[-empyre-] Critical considerations linger.

Curry, Derek d.curry at northeastern.edu
Wed Feb 10 09:02:06 AEDT 2021

Thank you everyone for starting this discussion. There is a lot to respond to, but perhaps I will start with Renate’s questions/prompts related to social media being used in recent BLM, Navalny, and anti-lockdown protests and the role of artists.

For me, the use of networked communication for political organization seems like an inevitable outcome. If we think of social media as a progeny of Gutenberg’s printing press, the distribution of political ideologies, organization, and radicalization, should have been one of the first concerns rather than something that is often talked about as a ‘side effect.’ I have made the argument that one of the reasons social media like Twitter works so well for activists is that the original code for Twitter is based on Tad Hirsch and the Institute for Applied Autonomy’s TXTmob, which was designed specifically as a tool for activists to communicate and organize during protests. TXTmob was a service that allowed users to send SMS, or ‘text’, messages to other users on a list for real-time coordination in a changing situation. TXTmob was used during the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the 2006 Mayday Immigrant Rights protests in San Francisco. In 2004, Tad shared his project (and code) at a weekend-long meeting of hackers and activists in Oakland. A couple of the programmers at the event worked as developers at Odeo, a podcasting startup that would eventually transform into Twitter. Like TXTmob, the first version of Twitter (when it was still called Twttr) functioned through SMS messaging. (Tad’s version of the story is available here: https://medium.com/@tadhirsch/txtmob-and-twitter-a-reply-to-nick-bilton-eedbde2abbcd) In light of these origins, it should perhaps not be surprising that Twitter has become a useful tool during the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, the 2009 G-20 Summit, and for organization by activists groups such as BLM, the Spanish Indignados, and now right-wing militias and QAnon. 

One way that I have tried to respond as an artist is by trying to harness the organizational potential of social media in a way that reveals the power structure it creates. For my PhD dissertation project, I focused on how social media can impact finance—something that is now topical in the wake of Reddit users inflating various stock process. For the practice-based component of my degree, I created a web application called Public Dissentiment, an online application that helps people protesting a publicly traded company gain the attention of that company’s board members and shareholders by creating social media posts designed to negatively impact the price of the company’s stock when it is read by algorithmic trading bots. The inspiration for the project came from tactical media projects such as TXTmob and FloodNet, but also tactics used by stock traders and terrorist organizations. One example is from April 23, 2013 when the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the @AP Twitter account and posted a tweet that said, “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.”  Less than three minutes after the tweet was posted at 1:07pm, the Dow had lost more than $236.5 billion and the S&P 500 had lost almost the same amount. The market rebounded almost as quickly as it dropped. This type of event is known as a “flash crash” and is the result of high-frequency trading bots cancelling their stock orders because of perceived volatility. There are a number of factors, both technological and regulatory, that have led to the situation where a tweet can trigger a market crash—the biggest of which is that the vast majority of stock trades are now made by computer programs. High-Frequency Trading (HFT) is a type of algorithmic trading that involves the automated buying and selling securities and other financial products using high-powered computers, in very large volumes, and at very high speeds.  HFTs are not investors, they do not hold positions for long periods of time.  Rather, when an HFT buys a security it will sell it within a few hours—often within milliseconds. HFTs don’t depend on price fluctuations to make money, instead they collect ‘rebates’ from stock trading platforms that use a ‘maker-taker’ pricing system. In a maker-taker system, traders are paid a small rebate or kickback (typically $0.002 per share) for helping to “make” a transaction possible. Since they only make 20 cents for every 100 stocks they buy or sell, this means that they must deal in enormous volumes to make a profit, and they will stop trading at the first sign of volatility. HFTs look for volatility by monitoring price fluctuations and by scanning news and social media feeds for any information that could indicate a swift change in a stock’s price. Public Dissentiment uses a reverse-engineered financial sentiment analysis engine that algorithmically generates social media posts that will have an extremely negative sentiment when they are read by either algorithmic trading bots.  The posts are based on, and will also link to real news stories that were found to have a strong negative sentiment so if an algorithm is crawling news links social media, the post will be confirmed.  Like a boycott, when used properly, Public Dissentiment should have a negative impact on the price of the targeted company’s stock.  If it is used in a large enough swarm, or by individuals who are extremely influential on social media, it could potentially cause a mini-flash crash in the targeted company’s stock.  The key to Public Dissentiment’s effectiveness is a sentiment analysis engine that is built from the same tools used by stock traders, but is designed to only search for strong negative sentiment. More details can be found here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01973762.2018.1435477 

I have more to say about tactics used by artists and activists, but I think I will save that for another post.

Looking forward to reading more contributions,


Derek Curry, PhD.
Assistant Professor Art + Design
Office: 211 Lake Hall

On 2/8/21, 8:29 PM, "empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Renate Ferro" <empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of rferro at cornell.edu> wrote:

    ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
    Thank you Jennifer for introducing Derek and your collaborative work.  I am thankful you listed links to these and I am hoping that any of our subscribers who do have work that resonates with the ideas of data, information, and surveillance capitalism please share them with our listserv.  

    What I am trying to wrap my head around today relates to the collapse of the virtual networks of social media highway into networks of physical political engagement, resistance, and protest in the streets.  Certainly, we witnessed this is 2020 during the Black Lives Matter movement and then quite negatively during the Capitol uprising.  Global examples of this occurred on Germany's parliament in 2020 in response to Covid and just within the last couple of weeks in Russia crowds gathering in support of Aleksei Navalny who was poisoned and then imprisoned. Where do we go from here individually and collectively?  How does art help to engage social media users to understand the underpinnings? What may have negative impacts? Or positive ones?  What can we learn from comparisons? Critical considerations linger. 

    Domenica mentioned digital literacy for the young. Geert listed an overthrow of the system from the ground up. Thoughts from our guests and subscribers? 


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