Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Daniel J Levitin writes: Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient. [Continue reading…]

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Even the tech savvy should turn off their phones and listen

Bruno Giussani writes: Nothing exists nowadays unless it is Facebooked, Tweeted or Instagrammed with emphasis on “insta”. So perhaps the event that I hosted on Tuesday at the Royal Institution, TEDGlobal London, didn’t exist. Because we ran a little experiment, banning the use of smartphones, tablets, laptops, cameras – any electronic device – during the conference.

At the end of the event (which over two sessions of 100 minutes each featured scientists, technologists, historians, a photographer, a slam poet, a singer, a racing car driver and a writer) I asked the 350 attendees whether we should apply the same rule next time. It’s a safe guess that at least two-thirds of them use Twitter or FB with some regularity, but pretty much every hand in the theatre shot up, with maybe two exceptions. I have heard nothing but positive feedback since. [Continue reading…]

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Pope Francis on the dehumanizing effect of social media and information overload

[W]hen media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise. [Source: Laudato Si: On the Care of the Common Home]

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ISIS is winning the social media war, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight.

The assessment comes months after the State Department signaled that it was planning to energize its social media campaign against the militant group. It concludes, however, that the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.

It also casts an unflattering light on internal discussions between American officials and some of their closest allies in the military campaign against the militants. A “messaging working group” of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really come together.” [Continue reading…]

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Welcome to the new Wild West of data collection without regulation

The Nation reports: Nicole Keplinger, 22, had long seen ads on Facebook promising financial relief, but she always ignored them and assumed that they were scams. Keplinger was drowning in student debt after obtaining a worthless degree from the for-profit Everest College, whose parent corporation, Corinthian Colleges Inc., had recently collapsed under accusations of fraud and predatory lending. But when an offer arrived in her e-mail inbox in April — “Cut your student loan payment or even forgive it completely!” — she thought it seemed more legitimate than the rest, so she called the number.

The person on the other end was aggressive. “They wanted my banking information, my Social Security number, my parents’ number and their information. I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’” Keplinger recalled. Even after she said that she lived on a fixed income (on disability due to a kidney transplant), the telemarketer kept up the pressure. “They said I needed to get a credit card. I don’t know if they were going to take money off it or what… but why do I need to get a credit card if I’m trying to reduce my student loans?”

Keplinger lied and said she’d call back, but not everyone gets away. If she disclosed her bank information, her loans most certainly would not have been cut or forgiven. At best, she would have been charged a large fee for something she could do herself: get on government repayment programs such as forbearance or deferment. At worst, she might have had the money debited each month from her bank account without any benefit provided in return, or been ensnared by a “phantom-debt collector” — a distressingly common racket that involves telling people they owe phony debts and scaring them into paying. It’s the perfect ploy to attempt on people who have already been preyed upon by unscrupulous outfits like Corinthian and who, having been misled and overcharged, are understandably confused about how much money they owe. At the same time, the fact that Keplinger was e-mailed in addition to seeing ads on Facebook suggests that her information was in the hands of a “lead generator,” a multibillion-dollar industry devoted to compiling and selling lists of prospective customers online.

Welcome to a new age of digital redlining. The term conjures up the days when banks would draw a red line around areas of the city — typically places where blacks, Latinos, Asians, or other minorities lived — to denote places they would not lend money, at least not at fair rates. “Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to ‘digitally redline’ unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants, or recipients of credit,” a 2014 White House report on big data warns. [Continue reading…]

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Jailed for ‘Twitter terrorism’ supporting ISIS and Al Qaeda

The Daily Beast reports: American and British counter-terror officers have turned their fire on the keyboard warriors waging jihad from their bedrooms in Western capitals.

A teenage boy from the D.C. area and a woman living in South London admitted Thursday in courtrooms 3,000 miles apart that they were “Twitter terrorists”—part of a growing online army that encourages Western citizens to travel to the so-called Islamic State; take up arms; or martyr themselves in the name of jihad.

