Category: Politics and Society

What You Should Know about Bots, Targets, and Viral Propaganda.

I believe one of the things that continues to tear this country apart is the digital divide. The digital divide is no longer just about who has access to the Internet and technology.  More and more people are online and have a social media profile. According to Pew Research, 69% of US Adults use at least one social media site.

Today the digital divide is different.  How many of those adults understand how social media works, and more importantly how it can be gamed to create a false narrative?

Based on my experience decidedly few.

I have worked in the tech industry for a couple of decades and more specifically digital marketing for over 10 years. During all that time I lived in a bubble where all of my peers and most of my friends understood how tech was evolving and was paying attention to how it impacts our lives. It was only when I stepped out of that bubble and expanded my network of friends did I realize most people’s understanding of tech and social media was limited to how they use it to connect with friends, family, neighbors, or for work. Most people do not give much thought to how much more can be done with technology that we have grown to depend on.

So when news comes out that Russia has invaded the US with bots, targeted ads, and viral campaigns to have a direct impact on our election, I wonder how many people understand what that means and how that works. How can people understand how big of a threat these actions were and are if they don’t understand what is possible?

I recently saw people online using the word “bots” to describe public figures that they disagree with. There are obviously some misunderstandings.

What are Bots?

Bots are programmed to “communicate” with humans. This is not something new for us. Let’s take it offline for a minute. For decades we have been subjected to phone trees. We call a company and get an automated message asking us to push a button that coincides with what we want. Once we push the button the computer knows what it needs to do and say next. Today we don’t have to push buttons every time. Now we can say what we want to the automated message.

Now let’s bring it back online. Many companies have launched bots for business pages. If you message a business page the bot will identify keywords in your message and will reply with the right pre-programmed message. The technology has become sophisticated enough that it is often difficult to tell if you are messaging a human or not.

This same technology has been used by many in social media to increase their engagement levels. There are several tools available where you can tell the software what social updates to look for and how to comment on such posts. For example, I can program the tool to look for all pictures of dogs on Instagram and post a comment on each picture about how cute that dog is.

What Russia did was set up numerous accounts, scheduled content to be posted on them and then programmed them to “engage” with targeted accounts and within specific conversations.

Bots were able to plant ideas, doubt, and misinformation in the minds of a large number of voters.

It is wrong to think that those who engaged with bots must have been idiots, clueless, or naive. We all engage with bots on a daily basis without thinking much of it. Bots are integrated into our daily lives and work. This is why Russia’s use of them was so seamless.

Were You a Target?

Perhaps you do not engage in conversations with strangers online and therefore think you were not a target. I recently watched a news anchor approach an older woman who ran a pro-Trump Facebook group to ask her if she knew she has spread Russian propaganda. Of course, she did not do so intentionally and the way that news anchor approached her was insulting and caused her to immediately put up her defenses. She insisted that everyone in her group was friends or neighbors and that she had nothing to do with Russians and the fact that she was being accused of such nonsense solidified her belief that mainstream media was “fake news.”

She may not have been a target of an engaging bot but was most likely a victim of a targeted ad.

Even though Russian operatives spent far less in advertising dollars, with the right targeting and emotional triggers, their content had the opportunity to spread far and wide.

Unlike traditional advertisements that can only be consumed, Facebook ads are engaged with, shared, and oftentimes do not look like ads at all, but simply a post from a page. However, because it is an ad, the post will show up in people’s newsfeed whether or not they follow that page. Also, as people “like” or comment on the post, that post then shows up in the newsfeed of their friends. If the content resonates with opinions or biases that content is then shared, not just on the newsfeed but within groups throughout the web.

Russian operatives did not need to spend a lot of money to be effective, they just needed to promote divisive content and misinformation to targets that were already consuming similar types of information and then watch it spread like wildfire.

Why Propaganda Goes Viral

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He studied Freud’s work of the human mind and the need to feed our ego and from that knowledge pioneered the field of public relations and propaganda. His main technique was to show his audience a personality or lifestyle that they strived for. The genius of his campaigns was that they were never blatantly obvious. For example one of his first campaigns was to get women to want to smoke cigarettes, a habit that was considered un-ladylike. He did not try to create campaigns about the attributes of a cigarette, instead, he ran a campaign that aligned with the emerging trend of women’s liberation. The Torches of Freedom campaign showed strong, independent women smoking. It was a rejection of the old fashion ideas of what it meant to be ladylike. When a woman lit up a cigarette, she was making a social and political statement.

