Demystifying Foreign Election Interference

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a declassified report detailing efforts by foreign actors to influence and interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. The key finding of the report: Russia sought to undermine confidence in our democratic processes to support then President Donald J. Trump. Iran launched similar efforts but to diminish Trump’s chances of getting reelected. And China stayed out of it altogether.  

(Source: ODNI)

Make sure to read the full declassified report titled Intelligence Community Assessment of Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections releasedby the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at https://www.odni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

Background

On September 12, 2018 then President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13848 to address foreign interference in U.S. elections. In essence, it authorizes an interagency review to determine whether an interference has occurred. In the event of foreign interference in a U.S. election the directive orders to create an impact report to trigger sanctions against (1) foreign individuals and (2) nation states. A comprehensive breakdown of the directive including the process of imposing sanctions can be found here. I will only focus on the findings of the interagency review laid out in the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) pursuant to EO 13848 (1)(a). The ICA is limited to intelligence reporting and other information available as of December 31, 2020.

Findings

The former President touted American voters before his own election in 2016, during his presidency and beyond the 2020 presidential elections with unsubstantiated claims of foreign election interference that would disadvantage his reelection chances. In Trump’s mind, China sought to undermine his chances to be reelected to office while he downplayed the role of Russia or Iran. The recently released ICA directly contradicts Trump’s claims. Here’s the summary per country:

Russia

  • Russia conducted influence operations targeting the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections authorized by Vladimir Putin
  • Russia supported then incumbent Donald J. Trump and aimed to undermine confidence in then candidate Joseph R. Biden
  • Russia attempted to exploit socio-political divisions through spreading polarized narratives without leveraging persistent cyber efforts against critical election infrastructure

The ICA finds a theme in Russian intelligence officials pushing misinformation about President Biden through U.S. media organizations, officials and prominent individuals. Such influence operations follow basic money laundering structures: (1) creation and dissemination of a false and misleading narrative, (2) conceal its source through layering in multiple media outlets involving independent (unaware) actors, and (3) integrating the damning narrative into the nation states official communication after the fact. A recurring theme was the false claim of corrupt ties between President Biden and Ukraine. These began spreading as early as 2014. 

Russian attempts to sow discord among the American people took place through narratives that amplified misinformation about the election process and its systems, e.g. undermining the integrity of mail-in ballots or highlighting technical failures and exceptions of misconduct. In a broader sense, topics around pandemic related lockdown measures or racial injustice or conservative censorship were exploited to polarize the affected groups. While these efforts required Russia’s cyber offensive units to take action, the actual evidence for a persistent cyber influence operation was not conclusive. The ICA categorized Russian actions as general intelligence gathering to inform Russian foreign policy rather than specifically targeting critical election infrastructure.

Iran

  • Iran conducted influence operations targeting the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections likely authorized by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
  • Unlike Russia, Iran did not support either candidate but aimed to undermine confidence in then incumbent Donald J. Trump
  • Iran did not interfere in the 2020 presidential elections as defined as activities targeting technical aspects of the election

The ICA finds Iran leveraged similar influence tactics as Russia targeting the integrity of the election process presumably in an effort to steer the public’s attention away from Iran and towards domestic issues around pandemic related lockdown measures or racial injustice or conservative censorship. However, Iran relied more notably on cyber-enabled offensive operations. These included aggressive spoofing emails disguised as to be sent from the Proud Boys group to intimidate liberal and left-leaning voters. Spear phishing emails sent to former and current officials aimed to gain impactful information and access to critical infrastructure. A high volume of inauthentic social media accounts was used to create divisive political narratives. Some of these accounts dated back to 2012.     

China

  • China did not conduct influence operations or efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential elections

The ICA finds China did not actively interfere in the 2020 presidential elections. While the rationale in their assessment is largely based on political reasoning and foreign policy objectives, the report provides no data points for me to evaluate. The report does not offer insights into the role of Chinese Technology platforms repeatedly targeted by the former President. A minority view by the National Intelligence Office for Cyber (NIO) holds the opinion that China did deploy some cyber offensive operations to counter anti-Chinese policies. Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe leads this minority view expressed in a scathing memorandum that concludes the ICA fell short in their analysis with regard to China.

