Stop Silencing Us

Last week, all student activist work was removed from the campus center and other buildings around campus. Administration cited the posting policy as the reason, a policy which has only been referenced previously in the last four years as a reason to tear down other student activism. Under the guise of cleaning up campus, postings were removed with no alternative being given, and the student option for speaking out was taken away just as all students printer emails had been. They tore down everything about sexual misconduct and silencing student voices, everything about all gender bathrooms, even all of the Palestinian activism anywhere outside of the dorms. Students had already requested that this work be left alone or given more information prior to removal, but the work was taken down overnight. All of these topics had previously faced censorship on campus, and this was a new tactic from admin aimed at removing our work to create a nice and sanitized Olin in advance of inauguration. 

This silencing of our voices feels discrediting and invalidating of our pleas for safety on campus. We feel excluded from the space we deserve. It feels frustrating to be caught in a cycle of StAR acting first without consulting students. StAR needs to directly consult students before taking action. StAR has the potential to greatly change things at Olin if they follow through with their proposed changes and what the working group has been working on. However, we know there have been many times these proposed changes have been dropped through the transition of semesters.

 We are speaking up for ourselves and our peers out of necessity, all in an attempt to curtail the silence and suffering of others now and in the future. This has gone on long enough, we are asking you, begging you, to join us in speaking up and speaking out, in not taking no for an answer, in demanding kindness and respect and dignity as human beings in this world. So support us in our work, sign in agreement, and refuse to tolerate the repetition of these failing cycles of change. We need real changes and it can only come from us.

We’ve compiled a short list of demands in response to the ongoing sexual misconduct issues that have been discussed for the last two months as well as the silencing of student voices. You can find this google doc at https://tinyurl.com/olinchange and sign your name to show support. As a small group we have been unable to get the attention and recognition from Olin’s administration in a way that will convince them to act, so we are sharing our cause to bring more attention to these issues. We are using our voices to create much needed change, speaking out against our institution and pushing for lasting change to processes and not just placating conversations and singular initiatives. 

Hey, Class of 2022

Shit is rough, but you are wonderful. And the wonderfulness of you will endure, in the exact way that the rain pouring in my backyard right now will not. Uncertainty defines everything these days, yes, but I believe in your enduring wonder because I’ve seen who you are and what you can do.

I remember I had a conversation with some of you in March 2020 about how you come to trust people and the expectations you have for the relationships you’ve got and the ones you’ll build, and the courage that taught you how to understand and embrace criticism, and to speak truth to power. Since then, I’ve heard many of you express your concerns about holding onto the selves you’ve built here after you leave this place. Though it may not happen immediately, you will one day find places – jobs, community groups, bands, theater troupes, whatever – that do not see your brave curiosity as a liability, but rather as a beautiful, beneficial thing. Whether your work fulfills you or you yearn for something more, you can become – perhaps you already are – an activist. You can engage with your future communities in so many ways that are sorely needed. You can volunteer, teach, discuss, mentor, build. The skills you have brought with you to your learning and then honed throughout your education will keep you going in this work.

If you struggle to find your feet beneath you as you move on to this next stage, fear not; this is the natural course of things. Maybe the most important things geriatric millennials like me can bestow upon Gen Z are these four points: 1) the “insert college degree, expect economic prosperity” model has proven to be a myth for some time now, 2) your life is going to feel like a series of fits and starts, forever delayed, 3) it’s really alright if you don’t go straight from point A to points B and C, etc., and 4) all of this, friends, is not a personal indictment of you.

Let me tell you a story. I finished my undergraduate program in 2009. Shit was rough then, too, but there at least was no global pandemic to contend with. I moved just outside Boston a few weeks after I received my degree on a frigid day in upstate New York. I tagged along to Massachusetts with a group of people I hardly knew because I had no other plans lined up. That was a cruel summer; it rained a record-setting 27 of 30 days in June. I had nothing much to do, though, no job and no prospects, so I walked the flat streets of Waltham until I knew them like the hilly, curving roads of my hometown.

Eventually my money ran out and I took a job at a CVS in Wellesley, the small one on 135. I was the photo lab manager, but because I wasn’t working in a “professional” job utilizing my degree, I felt a shame that I carried around like an unshakeable aura. I felt like I’d failed so many people: myself, my parents, my brother who was currently working on a PhD in computer science, my partner at the time, a chemistry major who had snagged a job downtown. At CVS, we didn’t have a proper darkroom at the store so I used to have to go down to the basement with the lights all turned off, stumbling over the off-season merchandise, to change the photo printer paper cartridges. The baffling precariousness of that situation is a fitting metaphor for this whole period of my life.

