Tag Archives: internet

An Omen….

Like most of you who read this blog, I’ve been sequestered for several weeks now. And also like most of you, my link to the outside world–to work, family, news, commerce–has been the Internet.

I think there’s a song about not appreciating what you have until it’s gone…

A few days ago, in the midst of end-of-semester grading and other academic “wrap-up” obligations, our Internet went out. The timing was particularly bad, because I’d agreed to participate in a FaceBook “town hall” on voting that night, and the next morning a doctoral committee on which I’ve been serving was meeting via Zoom for the candidate’s all-important dissertation defense.

Thanks to my phone, I was able to participate in both, at least to a degree. But when I drew a breath of relief, it occurred to me that I had seen a highly plausible version of the future.

Think about just how dependent we have become on the Internet.

In our house, we have a “smart” thermostat. We open and close our front door with an Internet-enabled Amazon Key. Our new water softener uses the Internet to tell us when it needs salt. We bank online–remote depositing the occasional checks that still come via snail mail, and paying bills through the bank or PayPal. If we run out of some household good–batteries, furnace filters, vacuum-cleaner bags, whatever–we order replacements on line.

Our burglar alarm is online. We pay our taxes online. We stream television online.

The pharmacy that fills our standard medications is online. Amazon is there for so many purchases–especially during the Coronavirus lockdown. And during this lockdown, we’ve been able to order groceries online and have occasional dinners delivered by ClusterTruck and the like.

Communication and information? All online.

After my panicky episode (lasting a whole day!), I started to think about what America would look like if huge numbers of our citizens lost access to the Internet.

We are already seeing the problems caused by the so-called “digital divide.” As schools and universities have moved to online instruction, poor children and children in rural areas without access broadband have been significantly disadvantaged, further driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots.

In my more idle times, I’ve wondered what would happen if America was attacked not by guns or bombs, but by a successful effort to take down the country’s Internet. I don’t know whether that’s possible–whether there is sufficient redundancy in the system to foil such an effort–but the consequences would be disastrous. It would bring all the country’s systems and commerce to a screeching halt.

What is far more likely is that, when we finally emerge from this pandemic, it will be into an economy where unemployment is at Depression-era levels. Millions of people would be hard-pressed to pay for food and a roof over their heads–let alone IPhones and Internet service.

What would that America look like?

This pandemic has brought so many of our national weaknesses into sharp focus, and not just our inexplicable refusal to adopt universal healthcare. Chief among those weaknesses is a longstanding inattention to aspects of our constitutional system that no longer serve us; glaring examples are the Electoral College and the way our federalist system currently allocates responsibility/jurisdiction between the federal government and the states–especially responsibility for conducting elections. Along with gerrymandering and the widespread lack of both civic literacy and civic responsibility,  outdated constitutional structures are a major reason we have both a President and a Senate utterly incapable of doing their jobs, let alone handling the crisis we are now facing.

Meanwhile, social media promotes the conspiracy theories and “alternate facts” these officials depend upon for their continued political viability.

Think Nero was bad?

Our own mad leader doesn’t fiddle; he tweets while America burns–continuing to squander America’s global credibility, endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of our citizens, and demonstrate un-self-aware buffoonery.

What would he and his pathetic crew do if more than half of America lost access to the Internet?

 

The Trolls Are Sophisticated–And Effective

A recent headline from Rolling Stone addressed an issue that is likely to keep thoughtful voters up at night. The headline? “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent it.”

Rolling Stone is hardly the only publication warning about an unprecedented effort–and not just by Russian trolls–to use the Internet to sow disinformation and promote discord.

Who and what are these trolls?

Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills. They certainly aren’t “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as the president once put it. Your stereotypical trolls do exist on social media, but the amateurs aren’t a threat to Western democracy.

Professional trolls, on the other hand, are the tip of the spear in the new digital, ideological battleground. To combat the threat they pose, we must first understand them — and take them seriously.

The Russian effort is incredibly sophisticated: the article explained that non-political, often heartwarming or inspiring tweets are used to grow an audience of followers. Once a troll with a manufactured name or identity has amassed sufficient followers, the troll will use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and above all, doubt.

The authors of the article are two experts in the use of social media to spread propaganda, and they admit to being impressed by the Russian operation.

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.

Disinformation operations aren’t typically fake news or outright lies. Disinformation is most often simply spin. Spin is hard to spot and easy to believe, especially if you are already inclined to do so. While the rest of the world learned how to conduct a modern disinformation campaign from the Russians, it is from the world of public relations and advertising that the IRA learned their craft. To appreciate the influence and potential of Russian disinformation, we need to view them less as Boris and Natasha and more like Don Draper.

Lest you think it’s only the Russians employing these tactics, allow the Atlantic to disabuse you in an article headlined “The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President.”

The article began with a report on the approach the re-election campaign had taken to Impeachment–” a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup.”

That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country.

The author, who had followed the disinformation campaign, writes of his surprise at how “slick” and effective it was.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate.

This, then, is where we are: in an environment in which facts–let alone truths–are what we want them to be. An environment in which the pursuit of power by truly reprehensible people working to re-elect a dangerous and mentally-ill President can target those most likely to be susceptible to their manipulation of reality.

I have no idea how reality fights back. I do know that Democrats too “pure” to vote unless their favored candidate is the nominee are as dangerous as the trolls.

I think it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Beating That Dead Horse

I’m still mulling over that screenshot I referenced a few days ago–the one from the pro-Trump website showing the names and pictures of four people identified as Democratic Senators who were switching to the GOP in protest of the President’s Impeachment.

As you’ll recall, none of them were real Senators–or, probably, real people.

Whoever created that website clearly operated on the assumption that visitors would be  partisans so civically-ignorant that the phony names and stock photos wouldn’t trigger doubts or send them to a fact-checking site.

It was probably a well-founded assumption.

We occupy a fragmented media environment that increasingly caters to confirmation bias.  As I’ve frequently noted, Americans no longer listen to the same three network news shows and read the same daily newspapers; the ensuing intense competition for eyes, ears and clicks has spawned a treacherous information terrain.

A post at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc. is enough to curl your hair. (Sorry–couldn’t resist.) It even has graphs showing how Right-wing hoaxes and Trump’s tweeted lies proliferate.

Yesterday I talked about how Trumpists flocked to their latest article of faith that Trump isn’t really impeached because the House hasn’t transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate.  There is no basis in law or fact for that belief, but it’s there anyway, virally spreading throughout Trumpland.

Another profoundly stupid message that has evidently convinced those who want to believe: now that Trump is impeached, he’s automatically eligible to run 2 more times.

With rampant propaganda proliferated over social media facts or truth no longer matter.  Worse, Trump’s Twitter account amplifies these lies.  Every time he tweets one of his insults, childish taunts, threats, or lies,  it goes out to millions or users, retweeted thousands of times.  In the hands of an immoral politician like Trump, social media is weaponized for the dark side.  You can see it, but can also measure it.

The above-referenced graphs of Google trend lines show searches for these “facts.”

When I first practiced law, an older lawyer in my firm told me that there is really only one legal question, and that’s “what should we do?” That maxim applies more broadly; it absolutely applies to the absence of what has come to be called “news literacy.”

Every so often, one of my more naïve students asks why the government can’t just pass a law requiring media outlets to tell the truth. As I try to explain, truth and fact are often honestly contested—and of course, there’s the First Amendment. But we aren’t powerless just because government is prohibited from censoring us.

There’s no reason the private sector cannot develop tools to help citizens determine who they can reasonably rely on—and who they can’t. (The current criticism of Facebook for allowing campaigns to post dishonest political ads is based upon that company’s legal and technical ability to eliminate them.)

What if a nonpartisan, respected nonprofit—say the Society for Professional Journalists—developed an analog to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” attesting to the legitimacy of a media source? The award of that seal wouldn’t indicate the truth or falsity of any particular article, but would confirm that the organization was one that adhered to the procedures required of ethical, reputable journalists.

It would take substantial funding, of course, to develop and maintain the capacity to monitor the practices and procedures of media outlets claiming to be “news.” And that “seal of approval” wouldn’t mean that any given report wasn’t flawed in some way—genuine reporters are human and make mistakes. But it would allow citizens who actually care about accuracy and evidence-based reporting to be reassured about the journalistic bona fides of sources they encounter.

Those bona fides are important, because in the new information world we all must navigate, each of us is our own “gatekeeper.” The days when editors and reporters decided what constituted verifiable news are long gone.

And that brings me back to the screen shot shared by my friend.

I know I’m beating a dead horse, but propaganda flourishes when only 26% of adults can name the three branches of government, fewer than half of 12th graders can define federalism and only 35% of teenagers know that “We the People” are the first three words of the Constitution. When politicians make claims that are blatantly inconsistent with America’s history and form of government, widespread civic ignorance virtually guarantees the uncritical acceptance of those claims by partisans who desperately want to believe them.

Adequate civic knowledge can’t guarantee that visitors to a website will know fake Senators when they see them–but it’s an essential first step.

How The Internet Facilitates Dishonesty

Sometimes, just skimming the news is enough to trigger heartburn.

In addition to the hourly reminders that our country is being “governed” (note quotation marks) by a dangerously ignorant lunatic and the daily disclosures of corruption and cronyism, we are routinely reminded of the difficulty of separating all manner of informational wheat from both inadvertent and purposeful chaff.

The other day, the Guardian carried a story about dishonesty in–of all things– a women’s fertility app.

I didn’t even know such things existed. It would never have occurred to me that fertility could be managed on line–but evidently, in the age of the Internet, pretty much everything is subject to online interventions.

The problem is, it turns out that this particular app comes with an agenda.

A popular women’s health and fertility app sows doubt about birth control, features claims from medical advisers who are not licensed to practice in the US, and is funded and led by anti-abortion, anti-gay Catholic campaigners, a Guardian investigation has found.

The Femm app, which collects personal information about sex and menstruation from users, has been downloaded more than 400,000 times since its launch in 2015, according to developers. It has users in the US, the EU, Africa and Latin America, its operating company claims.

Although it markets itself as a way to “avoid or achieve pregnancy,” what the app really does is create doubts about the safety of birth control.

Femm receives much of its income from private donors including the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a charity backed almost exclusively by Sean Fieler, a wealthy Catholic hedge-funder based in New York.

Fieler’s foundation has long supported organizations– and politicians such as the vice-president, Mike Pence – that oppose birth control and abortion. Fieler has criticized Republicans for failing to outlaw abortion, calling their reticence “the tyranny of moderation” in a recent editorial.

The Chiaroscuro Foundation, with Fieler as its chairman and main backer, provided $1.79m to the developers of the Femm app over the last three years, according to IRS statements. Fieler also sits on the board of directors for the Femm Foundation, a not-for-profit which operates the app.

The Femm app asserts that “hormonal” birth control–i.e., the pill– may be “deleterious to a woman’s health” and promotes learning one’s “cycles” as  a safer, “natural” way to avoid pregnancy. This is medically inaccurate information.

“The birth control pill is one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century,” said Dr Nathaniel DeNicola, an OB-GYN with the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which has studied fertility apps extensively. “This is part of standard women’s healthcare.”

“Natural” family planning methods using fertility awareness are known to have a failure rate of about 25 unintended pregnancies for every 100 women a year in the US.

I wonder how many women have downloaded this app in good faith, relying on the professional advice of “doctors” who are unlicensed in the U.S. and who are peddling information inconsistent with sound science and best practices.

For that matter, I wonder how many other apps, websites and blogs are providing information they know or should know is both untrue and potentially damaging, whether for ideological reasons or financial ones. We already know about the so-called “dark web,” where alt-right white nationalist propaganda radicalizes the vulnerable, and conspiracy theories ensnare the gullible. Add to that the new “deep fake” technologies, and the potential for mischief (and worse) is enormous.

I have no idea how we combat the avalanche of misinformation that is facilitated by the Internet’s low entry barriers. It seems clear that the “big guys”–the social media mavens–don’t know how either.

