Ebook Services Are Bringing Unhinged Conspiracy Books into Public Libraries

Librarians say Holocaust deniers, antivaxxers, and other conspiracy theorists are being featured in the catalogs of a popular ebook lending service. From a report: In February, a group of librarians in Massachusetts identified a number of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic books on Hoopla, including titles like “Debating The Holocaust” and “A New Nobility of Blood and Soil” — the latter referring to the infamous Nazi slogan for nationalist racial purity. After public outcry from library and information professionals, Hoopla removed a handful of titles from its digital collection.

In an email obtained by the Library Freedom Project last month, Hoopla CEO Jeff Jankowski explained that the titles came from the company’s network of more than 18,000 publishers: “[The titles] were added within the most recent twelve months and, unfortunately, they made it through our protocols that include both human and system-driven reviews and screening.” However, quick Hoopla keyword searches for ebooks about “homosexuality” and “abortion” turn up dozens of top results that contain largely self-published religious texts categorized as “nonfiction,” including several titles like “Can Homosexuality Be Healed” which promote conversion therapy and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. This prompted a group of librarians to start asking how these titles are appearing in public library catalogs and why they are ranked so high.

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Ironic Effect of Efforts to Ban Books: Teenagers Form New Book Clubs to Read Them

CNN reports on “an ironic effect” of efforts to remove books from libraries in America. “The more certain books are singled out, the more people want to read them.”

And for some U.S. teenagers, “banned book clubs, recent book banning attempts have been a springboard for wider discussions around censorship.”
The Banned Book Club at Firefly Bookstore [started by 8th grader Joslyn Diffenbaugh] read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” as its first pick. While the satirical novella, which makes a pointed critique of totalitarianism, isn’t one of the books currently being challenged in the US, it was banned in the Soviet Union until its fall and was rejected for publication in the UK during its wartime alliance with the USSR. And it faced challenges in Florida in the ’80s for being “pro-communist.” That history made for some thought-provoking conversations. “It taught a lot because it had references to different forms of government that maybe some adults didn’t like their kids reading about, even though it was run by pigs,” Diffenbaugh said. “I really thought it shouldn’t have been banned for those reasons, or at all.”

Teenagers at the Common Ground Teen Center in Washington, Pennsylvania, formed a banned book club soon after a Tennessee school district voted to remove “Maus” from an eighth grade curriculum. But while the graphic novel about the Holocaust was the catalyst for the club, says director Mary Jo Podgurski, the first title they chose to read was, fittingly, “Fahrenheit 451” — the 1953 dystopian novel about government censorship that itself has been challenged over the years. “Obviously this whole idea of taking away books that they wanted to read or that they thought they should read sparked a nerve in them,” said Podgurski, an educator and counselor who oversees the Common Ground Teen Center….

Since reading “Fahrenheit 451,” the club has also discussed “Animal Farm” and “1984,” which has been challenged for its political themes and sexual content. So far, the young readers at the Common Ground Teen Center have been puzzled as to why those books were once deemed inappropriate. “I often wonder, do adults understand what kids have in their phones?” Podgurski said. “They have access to everything. Saying ‘don’t read this book’ shows that you’re not understanding teen culture. Young people have access to much information. What they need is an adult to help them process it.”

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New Book Warns CS Mindset and VC Industry are Ignoring Competing Values

So apparently three Stanford professors are offering some tough-love to young people in the tech community. Mehran Sahami first worked at Google when it was still a startup (recruited to the company by Sergey Brin). Currently a Stanford CS professor, Sahami explained in 2019 that “I want students who engage in the endeavor of building technology to think more broadly about what are the implications of the things that they’re developing — how do they impact other people? I think we’ll all be better off.”

Now Sahami has teamed up with two more Stanford professors to write a book calling for “a mature reckoning with the realization that the powerful technologies dominating our lives encode within them a set of values that we had no role in choosing and that we often do not even see…”

At a virtual event at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum, the three professors discussed their new book, System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot — and thoughtfully and succinctly distilled their basic argument. “The System Error that we’re describing is a function of an optimization mindset that is embedded in computer science, and that’s embedded in technology,” says political scientist Jeremy Weinstein (one of the book’s co-authors). “This mindset basically ignores the competing values that need to be ‘refereed’ as new products are designed. It’s also embedded in the structure of the venture capital industry that’s driving the growth of Silicon Valley and the growth of these companies, that prioritizes scale before we even understand anything about the impacts of technology in society. And of course it reflects the path that’s been paved for these tech companies to market dominance by a government that’s largely been in retreat from exercising any oversight.”

Sahami thinks our technological landscape should have a protective infrastructure like the one regulating our roads and highways. “It’s not a free-for all where the ultimate policy is ‘If you were worried about driving safely then don’t drive.'” Instead there’s lanes and traffic lights and speed bumps — an entire safe-driving infrastructure which arrived through regulation.” Or (as their political science professor/co-author Rob Reich tells the site), “Massive system problems should not be framed as choices that can be made by individual consumers.”

Sahami also thinks breaking up big tech monopolies would just leaves smaller “less equipped” companies to deal with the same problems — but that positive changes in behavior might instead come from government scrutiny. But Reich also wants to see professional ethics (like the kind that are well-established in biomedical fields). “In the book we point the way forward on a number of different fronts about how to accelerate that…”

And he argues that at colleges, just one computing-ethics class isn’t enough. “Ethics must be embedded through the entire curriculum.”

Read more of this story at Slashdot.