Such is the perceived threat from these social media recruiting sergeants that judges on both sides of the Atlantic have dispensed with free speech arguments and now characterize Twitter or Instagram propaganda sites for al Qaeda and Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) as providing “material support” for terrorists. [Continue reading…]

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Palestinian men face Israeli prison sentences for Facebook posts

Aziza Nofal reports: The Jerusalemite family of Omar al-Shalabi did not expect the status updates he posted on his Facebook page to lead to his arrest by Israeli authorities. Up until the Jerusalem magistrate’s court announced its verdict, the family also believed he would be released and allowed to return home. On May 12, Shalabi was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Shalabi’s brother Mohammed, who is following up on his sibling’s case with a lawyer, told Al-Monitor that the ruling was unexpected given the apparent trivialness of the acts leading to the charges against him. The family had in addition expected Shalabi to be released on bail awaiting trial. He had been arrested Dec. 14 and charged with incitement based on postings to his Facebook page. The posts followed the kidnapping and murder of a young Palestinian man, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, by extremist settlers. Israeli authorities thus feared possible retaliatory attacks against settlers.

Mohammed Shalabi said his brother’s postings leading up to his arrest were no different from what he had been posting for quite some time. “The occupation authorities retained Omar’s posts as a pretext to arrest him, because he was an activist in the Fatah movement in Jerusalem,” claimed Mohammed Shalabi. [Continue reading…]

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With ISIS using instant messaging apps, FBI seeks access to data

The Los Angeles Times reports: Islamic State militants and their followers have discovered an unnerving new communications and recruiting tool that has stymied U.S. counter-terrorism agencies: instant messaging apps on smartphones that encrypt the texts or destroy them almost immediately.

In many cases, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies can’t read the messages in real time, or even later with a court order, because the phone companies and the app developers say they can’t unlock the coded text and don’t retain a record of the exchanges.

“We’re past going dark in certain instances,” said Michael B. Steinbach, the FBI’s top counter-terrorism official. “We are dark.”

The hole in U.S. surveillance capabilities was not mentioned during the recent congressional battle over the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of U.S. landline and cellphone data. Lawmakers ultimately agreed to scale back that program because of concerns it violated Americans’ privacy.

FBI officials now want Congress to expand their authority to tap into messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Kik, as well as data-destroying apps such as Wickr and Surespot, that hundreds of millions of people — and apparently some militants — have embraced precisely because they guarantee security and anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s Internet Research Agency has industrialized the art of trolling

Adrian Chen writes: Around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11 last year, Duval Arthur, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, got a call from a resident who had just received a disturbing text message. “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM,” the message read. “Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”

St. Mary Parish is home to many processing plants for chemicals and natural gas, and keeping track of dangerous accidents at those plants is Arthur’s job. But he hadn’t heard of any chemical release that morning. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of Columbia Chemical. St. Mary Parish had a Columbian Chemicals plant, which made carbon black, a petroleum product used in rubber and plastics. But he’d heard nothing from them that morning, either. Soon, two other residents called and reported the same text message. Arthur was worried: Had one of his employees sent out an alert without telling him?

If Arthur had checked Twitter, he might have become much more worried. Hundreds of Twitter accounts were documenting a disaster right down the road. “A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals,” a man named Jon Merritt tweeted. The #ColumbianChemicals hashtag was full of eyewitness accounts of the horror in Centerville. @AnnRussela shared an image of flames engulfing the plant. @Ksarah12 posted a video of surveillance footage from a local gas station, capturing the flash of the explosion. Others shared a video in which thick black smoke rose in the distance.

Dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians, from Louisiana to New York City, found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster. “Heather, I’m sure that the explosion at the #ColumbianChemicals is really dangerous. Louisiana is really screwed now,” a user named @EricTraPPP tweeted at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Heather Nolan. Another posted a screenshot of CNN’s home page, showing that the story had already made national news. ISIS had claimed credit for the attack, according to one YouTube video; in it, a man showed his TV screen, tuned to an Arabic news channel, on which masked ISIS fighters delivered a speech next to looping footage of an explosion. A woman named Anna McClaren (@zpokodon9) tweeted at Karl Rove: “Karl, Is this really ISIS who is responsible for #ColumbianChemicals? Tell @Obama that we should bomb Iraq!” But anyone who took the trouble to check CNN.com would have found no news of a spectacular Sept. 11 attack by ISIS. It was all fake: the screenshot, the videos, the photographs.

In St. Mary Parish, Duval Arthur quickly made a few calls and found that none of his employees had sent the alert. He called Columbian Chemicals, which reported no problems at the plant. Roughly two hours after the first text message was sent, the company put out a news release, explaining that reports of an explosion were false. When I called Arthur a few months later, he dismissed the incident as a tasteless prank, timed to the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Personally I think it’s just a real sad, sick sense of humor,” he told me. “It was just someone who just liked scaring the daylights out of people.” Authorities, he said, had tried to trace the numbers that the text messages had come from, but with no luck. (The F.B.I. told me the investigation was still open.)

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months after a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. The campaign followed the same pattern of fake news reports and videos, this time under the hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, which briefly trended in Atlanta. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates. Watching it, I thought I recognized the voice — it sounded the same as the man watching TV in the Columbian Chemicals video, the one in which ISIS supposedly claims responsibility. The accent was unmistakable, if unplaceable, and in both videos he was making a very strained attempt to sound American. Somehow the result was vaguely Australian.

Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. [Continue reading…]

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Time to #BoycottBudLight

First up (to be completely honest): I’m not in a position to boycott Bud Light or any other Anheuser-Busch product.

It’s easy enough to identify pissy beer from the brand without needing to taste it — I’m confident I’ll be able to continue through the rest of my life without ever drinking a single Budweiser. That said, if there is a movement to #BoycottBudLight sprouting up among current drinkers, I applaud all those who support it.

The New York Times reports: A new label on some bottles of Bud Light, one of the brands owned by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, is falling flat among women, a demographic group the industry has been desperately courting in hopes of jump-starting flagging sales of suds.

In a continuation of its “Up for Whatever” campaign, a wide blue band low on the label says, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

Protests quickly erupted in social media, criticizing what was perceived as perhaps not the best marketing language in the midst of public outcry over date rape on college campuses.

“As a woman, as a mother of a girl and a boy, I find this message very disturbing and dangerous,” someone using the name Danielle Sawada posted on Bud Light’s Facebook page. “I have been a Bud Light drinker for quite a while, but until this campaign ends, you do not have my dollars.”

Alexander Lambrecht, vice president for the Bud Light brand at Anheuser-Busch, says:

“It’s clear that this message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.”

With all due respect, that’s bullshit.

Anheuser-Busch is trawling a market that’s a bit lacking in discrimination, but even so, I seriously doubt that the advertising campaigns dreamed up their agency, BBDO, are being created by a group of idiots.

Rather than treat the corporate response as an admission of an honest mistake, it should in my opinion be viewed as a smokescreen — not so much a reaction to the campaign, but instead an integral component in the campaign strategy.

The watery beer behind the label has been on the market for over 30 years. Creating some buzz around an old brand has to get increasingly difficult — especially when the age at which young people start drinking is the period in life when they have least interest in imitating their overweight parents.

A campaign built around the hashtag #UpForWhatever is clearly aimed at breaking boundaries — not staying in well-worn tracks.

The outrage provoked by this campaign, far from being fallout from “missing the mark,” may in fact be the mark itself — free publicity on Twitter and across the media.

Arguably, the only way of having a big impact through social media is by stoking controversy. After all, outrage is the currency of the realm.

And in this case, expressing consternation gets turned into an equal opportunity exercise whose participants include executives not only at Anheuser-Busch but also BBDO.

