HEWN, No. 286

"They seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas" -- Ursula K. Le Guin

On Wednesday afternoon, you might have received a “presidential alert” on your phone — “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” It’s hardly a surprise that folks balked at this sort of notification in this time of Trump, particularly with this President’s penchant for sending out incendiary, off-the-cuff messages on Twitter. One can easily imagine how an alert system like this could be abused.

John McAfee, of antivirus software fame (I suppose), tweeted in response that these alerts are “capable of accessing the E911 chip in your phones — giving them full access to your location, microphone, camera, and every function of your phone.” His message was retweeted some 41,000 times on Twitter, and shared as a screenshot innumerable times on Facebook.

It’s not true.

The Enhanced 911 system does allow your location to be triangulated if you call 911 on your cell phone. That makes sense — these devices are mobile, and unlike when you dial from a land line, you’re not necessarily at the billing address when you call for help. Dispatchers need to know where the first responders can find you. But there is no E911 chip; and there was no accessing your personal data with this presidential alert, which despite the new name and new mode remains an emergency broadcast system.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to be concerned about privacy and security with cell phones. But it does little good to share dis- and misinformation about the technology. And my goodness, I saw lots of folks who should know better share McAfee’s tweet. (Educators. I am looking at you.)

There was plenty of other sorts of misinformation in circulation this week. That’s where we are now, in this heightened state of callous and careless bullshittery. George Soros paid protestors, and whatnot. So perhaps it’s worth revisiting the very important work of Mike Caulfield on digital media literacy. You can read his book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers… and other people who care about facts. And you can take some simple steps before sharing anything online: Has anyone else written about this story or fact-checked this claim? What do other people say about this claim or the source of this claim? Who has written, for example, about E911? What do we know about the trustworthiness of the information, the source, the publication? (I realize that you might think John McAfee is an expert on this topic, but um, you might not have paid attention to what he’s been up to lately.)

Your fact-checking work doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but maybe — just maybe — if you can’t verify a claim, you shouldn’t share it with others.

There’s another thing that perhaps you should consider before amplifying certain stories online — and again, credit to Mike (disclosure: a good friend) who tweeted at length about this on the heels of this week’s awful academic “hoax” story: what and who are you directing people’s attention to? Attention is limited after all. “Have opinions, have conversations, think deep thoughts,” Mike says, so wisely. “But for god’s sake don’t feed the bad actors. Choose another writing prompt. The web is abundant and there are many.”

Now, as someone who spends quite a bit of time each week gathering and sharing links to education and technology articles, I need to heed this advice myself. I do often feel quite duty-bound to point to something and say “damn, this is dangerously stupid”; but at the same time, I realize that’s not always a useful gesture, particularly when it ends up just giving oxygen to a dumpster fire.

(Nicobar pigeon. Image credits)

All that being said, I do have a long list of recommended reading this week. The world is burning; I am trying to keep up (and write a damn book). “The Cruelty is the Point,” Adam Serwer rightly points out. Jamelle Bouie writes about the invocation of Atticus Finch to defend Brett Kavanaugh — “appalling.” Astra Taylor on “The Automation Charade.” Me on the importance of (education technology) history. Evan Kindley explains who owns Kafka. Alexis Madrigal explores the toddler content on YouTube. “The Story Behind the Iconic ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ Paintings” by Emma Taggart. (In other painting news…) And finally, Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS graduate Emma González pens an op-ed for The New York Times:

I also cry a lot. But crying is healthy and it feels good — I really don’t know why people are so against it. Maybe because it’s loud. Crying is a kind of communication, and communication is awesome. The lack of communication is what keeps us in this situation.

Remember: the lack of communication does not just mean a failure to speak; it is also a failure to listen, to not give our attention to (and to distract others’ attention from) the things that we really must.

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey