Regulation of Cyberspace

Social media, and by that I mostly mean Facebook, is a mess. We all know that it wastes too much of our time, makes us more agitated and irritable than we should be, and collects information about us and uses that intel to manipulate us. We’ve known most of that for some time now. But seeing the undercover Channel 4 video of the Cambridge Analytica executives has shaken people who had been fully in the techno-utopian camp when it came to the internet and Web 2.0 services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Suddenly the brave new world of the internet doesn’t look so bright and shiny.

In preparation for teaching a unit on new media and regulation I was reviewing my notes about the history of regulation of the internet…which is pretty short. Not that there haven’t been attempts to regulate “cyberspace”…but as early observers already noted, the internet does not take kindly to outsiders telling it how to go about its business. The early credo, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” is testimony to the structural logic of the internet and explains the technical challenge of controlling something that was built to withstand external attacks.

Much of the early rhetoric was hyperbolic and now seems a bit silly. As the luster and new-car-smell has faded, we look back on those early utopian ideals as innocent and naive. Here’s an example from 1996. The speaker/author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is John Perry Barlow; a cattle rancher, techno-philosopher, and lyricist for The Grateful Dead.

While many of the early attempts to regulate were focused on the content of the internet, e.g. the Communications Decency Act, other legislation focused on intellectual property and piracy, e.g. SOPA and PIPA.

The most recent piece of legislation, H.R. 1865 aka FOSTA-SESTA, if signed by President Trump, will modify the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230 which has provided cover for internet companies and shielded them from legal repercussions related to the actions of users on their sites.

So, what does Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have to do with any of this? Simply that users are starting to question whether big internet companies can be trusted to do the right thing without oversight. (Others aren’t so sure).

But if it is time for regulators to tell Craigslist, Reddit, and Backpage (among others) to clean up their Personal/Massage/Dating ads in the interest of combating sex trafficking, perhaps it’s also time for regulators to tell Facebook when it is and isn’t okay to harvest and sell our data to political operatives.

No one naively believes that this will end the sex trafficking problem…just as no one believes that Zuckerberg’s promise to do a better job handling the personal data of 1.5 billion users will end the kinds of abuse exposed by last week’s investigative journalism. But it may be a start.

Update (April 9, 2018): Since this was initially posted, Craigslist has eliminated its Personals section as a response to FOSTA-SESTA. Also, the FBI shut down Backpage and charged its founder Michael Lacey. Backpage has seen strong growth after Craigslist closed its Erotic Services section if 2010.

Democracy, Data, and Dirty Tricks

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.

This is just one quote from an investigative report conducted by Channel 4 News in the UK. The person quoted above is an employee of Cambridge Analytica. You may have heard of the big data marketing company when their use of data harvested from 50 million Facebook users was revealed this week. The use of big data in political campaigns is not new, but it is being pushed to new heights by companies who appear to be unconstrained by established ethical norms. Here’s the entire Channel 4 video…

While opposition research is not new, there appear to be new efforts to push the limits of op research to include entrapment, bribery, and investigative reporting motivated by a political agenda. This is not just muck raking, but rather “muck making.”

Just to be clear, the use of Facebook’s data is not a data breach or hack. This is how big data works and everything you do online is being scooped up by someone who wants to use that information to advance their agenda. It might be selling you something like a new pair of socks, or maybe a health insurance policy, or maybe…a president.

Want to make sure that your data on Facebook won’t end up compromised? Electronic Frontier Foundation has you covered with this explainer on how to change your Facebook API settings.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from the video above…just to make it clear that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“… we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”

More at Nieman Labs.

Lux et Veritas

How’s your knowledge of Latin? Here’s a hint…the words in the title are the motto of Yale University (and at least three other universities). It could also be the motto for journalists everywhere. It means, Light and Truth. Journalism is a profession that shines it light into dark corners, exposing corruption and chicanery wherever it may be found. The metaphor can be “spotted” in the movie Spotlight about the Boston Globe newspaper’s expose of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church. And, of course, journalism is all about seeking the truth and reporting it.

In chapter one of his 1920 book, Liberty and the News, Walter Lippmann wrote about the centrality of truth to the journalistic ideal. He begins chapter one with an account of Benjamin Harris, editor of the first newspaper to be printed in the newly discovered land that would become the United States of America.

Volume 1, Number 1, of the first American newspaper was published in Boston on September 25, 1690. It was called Publick Occurrences. The second issue did not appear because the Governor and Council suppressed it. They found that Benjamin Harris, the editor, had printed “reflections of a very high nature.” Even today some of his reflections seem very high indeed. In his prospectus he had written:

That something may be done toward the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next. Moreover, the Publisher of these Occurrences is willing to engage, that whereas, there are many False Reports, maliciously made, and spread among us, if any well-minded person will be at the pains to trace any such false Report, so far as to find out and Convict the First Raiser of it, he will in this Paper (unless just Advice be given to the contrary) expose the Name of such Person, as A malicious Raiser of a false Report. It is  suppos’d that none will dislike this Proposal, but such as intend to be guilty of so villainous a Crime.

There you have it. At least as early as 1690 journalists were concerned about the veracity (accuracy/truth) of the information printed in their newspapers. It starts with the acknowledgement that “false reports” are everywhere, and only by eternal vigilance can we avoid falling for deception. The times and technology have changed, but the Spirit of Lying continues to haunt us.

 

Media Violence: Cause or Effect?

The age-old question about media content and make-believe violence comes up every time we have a horrific incident of violence in real-life. Movies, video games, and now fully-immersive VR are the focus when well-meaning crusaders attempting to explain, or reduce, violence and mayhem in our schools and streets.

An editorial by Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and a professor in the Department of Communication, asks serious questions about modern mass media and its consequences. It is definitely worth a few minutes of your time before continuing with this blog post.

I just had a Facebook “discussion” with a colleague who is a Clinical Psychologist and his take is that the research connecting social learning theory with violent media exposure fails to draw a direct cause-and-effect line between the two. But I would like to suggest that this failure to provide significant research findings is more about the limitations of our research methodology and ethical restraints imposed on experiments with human subjects than it is about real effects. The fact that the military uses video games and VR to train soldiers is important, and it suggests that there is evidence that the newest technologies in video gaming and VR can make players more effective shooters/killers in real life.

Fully immersive VR with input control devices that mimic real weapons, and simulated virtual environments that can map the game onto real (not virtual) physical spaces (e.g. a 3-D simulation of a high school) could be a deadly combination.

If we’re serious about taking away “assault” weapons we might also consider taking away “assault” media. Or perhaps, as Bailenson suggests, video game companies should follow the lead of major retailers who are pulling certain products and increasing the age requirements for purchasing. Software manufacturers could avoid regulatory oversight by imposing their own restraints on what they make available on the open market. But I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath.

How NOT to Cover a School Shooting

Being a journalist today is hard work. While getting it right and working under intense deadline pressure has always been part of the challenge, journalists today face increasingly difficult expectations from newsroom bosses, attacks from members of the increasingly partisan audience, and social media minefields where a misstep is rewarded with professional injury or death.

The school shooting this week gave us plenty of examples of good journalism performed by dedicated journalists. It also gave us reason to pause and reflect on what can go wrong when journalistic ethics are compromised. Let’s start with the good.

Data journalism and interactive technologies give us new ways to visualize old problems. The Washington Post gave us an excellent example in the form of a webpage that updates statistics about mass shootings.

Some of the reporting was done by students who were under attack. To better understand the horror experienced by students, read this series of text messages exchanged between two sisters.

But when students were contacted by members of the media while still in an active shooter situation, objections were raised…and justifiably so. Putting people at risk for the sake of a scoop is clearly unethical and directly contradicts the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, specifically the directive to Minimize Harm.

Another problem with using source material generated by eye-witnesses is that there may be graphic images and sounds that may contribute to the trauma experienced by survivors. Poynter, a leader in journalistic ethics, provided a very thoughtful analysis of Wednesday’s coverage and asked important questions that all journalists need to consider before rushing to publish.

And finally there is the increasingly distressing problem created by fake news. Some of the fake news is predictable “spinning” by political agents or PR hacks advocating for their particular cause or position. One example is the claim circulating on social media that there have been 18 school shooting since Jan 1, 2018. That claim was debunked by a story in the Washington Post. There’s also been reporting of Russian troll farms using the event to further their campaign intended to divide and mislead the American public.

But perhaps the most alarming instances of fake news related to the Florida school shooting are the fake tweets that were intended to implicate a working journalist in the very kind of unethical behavior described earlier in this post. According to Poynter,

One of Harris’ early replies quickly went viral. Within 45 minutes, she was getting a barrage of harassment from random Twitter users. Someone made a screenshot of a fake tweet alleging that she had asked someone for photos or videos of dead bodies. She decided to ignore the hoax and report it to Twitter instead.

According to Jane Lytvynenko of Buzzfeed,

While traditional fake news stories have a financial incentive, amassing advertising revenue by monetizing page views, Lytvynenko said the motivation for creating fake tweets is less clear. While creating them could be politically motivated, there’s also the possibility that the people behind them are just bent on destruction.

There is virtually NO defense against misinformation motivated by that kind of animus.

 

Going for Ratings Gold

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games, aka XXIII Olympic Winter Games, are underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea and millions of viewers are tuning in to see nearly 3,000 athletes compete in 102 events in 15 sports. In addition to the traditional winter sports of figure skating and alpine skiing, you can watch athletes compete in big air snowboarding and mixed doubles curling.

Shaun White’s back-to-back 1440s for the gold medal and a high-flying gold medal performance by Chloe Kim in the half pipe have given Americans something to cheer about. And if you like spills and chills, pay attention to “notorious curve 9” on the luge course.

Besides the obvious appeal of world-class athletes competing on a world stage, the Olympic Games offer compelling stories with drama at every turn. Who can forget the Jamaican bobsleigh team or the US Hockey team’s miracle on ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

There’s also the political angle. Athletes from Russia are banned from competing in Pyeongchang under the Russian flag because of doping charges. However, Russian athletes are being allowed to complete under the banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”  Also, the opening ceremony unity displayed by the teams from North and South Korea has prompted plenty of discussion about future prospects for peace.

But this is a media blog, so we need to mention that the US broadcast rights were purchased by NBCUniversal for $963M (part of a larger $4.38B rights package that extends through 2020 summer games in Tokyo). NBC will provide 2,400 hours of coverage with 176 hours of broadcast coverage, the most in winter Olympics history. The remaining coverage will stream on NBCOlympics.com and on their NBC Sports app.  More stats here. Some of the coverage will be in 4K UHD (Ultra High Definition) and HDR (High Dynamic Range) giving viewers options for high quality at a premium price. How to watch, and more info here.

And of course the costs will be passed along to advertisers who are paying top dollar to reach the desirable demographics provided by Olympic programming. However, with viewership in decline among younger viewers, the future of multi-billion dollar Olympic deals may be in jeopardy.

 

Tools of the Trade

It used to be that making a major motion picture was something that you could only do with the full support of a major Hollywood studio. Even independent movies were huge undertakings requiring massive budgets (in the millions of dollars) for the rental of expensive film cameras, lighting rigs, cranes and dollies. Even with the introduction of digital video cinematography, spending $100,000 on a RED or Arri camera was the cost of doing business.

Fortunately for many of us, low-budget filmmaker Robert Rodriguez started a trend towards ultra-low-budget filmmaking which lowered the barrier to entry for talented, but undiscovered, filmmakers.

Just last year Rodriguez offered $7,000 grants to five amateur filmmakers to shoot a feature film in two weeks. The film shoots became segments for Rodriguez’s show Rebel Without a Crew, based on his book by the same name, for the upstart streaming media service Go90.

But that was just the start. According to the CultofMac website, Hollywood feature film director  Steven Soderbergh recently shot a feature film with the iPhone X and is talking about doing it again. This was not just a stunt, according to Soderbergh.

“I think this is the future…anybody going to see this movie who has no idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone. That’s not part of the conceit.”

Not convinced? Check out this video.

The fact that many of us have, in our pockets, access to this kind of technology should be a wake-up call to anyone who has big dreams and a small wallet. Now get out there and shoot something!