The agency’s Director of Digital Strategy, Lucy Leiderman, tweeted: “Oh no. Bud Light’s new tagline: “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”… ” but then removed the tweet.

Was this just a bit of damage control on behalf of the agency? Maybe, but perhaps Leiderman can be given the benefit of the doubt.

Prior to her arrival at BBDO, she wrote quite astutely about the dangers of removing “no” from ones vocabulary, addressing her warning directly at advertising creatives:

Marketers everywhere are singing the siren song of increasingly outrageous social campaigns. Decision makers are seeing signs that the end of the traditional is nigh. More and more, the creative space has become a world of “yes.” And that’s a problem.

But it isn’t just a problem that results in outrageous advertising. By its very nature advertising is always coercive and always designed to precipitate choices that might otherwise not be made.

Every ad wants you to say “yes.”

As Bud Light lights up Twitter, Anheuser-Busch and BBDO are getting exactly what they want. The only way of making the backlash truly instructive will be if it moves beyond the digital sphere and consumers in significant numbers actually stop buying the beer.

Still, even if to my surprise, the #UpForWhatever campaign turned out to become a very expensive mistake, I don’t anticipate the kind of seismic shift that I would really hope for in American culture.

In the larger scheme of things, this is a somewhat trivial example of a trend that permeates almost every strand of public discourse.

Language, through its relentless abuse, gets stripped of meaning. As meaning ebbs away, there is a frenzy in which everyone is turning up the volume, trying to make themselves heard even when much of the time they have nothing of true value to say.

Advertising is inherently emotive. It is designed to provoke feelings — not thought.

It’s not by chance that BBDO would choose the hook of a generational phrase — whatever — in an effort to fuel mindless consumption, cloaked as free spirit.

Whatever signals a vocabulary already severely depleted as advertisers try and knock out its last line of defense.

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Why too much Facebook can leave you feeling down

By Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, University of Houston

“Comparison is the thief of joy”, said former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Spoken more than a century ago, Roosevelt’s words highlight a fundamental truth that is just as relevant today.

In the 1950s, the acclaimed social psychologist, Leon Festinger, devised the social comparison theory to help explain the psychological processes behind why we compare ourselves to others. Festinger proposed that individuals have an innate desire to see how they measure up with their peers on dimensions they deem personally important in order to evaluate how well they are doing.

This tendency hasn’t gone away, and in fact, through social media websites like Facebook we may be engaging in more social comparison than ever before. Such social comparisons can convey important information: are we measuring up in terms of our progress or achievements, or are we falling behind and need to put in the effort to catch up?

[Read more…]

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Facebook isn’t a charity. The poor will pay by surrendering their data

Evgeny Morozov writes: Luxury is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed. Such, at any rate, is the provocative argument put forward by Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. Recently dubbed “the Varian rule”, it states that to predict the future, we just have to look at what rich people already have and assume that the middle classes will have it in five years and poor people will have it in 10. Radio, TV, dishwashers, mobile phones, flatscreen TVs: Varian sees this principle at work in the history of many technologies.

So what is it that the rich have today that the poor will get in a decade? Varian bets on personal assistants. Instead of maids and chauffeurs we would have self-driving cars, housecleaning robots and clever, omniscient apps that can monitor, inform and nudge us in real time.

As Varian puts it: “These digital assistants will be so useful that everyone will want one and the scare stories you read today about privacy concerns will just seem quaint and old-fashioned.” Google Now, one such assistant, can monitor our emails, searches and locations and constantly remind us about forthcoming meetings or trips, all while patiently checking real-time weather and traffic in the background.

Varian’s juxtaposition of dishwashers with apps might seem reasonable but it’s actually misleading. When you hire somebody as your personal assistant, the transaction is relatively straightforward: you pay the person for the services tendered – often, in cash – and that’s the end of it. It’s tempting to say that the same logic is at work with virtual assistants: you surrender your data – the way you would surrender your cash – for Google to provide this otherwise free service.

