Vivek Venkatesh

Vivek Venkatesh spoke 7 times across 1 day of testimony.

  1. Vivek Venkatesh, Prof. (Fine Arts – Concordia University)

    Thank you, Professor MacKay, for the opportunity to intervene, and thanks also to the Commission and Commissioner Rouleau for this invitation. As a humanist, as a pedagogue and also a multi- media artist who leverages various data points in social media to create different kinds of installations, I’m going to approach this question that’s being asked from two perspectives. One is that I think we need to acknowledge that social media allows for pluralism and that pluralism is essentially in, at least, our determination of liberal democracy. What we’re seeing, though, is a certain dehumanization of those who express what is commonly known as populist rhetoric and that’s, I think, a pity in the way we’ve observed the characterization of those who have been participating in the convoy. Populism in and of itself is an important expression of liberal democracy. I think it’s important for us to recognize that those who feel disenfranchised and those who feels that a hegemony of sorts in their definition is imposing restriction on liberties or on certain equalities that they expect from their liberal democracies, those two major pillars, that they should be allowed to protest that particular imposition. Where social media, I think, has to be viewed beyond just the regulatory, beyond just the legal standpoint and in collaboration, especially, with big data companies is in how conversations, discussions, dissentions, consensus building, however we want to see these, how those are manipulated through the software and through the algorithms that are being employed, developed and, in a certain sense, imposed on its users. I’ll give you a specific example of this, and this is coming from a journal. And I printed out the abstract and the recommendations. The September 2022 issue of “Decision Support Systems”, which speaks to this notion of coordinated, inauthentic behaviour. And this is particular important because through the use of chats and bots and various other software, we’re seeing a version of what Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism” take on a much larger -- a much larger space in social media. What coordinated in authentic behaviour does is it takes on certain views -- viewpoints. It assigns those viewpoints to what is known as either unexpected, suspicious or exceptional similarity that you see amongst users, which basically means that you can create users that are not real, right, that are particularly virtual, and then you’re able to create an outreach to a population that is subscribing to the echo chambers that Professor D’Orazio spoke about, thereby spreading a certain mis or disinformation or malinformation as Professor Laidlaw defined for us. So in that particular case, there have been several reports by companies such as Meta, who are the parent organization of Facebook and Instagram. I believe Alphabet as well has released reports on how they've managed to curtail what they're calling coordinated inauthentic behaviour. The Rohingya -- the tragedy in Rohingya, the Stop the Steal Campaign, various smaller but highly impactful antisemitic and racist discourses that have been propelled by such kind of software have actually been curtailed by tech companies. So one thing to think about is how can we learn from the ways in which technology companies are imposing regulation and how can we also render those as transparent as possible. I'll stop there perhaps, so that those who are dealing with this from a legal standpoint can debate this. But as a humanist, I think we are coming to a point where if we can't listen to one another without necessarily dehumanizing them, then we are at a threshold of being unable to deal with dissention.


  2. Vivek Venkatesh, Prof. (Fine Arts – Concordia University)

    Yeah, this is actually being debated in fact as we speak about the liminal space in which those terms lie. I think the inauthenticity is reflecting specifically the fact that humans aren't propagating the information online, that these are being propagated by machines and machine algorithms.


