How The ‘Parler Incident’ Highlighted The Social And Democratic Benefits Of Web Data Collection
In this article we will discuss:
What happened at the capitol [recap]
Watching the news lately, many of us saw images of American demonstrators illegally breaking into the Capitol in Washington. But for people concerned with using web scraping as a tool for social justice, that was not the most interesting part of the story.
How collecting public web data became the final frontier of law and order
Many of the rioters actually colluded on this premeditated breach weeks in advance on a platform many have not even heard of, ‘Parler’. This became the platform of choice after some social media platforms marked some of President Trump’s posts on their networks. Loyalists were looking for a platform with a less stringent content moderation policy, and that is indeed what they found.
But right before tech giants such as Google, Apple, and Amazon killed the site due to ‘incitement’, one ‘cyber activist’ who goes by the handle @donk_enby on Twitter, scraped millions of rioter data points. This included posts that were published in the weeks leading up to the riots including:
But why did she feel a need to do this?
Based on self-declarations and news reports from across the internet, this cyber activist did not do this for self-gain but rather had a social agenda. She was determined to collect publicly available information about those responsible for the disorderly conduct which included, among other things ‘metadata’.
Quick definition: Metadata is the information associated with a certain file such as what type of device was used when publishing a certain post.
Metadata, which is unusually removed by most web services, was left intact by Parler. This development means that law enforcement officials will now be more easily able to put certain suspects at the scene of the crime, as well as identifying individuals who were masked at the time of committing the offense.
For those concerned about their personal information being compromised, @donk_enby, was quick to clarify that only publicly available data was indeed collected from the social network.
She reaffirmed that no:
- Email addresses
- Phone numbers
- Credit cards numbers
Were scraped, further proving that her attempts were not concerned with self-interest but social justice. Modern culture is actually fairly familiar with this phenomenon and has even coined a term to define it:
The keyword here is ‘accountability’. This is not an isolated incident. Many cases in recent history are pointing to a generation that is conscious of what is going on around them and demand accountability for others actions, be they politicians, bankers, or protesters.
Additional instances of socially-motivated web scraping
Web scraping has become a powerful tool for the preservation of democratic liberties. Many watchdog organizations and journalists are leveraging this endeavor for the sake of transparency both in governance and economics.
These organizations have used scraping to shed light on a variety of issues, including:
1. Monitoring political ad content on Facebook – One such example is the NYU Ad Observatory who has stated as part of its mission statement, to help people discover:
– “Which candidates, super PACS, and dark money groups are spending most on Facebook advertising nationwide?”
– “What topics do they emphasize and what objectives do they seek to achieve with ads?”
2. Keeping tabs on the amount of influence Peruvian lobbyists are gaining by collecting political establishment visitor logs. For more information check out their Spanish language website, manolo.rocks.
3. One group of activist journalists started an organization called Reveal that scraped law enforcement Facebook groups and cross-referenced them with extremist Facebook group members. They found quite a bit of overlap which can now serve as a starting point for internal police audits. This same group also used web scraping to discover that Detroit’s municipality wrongfully charged residents property tax ultimately leading to forced foreclosures.
Summing it up
‘Parler’ was merely one recent development in a long list of instances in which socially conscious men and women decided to use web data colection as their preferred instrument for achieving internet transparency, and equality. As we begin a new decade, I foresee web scraping gaining popularity among individuals with a strong value system who want to fight for social justice. This will ultimately benefit our society at large in the form of driving both economic and political accountability.