A few years back, when it was one company, HP made a huge mistake that cost a number of people their jobs and forced the replacement of many of its board members. The company suffered through some nasty litigation and several top executives almost landed in jail.
The mistake was tied back to something the board authorized, which at the time was called “pretexting.” It also went by the more common term “identity theft.” It is my belief that the board wouldn’t have authorized the effort if it had been told that what the teams planned to do was steal the identities of reporters.
Given how risk-averse boards were, and still are, HP’s directors simply would not have been willing to take the risk, in my view, and much of HP’s pain in the last decade could have been avoided.
Given that Russia is the source for much of it, I now wonder if our use of the term “fake news” as a label — as opposed to the older and more relevant term — isn’t doing us a disservice, by not highlighting the inherently evil nature of the practice.
Fake News is intentionally designed to mislead, and it should be treated like propaganda. Blocking propaganda as a matter of law would be far easier to accomplish than blocking “fake news,” because “fake news” seems more benign than “propaganda” — even though, like “pretexting” and “identity theft,” they are the same thing.
I’ll share my thoughts on that and close with my product of the week: a new Magellan Dash camera that might make a decent gift for those needing to document some of the insane drivers on the road, or catch someone messing with their car.
There Is a Lot of ‘Fake News’
Now much of the fake news I currently get on Facebook is simply to get me to click a link, often as part of a process to install some form of malware. Often, these stories have been about the death of a celebrity who hasn’t died, but during the election, much of the fake news surrounded things that weren’t true about Hillary Clinton but that clearly were intended to change my vote. They were attempts to change how I viewed a candidate, in order to elicit a reaction.
Given the nature of the false stories and the fact that polls showed Clinton would win anyway, my belief is that the effort was to impede her ability to govern after she won, and the anticipated disclosure of the effort was designed to do the same thing to Trump.
The sure thing for Russia wasn’t to elect Trump or Clinton, but to ensure that whoever won would have such a cloud hanging overhead that neither could really execute. In other words, Russia wasn’t going after a candidate — it was going after the country.
Beyond the idea that another country could have a material impact either on the election or on the effectiveness of the elected candidate is the frightening fact that it happened in a country that has the tools to formulate a proper response but chose not to use them.
As initial attempts go, this was a powerful one. Given the propagation of ever more intelligent tools to create increasingly more targeted messages, it means a foreign power with adequate funds — like Russia or China — could gain near-absolute control over who gets elected in the U.S. That’s troubling — particularly given that the U.S. developed the tools both to carry out and to defend against such a strategy.
Defending Against Foreign Election Control
Clearly, there are free speech and censorship issues with regard to the identification and elimination of fake news, but with analytics, we can identify both trends and the organized manipulation of facts that go viral.
That is why switching from the name “fake news” to the name “propaganda” when a foreign, criminal or terrorist organization is generating this “news” could go a long way toward reducing its impact.
Once it’s identified, there are tools that can explain to people that the news they are seeing isn’t fact-based, and/or source the information so people understand there may be inherent bias.
Facebook is setting up to do this, and I expect it will turn into something of an arms race, with artificial intelligence agents on both sides trying to outsmart each other. Still, if the country with Silicon Valley can not win this fight against the countries without it, we likely should just take our toys and go home.
Clearly, this is a battle the U.S. can and should win, and then it could use the reverse of this tool to fight back more effectively (not that the U.S. ever uses propaganda).
Why It’s Bad We Can’t Trust What We Read
It is increasingly clear that we are being manipulated by a variety of folks who want to trick us into doing things we otherwise wouldn’t do. The most benign efforts waste our time, getting us to read articles that have little to do with what they promise or just make up things to draw us in. The most hostile load ransomware on our systems and then demand money in exchange for returning our data. Granted, we have defenses like Varonis, which more and more companies are deploying to stop attacks like this, but in the home we still rely largely on hope and ignorance.
If you are like me, you are clicking on fewer and fewer stories, recognizing that they are almost always something they don’t appear to be, and from folks we don’t want to fund. That’s bad for the industry, because that means we also are consuming fewer real stories and seeing fewer ads, and ads fund services like Facebook.
Wrapping Up: We Need to Call Fake News Propaganda and Eliminate It
To me, it doesn’t really matter if the person writing a fake story is a criminal, jokester or hostile foreign government. Their goal is to do me harm and damage either my finances, my reputation or my country. I don’t think any of them should go unpunished.
However, given that we are largely unable to go after a lot of these folks, what we need instead is to do a better job of identifying and eliminating the data they’re spreading before we, or people we care about, are tricked. Calling these efforts what they are — “propaganda” — could help us prioritize fixing this problem both sooner and more aggressively, and that is the direction I think we should take.
Using advanced technology, which increasingly is used to create these hostile propaganda efforts, we can mitigate this to a great extent, but these efforts will be resourced properly only if the threat is made real, and “propaganda” as a label gets us there. “Fake News” doesn’t.
Being fooled, at the very least, can make us appear stupid. At the most, it can cause us almost immeasurable harm. Neither should be acceptable.
One of my guilty pleasures is watching all the “Crazy Russian Driver” videos on YouTube. However, as I watch these things I’m always reminded that I should have some kind of a dash camera so I can catch some of the crazy stuff that goes on when I’m driving. I’ve found a lot of interesting products over the years. Most are junk, or they’re too expensive, or they’re way too hard to set up and use.
The Magellan MiVue 420 DashCam seems to fall into a sweet spot. It is relatively inexpensive at around US$140. It is very easy to setup and learn to use, and it captures a decent high-definition picture.
Like most products in this class, it has a collision monitor that automatically will capture an accident. When you leave the car, it will monitor activity and maybe capture the neighbor or neighbor’s kid who has been keying your car.
Two things that it does that are somewhat unique for the class are alert you if you are too close to the car in front of you, or if you’re exiting your lane. When built into a car, I’ve often found similar features more annoying than helpful. You can turn them off, but they could be useful on a long drive to alert you if you are falling asleep or have taken your eyes off the road long enough to be dangerous.
Now, where I’d mostly use this is for off-road trips or group drives where I’d typically use something like a GoPro today. However, this is cheaper, and it will catch accidents. I’d watch it with kids because they have been known to want to capture unsafe driving — but if they are going to do that anyway, this would be a ton safer than having them hold a phone. (Frankly I think any kid who has this kind of issue should be taken to a hospital and visit some car accident victims. I know that gave me religion and perspective when I was a kid.)
I would be tempted to hardwire this in long term, as running the long power wire can be kind of a pain and detracts from the appearance, but at least it comes with a long wire to make it work.
In the end, I found the MiVue 420 DashCam did a better job of what I wanted done than my old action camera did, and for a very reasonable price. As a result, it is my product of the week.