Category: Society

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

I believe one thing 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 that realized 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 the 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, machines understand our intent and respond with an automated message.

Now let’s bring it back online. Many companies have launched bots for business pages. If you send a message to 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 communicating with 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 a 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. She felt that 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 on advertising dollars, with the right targeting and emotional triggers, their content had the opportunity to spread far and wide. What this woman did was share articles in her group that she saw on Facebook which happened to have been written and promoted by Russian operatives. 

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. This is how that woman ended up sharing Russian content. 

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

Why Propaganda Goes Viral

Edward Bernays is the father of propaganda. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and studied Freud’s work of the human mind and the need to feed our ego. From that knowledge, Bernays 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.

Trump Supporters

photo by Darron Birgenheier

 

Originally posted on Politics Means Politics.

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 digital marketing consultant for over a decade, a job that was not even dreamed of when I graduated from college. All indications show that my job will be obsolete in the next few years as automated technologies become more sophisticated.

The jobs that help people climb up are at risk as well. 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. This will mean that restaurants, which already run on razor-thin profit margins, will cut costs by hiring fewer servers. 

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.

Truck drivers need to be concerned. 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. 

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.”

It is misleading to 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.

The changes in the workforce are wreaking havoc on our political discourse. 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, they do not have the time. 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 back to a more simpler time, 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 it was time 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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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.

Related Articles:

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

Everything I Know About Economics is Outdated

I have been working in digital marketing for over a decade. Changes in my industry happen so fast that I have to spend at least 30% of my time, each week, just to keep up. Some industries are not changing as fast but they are still changing faster than ever before in history. Technology is disrupting everything we ever thought we knew, and that includes our economic system.

Read my thoughts on 3 Reasons We Need a New Economic System

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Who Should You Vote For?

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I am not going to tell you which candidate to vote for. That is each person’s decision. But considering that many people have expressed that they are not thrilled with our choices this election, I am going to talk about my process and how I decide who to vote for.

First, you should vote. You have an opinion and you have a voice in the process and whether or not I agree with your opinion I do believe that your voice should be heard.

But who to vote for.

Don’t go by who you like as a person. The most evil people the world has ever seen have been the most charismatic people. You have to look beyond charisma. Also, you have to look beyond the words the people are saying because there is a big machine behind each candidate that helps each one learn exactly what their followers want to hear.

You have to try to understand the candidate’s motives and look at their record to decide who each candidate is. Once you do that you will see that none of the candidates are perfect and exactly in line with your thoughts and opinions.

So you have to decide which issues are most important to you and why and which candidates align with those issues. But the why is so important. I mean you really need to line up all the issues and prioritize them and understand the impact on your life. You may be against abortion, but does the abortion issue affect your personal life more than the economy? More than gun laws? More than your privacy rights? Are you willing to vote on an issue that impacts other people’s lives while ignoring issues that can destroy your own life?

Here is my biggest issue. I do not want the government telling people how to live their lives but I do want the government to protect the citizens from the greed of corporations. The greed that leads to poisoned drinking water or unethical business practices. I want laws that protect people from harming other people – and from what I understand, corporations are people too. But I do not want laws that tell individuals what they can and cannot do with their lives. I want a government that provides an opportunity for all people. A government that is forward thinking and knows how to prepare us for the future. There is no perfect candidate for me, but there are candidates that are way off the mark. So I vote. I have been lucky enough to vote for a candidate that was aligned with my priorities and I have been and probably will be in a position to vote for the person the least far away from where I stand. But I vote.

The Value of Understanding Other People’s Beliefs

I saw a news story today that bothered me a bit. Apparently, the United States Air Force is threatening to not let a soldier serve if he does not agree to violate his own beliefs. What are his beliefs? He’s an atheist.

A person who does not believe in God. That used to bother me and make me a little sad at one time in my life. “How can you look at all the majestic and wonder of the world and the Universe and not believe there is a God?” I thought. Then I would comfort myself in thinking that this person probably was still searching for his or her beliefs and they would eventually find God. This year I had a revelation that opened my eyes and heart to what it can mean to be an atheist. More on that later.

I was raised a Christian. I went to a variety of different churches growing up. When I was 20 years old I sat down and read the whole bible front to back. I discovered I needed more than just the Judeo-Christian Bible to grow spiritually.

That is when I began exploring Buddhism. Through the years I have become a student of religions. I am always listening to and reading about what other people believe. Much of what I learn does not resonate with me, but other parts of what I hear become like missing puzzle pieces that connect with ideas that have resonated with me. You can say I am a spiritual explorer picking and choosing the pieces that fit me best.