Facebook’s Fraught Future

Facebook’s failed attempt to foil Fake News while fortifying financial fortunes at the expense of friends’ futures finally finds itself facing fearless foes. Okay, I can’t keep that up but I hope you get the idea. After an amazing decade of growth and incredible buy-in from more than 2 billion users, Facebook is finally getting some push-back. Investors and executives who have since left the company are publicly saying what others have wondered for some time: is Facebook too big and too focused on monetizing audience members’ attention for our own good? Here’s what some are saying:

In response to the criticism Facebook announced a change to the algorithm that dictates the contents of your news feed. According to Facebook,

…we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.

While some may criticize this change as too-little, too-late, others may question whether these are mere cosmetic changes simply designed to deflect criticism. But it is fairly clear that several things are going to happen as a result: time spent on Facebook and engagement will both decline, (resulting in lower revenue for Facebook), and media companies that have relied on Facebook to distribute their content far and wide will have to find other ways to reach their audience.

But look on the bright side: that change will provide new opportunities for media-savvy storytellers who know how to reach an audience with compelling content. And that person could be you!

 

 

Fake News and Press Freedom

In an attempt to preempt President Trump’s announced “fake news” awards, the Committee to Protect Journalists has released its own list of world leaders who have done the most to undermine press freedom.

According to the CPJ website,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. We defend the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.

The Press Oppressor Award website identifies world leaders who have done the most to censor the press and weaken democratic ideals. Presidents of Turkey, China, Russia and Egypt are exposed for their chilling rhetoric and harmful policies.

One indicator of the global crack-down on press freedom is the record-high number of journalists who are serving time in prison…oftentimes simply for doing their jobs.

But what is unusual is the criticism leveled at a U.S. President. Other U.S. Presidents have been criticized by the CPJ for lack of transparency (Obama) or for not moving quickly enough to denounce attacks on global media (G. W. Bush), but never before has a U.S. President been singled out and recognized for the “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom” award. But then there has never been a U.S. President who has gone after the press quite like Donald Trump.

 

 

When is it Okay to Lie to Get the Story?

Journalism is all about finding and reporting the truth. And historically, to get to the truth, some journalists have resorted to telling lies. The history of yellow journalism, muckraking, and investigative journalism is filled with stories of reporters going to all lengths to get the scoop.

Renowned journalist Nellie Bly famously feigned insanity to gain access to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum just so she could report on the deplorable conditions experienced by its patients. A sting operation set up by the Chicago Sun-Times led to a series of reports about corruption and scandal that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize until the ethical questions surrounding the tactics used became a distraction. And just in the last few days we’ve been made aware of a clandestine attempt by Project Veritas to expose biased reporting on the part of the Washington Post newspaper.

What all of these incidents have in common is the use of deception to gain access to secret information with the goal of exposing corruption and outing bad characters. Where they differ is motive and outcome. In the case of the latest attempted sting, the target actually came out on top…and from all appearances was the party on the side of truth. While previous undercover investigations by Project Veritas may have exposed crooked dealings and bad characters, it appears this time that the Washington Post was vindicated and the undercover Project Veritas “reporter” exposed as the unethical party.

While the history of journalism has plenty of examples both of favorable and unfavorable outcomes when deception is part of the reporting strategy, there seems to be growing unease with the practice. An excellent piece by Jack Shafer at Politico includes this warning…

But if the press starts sanctioning the telling of lies and staging scenarios to get stories, what’s the next step? Wiretapping? Break-ins? Extortion? The employment of call girls? Other assorted dirty tricks? All of these methods would reap rich results, but at a cost that’s morally prohibitive.

Sometimes you just have to play by the rules and hope that the good guys win in the end. And regarding the rules, there actually are a list of ethical guidelines that have been developed to ensure that journalistic deception, when absolutely necessary, doesn’t go off the rails. Again, Jack Shafer writing at Politico

Even the high priests of journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute allow for pure deception, high misrepresentation and hidden cameras in reporting. The circumstance must be isolated; the information gathered must be profound; all other alternatives must have been exhausted; the journalists must be willing to disclose their deceptions and justify them; and the harm prevented by the scoop must outweigh the harm caused by the deception.