Saturday, February 18, 2017

Professional and Citizen Journalism in the Age of Fake News

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

With all the talk of "fake news" in the news lately, people are starting to look around for guidance on how to judge news worthiness. Some folks are all to happy to supply it, which has led to some homegrown efforts to make sense of news bias and the wildly tossed around accusation of "fake news".  Below is a graphic that recently turned up on the internet to classify news, and quasi-news outlets. 



This graphic, which attempts to depict the quality and bias of news media outlets, appeared on Facebook. It may look interesting, but it is really misleading on many levels. The creator of this work is unknown That is enough to dismiss all credibility.  Furthermore,  nothing is known about what criteria the graph maker used or how vigorously those criteria were applied?  

The very premise behind this depiction is flawed as well. The editorial leanings of a news outlet is an independent variable. It isn't directly related to journalistic accuracy. Accuracy is a less subjective measure than political leanings. It is also objectively measurable, unlike the idea of quality, as the term is used on the Y axis. It would be a mistake to assume, for example, that the Wall Street Journal has inaccurate or poor quality reporting just because it has a conservative editorial board. Some conservative bias is evident in its editorials and also in what it covers or considers newsworthy. But the choice of content is a bias that is present in every news outlet. In fact, the choice and treatment of content are the leading criteria for judging a news site as conservative or liberal. This bias, however, does not render the content false or inaccurate. Any two witnesses of any event will give different accounts. This doesn't mean they are lying or making it up. It is only when obviously important facts or events are intentionally ignored, as in a news blackout, that the omission becomes an egregious bias error.

There are also sites included above, like The Daily Kos, that aren't strictly news sites. It has a very left-leaning following for sure. Some of the writing on this site comes from professional journalists, or freelance professionals, but a lot of often accurate reporting comes from non-professional journalists as well. Hybrid information websites like The Daily Kos blur the line between professional journalism and citizen journalism. This blurring of the line between the professional and citizen journalist is happening more broadly as well. Amanda Harper's article, Citizen Journalism vs. Professional Journalism, is a good primer on this topic. 

Why does it matter if a journalist is a professional or not? 

The theoretical distinction is sharp, even if the practical distinction is sometime blurry.  A profession, any profession, is characterized as a field of employment requiring specialized skills where members abide by a common set of standards and moral principles that are monitored and enforced by peer review and peer pressure. To be a profession there must be an organizational structure to review , refine, promulgate and enforce standards among its members. Being a member of a profession is a broader obligation than being an employee of any particular business or agency. Professionals are obligated to push back against employers or clients who would compromise their professional principles or standards.

So even, if I, as a blogger, hold myself to the same high standards as professional journalists, I am still not a professional journalist. I am not subject to the same journalistic peer review and enforcement procedures.  I am not under editorial supervision and I am not under a news agency's employment. I am merely a citizen journalist. I am on my own.

So is it OK to call myself a citizen journalist? I think so, providing I am aware that there are serious caveats. The question brings up a very tricky point worth exploring.  Do "civilian journalists" have the same constitutional protections as other working journalists? Specifically, are bloggers protected by their states shield law?

Shield laws allow the public press limited ability to protect the anonymity of its sources. This protection is a constitutional interpretation of what a "free press" implies. Some form of shield law exists in every state with the exception of Wyoming. If there was not respect for the confidentiality of their sources, journalists could be reduced to law enforcement snitches. That would severely hamper their ability to gather the news. In fact, without this protection the press could not serve as a check on government power. It is because of this freedom that the press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. Regardless of how you feel about the press, their ability to protect their sources is really the last barricade between the us and government tyranny.

While the courts may show some deference to citizen journalists on a case by case bases, as a class they do not have the same constitutional standing. Specifically, there are currently no shield law to protect a blogger's sources in the United States.  This is partly because they cannot be held to the same high standards as professional journalist who work in a peers group within a recognized news outlet. The editorial supervision and peer milieu help to challenge and reinforce professional standards.

 While I may hold myself to the same high standard as professional journalist, you have no reason to believe me. I am not subject to the same peer review and peer pressures.  And governments, have some reasons to draw a bright line between professional journalists and current events bloggers. It would cause chaos if every person engaged in shady dealings could simply start a blog and claim journalistic privileges as a way to thwart law enforcement. That said, all of us have significant constitutional protections of free speech, free association and unreasonable searches and seizures. So if I respectfully videotape police publicly arresting someone on the street, for example, I can't be forced to stop videotaping to to destroy the recording.