I quit a couple weeks into the new year, 2010. At this point, I had decided to go back to school to get my Masters in Library and Information Science, in part because I grew tired of men throwing newspapers at me when I asked them to walk five feet over to an open checkout station (silly me, I should have anticipated grumpy dudes throwing stuff at people would also be a problem in public libraries). I obviously still needed money, so I took a job north of Boston at a hair salon software company and built websites for stylists and spas in New England for a few months, and yes, it was exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, and then I started my MLIS almost exactly a year to the day after I arrived in Massachusetts. I lived in a different apartment with different people by then. I’d lost some old friends and made some new ones. I got my cats, who you’ve probably seen on Discord or Instagram.

So, happily ever after, right? Lol, no. It took me years – ones that contained a cross-country move, a stint in a very modestly successful electronic rock band, a failed marriage, and several family tragedies – before I felt “on track.” I went from point A to point Q to some point not even identifiable in this alphabetic system before I got to point B. These are the fits and starts I mentioned. Things got especially confusing from 2016-2018, when I took on a very stressful job and had a big falling out with my main friend group. I spent much of that time being a jerk, taking unnecessary risks, and making mistakes that I thought I had learned from – and mind you, this was the very end of my 20s, over seven years after I’d entered “the real world.” The day some sense got knocked into me wasn’t even when I woke up in the hospital after a driver hit and left me while I was biking in Brighton, but probably the night three months after that when a set of stairs collapsed under me in Allston as I was carrying my bike out of the house of a person who didn’t deserve one more second of my time. (Yes, this must be a scene in one or more redemptive indie romcoms with a strong female lead and a lot of ukulele strumming.) And even after that, I have continued to mess up. I have messed up prodigiously in these 13 years since I got my bachelor’s degree, and I know I’ll mess up routinely forever, but you know what? That’s the deal. We’re all on board for this. There’s nothing you can do to stop many of your own screwups until you’ve been on earth long enough to practice avoiding them, but you can do one thing to help you through it. You can remember point 4 from the above. Point 4: “All of this, friends, is not a personal indictment of you.”

I have gotten to know some of you better than others, but you are all impressive to me. The things I’ve seen you build, the teams I’ve seen you working with, the art I’ve seen you make – it’s been a joy. I’m a little weepy as I sit here and imagine not seeing you on campus anymore; your shoes are unfillable by anyone but you. But that’s part of the deal, too – you must go on, and you must mess up outside the bounds of our campus, and you must be the change you want to see in the world, the big one out there beyond our wee bubble.

I’ve been sitting here staring out at the rainy dark for a while without many ideas for a good closing paragraph, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words. They are a more eloquent way of stating the first sentence of this letter: “Shit is rough, but you are wonderful.” You were, after all, challenged to “do something” when you came to us, and I share this in the spirit of challenging you to keep at it after you go, even if you’re feeling like a mess because you’re stuck in the dark at the CVS stockroom of life, trying not to trip over last year’s Halloween decorations.

“Nature teaches persistence and perseverance, because in the end nothing stops nature. If a rose can grow out of the concrete, so can we.”

– Micah Hobbes Frazier, racial justice activist, kind of quoting rapper Tupac Shakur, quoted in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy

So go forth and grow, you wonderful little roses, you.

What’s on your mind?

Whenever I write for a large audience, I try to center my writing around one key value: inclusivity. I seek to write in a way that everyone can connect with, not seeking agreement but at least an invitation that “Hey, it’s okay to disagree.”

This month, I’ve spent a long time thinking about how to do that. I’ve seen people in so much pain, anger, exhaustion, curiosity, and joy, and I don’t know how to write about it. I knew that I wanted to write something, I was simply bursting with opinions and thoughts. I wanted to move beyond the dining hall conversations about course registration and housing, into something that was new and somehow fresh. I spent days deliberating how to do this, how to create a representative opinion, how to process the frayed fabric of Olin that I honestly feel is best typified by its website – too many unexpected pangs of disappointment with the “Oops! This page cannot be found.” A missing connection that really should be there. 

And then I realized – what if I just ask? Find people in the Olin community, and simply ask them, “What’s on your mind?” Note – the question isn’t, “What do you feel about the OlinTM issues?”, but rather, “What are you thinking about right now?” And that’s intentional. I didn’t want this to be a platform for opinions, but rather a candid reflection of what Oliners are frankly thinking. 100 words. 11 people.