But something doesn’t add up here: few of us expect our personal assistants to walk away with a copy of all our letters and files in order to make a buck off them. For our virtual assistants, on the other hand, this is the only reason they exist. [Continue reading…]

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Could ISIS’s ‘cyber caliphate’ unleash a deadly attack on key targets?

The Observer reports: When a chubby Birmingham teenager went on trial in 2012 for hacking Tony Blair’s personal address book, and taking down an anti-terror hotline, defence lawyers described him as “shy and unassuming” and dismissed the online exploits as a childish prank.

“They weren’t terrorists in any way, shape or form,” his barrister argued in court. Less than two years later, Junaid Hussain was in Syria, apparently on his way to join Isis, one of its most dangerous new recruits.

The group transfixed the world with its ultraviolent ideology, as it swept through Syria and Iraq in a frenzy of bloodshed and destruction. But its leaders’ enthusiasm for medieval barbarity is matched by an equally fervent embrace of modern technology. They know that a hacker like Hussain, behind his laptop, is as intimidating to some of their distant enemies as the gunmen terrorising people on the ground.

“Isis has been recruiting hackers for some time now. Some are virtual collaborators from a distance, but others have been recruited to emigrate to Syria,” said JM Berger, co-author of Isis: The State of Terror. “Activity targeting the west is just part of their portfolio. They’re also responsible for maintaining internet access in Isis territories, for instance, and for instructing members on security.” [Continue reading…]

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Twitter says it suspended 10,000 ISIS-linked accounts in one day

The New York Times reports: Activists and experts who monitor the Twitter traffic of the Islamic State and its supporters noticed something odd last week when many accounts suddenly disappeared.

The activists exchanged messages about the missing accounts, suspecting they had been suspended.

On Thursday, a Twitter representative confirmed what some were saying and put a number on it. The social media network’s violations department suspended approximately 10,000 accounts on April 2 “for tweeting violent threats,” the representative said.

It was impossible to independently verify the assertion because Twitter’s data is not public. But it would be the biggest single mass purge by Twitter of accounts linked to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, which some experts believe has as many as 90,000 affiliated accounts.

The suspensions came against a backdrop of rising criticism that Twitter has allowed the Islamic State to exploit the social network to spread propaganda, glorify violence and seek recruits.

Twitter previously acknowledged suspending as many as 2,000 ISIS-linked accounts per week in recent months.

On March 31 the New York Times reported: A cybersecurity activist who recently helped publicize 9,200 Twitter accounts that were said to be linked to the Islamic State released a roster of 26,382 accounts on Tuesday, the biggest such list yet.

But the new list distributed by the activist, who goes by the Twitter name XRSone, appeared to be far from flawless.

It misidentified Al Jazeera’s popular Arabic-language Twitter account as suspect, for example. Also erroneously listed, among others, were Zaid Benjamin, a Washington-based journalist with 82,300 followers who works for Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language broadcaster partly funded by the United States, and Yousef Munayyer, a prominent Palestinian rights advocate based in Washington, with 23,400 followers.

Reached late Tuesday by email, XRsone said the erroneously included accounts had been removed. He also said he believed that the list still “has a high accuracy,” and that his intent was to show that more could be done to expunge Islamic State supporters from Twitter, where by some estimates they have registered as many as 90,000 accounts.

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Why do memes go viral, and should we care?

Abby Rabinowitz writes: On April 11, 2012, Zeddie Little appeared on Good Morning America, wearing the radiant, slightly perplexed smile of one enjoying instant fame. About a week earlier, Little had been a normal, if handsome, 25-year-old trying to make it in public relations. Then on March 31, he was photographed amid a crowd of runners in a South Carolina race by a stranger, Will King, who posted the image to a social networking website, Reddit. Dubbed “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” Little’s picture circulated on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, accruing likes, comments, and captions (“Picture gets put up as employee of the month/for a company he doesn’t work for”). It spawned spinoffs (Ridiculously Photogenic Dog, Prisoner, and Syrian Rebel) and leapt to the mainstream media. At a high point, ABC Morning News reported that a Google search for “Zeddie Little” yielded 59 million hits.

