How Russia uses social media to stir conflict

Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed an army of trolls and bots. His bad intentions go beyond revenge and interference in U.S. elections. Recently, postings from his motley crew have resulted in deaths due to a measles outbreak in Europe.

image: Rantt

Putin never forgave Hillary Clinton for the mass protests against his government in 2011. He was convinced that Clinton was seeking a “regime change” in Russia. Hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email server threw the Clinton campaign into disarray. Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow until early 2014, commented: “One could speculate that this is his moment for payback.”

Canada is not immune. Putin doesn’t like Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. As a reporter, she called him an authoritarian, an autocrat and “really dangerous.” Months after she became minister, Putin banned her from Russia. Canadians have been targeted through Facebook. Russian trolls befriend unsuspecting users to spread their propaganda.

To be clear, I like Facebook and use it daily but I’m very careful about friend requests. I personally know most of my contacts and others are friends of people I trust. But Facebook admits that hundreds of millions of others have been sucked into the Russian vortex. If you’re not sure, check your Facebook account here for any Russian agents. If the box is empty, it doesn’t mean that you weren’t exposed, it just means that you didn’t engage them.

The motive of Russian trolls is to agitate and divide countries with the hope that governments will be thrown into chaos. That’s easily done in the U.S. with a president that refuses to admit what everyone knows: the Russians interfered in his election.

Russian trolls are responsible for the public health misinformation that led to a measles outbreak in Europe this summer where cases doubled over 2017 and 37 people died.

Heidi Larson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CBC Radio’s The Current about her research. Here’s the exchange between CBC host Piya Chattopadhyay and Dr. Larson:

Piya: “And specifically I want to ask you about Facebook because as you know Facebook has been accused of contributing to misinformation — in other arenas, in other contexts. How has Facebook contributed to misinformation about vaccines?

Heidi: Oh I think it has contributed significantly. But these new tools: social media, Facebook, they are organizational tools, they’re not just about spreading information — they’re empowering groups of people not even geographically local across different locations to organize into groups. And that kind of organizational power that these tools have given some of these anti-sentiments is I think as concerning as the negative sentiments.”

The malicious posts have been traced back to the Russian troll farm, Internet Research Agency.

Researchers found that trolls were 22 more likely to tweet using a hashtag referencing vaccines than the average user. Echo chambers embolden Facebook users into thinking their bizarre thoughts are valid. It turns out that when just 25 per cent of people in your social media network are against vaccination, it can delay or prevent vaccination –even for those who previously were ready to vaccinate their children.

Facebook and Twitter are working remove agents who want to undermine democracy. Meanwhile, we need to be vigilant.

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Anonymity is not enough in apps

You can set your privacy settings on apps so that personal data is not shared. But even anonymous data can threaten security.

Take the case of the fitness tracking app Strava. Their website tracks exercise routes of users and plots them on a map of the world. The routes show up as bright lines; the brighter they are, the more they are used. You can’t pick out individuals on the map because they are only sharing data anonymously. They are revealing in ways that were never intended.

In this Strava map of Kamloops, you can see familiar areas of the city that where people have been exercising. There’s the downtown grid, Rayleigh, and Sun Peaks on the upper right. Some areas are a bit mysterious, like in the lower left. I went to Google Maps to see if there is a community there but couldn’t find any. Someone, or group, exercises near Chuwhels Mountain above New Gold Afton Mine. Is there a camp that I don’t know of?

 Strava map

Australian student Nathan Ruser was doing some similar browsing, comparing exercise routes on Strava to Google Maps, when he came across exercise routes around U.S. military bases in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. The Strava map revealed much more than the Google map did: it exposed troop movements. It probably never occurred to soldiers how much they were lighting up the base.

While the locations of the military bases are not exactly top secret, the movements of soldiers could compromise the operational security. The fitness app could highlight sensitive outposts and troops’ habitual routes during military drills and patrols. Ruser, who is also an analyst for the Institute for United Conflict Analysts, tweeted:

“If soldiers use the app like normal people do, by turning it on tracking when they go to do exercise, it could be especially dangerous. This particular track looks like it logs a regular jogging route. I shouldn’t be able to establish any Pattern of life info from this far away (January 27, 2018)”

Air Force Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told the Washington Post that the military was looking into the implications of the Strava map.

It probably didn’t occur to soldiers that they were compromising base security by simply turning on the fitness tracker. After all, none of their personal information was being shared.