I’m relieved that the semester is ending. I’m sad that the semester is ending. I’m curious to see what’s next. I’m anxious about what will happen next. I’m excited to celebrate Gilda’s inauguration. I’m hopeful that big things are coming. I’m exhausted. I’m eager to be outside, away from email and Zoom. I’m enchanted by blue skies and forsythia and flowering trees. I’m trying to just experience it all. – Alison Wood

Lately with finals, obviously, and the fiasco with suites- that took up a lot of my mind at the time, and eventually I was like, “I’m not going to get a suite”. And then finals are happening. I have a large project to do there that I just came from a meeting. We feel behind but we’re not sure if we’re behind yada yada. And I have other responsibilities and other jobs. I CA, as you know. I’m currently dogsitting, which is a whole lot of work and a ton of back and forth and running from place to place. I haven’t really had space to think so this is nice. – Ben Morris

“How do you disrupt a downward spiral of being disconnected in a way that makes things better? I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Especially because I think there are pent-up frustrations that people have been carrying around. If you don’t know how to release what’s been pent up, or can’t find an outlet, then what? In our culture, we look to our community for support. We seek solace from our community when things aren’t working well, when the rest of the world is chaotic. The community is supposed to be where we can lift each other up. And that doesn’t seem to be happening as much as it should.” – Gilda Barabino

What I’m thinking about is, that the price of Ubers going into Boston is getting ridiculously expensive. Like my first year, it was like 18-20 bucks, maybe 25 on average. That’s expensive, but you’re like “I can make it work”. And I came back from Boston today, and it was 45 bucks. And I was tearing my hair out – like this is ridiculous, it’s a lot of money. And so then I went to Boston three times this weekend, and each time I went it was like “UGH, my bank account is crying”. And it’s not even the stuff I’m doing in Boston it’s just for getting there. – Shashank Swaminathan

What’s on my mind?  Storm clouds and weeping willows.  After this extremely difficult year, I have so many things on my mind and it’s left me overwhelmed.  But I chose images that may represent hard feelings, but are also beautiful in and of themselves.  And that really is what is on my mind – incredible fatigue from a tumultuous year and compassionate acknowledgment that it takes energy to weather a storm and there is comfort to be found in the shade of the weeping willow.  We are tired and strong, stressed and still breathing.  We are here together still.  Adva Waranyuwat

Each of us experiences Olin differently, both because of our own individual vantage point and our roles at Olin. Thus, there is no “the students,” “the faculty,” “the staff,” or “the administration.” The number of people in each of those categories is small, yet none of them are monolithic. We are a collection of individuals, having these very different experiences. At the same time, we are often much more aligned in our goals and desires than we realize. I hope that we can continue to work towards finding a common space, so that we can bring our individual perspectives and strengths to be a better whole made up of all of our glorious, messy, passionate, and brilliant parts. – Anonymous

When the weather’s nice, a man sits on a bench all day blasting music near my house. The other morning a song from the Breakfast Club movie was followed by Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License.” It’s almost like he’s DJing for the neighborhood; it’s like a soundtrack to his life. You can almost tell his emotions by the songs that he chooses to play. So this has been on my mind: relating to music. Everyone can somehow relate to music, and that got me thinking: “What would I play if people could hear in the morning how I was feeling, and if my music choices would change day-to-day?” – Courtney Beach

There’s a lot of things on my mind. I’m relieved that all my tech weeks are done. I’m sad that all my tech weeks are done. I’m very excited to graduate. I also don’t know where I’m going to live. This weekend was really fun, and I did a lot of cool things, and I feel like I’m really enjoying Olin right now and I’m really vibing, but I’m also so ready to leave. I can’t believe I’m graduating. It still feels fake. SCOPE is a lot of work. And not always fun work. But it’s exciting. A lot of my favorite classes have been not in my major. Like I feel like my favorite classes are not engineering classes. That’s it really. – Shirin Kuppusamy

Graduation. This will be my 17th Olin graduation (that’s all the graduations). That’s a 17th year of saying goodbye to people with whom I’ve grown close. These are people I’ve had the great joy and honor of teaching, learning with and from, growing with, sharing in sadness and joy, talking through topics big (life, justice, futures, and the present) and small (vegetables, shoes, memes). Again, I brace myself for tangled emotions: pride, joy, curiosity, gratitude, and hope plus a definite sadness and self-consciousness about my selfishness as I mourn relationships that will never be the same. – Caitrin Lynch

Something that’s been on my mind a lot recently has been, what do I want to do after graduation? And a tension with what do I feel responsible to do? I feel this responsibility to go into like, climate crisis mitigation. But that’s doesn’t necessarily bring me a lot of joy? It’s necessary, but also really heavy on my soul to do that work? Part of me wants to screw around and do aerospace or robotics or things that feel fun but not meaningful. Yet I feel this responsibility to do meaningful work because I have a skillset for that. Kind of that tension of doing things for me vs. doing things for others and like what my responsibility is as an engineer? – k