On the other hand, if you are a whistle blower and want to assure anonymity you had better talk to a professional journalists. You might first want to check on the shield laws in your state as well.

Given the changing nature of society, the internet and the press, it may be time to rethink ways to strengthen protections for citizen journalist who increasingly provide invaluable news reporting to the more traditional news organizations.  As financial constraints continue to shrink the size of news bureaus around the country, citizen journalism have become an increasingly important supplement. Who knows? Maybe in the future citizen journalists might be trained and licensed to establish their integrity.  Until then it's reader beware.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Mortal Night

Mortal Night
by Brian T.  Lynch

Sometimes at night, alone, awake
Entombed in darkness, laid in state
While yet my breath the stillness breaks
Oh fragile heart, my soul awaits

And glories of this mortal veil
Pale in certainty of breath to fail
The event horizon of the flesh
From certain life to certain death
Discerned, not seen with naked eyes
Nor what beyond horizon lies

Yet having sensed the dark abyss
And felt it's silence in the night
I cleave to senses yet undimmed
Now more exquisite in morning light

New breath, new life, this feel of flesh
This splendor passion of beating heart
What privileged state this conscious spark
Today to claim, today to start

(A poem I found among my papers that I wrote 42 years ago, back when I was writing poetry.)

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Rise of FAKE, Fake News Checker Websites, Are They Russian Cyber-Ops?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

It all began with a conversation on Facebook with a conservative friend of mine and ardent Trump supporter. I had posted an article about Erik Prince. He is the founder of Blackwater, a solders for hire firm that is also providing very militarized training programs for our domestic police departments. I was surprised to learn that Betsy DeVos was his sister. The story is about him being a quiet Trump advisor.

My friend immediate responded  with a link to FakeNewsChecker.com that lists Democracy Now as a fake news site. I went to the FakeNewsChecker site for myself and saw that it lists perhaps hundreds of new sites as "fake news" sites. I was suspicious about this site as I am confident that Democracy Now, while progressive in its editorial decisions, present fully accurate, verifiable information.

Also overdue, is a discussion of what makes news "fake" news. In my view it is willfully false information presented as news either for profit or propaganda. It isn't mistakes in reporting or accurate reporting, but selective reporting. It isn't obviously intended satire either.

What follows it our Facebook discussion and my findings about the rise of fake, fake news checker sites here and abroad.

ME: WOW!!! This a really scary. I didn't know


The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill has revealed Betsy DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater, has been quietly advising Trump’s…
DEMOCRACYNOW.ORG

Democracy Now has been added to the growing list of untrustworthy and fake news sources.
FAKENEWSCHECKER.COM

Me: Thank you for sharing this. I. Was unaware until now that there was a fake, fake news reporting site. Democracy now is Progressive in terms of its editorial content but it is one of the most respected news sites on the web for its accuracy in reporting.

Friend : Again, We have to agree to disagree.

ME: your discovery of the Fakenewschecker site and it's obvious flaws lead me to do some checking of my own.
First you will notice that there is no ownership information or "about us" menu on the Fakenewschecker.com website. This is a sure sign that the owners want to remain anonymous, not a good thing for a site that claims to check facts. There are no links or statements or any other evidence of an attempt at transparency. There is no discussion of what criteria or process the site uses to make hits findings. There are no references to source material used.

Next I learned that fake news checker sites are popping up in other countries lately. There is growing concern around the world that this may be a coordinated attempt to undermine confidence in news gathering. There is some evidence in Europe linking these sites to Russia (See a portion of an article below).

Then I looked the domain up on WhoIs.com. The site was only created on November 17, 2016. This is very recent. The time it would take to thoroughly vet the content of so many "fake news" sights far exceeds the three month window that the website has been active.  


 
Finally, you will notice that the registrar for "FAKENEWSCHECKER.COM" is 1&1 INTERNET SE.  When you go to this registrar's website (http://registrar.1and1.info)  you discover that the site is registered in Germany or Austria. Check out the flags below for 1&1 Internet SE. The first is Germany and the second is Austria. When you go to these sites the writing is all German. This is odd in my opinion because the owners are both secret and foreign based. I don't have the skills or resources to track this suspicions that this is a Russian cyber-op, but I wouldn't put much faith in the veracity of this site.


Below is a clip from an article on the recent appearance of fake, fake news checker sites. (Also see 1/16/2017 addendum below it.)




