We’re excited to welcome the Web Integrity Project’s newest member, Aaron Lemelin!
Aaron will be helping the team by monitoring and documenting changes to federal websites, across health and health care, immigration, and other domains. Aaron is bringing website monitoring experience from his past contracting work with WIP and from volunteering with the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) Website Monitoring Team, where he’s been since September 2017.
Toly Rinberg, WIP’s Director, sat down with Aaron to discuss his past work monitoring federal websites and what he’s looking forward to at WIP.
TOLY RINBERG: Welcome, Aaron, it’s great to have you on board! AARON LEMELIN: Thanks! I’m really excited about this opportunity and it’s a pleasure to be here.
TR: Tell us a little about yourself and what got you interested in website monitoring. AL: The last few years, I’ve been working at the intersection of a number of different fields, including sociology, social justice, Web development, and now government accountability. I spent several years in graduate school at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville studying sociology where I learned an array of research methodologies, including ethnographic fieldwork and comparative-historical methods. This work consisted of a mixture of qualitative interviews, participant-observation, content analysis, case studies, and archival work. Once I graduated, I took on a job as a Web designer where I learned about design principles, usability studies, accessibility, and user experience. While I enjoyed this experience, it wasn’t mission-driven and I missed the social justice perspective that guided much of my previous work. I eventually joined the Website Monitoring Team at EDGI. Website monitoring represented an intersection of these experiences and allowed me to apply much of what I learned throughout these years. By documenting and analyzing how access to public information is changing, I was able to use my knowledge of sociology and Web design to analyze the impact of governmental websites on society.
TR: You’ve been monitoring websites for nine months now. What would you say you’ve been most surprised by? AL: I’m most surprised by the lack of general oversight. The removal of information without consequence and, often, without anyone noticing is very concerning. This is the case with climate change. It’s a controversial issue, but one that has been in the public sphere for years. Yet, the fact that so many mentions of it could be removed from the EPA’s website within one year is absolutely astonishing. We now know from FOIA documents that these removals were intentional and ordered by the EPA administrator.
TR: But shouldn’t people running these agencies get to decide what’s up on the website? It’s a question I grapple with a lot. AL: I think we need to question this process. What is the intent of these changes and what is the difference between a constructive and a regressive website change? How should agencies inform the public about changes and how can they be held accountable to a defined process? This sheds light on the critical work that WIP is doing. We provide a service to the public by assuring that these actions do not go unnoticed and that those responsible are held accountable.
TR: You have a masters degree in sociology, so how do you see website monitoring connect to your past studies and future sociological work you may want to pursue? AL: The internet represents a shift in our social relations. In many ways it is similar to the way new forms of media, such as radio and TV, have affected society in the past; yet, it also gives us new issues that we must address. The internet is liberating in that it allows us to access and disseminate massive amounts of information instantaneously through space. It has created new forms of communication, altered our daily tasks, and catalyzed innovation. However, the internet also gives rise to new forms of social domination.
TR: What social problems do you see arising from these shifts? AL: Social media has allowed us to share misinformation without critical thought. Algorithms have created silos that have reinforced our prejudices. Disinformation campaigns have affected our democratic processes. Digital surveillance by corporations and governments has created new privacy concerns. These are all social problems that sociology has so far said very little about. Much of this is due to the inability of us sociologists to understand how to address these issues at scale. What we have been grappling with in our website monitoring work is a case of these same social problems. How governments communicate with citizens is nothing new, but how governments use the Internet to disseminate information is. We have witnessed a transition between the Obama and Trump administrations and this provides us with a unique opportunity to understand the processes of Web governance. What the team at WIP and EDGI have done is created a methodology that allows us to classify and understand this process.
TR: What are you most looking forward to at WIP? AL: I am really looking forward to contributing to the analysis of these website changes and learning more about issues of Web governance and government accountability. I also look forward to working with the WIP team. I can’t express the gratitude and admiration I have towards my new colleagues here. I have seen the amount of work we have already done and know there’s much more still to be done.
TR: Thanks, Aaron, it’s been great chatting and looking forward to holding the government accountable together! AL: Thanks Toly!