Who I am at Olin, who I’m expected to be at Olin, who I let myself be at Olin? What parts of me are core and recognized, and what parts of me are not, and neglected a little bit? And especially if you think about – being in the flow of love. Love for myself, love for one another. Without that necessarily looking like the care that I show whenever I’m a good R2. Or the sort of care that I show if I sit down one on one and have a meaningful conversation with someone. That’s a tendency that I have that I feel very valued in. And I value it a lot in myself. And at the same time it’s felt like as I transition away from this place and have 23 years of living and will have many decades to come, there’s something spreading that – I don’t know – doesn’t quite cut it. – David Freeman

If you made it to the end, congratulations! Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I did it. I guess I learned, I connected, and I grew. And you probably got something different out of it. Um, I didn’t have time for a fancy reflective conclusion (which I suppose is how the seniors feel) – come tell me what you think about it!

Drunk Horoscopes

Taurus (Apr. 20 – May 20): Is this real life or is this just fantasy? Why not test it out? Pinch yourself. Ask your best friend on a date. Stand on a table dining hall and sing a song. Mix all the sodas with sriracha. Eat floor wax. But I don’t need to draw more attention to myself than I already am. All the tests came back negative. Therefore, Connecticut.

Gemini (May 21 – Jun. 20): You are the eye of the tiger. Or the knee of the lizard. It’s okay if you are still figuring yourself out. You have so many options, think for a minute. You can be any animal body part you like. 

Cancer (Jun. 21 – Jul. 22): Don’t stop believing, hold onto that feeling. That feeling of a tickle slowly dissolving into dread. You know what else is weird about horses?

Leo (Jul. 23 – Aug. 22): Take me on a trip, I’d like to go someday. Take me to New York, I’d love to see L.A. Take me on a trip in my favorite rocket ship. You’ll be my American rocket ship. I love you, Saturn V. 

Virgo (Aug. 23 – Sep. 22): Ain’t no mountain high enough. Ain’t no valley low enough. Ain’t no river wide enough. Man, this minecraft world sucks. But there is no global warming in minecraft. We can do whatever we want.

Libra (Sep. 23 – Oct. 22): At first I was afraid, I was petrified, then I asked for an extension and my professor was on my side. Then I spent so many nights working on the assignment. I went to CA hours and got all my questions answered. And I grew strong. And I learned how to get along.

Scorpio (Oct. 23 – Nov. 21): You can set yourself on fire, but you’re never gonna burn burn burn. Like the pride flags in the dining hall, you are not particularly flammable but still against the Olin fire code. You can look up the fire code on the internet. But it is dense and unclear, so you’re never gonna learn learn learn.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 21): Hey Jude, don’t make it worse. Make sure to avoid saturated fats, eat fruits and vegetables, and avoid the consumption of processed food. Increase your physical activity to at least 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity per week. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol. Remember to make regular visits with your cardiologist and let her into your heart so she can start to make it better. 

Capricorn (Dec. 22 – Jan. 19): It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you. There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do. Don’t worry baby, it’s really hard to kidnap a blue whale. 

Aquarius (Jan. 20 – Feb. 18): She wears short skirts, I wear T-Shirts, she wears socks, I also wear socks. She buys her socks from Costco, don’t ask me how I know that. Don’t buy socks from Costco this week, someone put itching powder in all of them.

Pisces (Feb. 19 – Mar. 20): Here comes the sun. Why are you so cool?! You are the weather at Spring Soiree, too cool for real school. Be like summer in the spring, and do the thing halfway. You can always duct tape your tits. Remember that. It’s all right. 

Aries (Mar. 21 – Apr. 19): Do you like pina coladas? With or without rum? It’s fine either way, I was making a new batch anyway, I can make it any way you like. Wait, you don’t like coconut? Well then is it even a pina colada? Well I guess pina colada means strained pineapple, so I can just give you pineapple juice with ice if you want. No, we’re not actually making pina coladas, it’s just for the drunk horoscope. 

Assorted other stuff: 

What could an elephant really give you? 

I’m Not Talking About Bathrooms

I’m going to be honest: it’s because I’m angry, and I’m tired.