  3. Vivek Venkatesh, Prof. (Fine Arts – Concordia University)

    Thank you. Yes, so this is Vivek Venkatesh here. I just want to build on what my colleague, Professor Morin, pointed out as the Government of Canada’s distinction between ideologically motivated violent extremism and those that are religiously motivated, and also politically motivated. But they also point out that it’s very difficult to distinguish whether and how the three different types of violent extremism that have been defined interact and influence one another. And I think that’s important to take into account whenever one creates policies, whenever one is debating laws that are being put in place in order to prevent this work. But my sense as a humanist, again, would be to decry the fact that the original meaning of ideology; which, if I’m not mistaken, is the science of ideas, has been reduced to one that describes perhaps fringe thoughts, fringe movements, fringe collections that have come together which are destructive in orientation. And I think that that needs to be brought back to bear on how we name, so the nomenclature itself is important, but also how we treat this notion of ideologies. I’d like to just also build on some of the work that my team has conducted, and I want to acknowledge the work of my colleague and my former Postdoctoral Fellow, Ryan Scrivens, who conceived a really interesting study where he gained access to 10 former Canadian right-wing extremists. So these were in various Neo-Nazi movements from anywhere from six months to more than 20 years, and over the course of 18 months he and our team at Concordia University conducted life course narratives with these eight men and two women. And I’d like to focus specifically on the role of the internet in facilitating right-wing extremism, specifically. And what we found is not very dissimilar from what has already been described in other literature from the West, specifically in the United States, in that falling into the trap of Neo- Nazism and right-wing extremism happens very much on a face-to- face basis; it goes through underground meetings; it goes through being groomed to a certain extent, when you are young and feeling disenfranchised. And these are analyses that -- and themes that have come to bear with the interviews that we have looked at. But, importantly, the internet was seen as a facilitator for entrenching these values and this was done through forums; this was done through what Professor D’Orazio rightly labelled as siloes or echo chambers, where you get patted on the back for points of view that resonate within a small, and sometimes much larger, circle of people who share a specific opinion of yours. But if you come back to my contention and the contention of big tech companies that coordinated inauthentic behaviours, and in fact magnify these narratives to an exponential scale, and you can imagine how easy it is for someone who’s falling into the extremist movements to be influenced very, very heavily by a narrative that is repeated over and over again. And the danger, I guess, that we face when we look at the specific events in Ottawa is if there are certain so-called fringe elements within the convoy, and they are working the data that they are receiving on social media, the information they’re receiving on social media, and some of which may be coordinated and inauthentic in its orientation, then there’s a likelihood that they will want to act on the specific information, misinformation, disinformation that they’re receiving. So the internet, in and of itself, plays what we're calling a secondary role. You do need a community ,very often in right-wing extremist movements, to build a camaraderie, build a sense of belonging, build an identity with which you feel comfortable, and then you can find solace and find ways in which you can describe your own dehumanizing rhetoric towards the other. And then, unfortunately, act it out, right, through violent means. So I wanted to make this point particularly because this work has been -- is quite instrumental in the way that we are describing prevention programs that can help us to bring some of these former extremists or these extremists out of these movements.