ADDENDUM:  2/16/2017 - Here it is just days after I first posted the above article, Donald Trump goes on a tangent impugning the honesty of the press. These rants, along with the political rallies he continues to hold, are red meat to his base. If it is true that Russian covert cyber-operations help influence the election in his favor, as our Intelligence Community has claimed, then is it possible they are still supporting him while in office? Is anyone looking into this? I hope so.

  http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/319914-trump-blasts-out-of-control-media-dishonesty


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Never before has human society experienced anything like it. Depending on who you talk to, algorithms are now, or are about to be, significant drives of human culture. (If you are hearing this for the first time from me, we are both way behind the curve on this topic.)

Algorithms are powerful programs that increasingly influence an individual's world view. Their ubiquitous use may explain our growing political polarity, our growing knowledge gap in current affairs and even why our neighbors seem radicalized. That's not including their impact in other area of our life, from high speed stock trading to NSA cyber spying. But for impressionable or vulnerable individuals searching the internet, the impacts can be devastating.

Internet companies like Google and Facebook are among those who rely on algorithms to provide the content that individuals user most likely to want to see. When you search for something on Google, or like something on Facebook, for instance, you develop a record of your preferences that results in you seeing more and more of the content you prefer over time. This essentially creates a positive feedback loop. That is, each time you search for similar terms, Googles algorithms amplifies the results to bring you more and more of the related content in your search results. In other words, what we want to find is what we tend to see more of in a self reinforcing cycles. This will eventually alter our view of how we see the world. 

Dylann Foot Roof is a cases in point. You will recall he was a 21 year old white male who killed nine people in a 2015 massacre at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  Authorities found his manifesto that showed he was involved in white nationalist websites on the internet for about three years. A recent report by the Southern Policy Law Center details how Google search engine algorithms served a key part in radicalizing this young man who grew up in an otherwise stable, normal home.  Can the effects of algorithms also help explain how citizens living here can become radicalized terrorists for ISIS?

Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published or censored in our search for knowledge on the internet. It is a powerful force with unforeseen consequences at best. Just as easily they can be used for sinister purposes as well if we aren't careful.

The following are excerpts from a report presented by the Center for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) entitled, Ethic of Algorithms. It serves as a good primer on what these powerful programs are and can do.  CIHR promotes academic research about technology and society to inform public and academic debates.  

  • Algorithms are increasingly used  in hiring (and firing), deciding who gets a job and who doesn't. It is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
  • Algorithms influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. by channeling our attention.
  • Facebook algorithms decide what we see or don't see. Newsfeed algorithm filters content without our knowing why.
  • Facebook won't say how the algorithm works, It's proprietary. Without knowing the exact code, nobody can evaluate how your newsfeed is composed.
  • Complex algorithms are incomprehensible to outsiders but they have values, biases, and potential discrimination built in
  • Without algorithms many applications would be unusable. We need them to cope with the enormous amounts of data. But we must be aware how they work
  • Algorithms are not neutral, but rather they perpetuate the prejudices of their creators. 


They must be known to the user

"Since algorithms make increasingly important decisions about our lives, users need to be informed about them. Knowledge about automated decision-making in everyday services is still very limited among consumers. Raising awareness should be at the heart of the debate about ethics of algorithms."
We are already at the point where regulating computer algorithms is essential for our collective well being, yet most people aren't even aware the threats and problems they pose. I know I wasn't until very recently. I hope this brief blog posting and the links above encourage others to explore this topic further.
(NOTE: The second paragraph at the top was added on Feb. 13, 2017 for further clarity.)

For an excellent TED Talk on Algorithms and their impact in daily life, see the following video:  http://www.thewayoftheweb.net/algorithms-rule-our-lives-for-good-and-bad/

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Police Blow-back on a Judge who Calls Out the Police Union

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW (and former civil servant)

The judges statistics and the goals being attempted in the reform are absolutely correct. Civilian oversight is a false term, however. The police are civilians. They are us. They are not solders or foreign peacekeepers. They are certainly not above the law. They work for their local community. They are civil servants who should have the same respect as most other civil services and no special privileges beyond the necessary latitude required to keep themselves safe on the job. 

Statistically speaking, police work is not one of the top ten most dangerous jobs in the country. That isn't meant to downplay the significant risks they face, but those risks aren't excessive relative to other working men and woman. Police in other industrialized countries manage to keep police action homicides to levels well below 10 times the US numbers. Germany has a higher rate of police action homicides than other Western Europe countries. They average about 5 per year. Adjusted for population that means, if they were our size, there would be about 20 police action homicides per year. so there has to be room to improve our policing procedures. 