Recommendations

The ICA offers several insights into a long, strenuous election cycle. Its sober findings help to reformulate U.S. foreign policy and redefine domestic policy objectives. While this report is unable to detail all available intelligence and other information it offers some solace to shape future policies. For example:

  1. Cybersecurity – increased efforts to update critical election infrastructure has probably played a key role in the decreased efforts around cyber offensive operations. Government and private actors must continue to focus on cybersecurity, practise cyber hygiene and conduct digital audits to improve cyber education
  2. Media Literacy – increased efforts to educate the public about political processes. This includes private actors to educate their users about potential abuse on their platforms. Continuing programs to depolarize ideologically-charged groups through empathy and regulation is a cornerstone for a more perfect union

Additional and more detailed recommendations to improve the resilience of American elections and democratic processes can be found in the Joint Report of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security on Foreign Interference Targeting Election Infrastructure or Political Organization, Campaign, or Candidate Infrastructure Related to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections

The Universe, Explained By Neil deGrasse Tyson

When I think about the universe, distant galaxies and the concept of time I feel easily overwhelmed. The cosmos seems detached from my earthly, daily life with my meaningless human problems. To understand it seems to require complex mathematics and in-depth proficiency in advanced physics. This often leads to a feeling of intimidation. Something observed throughout human history. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a master of translating the comprehensive and complex theories of astrophysics into layman’s terms. He’s quite the opposite of being intimidated when it comes to the universe. With his concise and intriguing book Astrophysics For People In A Hurry he offers an in-route for us mere mortals to learn more about the universe and by extension – us. 

I generally don’t like hardcover editions but this one is in a perfect size to page ratio, which only increased my excitement. Appropriate reader’s break points are strategically placed every other twenty pages. This creates a welcoming reader’s feel of brevity of a book that is already edited down to just 208 pages. Rest assured though Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers on his reputation to explain the science of the universe as a human endeavor: the first few chapters cover the origins of our story. Explaining the big bang theory that is not a TV show with an historic account enriched with analogies such as

“we are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.”

Against this backdrop, Neil deGrasse Tyson continues to detail the concepts of orbiting planets, which form galaxies. Earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy. Examining galaxy clusters with basic laws of physics revealed dark matter “which makes no assertion that anything is missing, yet nonetheless implies that some new kind of matter exists, waiting to be discovered.” And if planets, galaxies, multiverses and dark matter aren’t blowing your mind already then dark energy might just get you there. Dark energy is presumably “a quantum effect where the vacuum of space, instead of being empty, actually seethes with particles and their antimatter counterparts. They pop in and out of existence in pairs, and don’t last long enough to be measured.”

Next, Neil deGrasse Tyson does us all a favor by refreshing our memory of the periodic table in a short chemistry of the universe breakdown. It’s remarkable that I could unclutter some semblance of understanding throughout this section having loathed chemistry class in high school. Did you know that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the second largest consumer of helium second only to the U.S. military? Or that uranium, neptunium and plutonium all follow one another in the periodic table and all lend their names to later discovered planets? Except for Pluto, of course, who was added as a planet under false pretenses assuming it’d be equal in size and mass to our earth (It isn’t. And Pluto is not a planet.) In his concluding remarks, Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates the humbling effects of cosmology on our existence as we humans are a mere smudge on the hourglass of time. He offers a philosophical way forward to set aside human conflict for our drive to explore and grow our minds.

Astrophysics For People In A Hurry is a page-turner, but not as easy as one would hope. Some preexisting knowledge will help to follow the astrophysics theories presented in this book. Albeit some theories were over my head anyway. Nonetheless, the message of this book is not so much about feeling overwhelmed and intimidated but an openness to learning, exploring and to embrace the unknown. Neil deGrasse Tyson does well communicate that we’re not just part of this universe, but its core ingredients are within us. We are the universe. 

I’ll leave you with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s eloquent yet mind-boggling answer to the question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” 

One Flew Over The Bitcoin Mine

Rarely have I found myself more confused about technology than after reading George Gilder’s “Life After Google – The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy.” A book, supposedly, on the very technology of big data and the blockchain.