Although Edward Bernays turned propaganda into a successful, high paying, industry, the practice has been around since the beginning of the first successful sales pitch. People will believe information that confirms their biases. They will share information that proves to others that what they believe is right. We are all programmed this way, no matter our political affiliation. This is why it is more important than ever to understand and acknowledge that today simple computer programs written by foreign operatives can effectively and efficiently use our natural human tendencies against us.

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photo by Darron Birgenheier

Ignorance is Not Bliss in an Ever-Changing World

Will you have a job next week? Next year?

Will your skill set be valued in the job market in the years to come? If not, do you know what you need to do to keep your skills up-to-date?

Over the past few decades, we have witnessed a large number of innovations that have changed how we live and work. I have been working as a social media consultant for over a decade, a job that was not even dreamed of when I graduated college. All indications show that such a job will be obsolete in the next few years as automated technologies become more sophisticated.

I put myself through college by waiting on tables. More and more kiosks are being placed on tables allowing for people to place their orders and pay their bills.

I met a retired gentleman the other day who still works as a freelance accountant. He told me what once took 5-6 people to do, he now does by himself on a part-time basis thanks to financial software enhancements.

A self-driving semi-truck made a cross-country trip with minimal human intervention. 

Every day there is a new innovation or enhancement that will change or eliminate the jobs many of us do but most people are not paying attention.

My dad worked for one company his entire career. He was a cable repairman for the phone company and he retired for medical reasons in 1986. In all his years his job did not change much. That was the world I grew up in, a world where I watched my parents and the parents of my friends work for one or two companies without having to drastically change their skill set. Yes, there were job losses due to economic downturns or poor business habits, but the types of jobs that people performed did not go away. Today, we are losing the types of jobs people do and not enough people are paying attention.

DangerUncertaintyThose who are paying attention are not doing enough to prepare. A recent study revealed that 65% of respondents agree that jobs industries will suffer because of automation, but they believe they will be fine. Only 3% of respondents were concerned about losing a job to a “robot.”

We really should not talk about “robots” taking our jobs because people often envision a humanoid. However, as an example, Social Media is currently swarming with bots. There are bots that will answer your question and bots that will grow your following, and bots that will promote your agenda, and bots that will engage on posts for you, and so on. All of those “bots” are basically code, it is not a humanoid robot behind a computer.

No matter your job, the skills needed to do it will become devalued in the near future.

Teachers are faced with a growing popularity of online classes.

Managers should be studying how platforms such as Uber are eliminating middle management.

Our current political breakdown is rooted in a large segment of Americans feeling left behind, lost, and not recognizing this world that is emerging. People are scared and for good reason. A strong political leader would explain to them that the world is changing and would invest in helping people to enhance their skill set as well as begin studying what other social investments need to be made such as Universal Healthcare that would cover freelancers, students, entrepreneurs, and people who have been displaced.

Instead, we have too many leaders who pander to the dream of returning to a time when the world had fewer disruptions and jobs were safer. Politicians know they are speaking to regular people who have lives to lead and spend their days working longer hours for less pay and then spending time with friends and family. Most people are not reading about AI or Automation. Unfortunately, it seems as though our politicians are more invested in talking points that will get them elected than in providing insights that will empower their citizens.

There are two main reasons why disruptive innovations will continue to accelerate and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. The first is Capitalism, an economic system that values efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Computers will continue to outperform humans and therefore will be valued over human labor more and more. The other reason is global competition. No matter what the trade agreements are, if other countries are outperforming us technically we will lose.

If we continue to think our jobs are not at risk, if we continue to not hold our political leaders accountable for preparing our workforce for the future, if we continue to spend our time and energy wanting to go backwards, if we continue to stay ignorant of how rapidly the world is changing, it may become the downfall of us all.

2018 A New Year, A New Story

What will you be focused on in 2018? I believe that deciding on what you will focus on will decide the kind of year you have.

2017 was a year that started in November 2016 for me. I, like many other people, assumed I knew the direction the world was moving in. There were new challenges ahead that we had to face, but there were also expanding opportunities. I did not think Hillary Clinton was the right leader to guide us to this new world but she was a better leader than the alternative, at least she wasn’t looking to take us backward.

After the election results came in I spent November 2016 in despair and afraid.

But life went on. There was a wedding, the holidays, and a new year which meant to set up new goals.

My goals for 2017 was to become more selective about who I associated with. Debate less about politics and discuss more issues. Make new friends and be an impact in other people’s lives. I was going to pay attention and be involved. I was going to join the resistance. I signed up for every publication, association, and nonprofit that would tell me what I needed to do to fight against the tyranny that was trying to rise.