While African-Americas are over represented in police action homicides (and this is a big concern of mine), the overall number killed, over 1,100 victims per year, is the bigger picture. Besides, most of the problems with departments are confined to particular areas or departments. The vast majority of departments are perfectly fine. The public should keep this in mind when talking about police reform and police officers shouldn't be painting reform advocates with the same broad brush either. Let's just admit the statistics prove we have work to do and get about the business of fixing this problem.

PS: Read the comments in this article.
Seattle, Washington - U.S. District Judge James Robart recently expressed a…
BLUELIVESMATTER.BLUE|BY BACK THE BLUE

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Few Facts and Much Innuendo on Russian Election Tampering So Far

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

First, let me say from the start I have little doubt that Russia is capable of carrying out operations to mess with our elections. What I write here is not a defense of Russia, but a clarification of what the US government has released so far regarding the US intelligence agencies assessments, and press reactions. I see a tendency by the media to over state what has actually been said. It seems possible that the degree of Russian influence over the election is less significant than what we have been lead to believe.

For example, Russian hacking of the DNC, and the WikiLeaks publication of DNC emails, is linked together in the public mind. Google it all you want, however, and you won't find any "official" US government claim that documents published by Wikileaks were obtained from Russia or Russian sources. You can find a clear denial from Julian Assange that any of the emails published by WikiLeaks came from Russia or any other government source.

There is a steady stream of innuendo against Wikileaks and Julian Assange. The following is an explanations of how hacked emails got released to the public. Pay close attention to what The Hill is actually saying (I numbered the points for discussion below:

1) The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence publicly blamed Russia for the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other political organizations this year. 
2) “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” the [above referenced] statement read. 
3) Security experts have long believed that the previously-unknown hacker Guccifer 2.0 was a front for Russian interests, despite his claims to be a single Romanian hacker. He — or they — published the DNC and DCCC documents on a Wordpress blog set up shortly after the hacks.

4) DCLeaks.com, which published the Powell emails, claims to be American but is also thought to be a Russian intelligence front.

5) The anti-secrecy platform WikiLeaks also published the DNC emails, but would not reveal where it got them.

(http://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/299874-obama-administration-publicly-blames-russia-for-dnc-hack)

Beginning with the third statement above, it summarizes a case being made that Guccifer 2.0 has a direct connection with the Russians. You can read fairly compelling arguments for this claim elsewhere. The fourth statement ties DCLeaks.com to Russian intelligence with respect to the Colin Powell emails, a lesser know breach of a less relevant set of email. The fifth statement doesn't attempt to tie WikiLeaks to Russian directly, but manages to taunts Julian Assange by contrasting his "anti-secrecy platform" with his not revealing from where his DNC emails came.

The Hill's reporting in the first two statements above, however, is really misleading. There is general agreement that Russia is among those that hacked the DNC. Hacking political organizations is rampant. All governments do it all the time, including our own. But notice how the Hill worded their reporting of this joint statement. They say that the USIC statement blames Russia for "the hack of the Democratic National Committee." (emphasis mine)

Was there only a single hack of the DNC? Did the joint statement actually say this? This reporting gives a false impression. It has been widely reported, and confirmed, that the DNC  and the RNC were both hacked multiple times. Here below is an excerpt the actual language in the U.S. Intelligence Community's joint statement. Compare it to what The Hill reported:

" The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. "

https://www.dhs.gov/news/2016/10/07/joint-statement-department-homeland-security-and-office-director-national

What is and isn't being said here? You can read this joint statement in full and you will find no specific mention of the DNC. The compromised e-mails were clearly from various "institutions" and "people," both plural terms. You will see that "recent compromises" is also plural, not singular. You may notice that compromises seems to refers to the "disclosures" of allegedly hacked e-mails. It doesn't directly state that Russian intelligence was the actual hacker. Most importantly, the statement says that the release of these e-mails to websites "like" those mentioned is "consistent with" Russia's "methods and motivations." The statement doesn't directly accuse Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks or WikiLeaks of any complicity with the Russian government.

So, to restate the facts in this USIC joint statement, as I would report:

According to a joint statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on behalf of the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC), e-mails from various U.S. political organizations and people were allegedly stolen by hackers. The contents of these stolen emails were publically release by websites such as Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks.com. The USIC believes that the manner in which these e-mails were allegedly stolen and publically released is consistent with the way Russia does things, and Russia has the motivation to do these thing. The USIC says it is "confident" that Russia directed this activity.