And why not? Why does anyone have to align themselves with only one belief, one dogma? How can anyone say one religion is the only truth and all others are living a lie or a partial truth? I love the story about The blind men and the elephant. Each man can only feel part of the elephant and thinks they know the whole truth based on the little section they have access to. We only have access to parts of stories. The more we explore the more we can learn.

 

But the question I used to have in my mind was “where do atheist fit into the story?” If they do not believe in God what can I learn from them? For a long time, I assumed they were people who believed only in science and nothing else. I assumed that perhaps they had something happen in their life that made them close the doors to the idea that there was a God. It was sad.

Then, one evening after a huge rainstorm had passed by leaving a field in Atlanta wet and muddy, my 2 boys and I stood in the humid air with a crowd of others who were waiting for a music festival to resume. It was the Candler Park music festival and the next person on stage was going to be an English chap named  Frank Turner. He began to play and we began to dance around – not really knowing his songs yet and therefore listening closely in order to learn more about this chap.

Then he began singing a song to the tune of a church hymn. But the catch phrase of this catchy song was “There is no God.”

Below are a few lyrics that stood out for me. :

I know you’re scared of dying man and I am too,
But just pretending it’s not happening isn’t gonna see us through,
If we accept that there’s an end game and we haven’t got much time,
Then in the here and now then we can try and do things right.
We’d be our own Salvation Army and together we’d believe
In all the wondrous things mere mortals can achieve

There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
But there is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.
Maybe it was the air (it was a music festival after all). Maybe it was the English accent. Maybe it was the clapping of our hands during the song. All I know is all of a sudden Atheism made sense to me. The line that resonated is “we are all in this together.”
For months after hearing this song, I had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew. I had to take the puzzle piece of atheism and include it in my spiritual picture that had been created from many other spiritual beliefs.
In the end, I still believe in God, but I have become more grounded and believe in taking more responsibility for myself and my fellow man. We’re all in this together.
With this in mind, if that atheist in the Air Force is flying to protect my country and my family because we are our “own Salvation Army and together we’d believe
In all the wondrous things mere mortals can achieve”…then please let that man fly and stand up for what he believes.
My lesson is that assuming someone else’s beliefs are wrong and not listening to why they believe what they do, not only will cause you to treat them poorly, but you will also be missing out on the gift of connecting with another spiritual heart and learning from each other.

Economics Musings from a Dummy

Ok – I am not a complete Economics dummy. I did take Macro and Micro Economics in college and did quite well in both classes. But I don’t think anyone will be calling me to do an interview about the Economy anytime soon. Well maybe Fox News, because they do not really care about qualifications, but I mean anyone reputable.

I have done absolutely zero research on the economic situation of today. I have read a lot of articles that come through my Facebook newsfeed, and I have looked and observed people around me, and I have observed my own finances, and from those observations, I have some ideas…or musings.

Here is what I have seen over the years.

1. Technology, in particular, is in desperate need of skilled and innovative employees. Our school system to date has not caught on to that idea. This is why so many jobs are outsourced to countries that teach real programming skills early in high school and why Americans with such skills are doing well.

2. Technology has replaced a lot of jobs. Meanwhile, it has also shifted the savings of the money that would have gone to employees up to founders, shareholders, and executives, making the people at the top much more wealthy than the average employee. This is the imbalance we are seeing. It is because more money is being generated with fewer employees and the people at the top feel it should go to them because they are the ones who invested in, leveraged, and innovated with technology. For me, this is a pretty strong argument.

3. There is still a middle class – and it is much wealthier than the middle class of 40 or 50 years ago,  you may not recognize it. These are people in 4 and 5 bedroom houses that would have been considered a mini-mansion 50 years ago. Today it is a normal suburban house. Today they have 2 or 3 cars, whereas 50 years ago 1 car was enough. Today they have a TV in every room, where 50 years ago 1 TV put you in the middle class. Today they go on vacation, eat out, and have many, many technological devices. They send their kids to camps, after-school programs, and private schools. These are people in sales jobs, IT jobs, finance jobs…They are middle class – not even the upper middle class of doctors, lawyers, and executives.

4. We have a working class. They live in smaller, older houses (or rent – which some of the middle class chooses to rent too). They budget more carefully. They still send their kids to camps and after-school programs but sometimes they get to qualify for discounted pricing. They eat out less, travel cheaper, but today’s working class looks more like the middle class of the 1960s.