This anger has been bubbling for years. Did you know that I can prevent myself from peeing for nine hours at a time? I know, because I did it every day for four years when I was in high school. Skipping breakfast and not eating lunch helps, though you’ll have a harder time paying attention in classes, having conversations, and you’ll be slightly angry all of the time. The bathroom for me, a nonbinary person, was somewhere I was explicitly not allowed to go—it says right there on the sign. In high school, I had nowhere to have a moment’s respite from the busy halls, nowhere to sit and cry when overwhelmed, nowhere to fix my outfit or hair if it got messed up. Sure, technically I *could* have used a gendered bathroom, if I looked enough like a cisgender boy or cisgender girl to use one without getting strange looks, or questioned, or harassed, or attacked. But the choice was between looking cisgender and having the illustrious privilege of being able to shit in a dirty gray rectangle with slurs scrawled on the walls, and looking like myself. And it’s not easy to forget you don’t look like yourself in a room full of mirrors. Really, that gendered bathroom sign to me may as well read “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.” I’d prefer that, actually. Then, at least, it’d have a bit of camp.

Bathrooms are a recurring motif in my nightmares.

This last week has been tiring. It’s such a little thing. A square of plastic. Yet people will pay to keep it in place, and it’s illegal to take it down. It’s *illegal* to *not* misgender me. And sure, we could just ignore it, make the bathrooms *socially* all-gender even if *legally* they can’t be. But I don’t have nightmares about getting lost in a labyrinthine public toilet because I wasn’t able to share a bathroom with all of you. There is still a sign hanging there that says I don’t have a place here—that I don’t even exist in the first place. I have been told that I don’t have a place here, that I don’t even exist, every single day of my life.

I’m tired. And I’m angry. And I’m tired. So I’m checking out: I haven’t been to any of the discussions with administration about this, because the conversation really boils down to “look, WE know you exist, but it’s just really inconvenient for us so we have to continue to publicly pretend that you don’t.” Weren’t pride parades originally something about not keeping your queerness behind closed doors at a time when it was illegal to be publicly queer? But that’s long past: now pride is about rainbows, and about showing how LGBT+ friendly you are, #loveislove! It’s about being visibly queer out in that street, just as long as you don’t come near our bathrooms, you pervert! It’s about consistently ranking in the list of most LGBT+ friendly colleges, and pride flags in the dining hall! All this talk about our software Jenzabar putting students’ deadnames on class rosters, and publicly reporting our student body makeup by “legal sex” to show how “gender balanced” we are, and this stuff about bathrooms, all that’s just talk. We’re accepting! We promise!

I’ll save us both some time, then: that’s not a conversation I’m going to have with you. If you can’t take five minutes out of your day to remove a piece of plastic from a wall, then you don’t deserve to have five minutes out of mine so I can listen to you try and convince me of how good a person you are, actually. It’s not that complicated: gendered bathrooms prevent trans people from existing in public. That’s wrong. And after more than 20 years of being told I don’t exist every single day of my life, I don’t have the energy to argue that with you. Though I may be tempted, because you get angry when you’ve been holding it in for this long.

Do You Even Care?

By an anonymous nonbinary student

The ongoing conversations about all-gender restrooms have led me to conclude that Olin administrators care more about protecting Olin as an institution than they do about my well-being as a person.

I face situations that remind me of my trauma every single day at this school. Although logically I believe I am safe in gendered restrooms at Olin, deciding whether to use a convenient restroom or to spend my time going to an all-gender restroom brings up traumatic past experiences. Knowing that I am safe doesn’t prevent me from remembering the time a friend mentioned that I should be careful using a women’s restroom so I am not accused of rape, or the time I was told to be careful using a men’s restroom so that I do not become a victim of rape again. Knowing that I am safe doesn’t prevent me from remembering the time someone pulled a knife on me in a public restroom due to my perceived gender, and I was terrified I was going to be assaulted or murdered. And knowing that I am safe doesn’t prevent me from irrationally fearing that today could be the day my sense of safety in Olin restrooms is proven wrong.

The school’s reason for not converting more restrooms to be gender inclusive is that it is illegal and the school could face penalties for defying this law. Members of Olin’s administration need to understand that their responses to students’ requests for more all-gender restrooms have shown me that they care more about the possible risk of fines than reducing the suffering caused by my trauma.

Improving access to all-gender restrooms matters. I should not have to decide whether to prioritize my classwork or my mental health. I should not have to decide whether I’m willing to risk a panic attack to minimize the amount of class I miss. And I should not have to decide whether to advocate for myself or protect myself from my trauma. As such, I call on all Olin administrators to reconsider their priorities. Prioritize the health of your students over unjust laws and financial risks. Show that you care about me as a fellow Oliner. Show me that you care about me as a person.

Drunk Horoscopes

Taurus (Apr. 20 – May 20): Your teammates do not appreciate your team bonding ideas. Maybe try explaining them in the form of a song? Do not count your mangos before they’ve hatched.

