Foto: NWO, fotografie: Studio Oostrum

Spinoza winner José van Dijck researches digital media. But she's not on Facebook

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Media & Digital Society professor José van Dijck has been awarded with a Spinoza prize, the highest honour for a scientist in the Netherlands. She was completely caught by surprise. The 2.5-million euro prize will be spent on further research about how to manage the digital society.

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First of all, congratulations. How did you find out that you won the prize? 
“Marcel Levi, Director of the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO in the Dutch acronym), called me. He always calls me to ask me to join some committee, and I always say yes, but this time I was determined to say 'no' for a change. But then he told me: 'I have some really good news'. You can't get a better phone call than that. I was so surprised and happy, but mostly honoured. This is amazing! I've been researching, carrying out projects, and setting up departments for decades. I see this award as a coronation of my work.”

You're surprised. So you're not like Dutch football manager Louis van Gaal, who would say something like ‘If I was the NWO, I would have chosen myself, too'?
“No, I wasn't aware of anything, I didn't even know I was one of the nominees. I never paid attention to that. But that only makes it more fun to win this prize. Do I think I deserve it? Well, that would be a matter of conscience, of course. Fortunately, I wasn't the one judging, a robust committee took care of that in a heavy process." 

Does this award mean a lot to you?
“Of course. Every scientist is flattered by such an accolade, no matter how big or small. I cherish each and every recognition, even when it comes in the form of a student approaching me after class to ask a question. I think that's a form of recognition. Nothing is more beautiful than seeing a student learning, with eyes that say 'I want to take this in.'"

What do they ask about?
“The use of apps at school, for example. There's an app called ClassDojo, which is used by millions of teachers worldwide, allowing them to exchange information with pupils and parents. An elementary school teacher once wrote on her blog that she was going to stop using ClassDojo because the app had overshot its purpose. I talked about that in a class and in my column in the Dutch newspaper Financiele Dagblad. Through this app, teachers can compliment students with hearts, pats on the back, or stars. That resulted in a downright competition among students to see how many hearts they would get. That's why the teacher decided to cut it out. In addition, the app gave away all kinds of data, such as school results and information about the students' behaviour, to some data company. Therefore, schools should ask themselves what they're doing when they implement such an app."

But you refrain from saying: 'don't use this app'?
“Sometimes that's the conclusion, but sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you can say 'this app is fine, we just need to change a few things in the privacy policy'. Or we must use the app in a different way than the one it was intended for."

You're a columnist for Financiele Dagblad and you're interviewed in the media quite often. You join the public debate frequently. Is that the role of a scientist? 
“Yes, I think that's one of the roles, and one that I take very seriously. I enjoy it, too. Other colleagues probably think differently. I think it's important to make the knowledge that we gather accessible for the outside world, and then discuss it."

How did people react to your column on social media?
“I didn't see all the reactions because I'm not on Facebook, for example. I've never had a Facebook account, for several different reasons. I think that Facebook gives away way too much data, and provide you with very little insight into what happens with your personal data. That's why I feel absolutely no need to join it just to post that I'm stuck at a train station in Amsterdam. I really don't get why so many people share so many personal things on Facebook."

"I'm not on Twitter either. The disputes on that platform are not my style of communication. I love exchanging arguments in a rational debate, I love joining public debates, and I also give lectures every week. But debating with one-liners comprising 140 characters only? I'll give it a pass. When I hear about how much time people waste on social media, I think I'd rather spend that time researching or writing an article. It's a matter of choosing how to spend your time.

Can you conduct good research about these tools without using them yourself?
‘It's a fallacy that I don't know anything about how it works. I can also look at them with someone else who does have an account. But I don't conduct any research on Facebook specifically, my colleagues do."

Does that mean that you don't receive as many threats for expressing your opinions, like other scientists do?
“Yes, that's true, because Facebook and Twitter have generated a culture in which you can be totally destroyed in a debate. My female colleagues surely get loads of negative comments. I know several scientists who left social media because of that. I understand them completely. I have witnessed a debate about the intimidation of scientists on social media. The three panelists all knew it from experience, and it was shocking to see what they had to go through."

Can you mention a reason to use this type of media?
“For many people, social media has become their livelihood. Take influencers, for example. Another example: even though virologist Marion Koopmans said that she got a lot of hate on Twitter, it was on that platform that she heard about the coronavirus for the very first time. She said: 'let's not forget about the other side of the coin.'"

What if a new social media platform would come up, with a good privacy policy?
“First I must confess that I do use Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook. I only use it to talk to my family, because it's so handy to make appointments there. But there are enough alternatives. I tried to get my family to join Signal, an alternative chat service with a good privacy policy. But, you see, no one has it, no one sees the need to switch to another service. A real dilemma."

What are the main differences between the privacy policies of Signal and Whatsapp? 
“Whatsapp is linked to Facebook and Instagram. Their systems are becoming more and more integrated and your data is used to define personal ads. I really don't feel like letting others use my communication to sell ads. Signal locks up the data, so it cannot read any messages or listen to any calls. The app does not keep users' data, which remains on their phone. Users can then choose for themselves which data they'd like to share, and with whom."

Photo: courtesy of NWO. Photography: Studio Oostrum

You always say that one should look critically at how digital culture influences our democracy. Who has to adopt that critical view?
“Everybody! I am delighted to see that a lot of my students are asking themselves what they can do to organise the digital world better. The police, schools, and municipalities are asking the same question. Municipal authorities have been making an increasingly critical use of algorithms. 

A few years ago, people weren't really aware of which data streams were used for what purposes, and what kind of effect this has. A debacle such as the one concerning fraud detection system SyRi is a reflection of this attitude. All governments should hold themselves accountable for this kind of systems, at all levels. 

"It's important to consider the European level, where the discussion revolves around the power of corporations versus the power of governments. Worldwide, there's an American ecosystem of digital platforms, with giant players like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft; there's also a Chinese system, controlled by the goverment and companies. Europe, with its relatively strong public sector compared to the USA, is in between these two. Europe will have to get harder geopolitically in defense of societal values like privacy, security, and autonomy in a digital world."

You mean with new platforms of their own?
“It's unfeasible to build a new ecosystem in Europe at this point. We're too far behind the United States. But Europe is really good at regulating and figuring out how those public values can be paramount in shaping a society. For example, consider the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR, or AVG in the Dutch acronym, also known as 'privacy law'). That's a regulation at European level that prioritises privacy as a public value when implementing systems. That certainly has been impactful: American companies have adapted their systems according to European policy. I think that Europe can also negotiate the conditions on which we organise the digital society, with issues like transparency and data portability. Why can't you take your Whatsapp data with you when you move to Signal? And why do app stores belong only to Apple and Google, and they're such closed little shops?"

What are you going to research specifically, with the Spinoza prize? 
“My overall research theme is: how do we manage the digital society? A simple question with a very complex answer. I have a month to write how I plan to spend the money, so it still has to become concrete. Part of the prize will be spent on ongoing research and to help other organisations, such as PublicSpaces, an umbrella organisation of public institutions who don't want to depend on big tech companies to communicate with their audience. I intend to hire young researchers. I hope to attract the smartest, sharpest, most incredible postdocs in the Netherlands to expand and widen our line of research."

What is your utmost goal?
“At the end of the day, we strive toward a just, fairer digital society, which requires us to research all sorts of questions. That's already quite a sizeable goal. It's like saying 'we want a sustainable world'. But I still believe you must have that to strive toward that world."

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