Russia, Fake News and Facebook: 24/7 Manipulation
Back when the Internet first came to be, there was the typical set of blue sky and lollipop predictions that the result would be more facts, less censorship, more intelligent discourse and less successful manipulation.
Being able to converse with each other would lead people to be more honest, and our world increasingly would resemble a utopian ideal of peace and prosperity. Now, decades later, “fake news” has proliferated, censorship is growing stronger, and rather than having politicians who can’t handle the truth, we seem to have politicians who have no idea what the truth is.
In fact, instead of becoming more literate, we seem to be regressing. Last week, we discovered that Russia allegedly paid US$100K for ads to piss us off; we saw the emergence of Verrit, a biased news service that Hillary Clinton thinks is a better Snopes; and the rumor spread that Hurricane Irma was a category 6, even though the highest classification for a Hurricane is 5.
Oh, and as bad as Trump has been with responding to Harvey and Irma, some folks think Obama was worse with Katrina — even though he wasn’t yet president. Katrina hit on George W. Bush’s watch.
I’ll focus on the problems associated with citizens being manipulated by fake news and then close with my product of the week: Varonis which, given the Uber Consent Decree, most firms should have on their short list now.
Verrit: The Left Is as Delusional as the Right
Hillary Clinton last week foolishly connected Verrit to Snopes. I’m getting a tad tired of both extremes in politics ignoring the truth and pretending only the other side is made up of idiots.
Yes, there is a serious problem with our president, who doesn’t seem to be able to read anything. On the other hand, referring to Verrit as kind of the liberal Snopes is stupid. Most fact-checking sites are perceived to be liberal because, let’s face it, conservatives often have issues with facts.
However, we tend to forget that this behavior isn’t just tied to conservatives. People generally don’t like to hear opinions — or facts — that contradict their beliefs. Currently the right seems to be having most of the free speech rallies, and the left is trying to shut them down. Apparently neither side sees the deep irony in this.
Since Clinton’s announcement, Verrit, which apparently wasn’t able to handle the massive load resulting from the endorsement (it crashed), has been found wanting by real news organizations like The Washington Post.
The folks mocking the site most aggressively are the extremely conservative (joking) Bernie Sanders supporters whom Verrit accused of putting Trump in the White House. (By the way, my view on what put Trump in the White house is that it was a bunch of political game players who cheated badly on both sides.)
Facebook and Russia
Last week, in connection with investigating the source of Fake News on its network, Facebook discovered a Russian connection. About $100K was spent, not to elect either candidate, but to ferment internal conflict.
Now we seem to be acting like this is the limit of Russia’s expenditure, even though the level of infighting in the U.S. is unprecedented, suggesting this expense and effort might just be the tip of the iceberg.
Even a relatively minor marketing campaign by a U.S. company typically runs in the millions, and though they are rare, there are even $100M campaigns. So why would we assume that a state player like Russia would spend just $100K? It is likely only the tip of the iceberg on Facebook, and why wouldn’t we be looking for where else Russia spent its money? I’d bet on lobbyists.
In any case, whoever put the program together should get a raise, because we sure are pissed off at each other. You’d think the government at least would point out that much of our anger might have resulted from the full extent of Russia’s efforst at manipulation. Maybe it is spending too much time on Verrit…
Wrapping Up: There Is No Monopoly on Stupid
Our key difficulty is that we seem so locked into having our argument dominate that we lose track of what is right and wrong, or what is important and what isn’t. Whether people have flood insurance during a hurricane is important; what the first lady has on her feet isn’t, for instance.
We care more about blame than we care about fixing problems. We’ll support a politician we like, even one who does something stupid (like blocking the U.S. missile defense program), and we’ll criticize a politician we don’t like, even one who does something that helps us out, like responding quickly to a disaster.
All of this generally falls into a bucket called “confirmation bias,” but we also could call it “programmatic stupidity,” because we intentionally are leaving out information that could help us make better decisions.
We likely were always way too easily manipulated — but with technology, manipulation has gotten much easier. Perhaps we should resist more, because if the world ends, there really won’t be anyone left to blame.
We must start realizing that we are being manipulated aggressively by both foreign and domestic actors who are betting we are too stupid to look things up. We must get smarter before we find we lose what we value, and our freedom becomes a distant memory. Put differently, the Internet is the new boob tube. The sooner we realize that, the smarter we’ll likely become.
One of the interesting things that happened last month was the FTC’s decision to impose a $20M fine on Uber for creating what was effectively a BS level of protection on customer data.
You see, after Uber was called out in 2014 for bad practices, it wrote a new policy but basically did little else. The result was not only that the FTC got pissed, but also that it hit Uber with that huge fine and mandated that it get its act together. Your kids likely protect their homework better than Uber was protecting customer information.
A big part of the problem was that virtually everyone had access to everything, and that isn’t an uncommon problem in many companies. However, with this FTC ruling we now have a precedent that means other firms will be held to the same standard.
Varonis is a product designed to manage and monitor data access. It is designed to prevent the exact thing that seemed to enrage the FTC and result in this huge fine.
Customers trust us with their data; if we lose that data, we are likely to lose them as customers — and customer data breaches tend to be career enders.
Varonis makes sure that only authorized folks have access to data. It reports variances so that breaches can be detected and stopped in a timely way, and when there is a breach, it helps identify the related causes.
We need to ensure the accuracy of our data, but we also need to focus more on protecting that data. That is exactly what Varonis does, so it is my product of the week.
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