Gemini (May 21 – Jun. 20): Who said dispensing every drink from the fountain at once was a bad idea? This is what nirvana feels like. Just don’t spill it. That stuff will never wash out.

Cancer (Jun. 21 – Jul. 22): Write all your ideas down. All of them. Yes, even that one. Especially that one. Why aren’t you writing that one down? We’re tired of you not listening to us. Why haven’t you returned our calls?

Leo (Jul. 23 – Aug. 22): Yes! Take that risk, baby! You’re on fire! No, seriously, you’re on fire. Where was the last time you saw a fire extinguisher? Map out your memory of the passage of time on the back of a napkin. Add the napkin to the flames.

Virgo (Aug. 23 – Sep. 22): One day you will walk through the exact geometric center of the O, and you won’t even notice. Damn. One of your projects is over-scoped.

Libra (Sep. 23 – Oct. 22): Trains can be so romantic. Have you ever taken a ride on the Amtrak? The green line can be a close substitute, if you don’t care about quality, you cheapskate. You’ve been using too much 3D printer filament.

Scorpio (Oct. 23 – Nov. 21): You’ve got issues, but damn, maybe someone needs them a freak like that, bestie. You will be filled with a sudden, intense urge to eat the next bath bomb you see. Follow your heart.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 21): It’s time for a break. Maybe take a nice bath to celebrate? Wait, who ate all your bath bombs? Damn, guess you’ll have to keep feeding your workaholicism by starting a new project or creative venture. HAGS!

Capricorn (Dec. 22 – Jan. 19): Give all you can into the world. Unless you just have unsorted resistors. The world doesn’t want your striped denizens of purgatory. Go forth and choose your colors wisely.

Aquarius (Jan. 20 – Feb. 18): What are all these ‘feelings’ that everyone talks about so much?? Is it a type of potato chip? Why would anyone call a subflavor a feeling? Maybe potatoes have all the feelings and eating them gives them to us. Wanna test the theory?

Pisces (Feb. 19 – Mar. 20): You have the heart of a child, but can already hear your knees creaking. You think maybe this is a sign that you’re ready to adult. Will they build on each other or cancel each other out? Who knows???? Your aching back says to go take a shower.

Aries (Mar. 21 – Apr. 19): What’s a four letter word for two things that’s also kinda like an apple? Wait, is it pair or pear? Gah, I hate this game. Pleeaase go fix the English language for me. Thanks, I owe you one!

Why The Disinformation Problem Is This Bad, And What We Can Do To Start Fixing It 

War in 2022 does not only involve combat boots on the ground. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been countless cyberattacks all over the globe, even here at Olin. The United States and European Union have used sanctions, financial and travel limits, and other economic levers to put pressure on Vladimir Putin’s government. But one of the most deeply unsettling and dangerous fronts in this war is being fought in the form of (dis)information. In this article, I’ll explain some of the reasons why disinformation has become a virulent social problem in the United States and offer tips on how to be a more mindful consumer of what you read online. This is an incredibly complex issue, so for more reading on the topic, please see the resources linked throughout this piece.

The public spending decisions in the U.S. that have impoverished schools, libraries, institutes of higher education, and more – combined with declining trust in the government and the mainstream media – have created a fertile environment for disinformation to spread. With even trusted organizations like the CDC backtracking some of their findings during the COVID response, it’s legitimately difficult to know who or what to trust. Disinformation also fills a social gap. Former QAnon adherent Lenka Perron told the New York Times in 2021 about how, feeling abandoned by politicians, ignored by the media, and lonely in her life, she found emotional support among Q believers. Stories like Perron’s demonstrate that the response to disinformation can’t only be teaching people how to better evaluate the news. People are not seeking the truth so much as they are seeking validation of existing beliefs and community support.

Disinformation researchers and librarians also blame the rise of social media platforms using algorithms that promote the most incendiary and divisive voices. Big Tech dominates the information landscape with billions of users, creates uncontrolled vectors of “fake news,” and undermines everyone’s ability to thoughtfully consume information. Educators are simply not equipped to combat these issues when advertising and social media giants like Facebook and YouTube design their algorithms to encourage maximum engagement rather than accuracy or reliability. While some platforms are finally attempting to squelch disinformation, corporations should not be allowed to serve as the sole arbiters of speech in a democracy. 

Worsening economic conditions, widespread fear and loneliness, the engagement-driven algorithms of Big Tech, and defunded educational institutions have created a serious problem that needs to be fought from multiple fronts. This is all in combination with a deluge of calculated disinformation tactics utilized by actors with nationalist interests and a desire for global destabilization. These tactics are the product of decades-old state-sponsored disinformation campaigns in Russia, described by one KGB defector as having a goal of changing “the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that, despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community and their country.”