This way of thinking ignores the greater good according to Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist at Princeton University.

“This assumes that my behaviour affects my privacy,” Narayanan told CBC Radio’s Spark, “but really I think what Strava story has shown is that it’s more than that. That’s when privacy becomes a collective issue (February 2, 2018).”

The privacy settings can be confusing. Someone going out for a run doesn’t want to spend time trying to figure out which boxes to check.

Beyond the actions of individuals and their privacy settings, there is the vulnerability of big corporations.

“Strava has been in the news but there are dozens of companies sitting on sensitive data. There’s not a lot of public oversight around these super sensitive databases about billions of people,” adds Narayanan.

No going back on abuse of women

What was once a trickle has become a torrent of reports from women of how they were groped, fondled, molested, assaulted, raped, and verbally abused; how they fought off the unwanted sexual advances of men.

   Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox. Photo: CBC

High-profile reports have come out of the entertainment industry. Actress Daryl Hannah told the New Yorker about the consequences of rejecting film director Harvey Weinstein’s advances: “We are more than not believed – we are berated and criticized and blamed.”

Harassment and assault on women takes a toll. Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti talked to dozens of women:

“Some of the women I heard from are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The pain they carried through the years is palpable. In many cases, they knew what was happening to them was wrong, even if the culture at the time was more accepting of predatory behaviour. Often they told no one. They felt shame for not speaking up or acting. Sometimes that shame has been corrosive though the years and, in other cases, women have pushed it aside (November 18, 2017).”

It’s not just the world of entertainment. Women from many walks of life are speaking up. Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox of the Canadian Armed Forces told CBC Radio’s The Current:

“My first incident, without going into detail about my first incident, happened three weeks into the military. From that point on I didn’t really sleep soundly for the next 20 years. I’m approaching on 21 years of service. So I’m recovering from that. For years and years, I didn’t say a thing and for years and years I tolerated the environment around me because of the love of my country and the love of my work.”

Three Canadian comediennes spoke to The Current about the problems they faced. Michelle Shaughnessy said that male comedians think bad behaviour can be excused by saying that it’s just a joke:

“I know there was one incident where a colleague who was a friend, like I think it was kind of like the equivalent of like a drunk dial type thing. Actually sent me like a picture of their penis like the middle of the night, when obviously they had been drinking too much . . . you can mention it to these guys and their first defence is ‘were all comics. It’s a joke.’”

Women who were once afraid that they wouldn’t be believed, who were told “that’s the way it is,” are now speaking up.

It’s no joke. A shift in culture is happening. The more women who come forward, the more that others will be encouraged to do so. And as more women move into positions of power in corporations, government, police, clergy, and the military, the more they will be believed. “The tide is turning,” said Leeann Tweeden, the former model who has accused Al Franken: the high-profile writer, comedian and senator. It’s not enough that Franken “feels terribly” about the accusations.

I have a selfish reason to see the end of bad behaviour by men. I want to live in a society where women don’t have to suspect and fear men. The predatory and toxic actions of men are a burden on us all.

The problem is doctor distribution, not shortage

The number of doctors in Canada is increasing faster than population growth says Dr. Michael Rachlis on CBC Radio’s The Current:

  photo: Nancy Bepple

“We’ve been increasing the number of physicians at about three per cent per year for the last 10 years and the population is only going up at one per cent per year.”

Another of the panellists on the program, Dr. Danielle Martin, author and VP at Women’s College Hospital, warns of a surplus of doctors:

“In fact you know in some parts of the healthcare system, people are worried about a glut and you hear stories of people coming out [of medical schools] and being unable to find a job.”

That’s certainly not the view from the streets of Kamloops. NDP candidate Nancy Bepple regularly visited lines of people lined up at a clinic to see a doctor. An estimated 30,000 Kamloopsians don’t have a family doctor (one-third of the population). In B.C. overall, it’s 15 per cent.

Why can’t people find doctors if there’s so many of them? Are they hiding?

Well, some of them have chosen to work for a salary rather than billing for each patient. They work exclusively in hospitals says Dr. Chris Pengilly of Victoria, another of the panellists. He calls them “hospitalists.”

They prefer to work only 40 hours a week. Who can blame them? And they are paid better. At $150 an hour, a hospitalist makes $300,000 a year with no overhead. After paying staff and rent, a family doctor would have to earn $400,000 a year, to take home that much; and work longer hours with less support.