5. We have poor people. We have always had poor people. They struggle to make rent and feed themselves even when they are working 2 or more jobs. They have little and what they do have is a hand me down, old, or bought on bad credit. These poor people look similar to the poor people of 50 years ago.

Here is what else we have.

We have more money in our economy. This means we could use that money to invest in helping people up – through an increase in the minimum wage. Will that take money from the upper or middle class, the two classes that are wealthier than they have been in decades? Yes, it would. Is this a handout? Not really since minimum wage means you are working for your money. It also would allow the poor to become better contributors to our society, economically and socially.

We could take some of that extra money that is in the economy and invest in education. Maybe then we could get more people trained to take the jobs that have so many openings we have to search offshores to find the skill set.

We have more cheap technology. Maybe we can give the disadvantage more access to that technology in a way that they can self-educate and connect and lift themselves up.

But the big unfortunate thing we have is people with so much stuff that still want more and anything that might have a chance to “trickle down” is seen as an unwarranted hand out.

So in the end – only a few people who can be happy with what they have will be happy and the rest will either continue to struggle or continue to envy.

And so it goes…

Too Much Information or How the Truth Gets Lost

In 7 years of talking about social media, I have never thought that I would be the one to say, “There is too much information.”

In the early days of social media, there were huge debates about the value of user-generated content vs the media (old media vs new media). Although I rarely participated in these debates I usually found myself on the side of new media. Even some of my early presentations illustrated how new media was just as valuable and trustworthy as old media, and maybe even more so because of the power of the network to call out anything false and for ongoing dialog that will expose the truth.

This was before Marketing and PR hijacked social media.

In 2006 and 2007 I gave a lot of presentations to Marketing and PR professionals. The question that I was asked at every presentation was “how do we control the message?” My answer was that you can’t. I was wrong.

I have watched as lots of money has been poured into social media campaigns to get people excited or inspired to spread the message to their friends thus using the power of the network to imply that the message was true. We can see this in political smear campaigns and branded marketing campaigns, which is to be expected. But the recent Kony2012 campaign is what recently got my attention and has made me quite concerned.

My first exposure to the Kony2012 campaign was when I read a headline in my Google Alerts that basically said a new social media campaign was about to be launched and I should not believe it. I did not read any further. Then my friends on Facebook started posting the video and expressing their heartfelt support for the campaign. I even learned that one of my connections was actually from Uganda and had first-hand experiences with warlords. I thought back to the initial report that warned me to ignore this campaign and made a mental note to do more research. Then my teenage son came home and told me about the campaign. As we talked about it I mentioned the headline I read that said to ignore the campaign. He explained to me that everything, even a good campaign such as this, will have haters. Haters are gonna hate. The hater’s side of the story is there is nothing we can do, or it is not our problem and so forth. Typical apathy. I made another mental note to look into the campaign.

This morning my 11-year-old son was on my laptop. When I was finally able to win the custody battle for my Mac I noticed that my son had not logged off the chat he was having with another 5th grader about the Kony video. At this point, I knew I had to look into this.

But before I began my Kony research I decided to go through my Daily Google Alerts. My alerts were full of articles about the Kony2012 campaign. Mostly of how well the campaign has been executed. Social Media Today had a great post titled Ripoff or Revolution? which pointed out Grant Oyston’s Tumblr account which was asking good questions about the Kony2012 campaign.

Then I came across the post How Kony2012 gets it wrong. There are a lot of good questions being asked about motives, message, and facts.

When it comes to wanting to do something good for mankind or to stop horrific evil, we can do little things every day. Those little things add up. But when those little things are part of a misdirected larger effort, then ultimately more harm is done.

Perhaps I was right many years ago in believing that social media brings out the truth because of the ability for others to respond. But what I have learned is that there is so much noise on the web that many people miss the responses. It takes time to research the validity of a story, which is why so much misinformation gets passed around. And unless a response to such a story is positioned in a way that it makes a person look good or feel good to share the other side of the story, the response will never gain the power from a strong network.  How can one feel good about telling their friends that they have been duped, that their good deed for the day may have caused more harm than good? More importantly, how do we keep from getting cynical and apathetic?

More than ever, we all have a responsibility to do a little more than sign our name to a list or share a story with our friends. If we truly want to make a difference in our world, we need to get involved with the world even if it means taking a little time to learn more than one side of the story. There is a lot of information on the web that if we take the time to read more details and ask more questions, the truth should never get lost.