Disinformation about Ukraine isn’t just coming from Russian intelligence agencies and rogue agents, though. On the one hand, you have a master propagandist in Putin, unabashedly playing the victim even as he orchestrates aggression, using his administration to spin tales of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his “Nazi guys,” as a Russian politician repeatedly said in a recent interview with BBC Newshour. On the other, you have the French media outlet that published a moving video of a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier…that was actually a Palestinian girl confronting an Israeli soldier in 2012. This is not to establish a false equivalency between the significance of these stories, but to make the point that no matter who we support, our very human confirmation bias diminishes our ability to evaluate information.

Shifting gears to techniques we might use for assessing the information we see online, I want to start by invoking the SIFT method we teach in library instruction sessions at Olin. SIFT is a four-step process for learning to think like a fact checker. We usually teach it in the context of the much more slow-moving and deliberate process of research vs. assessing stories shared through chat or social media, but the core strategies still apply.

Stop

News is generated and spread in such an overwhelming and lightning-fast manner in 2022 that it is disorienting and tough to keep up with even in “slower” news cycles. The first step of SIFT is to stop and think – what are you even looking at? If you’re tracking stories from many miles away in areas you don’t have much familiarity with, you are going to be inherently limited in your ability to understand what’s going on. You may also be overly emotional while you’re reading or watching, and that can sway your interpretations. It’s okay to recognize you may not be able to follow certain kinds or sources of news. The next step in the process can help you find ways to stay up to date while acknowledging your limitations.

Investigate the Source

There are many kinds of sources visible on the web these days, not just encyclopedias, newspapers, and research articles. Independent writers and freelance journalists can be critical trustworthy eyewitnesses during events, sharing their firsthand experiences as they happen. Unfortunately, there are also fake accounts, bots, and spammers to watch out for. Mike Caulfield, misinformation researcher and one of the creators of SIFT, prompts us to ask if a source is “‘in the know’ — do they have *significantly* above average knowledge of a situation because of expertise, profession, life experience, or location?” He also asks us to consider a source’s personal and professional incentives, and to wait for better sources or more verification of developing news stories rather than rushing to share breaking stories the moment you find them.

Find Better Coverage

This step is a close partner with “investigate the source.” It’s critical to be extra careful about this when dealing with contexts that you may not be familiar with because of your geographic location, upbringing, or other limitations of perspectives. Ukraine is a country of over 40 million people; there are numerous mainstream media outlets, and most Americans need to do quite a bit of homework on learning which ones are reliable. It’s important to distinguish where finding better coverage is more important than investigating a source. “If you get an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, your best bet might not be to investigate the source, but to go out and find the best source you can on this topic,” Caulfield suggests, “or, just as importantly, to scan multiple sources and see what the expert consensus seems to be.”

Trace Back to the Original Context

In the final move of SIFT, we acknowledge that the internet strips images and words of their original context. You might see the middle minutes of a video, hear audio edited to change the speaker’s intended meaning, or see a reference to a medical study in an article that describes its conclusions inaccurately. In these cases, you should try to find the original, undoctored source or the cited article, but it may not be possible to do that. When it’s not, try to let it go. Is your best option to share something when you have 20% of the story, or an incorrect but interesting interpretation of it?

SIFT is not the solution to disinformation. Disinformation is a complex and entrenched problem in the U.S. exacerbated not only by slashed education budgets, crumbling public infrastructure, and social media giants with too much power, but also by state-sponsored or independent actors who are deliberately working to destabilize trust in democracy. It’s not something that any one individual can solve. That said, learning how to start thinking like a fact checker is one action we can individually take to help today. This article only begins to unpack small parts of the disinformation ecosystem, but a better understanding of how we got here can inspire us to work on rebuilding the support systems we have lost.

The Day Everything Changed, Part 2: 5 Minutes in 658 Words

We last left off with Tracy learning that they are going to be living with One Direction from now on. What will happen next?!?!?!

…Before I could say anything, I felt my mother’s hand on my shoulder. She knelt down and gave me a hug. “You’re going to live with One Direction now.”   

I tried to suppress my smile as I felt my mother’s arms surround me. I could hear her attempt to present a reassuring front, and as I hugged her back I tried to convey through my squeeze that everything was going to be okay. 

As the hug ended, I took a step away from my mom and looked at my father’s face. He was solemn, and I shot him a smile before turning and facing the five boys across the room from us. I could tell they were sitting on the couch before I arrived, they were still standing in front of the slightly deflated cushions they previously occupied. They looked strangely nervous. 