  4. Vivek Venkatesh, Prof. (Fine Arts – Concordia University)

    Merci. Alors, je vais juste prendre le relais et de la part de madame Laidlaw et de la part de monsieur Morin parce que c’est important, je trouve, pour moi, de porter mon chapeau comme pédagogue. S’il y a des suggestions, je dirais, à offrir, pas nécessairement des recommandations, mais des suggestions à offrir à des compagnies, des médias sociaux, à des personnes dans le monde politique qui nous aident à instancier, à réédifier notre démocratie libérale, je pense qu’il faut prôner une forme de pédagogie qui est beaucoup plus sociale que quelque chose qui reste dans les cultures, qui reste dans les écoles, qui reste dans nos institutions postsecondaires. Et par ça, je veux dire qu’on a besoin de promouvoir une réflexivité, une réflexivité qui nous aide à humaniser — pour reprendre les paroles de monsieur Morin —, à humaniser l’autre, et ça, c’est quelque chose qu’on ne voit pas assez souvent dans nos discussions en ligne autant que dans nos discussions face à face. Les discussions deviennent houleuses très, très souvent trop rapidement. Alors, comment est-ce qu’on peut développer des cadres pour poursuivre des discussions où on peut percer nos propres silos, nos propres chambres d’écho, pour qu’on puisse être à l’écoute de l’autre sans nécessairement réagir dans une façon où on commence à critiquer la personne au lieu de critiquer ou de proposer des idées sur le phénomène qui est devant nous? Je vais citer alors peut-être deux personnes qui m’ont beaucoup influencé avec leurs écritures. Il y a la grande politologue Chantal Mouffe, elle est belge d’origine, elle travaille maintenant en Angleterre, mais elle parle surtout d’une façon de développer un pluralisme qui est agoniste et pas nécessairement antagoniste. Comment est-ce qu’on peut être confortable dans la dissension. Ça, c’est quelque chose que j’essaie de développer moi-même, mais aussi avec les politiques qu’on développe autour des médias sociaux et la régulation, mais aussi nos comportements dans les médias sociaux. Et une deuxième chose que je vais mentionner ici, c’est comment est-ce qu’on peut développer une insécurité intellectuelle dans nos conversations, et ça, c’est Eamonn Callan de l’Université Stanford qui propose des cadres pour développer une insécurité intellectuelle pour qu’on puisse se questionner à tout moment, pour qu’on puisse être en dialogue civil en prenant la « francheté » et aussi une charité interprétative, et cette charité, c’est important parce que, dès qu’on est en désaccord avec quelqu’un, on a besoin de donner un peu de temps et pour nous de réfléchir, mais aussi de questionner cette personne pour voir d’où elle vient, c’est quoi les épistémologies, c’est quoi les origines de vos connaissances, comment est-ce que vous, vous avez développé cette opinion. Et avec cette charité interprétative, je pense qu’on peut développer des cadres beaucoup plus pluralistes où on pourrait être à l’écoute, on pourrait être en dissension plutôt que développer des modes de consensus en tous moments. Je vais arrêter là et merci beaucoup pour cette occasion de partager avec vous.


  5. Vivek Venkatesh, Prof. (Fine Arts – Concordia University)

    I try and read Chantal Mouffe every week as much as possible just to remember to listen before reacting, but I think their conception of agonism revolves around allowing for the possibility that you do not have to arrive at a consensus at every point in time and an agreement because of the dilution of the issue at stake. So an agonism will allow you to be very, very fiercely protective of your opinion, very fiercely protective of the rationale behind your opinion, but also at a certain point in time think, okay, there are different ways in which this particular issue is being proffered or offered to me because of the perspective of the other. That’s how I see it.


  6. Vivek Venkatesh, Prof. (Fine Arts – Concordia University)

    Yeah. Thank you.


  7. Vivek Venkatesh, Prof. (Fine Arts – Concordia University)

    Thank you. Yeah, this is Vivek Venkatesh here. Yeah, this is a good question, and the sign of a good question is the hesitation that I have in responding to it. Where I think I will lead off, and perhaps invite more reflection, is to think carefully about the role of journalism, specifically in promoting pluralistic forms of discussion. And so to what extent are we asking for journalists to create spaces for pluralism; whether those spaces are inhabited by antagonistic forms of discussion versus more agonistic forms I think is a question of education, and also of intent, right, to a certain extent. What do I intend to do here? Do I intend to rile the person speaking on the other side of the issue, or do I intend to think more carefully about, okay, do I -- am I learning something about the issue? Am I going to provide a specific perspective because someone thinks differently about this? And I don’t think that we should be demonizing either form of those, right? I think that antagonism is necessary when injustices, inequalities are consistently meted out on marginalized groups of people. And so part of this comes with, not with looking specifically at one media outlet and saying we need to encourage pluralism in that media outlet. The question is; does the media environment allow for a fair representation of multiple viewpoints. So to what extent are we, in fact, encouraging multiple viewpoints to emanate from various media outlets? The second question, which is related to it is; what tools are available for the public? Whether those tools are pedagogical, whether they are political, whether they are legal; what tools are available for the public to be able to enact some form of fact-checking, some form of figuring out the veracity of what they’re listening to? So part of that responsibility lies in regulations, lies in policies, part of it also lies in our education system. So it’s a very short way of saying the answer is very complicated. But I am thankful, though, to be a citizen of, and to be living in, a country where I know that I can find divergent opinions on a topic. But I also rely on my ability to make certain critical decisions about which opinions am I going to side with, based on the veracity of what’s being presented.