In twenty-five chapters across 276 pages, the author attempts to show off but not discuss, how the internet as we know it came into our daily lives. Gilder uses a wealth of buzzwords without ever defining them for the reader. The compounding effect of broad terminology, out-of-place analogies that seemingly disrupt the storytelling, make this book a dense and frustrating read. Even for the tech-savvy. He moves from monetary theory to artificial intelligence to silicon valley startup culture without skipping a beat. Until the underwhelming end of the book, I failed to understand the author’s rage against Google and new, emerging technology companies. In the absence of a clear theme of this book, I tried to theorize that the author set out to warn against Google’s free products, attempts to predict the end of the free product business model as the economy is moving towards cryptographic ledgers, most notably blockchain technology and decentralized cryptocurrency. However, Gilder then compares bitcoin to gold and points out the flaws of a scarce resource to become a stable coin in an economy. How this all ties together or even argues for a future with a decreased need of big data processing remains unclear. Why he chose not to discuss cybersecurity as the most potent threat to fiduciaries within a digitalized, capitalistic system remains unclear. This book is incoherent while being overly focused on ideological aspects. It would have served the readers to restrict the discussion to the actual technology.

With all that in mind, I feel this book has some minuscule merit for a philosophical audience without much need for technical detail. Gilder delivers on creating an entry-level overview for future exploration of blockchain technology, large scale computing and its implementation within an economic system that is supported by for-profit corporations. But beyond that, I feel, I am left more confused than enlightened about the interplay between data processing within financial markets, artificial intelligence deployed to equalize market barriers and blockchain as technology that would enable a seismic shift towards decentralized currencies. 

Why You Can’t Quit Social Media

What is the fuel of our social media habits? To answer that question researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles analyzed user behavior across established social media platforms. They offer insights into user habit formation, but also explain the dynamics and technology that prevent users from gaining control over the daily-use habits on social media.

tl;dr

If platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are the engines of social media use, what is the gasoline? The answer can be found in the psychological dynamics behind consumer habit formation and performance. In fact, the financial success of different social media sites is closely tied to the daily-use habits they create among users. We explain how the rewards of social media sites motivate user habit formation, how social media design provides cues that automatically activate habits and nudge continued use, and how strong habits hinder quitting social media. Demonstrating that use habits are tied to cues, we report a novel test of a 2008 change in Facebook design, showing that it impeded posting only of frequent, habitual users, suggesting that the change disrupted habit automaticity. Finally, we offer predictions about the future of social media sites, highlighting the features most likely to promote user habits.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Habits and the electronic herd: The psychology behind social media’s successes and failures by Ian A. Anderson and Wendy Wood at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/arcp.1063

(Source: Getty Images/iStockphoto)


Social media platforms serve our communities in a variety of functions. Anybody can participate, share stories or become a community leader by creating user-generated content that is available to a specific group of people or the entire public. Connecting with people is human, but the frequency, means and reach as well as the how and who we connect with is not. In particular the dichotomy of conflicting social interests and user habits is discussed in this paper, which explains on a high level fundamental social media platform’s need to draw on user habits and how these habits are cultivated by sophisticated technology. In  fact, social media platforms are designed to encourage habit formation through repeat use. This is demonstrated by its ever-expanding options to find new people to connect and share content, new entertainment products and means to build larger online communities. This is to generate consistent revenue through effective, targeted marketing of its users.

One aspect of the paper explores whether frequent use of social media is habitual use and if overuse is tantamount to an addiction. What are the contributing factors that make people form a habit to frequently check their social media profiles? How can you manage these habits more effectively? What does it take to rewire these habits? The researchers found that users who post more frequently also reported increased automation of their actions. In other words, these users logged onto Facebook or Twitter posted about something without deliberately thinking about the act of posting itself. Some of the factors that contribute to forming a habit are the repeated steps it takes to participate on social media. For example, the login process, posting original content, exploring new content from others, liking, sharing or discussing content. In psychology this phenomenon is called ideomotor response wherein a user unconsciously completes an order of steps to perform a process. Of course the formation of a habit is not only due to repetition but rewards of continuous use. Likes, shares and general interaction with people on social media are a double-edged sword for it brings us closer together while also appealing to our subconscious need for affirmation. The former helps us to build positive attitudes linked with the particular platform. Whereas the latter often remains unrecognized until the habit is already established in one’s daily routine. Initial rewards subside fast, however, as these motivations are replaced by habitual use that is linked to a specific gain arising from a certain community engagement. These habits, once formed and established, are hard to overcome as demonstrated by an experiment with well-known, sugared beverages: 

“In an experiment demonstrating habit persistence despite conflicting attitudes, consumers continued to choose their habitual sugared beverages for a taste test even after reading a persuasive message that convinced them of the health risks of sugar”. 