I smiled wide, and slowly approached them. I could tell that my smile put them at ease, and before I was within arms reach I stopped. I stood across from them, the only thing in between us the antique mahogany coffee table riddled with water marks from years of use. I looked down at the old wood table and noticed the small chips from when I ran into it or dropped something on it over my past 14 years. It was comforting to see this relic and to know that no matter what happens next, everything’s going to be okay. 

And so I took a deep breath, and exhaled before kicking the table in front of me, triggering the hidden compartment to launch the anti-shape-shifter quasar beam about 4 to 5 feet into the air, so I could comfortably and ergonomically grab it. It was so smooth, and made me happy that I spent the extra $50 to get it installed with Murphy’s Secret Compartments.

Murphy’s Secret Compartments

Discreet, Unnoticeable, Murphy’s

With the quasar beam in hand, I blasted Zane in the face. As the rest of 1-Directions’ faces morphed into surprise, Zane’s melted into a multidimensional cosmic geometry that was unrecognizable from a human perspective. My dad quickly sprang across the room and punched the thermostat, which triggered the dimensional phase reaffirmer; banishing all revealed multidimensional beings from our reality. 

As Zane was bleeped out of existence, I could smell fecal matter coming from the part of the room occupied by the remaining 1-Directioners. I tossed my beam to my mother, barking “Cover me” as I kicked the table two more times resulting in two more beams being launched out. The first landed in my hands smoothly, and the second flew past my father’s hands, missing his reach by inches. “Dammit, Murphy!” I heard my dad mutter. 

“Dad, don’t blame Murphy. That’s what happens when you don’t keep up with your training.”

“You’re right, Tracy.” My dad said with his head slightly hanging. 

“No time for this though,” I said with authority. “It’s time to take care of some multidimensional cosmic beings that we haven’t come up with a catchy name for yet but would appreciate suggestions!”

“Hell yeah!” My mom said as she shot a beam at Niel. But he dodged it as Harry picked up the landline and threw it through the bay windows that Murphy’s brother Richard was supposed to make bullet-proof next weekend. The 4 remaining boys jumped through the glass hole as we let beams fly after them, but they got away safely. 

“Dammit!” my dad said, slamming his blaster to the ground. 

“Calm down dad! We don’t have the budget to be replacing anti-shape-shifter quasar beams willy-nilly.”

“Sorry Tracy.” My dad said with a timbre of remorse in his voice. He picked up his beam and wiped it off. 

“It’s okay dad, now let’s banish this boy band!” I said as I donned my aviators. 

Job Posting; Software Engineer

Location: Menlo Park, CA

Our company is revolutionizing the world of communication. We bring billions of people closer together on a daily basis, and we think this is a good idea because we haven’t really thought about this and have no plans to start doing so. Also, our founders grew up in white upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods and have no concept of what “revolution” actually means.

We are looking for a rockstar-guru-ninja-genius-wizard-10x-coder to join our team of rule-breakers who are changing the world through distributed hyper-automated peer-to-peer machine-learning-powered SaaS platforms.

Our Values

  • We work in a highly collaborative, team-based environment! Wow, “we” has a ring to it! Maybe we should have a new motto? Something like “Made by We”.
  • We are truly committed to our mission of using disruptive and groundbreaking* technology to democratize communication. This is something that we say so that we don’t feel too bad about destroying actual democracies.

Minimum qualifications

  • Bachelor’s degree or equivalent coding bootcamp experience. We like to point to coding bootcamp graduates as examples that upward mobility really does exist!
  • Excited to find life-fulfilling work in optimizing ad delivery on mobile platforms
  • Below the age of 30, because young people are just smarter™

Nice to have

  • Proof of white men in tech worship—Bezos bobblehead preferred
  • No experience working in retail or manual labor, but willing to criticize gig economy workers who want to unionize for not working hard enough
  • Medium post explaining that homeless San Franciscans just have the wrong mindset

Benefits include

  • Working with some of the smartest people in the world, who definitely should be working on a website that turns middle-aged men into QAnon fanatics instead of developing solutions to the climate crisis or advocating for human rights
  • Making the world a better place while conveniently earning $200,000 a year
  • Contributing to rapid gentrification of neighboring communities by being able to pay 2x the asking price on a home with your tech salary
  • Coworkers who write memos explaining why women and minorities are unqualified to be working at our company
  • Regular New York Times exposés of company leadership’s poor handling of sexual harassment cases

*But not literally groundbreaking! We’re not at all like the bad guys in the oil-and-gas industry, who pay their workers lots of money to help them forget they’re ruining the world. Not at all like them.