The choice is obvious says Dr. Pengilly:

“So anybody coming out of medical school with a big student loan, which do you think they’re going to go for? A family physician [with] no time in hours a week or a hospitalist 40 hours a week and $300,000 with minimal expenses?”

Furthermore, hospitalists don’t want to work alone says Dr. Rachlis “Well, I say good for them that they’re looking to work in teams with other groups, with other physicians.”

One-half of Canada’s physicians focus on sports medicine or palliative care, says Dr. Martin:

“. . .they’re not practicing what we would think of as full scope full service cradle-to-grave primary care family medicine, and that is what those people who are lining up at Dr. Pengilly’s clinic and asking [for a primary caregiver].”

The current model is not working because doctors no longer want to work in the silos of a fee-for-service practice.

It’s ironic that the provincial government has created a hospital environment which doctors prefer to work but one that removes them from the general public.

The solution is obvious but the BC Liberals have been slow to implement it: Build walk-in clinics and hire doctors on a salary basis. Everyone, doctors and patients alike, will be happier.

It’s going to cost more because the government will own the clinics. But the alternative, privately-built clinics, is a failure. The reason that two walk-in clinics in North Kamloops closed their doors is because doctors don’t want to work for less in an environment where they don’t have the same support that hospitalists enjoy.

The future of smart radios

I imagine that the future of radio will combine traditional fm with the technology of smart phones.

I’m not talking about the distant future: the fm broadcast protocols already exist and most cell phones already have an fm radio chip, although you’d never know it. Chris Burns wonders why. In his article for SlashGear.com and he explains how you can find out if your phone has the chip:

“A whole bunch of smartphones out on the market today have FM radio capabilities – but their owners don’t know it. There’s no real good reason for this lack of knowledge save the lack of advertising on the part of phone makers. . . Today we’re listing the whole lot of phone devices that can run FM Radio right out the box.”

I first heard about the fm chip in cell phones last year on CBC Radio’s Spark. Barry Rooke explained how useful they could be. They could be used where no cell service exists and in an emergency when cell towers are down as in the wildfires of Fort McMurray in 2015.

Rooke is the executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association and he’s formed a consortium of broadcasters, including CBC, and radio listeners who would like to see the FM radio chip activated.

It doesn’t even have to be a smartphone to receive fm. A friend bought a simple cell phone in Mexico with the fm chip activated for $22 dollars, and that included free calls for eight days -no contract (it galls me how much more Canadians pay for cell phones, but that’s another column). You can hardly buy an fm radio alone for that amount.

The innovation that I imagine would be the use of graphics in smartphones. Some of the fm audio spectrum would be partitioned off for text and lo-res graphics. The text could include lyrics of the song being played and a picture of the artist, news, weather, sports, traffic, stock reports. In poor countries where the phone is more common than radios, it could include voting information, crop and commodity reports. Text and graphics could be saved for future reference.

The graphics would be stacked on the original signal with a subcarrier much in the way that left and right channels are now carried on regular fm as described in Wikipedia. The protocol already exists for car radios and would need to be adjusted for smartphones.

The best system would be a digital overhaul of the fm modulation signal. But that won’t happen because radio stations must be received by regular receivers as well as the new smart radios.

Broadcasters would never transmit a signal that can only be received by relatively few. That’s what happened when stereo radio was introduced. The new stereo signal had to be received by old mono radios as well as the new until the new technology was adopted.

The push for smart radios won’t come from cell phone service providers –they would prefer that you pay for data. It must come from broadcasters and listeners.

Facebook knows you best

Does Facebook know you better than your friends do, or even better than you know yourself? Lily Ames conducted an experiment to find out and reported the results to CBC Radio’s technology program Spark.

like

The personality program she tried is called Apply Magic Sauce, developed by The University of Cambridge Psychometrics Centre. It takes your Facebook “likes” and gives you a score based on a database of six million social media profiles.

When Lily ran her Facebook likes through the program, she was surprised at how well it scored on most of 20 things. It nailed her age within two years, religion, gender, education in journalism.

Then she compared those results with a standard test from Cambridge. It categorized her personality in five areas: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. She agreed with the test results with the exception of extraversion which she thought was low, especially when she considered extraversion as one of her defining traits.

Then five of Lily’s friends filled out a questionnaire on her personality. Surprisingly, the Facebook likes corresponded more closely to the standard test than either her own opinion or those generated by her friends.