January 1st started with a minor car accident and the month did not get any better. A couple weeks later I was in a hospital bed with a kidney stone and sepsis. It was the first time I ever truly acknowledged that my life could end without warning. I had been worked up about the election and all that was going on in the country and I realized that none of that mattered as much as caring for myself.  I took a closer look at what I wanted to do and where I wanted to fit in. I couldn’t jump at every request to contact my representatives or feel righteous outrage at every Trump tweet. I needed to live.

In February my husband and I took a much-needed vacation to the beach where I got to reflect. I realized that I needed to find some balance.

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2017 was still a year of political firsts. I attended my first protest and went to my first candidate meet and greet, had my first campaign sign, and led a series of neighborly bi-partisan political talks.

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There were many great moments in 2017. I went to NYC for what was supposed to be a  business trip but ended up being more of a solo tourist trip. I got to be in the live audience of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert the night that Michael Moore was his guest.

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I repositioned my career to try to help as many people as possible adjust to what I believe are the realities of work, which is rapid change, no job security, and the need to be self-sufficient.

I started writing more political pieces.

I experienced 90 minutes in an isolation/float tank, a few times.

I cooked more this year and tried a variety of new recipes.

I drove to Dillard GA with my boys and a friend to see the total eclipse of the sun.

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I binge watched all 7 seasons of Game of Thrones.

I learned how to use the nice camera that I have had for 2 years.

Overall, the year had more ups than downs on a personal level. On a political level, I am starting finding my voice and trusting that this is a nation of laws and checks and balances. I need to stay involved and rally for the future that I would like to see unfold, but I also need to live for the little day to day moments.

As we welcome in a new year I look forward to focusing on a new story. 2018 will be a story about self-improvement and new friends and continuous work toward a future of greater opportunities, creative expression, and spiritual connection for all.

Happy New Year and may 2018 be your best year ever.

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Is Sexual Harassment being Treated as a Fad?

When every single day there is a new report of sexual assault or sexual harassment by a famous or powerful man, and the cases range from months ago to decades ago, it makes me wonder if the news is simply treating sexual harassment as the latest fad.

When #MeToo went viral on social media after the Weinstein case many people realized for the first time that pretty much every woman has been harassed or assaulted. This isn’t a fad it is a real problem. And although it is great that people are becoming more aware of the problem, will treating it as the latest news fad help change the destructive environment women often find themselves in or will it make everything worse for both men and women?

Read more on my post Are all men bad?

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Do Politics and Business Mix?

I was raised in a family where everyone said what they thought. My dad encouraged debate. My mom ignited debate. The best conversations I have had with my brothers were respectful debates.

When I started working in social media I was blogging about what I experienced, what I thought, what I believed. Many, well-meaning people in the business community told me I should not do that.

Over the years I have fought an internal battle of wanting to write about what I felt was important to talk about and wanting to be successful in business. After the 2016 election, I decided I needed to find my voice again. I am evolving into a political commentator as well as a business person.

I believe that for many reasons business and politics do mix.

Today, I had the opportunity to discuss that belief on my friend, Adrienne’s, podcast.

You can listen to it here.

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It Wasn’t a Muslim

Thanks to those who have kneeled, I now know what I stand for

If we want things to improve, we need to start listening

Thanks to those who have kneeled, I now know what I stand for.

When the national anthem is played, do you stand out of habit? Are you offended by those who have kneeled? Do you think standing should be required? Would such a requirement align with what it means to be American?

When the national anthem is played I used to stand out of habit. I was quite bored waiting for it to be over. Ever since Colin Kaepernick took a knee, when I stand now, I do so with hope and pride.

Read more on my post in Politics Means Politics, My Flag, My Country, My Choice.

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Do Politics and Business Mix?

Continuing to #Resist

If we want things to improve, we need to start listening

Why is it so hard to get Universal Healthcare in the US?

Already 1 in 3 people are freelancers and that number is expected to increase in the next few years. Technical advancements have enabled us to market our skills, build networks, and work independently. In fact, most people I know who have not taken the freelancer leap say it is because they need the health insurance that is offered by their company.

Is Universal Healthcare a threat to corporations who need to keep a workforce tied to their desks?

Read more on my post, Watch what politicians do, not what they say

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Free College is not the Answer

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Free College is Not the Answer

College is not for everyone. We don’t all learn the same way and we don’t all have the capacity for higher education. Also, not everyone is striving for the suburban life. Many people want a simple job and a simple life.

But the simple jobs and simple life are disappearing. While Democrats rally around the vision of free college, which is not free, Trump and friends have been making promises of a simple life with simple jobs which we know they cannot keep, but still got them elected.

Read more on my article on Student Voices.

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