Why the sudden fame? The truth is that Little hadn’t become famous: His meme had. According to website Know Your Meme, which documents viral Internet phenomena, a meme is “a piece of content or an idea that’s passed from person to person, changing and evolving along the way.” Ridiculously Photogenic Guy is a kind of Internet meme represented by LOL cats: that is, a photograph, video, or cartoon, often overlaid with a snarky message, perfect for incubating in the bored, fertile minds of cubicle workers and college students. In an age where politicians campaign through social media and viral marketers ponder the appeal of sneezing baby pandas, memes are more important than ever—however trivial they may seem.

But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept? [Continue reading…]

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Russian propaganda exploits Western weakness

Andrew Kornbluth writes: It is becoming clear that certain authoritarian models of government are capable of matching and, in some respects, even exceeding the accomplishments of their democratic counterparts. Whether Russia, with its dependence on energy exports and otherwise undiversified economy, should be counted among them is debatable, but there is one area in which the Russian state has so far demonstrated a clear mastery over its Western opponents: its propaganda or, to use the public relations term, its messaging.

But impressive as the information component of Russia’s current “hybrid war” over Ukraine has been, its success arguably owes less to its ingenuity than to ingrained flaws in Western democratic culture for which there is no simple solution.

The effectiveness of Russia’s spin is difficult to deny; in addition to the almost 90 percent of Russians who support their president and, albeit passively, his expansionist campaign, a large part of the Western public, especially in Europe, remains convinced that Russia bears little or no responsibility for the war in Ukraine.

Ironically, Russian messaging has worked by exploiting vulnerabilities in precisely those mechanisms of self-criticism and skepticism which are considered so essential to the functioning of a democratic society. The modern Western culture of self-doubt has proved particularly susceptible to manipulation in a 21st-century confrontation that strongly recalls its Cold War origins.

Four assumptions popular in contemporary Western democratic discourse have been co-opted by Russian messaging in the present crisis. The first is that all sides in a conflict are equally guilty. Never far beneath the surface, Europe’s suspicion of the leader of the Western alliance, the United States, has been reinvigorated by successive scandals over the war in Iraq, torture and eavesdropping. Everyone has committed crimes — so the thinking goes — so how can the West possibly reproach Russia?

Likewise, in this confused moral landscape, the “illegality” of the Ukrainian revolution is blithely juxtaposed with the illegality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while the enormous differences in nature, scale and motive between the subjects under comparison go unmentioned.

The second assumption is that there are “two sides to every story.” The desire to consult multiple sources and the unwillingness to accept just one narrative are part of a healthy critical outlook, but the system breaks down when one side is a fabrication. There is no middle ground, for example, between the claim that the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine and the claim that it is not. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS urges sympathizers to kill U.S. service members it identifies on website

The New York Times reports: In a new online threat to American military personnel, the Islamic State has called on its members and sympathizers in the United States to kill 100 service members whose names, photos and purported addresses it posted on a website.

The group said that the personnel had participated in efforts to defeat it in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Defense Department and F.B.I. officials said that they were aware of the website and were investigating the posting.

It does not appear that the information had been hacked from government servers. One Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that most of the information could be found in public records, residential address search sites and social media.

The officials said the list appears to be drawn from personnel who have appeared in news articles about airstrikes on the militant group.

Some of the names also appear to be drawn from the Defense Department’s own official reports on the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

But the list also included armed services personnel and others in the United States or elsewhere who have had nothing to do with the bombing campaigns, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Where are ISIS supporters tweeting from?

Infographic: Where are ISIS supporters tweeting from? | Statista
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