Not so surprising says David Stillwell, a researcher at the Psychometrics Centre. Who we are is a philosophical question. Then, maybe we are not just one but different personalities; our self-impressions, the digital projection of ourselves online, and our personality as perceived by friends.

I was curious about what my Facebook likes would reveal about me so I tried the Apply Magic Sauce algorithm only to find that I didn’t have enough likes on Facebook to make an assessment. “Sorry, we are unable to generate a prediction.” was the reply “An insufficient number of your Likes match with those in our database, and we don’t believe in guesswork. Please take our full personality test, if you would still like to receive scientific feedback on your traits. Thanks!”

So I did. I took the full personality test and here’s the results. I scored highest on openness,73%, which reflects intellectual curiosity. Next was agreeableness, 69%, which suggests that I’m easy to get along with. Then conscientiousness, 66%, a measure of how organized I am. Extraversion, 54%, a gauge of social interaction. Finally neuroticism, 24%, my response to life’s demands. “Based on your responses, you come across as someone who is rarely bothered by things, and when they do get you down the feeling does not persist for very long,” the assessment elaborated.

It seemed fairly accurate, but then, why wouldn’t it when I’m the one who answered the questions?

Social media such as Facebook contain a wealth of data about ourselves that we may not intentionally reveal. Lily couldn’t even remember liking the Saskatchewan Roughriders. And a she was only being ironic when she “liked” new fashion trend.

No problem, says Stillwell. “From a prediction perspective, it doesn’t matter, as long as there is a link between people liking something and their personality. If everyone likes it because they are being ironic, then maybe it would be related to low agreeableness. But it doesn’t matter because the prediction still works.”

Get the message out call your kid “Bud Light”

I naively thought that my FaceBook posts appeared in the order sent. Not so. Look closely and you’ll notice that some posts hang around forever and others you don’t see at all.

It’s because an algorithm controls them, tailored to you; your “likes” and postings you respond to.

algorithm

When you think about it, it’s bizarre communication system. “It seems like a science fiction dystopia,” in which Big Brother controls our perception warns Christian Sandvig on CBC radio’s Spark.

Yet many FaceBook users aren’t even aware of the algorithms. They wonder why some friends never post anything, oblivious of the machinations.

Others know how to “game” the system by using key words that boost their postings; words such as “congratulations” even when it’s inappropriate. For example: “Congratulations, Canada is at war in Iraq.”

Or they use brand names to punch through the happy filter says Sandvig. “Isn’t my baby, Bud Light, cute,” jokes the professor of Communications at the University of Michigan.

Zeynep Tufekci has a similar concerns. While Twitter lit up with postings over the racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri, when a young black man was shot by a white police officer, FaceBook was strangely silent. It wasn’t lack of interest.  Tufekci found out that FaceBook friends were very active with postings about the explosive atmosphere.

Tufekci realized that FaceBook was deciding what should be of interest to her. “There was this disquieting moment because I really don’t want a world in which FaceBook decides which of my friends’ postings I am going to see.”

Algorithms are not necessarily bad. But in the happy FaceBook world of congratulations, wedding announcements, and baby pictures, algorithms are crafted with a certain motive in mind. After all, FaceBook is a commercial enterprise. They are selling your eyeballs to advertisers. While their algorithms are not transparent, their motives are. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if FaceBook algorithms are designed around likes and purchase behaviour.”

Social media have a moral obligation to users, not just  commercial obligations to advertisers. “They are not just selling shoes. We made them successful through use of our friends.”

We need to know things that may not be delightful. “What if a friend is contemplating suicide, and FaceBook decides I don’t want gloomy thoughts.”

Not only does FaceBook have a moral obligation to users as a clear channel of communication, it risks financial decline by being boring. In comparison, the drama of the unfiltered world of Twitter makes interesting.

However, even Twitter is thinking of tweaking their chronological stream though algorithms to stem the torrent.

Well designed algorithms are a useful thing. Google does a good job of anticipating what I’m looking for. Apparently, so does Netflix. My braking algorithm does a better job of stopping my car than I could under difficult conditions.

FaceBook should give us more access to our algorithm so that we can customize it. The tweaking allowed now is laughable. You can adjust the news feed from “top stories” to “most recent” but as my niece tells me, FaceBook switched her back three times in the last few weeks. Choice is a temporary option, it seems.