Ultimately, better education (and better mental healthcare), plus development of some sort of “Good housekeeping seal of approval” denoting credibility might act as warning devices, but for right now, it’s a Wild West–and the bad guys aren’t wearing black hats so that we can recognize them.

Sending A (Hateful) Message

The New York Times recently reported on yet another outrage perpetrated by our persistently outrageous administration; the refusal to sign on to a global “call to action” addressing online hate. The call to action came in the aftermath of the horrific slaughter of worshippers in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The White House on Wednesday announced it would not sign the Christchurch call to action, an informal international pact among France’s and New Zealand’s leaders and social media platforms to combat online extremism.

The call to actionis a broad statement of intent, rather than a detailed policy proposal. It urges nations and private tech companies to address terrorist content online. Specifically it urges signers to “ensure its efficient and fast removal and to prevent the use of live-streaming as a tool for broadcasting terrorist attack.” The White House refused to sign the accord on the ground that it violated constitutional free-speech protections.

Anyone who believes that this administration gives a rat’s patootie about freedom of speech should check into a mental hospital without delay.

Of course, in its announcement that the U.S. would not be signing on, the nature of those Free Speech “concerns” was not addressed. Nor could they be, since the “Call” wasn’t a legal decree. It was and is merely a non-binding pledge, lacking any provisions for enforcement or even suggestions for regulations. It was– and is–simply an official acknowledgment of a growing problem that has been exacerbated by the total lack of internet regulation. As the Times article pointed out,

Without legally binding mechanisms or strict policy enforcements, the stakes of signing are low. So the act of not signing sends a strong message and cheapens the free-speech protections the administration claims to hold dear, using the First Amendment as a political tool and an excuse for inaction.

Trump’s sudden solicitude for the First Amendment reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s 1992 book, “Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee.”

The administration’s trepidation at intervening in the content moderation processes of social media platforms is also wildly inconsistent with the president’s own behavior on tech-platform oversight. For months, Mr. Trump has used his Twitter feed to rail against perceived social media censorship of conservatives and threatened to intervene.

Last August, he accused Googleof “suppressing” conservative voices and “hiding information and news that is good” about him after seeing an infographic on cable news from a “not scientific” study. In April, the president met with Twitter’s C.E.O., Jack Dorsey, where he derailed a conversation on public health to complain about losing followers of his personal Twitter account. Mr. Trump hinted at intervening in tech-platform moderation as recently as this month after Facebook banned a number of pro-Trump media figures for “extremism.” His response on Twitter: “We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”

As if to make its priorities regarding online freedom even clearer, just hours after declining to sign the Christchurch call, the White House announced an online tool for reporting tech-platform bias. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump,” it said.

Trump’a free-speech solicitude is limited to right-wingers and racists.

If there was ever any doubt that Trump’s appeal has always been grounded in bigotry, misogyny and white nationalism, we can add his refusal to sign the “Call” to the mountain of evidence that already exists.

There is a reason David Duke and his ilk claim Trump as one of their own.  For confirmation, you need only read the report in the most recent issue of the Atlantic: “An oral history of Donald Trump’s Bigotry.” It’s a devastating”in his own words” documentation of the life-long bigotry of a man whose only claim to superiority is dependent upon inherited money and skin color.

Thanks to our antiquated and undemocratic Electoral College, we are saddled with a President who repeatedly tells the world that America is now on the side of hatred and white nationalism. Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his ridiculous “wall,” his administration’s appallingly inhumane treatment of would-be refugees at our southern (but not our northern) border, his defense of the “very fine” people among the Charlottesville neo-Nazis, his disdain for “shithole” countries, his move to deny transgender individuals the right to serve in the armed forces….the examples go on and on.

In 2020, if the electorate doesn’t massively repudiate this repulsive, reptilian man and his nest of vipers and idiots, we are no longer the (imperfect but aspirational)  America so many of us thought we were.

The 2020 election will also send a message–it will tell us just what percentage of our neighbors share Trump’s ignorant and hateful attitudes– just how many are willing to vote for a sub-human incompetent because he hates and fears the same people they do.