a valuation of his identity. They did so using the image that he crafted of himself on social media. According to him, it’s all been a misunderstanding and doesn’t represent who he really is. In an interview by New York Magazine, he rejects the publicly defined narrative, stating that:

What strangers say doesn’t matter. My friends and people that know me have all been uniformly supportive.

It seems clear from the interview that he doesn’t understand why he is enduring this backlash, and why people found his tweets so offensive. Dickinson tweeted some very offensive things, and is brushing most of them off as funny jokes. However, what isn’t made clear, simply by these tweets, is who he is. Every explanation he offers for tweeting what he did does in fact, in Kendzior’s words, come out like a lie. While it is most likely that he is another brogrammer surfing the waves of privilege,  there is the (slight) chance that he is someone different.

Anil Dash makes such a point in his account of getting coffee with Dickinson, that there is some hope of redemption or proving himself after this public takedown. Yet once we’ve attached that mental image to his identity, and decided that that is who he is, it will be difficult for Dickinson to prove to the Internet (if true) that he is someone different than his “social media droppings” make him out to be, and as Dash points out, successfully fund his new start-up endeavor.

To move on from specifics, the concern that all of us should have is if the media, the government, or our friends turn against us, a malicious narrative could be constructed that would be difficult to publicly renounce. The NSA is accessing our metadata when we send an email or make a phone call.  They have access to existing backdoors in encrypted connections and data transmissions. As the NYT pointed out, there is a “very human need to try to make narrative sense of the tragic and the overwhelming.”

But to make narrative sense out of disparate bits and pieces, to define someone without speaking to a person or knowing them personally first, that can become harmful. Dickinson has so far suffered in the court of public opinion, and based on what he’s said to people, rightfully so. But for the NSA to have the ability to craft a narrative based on our surveilled interactions and what we’ve shared privately with others, creates the capability to falsify a narrative that is meant to define us based on “reliable” data. It all comes back to Kendzior’s revelation that it’s “not the information, but the interpretation.".