When you accurately report the facts released by the USIC statement, it becomes clear that little new information was actually provided. Furthermore, the implied logic of the statement is that because what Russia does looks like what happened, and because they wanted it to happen, the did it. This is seriously flawed logic.

Hopefully, the USIC , Congress and the President will do a better job in the future to present actual body of significant facts to support their allegations of Russian meddling in our elections. It is too serious an allegation to conceal evidence from the public. I am keeping an open mind, but the American people deserve to see the facts.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Illusionist in the White House

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I have had to work with people like Donald Trump before. Not folks as materially successful of course, but just as wily, and with very similar personalities. It was my job to extract accurate information from them to assess whether or not their children were at risk of harm. There was always a lot at stake, so simply taking them at face value was out of the question. These interviews were among the most difficult and exhausting of my career. It was like engaging in an emotional game of three-dimensional chess. Extracting even the most innocuous facts was challenging. The experiences, however, had the effect of inoculating me from the expert emotional manipulations that are their genius.

Donald Trump spoke directly to the emotions of many voters during his campaign. It was a campaign like no other, but I recognized him right away. He constructed an elaborate emotional tableau, devoid of factual distractions, that resonated with a frustrated, angry electorate. People read into him whatever they believed. Other candidates and the beltway press tried but could not penetrate his invisible cloak with facts, logic or reason. His burgeoning movement of follower would not be dissuaded. Eventually, enough people aligned their feelings about him with the well crafted self-portrait he created through his speeches. He got just enough votes in just the right places to win the Presidency.

So here we are, a people habituated to the ubiquitous marketing assaults we succumb to every day, unprepared to see through the marketing cloud of Mr. Trump. Now we have a new President about who we really know very little.

Donald Trump. The marketer-in-chief. Master illusionist. And because no one could pin anything on him during the campaigned, he is free to define his term in office any way he likes. 

But beware! His disdain for the press, verbal assaults on journalists and his thank-you rally's around the country are not short lived anomalies. They are harbingers of how he will maintain his power. The deflection of facts and the creation of strong, emotionally evocative impressions is how he operates.

Here is one way to help visualize what is happening. People like Donald Trump have the ability to do with language what a scrim does on a theatrical stage. A scrim is a special type of fabric that can be translucent, transparent, or opaque depending on how stage lights are directed. You can project any image you want on the front of it and it will mask everything from view behind it. When you only light the objects behind it, the scrim disappears like a pane of glass.

Donald Trump created a campaign, and is now building a Presidency behind a giant scrim. When he takes office we will only see what he chooses to project or to reveal. He will continue to divide us and play our emotions like the maestro that he is. My fear is that our only hope of revealing what he is up to will be either by taking control of the lighting board or storming the stage.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Of Poverty and Proverbs - An Excuse to Blame the Poor

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."


There is some wisdom in this old English proverb. It seems obvious that our survival instinct compels us to use our skills to meet our basic needs. The point being made by this proverb is that It is  more worthwhile to teach someone to do something for themselves than to do it for them.

As a nugget of wisdom, however, the expression is also insufficient. It assumes that resource and circumstances are otherwise favorable for the fisherman. The proverb shouldn't be taken too literally or applied too broadly, but it often is. This is especially the case when it is applied to social welfare.

Specifically, it becomes a problem when policy makers believe that all you have to do is give someone the skills they need and they can do the rest on their own. It's the notion that skills plus self-determination are sufficient for success. This reductive thinking forms the rationale behind the conservative politics of poverty. It's destructive corollary is a belief that when skills have been properly transferred, yet success remains elusive, the fault lies within the character of the person. It is a belief that fails to consider scarce resources or other barriers beyond a person's control.

To make this point, take the proverbial fisherman as an example and ask yourself the following question: What else, other than skills, might be required for the fisherman to catch his daily meal?

You won't get very far down your list before you see the point here. The fisherman's success still requires the right conditions, many of which are beyond his personal control. And some of the conditions are dependent on social factors, or environmental factors over which we have societal influence. Examples of these include having clean water, allowing public access, or requiring a fishing license.

The devil is always in the details. There are no simple formulaic ways to think about poverty. There is only the need to critically evaluate the impact of policies that influence everyone's well being, and to seek out, and overcome the barriers people face every day to putting food on their table. Do that and every able bodied person will act with self-determination.

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