It must be noted that social media use is not the same as drinking soda pop, smoking cigarettes or snorting cocaine. Social media use is also not a mindless, repetitive action. Rather it is a composition of different, highly individualized behaviors, attitudes and motivations that compound depending on the particular use case. For example a community organizer who uses Facebook Groups to bring together and coordinate high-school students across a county to play pickup ultimate frisbee will establish different habitual behaviors from someone using social media purely to connect online with a closed-circle of family and friends. The researchers found that active engagement on social media is linked to positive subjective experiences of well-being. Users who are more passive, scroll and read only reported lower levels of life satisfaction. Scrolling introduces an element of uncertainty for the user. Thus it is among the top rewards that don’t require active engagement. Unexpected posts tend to surprise users with sometimes highly emotional content such as misinformation or community nostalgia. Needless to state, controversial content tends to spread fast and far increasing the reward for engagement. Moreover it entrenches habitual use for users to come back to discover more emotional content.

To put this into perspective: social media habits form because the platform highlights signals that makes us feel good and keep us engaged. Preexisting emotional and social needs are captured by an easy process to use the platform. Notifications, likes, comments and shares increase participatory experiences that emulate real-world communities. Reciprocity between family, friends and others as well as elements of uncertainty are adjusted based on tailored content delivery through sophisticated algorithms. These lines of code ensure that once a user establishes a footprint on the platform, enough incentives are created to encourage and facilitate repeat use. Therefore further ingraining the platform in our daily lives, daily-use habits.

Maybe We Should Take A Break

In my thought provoking headline I challenge the notion that it is impossible to reduce or quit social media altogether. Note I wouldn’t want anybody to reduce or quit social media if it adds value to your life. Facebook is invaluable with regard to connecting with family and friends. YouTube or TikTok offer some of my favorite pastimes. And Twitter has become the newsstand of the 21st century. Nevertheless I believe this research paper is an important contribution to raise awareness of our daily habits, our time management and how we consume information. I would be remiss to not contemplate options to improve my social media diet. In psychology research the terminology for quitting a habit is coined discontinuance intention. Forming an intent to cease social media is a decision process at times overshadowed by feelings of regret, lack of alternative means to communicate across our social graph and general, societal inertia (take these Google search queries pictured below as an indicator for the impact of societal inertia). If you find yourself wanting to change your social media diet then be on the lookout for these factors: 

  • Familiarity Breeds Inaction: the longer a user is with a social media platform, the more likely feelings of familiarity and a sense of control prevent actions to reduce time spent on the platform
  • Habits Trump Intentions: everyday signals manifested in our phones, computers or environment trigger ideomotor responses to use social media despite social norms, resolutions etc. Remember the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is true for managing our social media habits
(Source: Interest over time on Google Trends for delete tiktok, delete facebook, delete twitter, delete instagram, delete snapchat – United States, Past 12 months)


Straight-forward self-control has been found to be an effective strategy to reduce the use of social media. Discipline to use social media with a specific intent and for a specific purpose equals freedom from habitual, time-consuming use. However, the researchers found that self-control is hard to maintain and a more effective strategy is changing the signals upon which we use social media. For example, leveraging silent or airplane mode on our phones, turning off push-notifications or unsubscribing from notification emails help to dig a moat between a healthy daily routine and mindless use of social media. Interestingly, the researchers found short term absences from social media, i.e. only a few days, is less effective than an entire week or longer breaks from social media. It will depend on an individual’s preferences, needs and benefits that must be carefully balanced against the inherent cost of social media use. Of course all of this is highly subjective. I recommend reading this well-written research paper as a start. It helps to formulate a balanced strategy for social media use and online habit management.

Threat Assessment: Chinese Technology Platforms

The American University Washington College of Law and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University created a working group to understand and assess the risks posed by Chinese technology companies in the United States. They propose a framework to better assess and evaluate these risks by focusing on the interconnectivity of threats posed by China to the US economy, national security and civil liberties.

tl;dr

The Trump administration took various steps to effectively ban TikTok, WeChat, and other Chinese-owned apps from operating in the United States, at least in their current forms. The primary justification for doing so was national security. Yet the presence of these apps and related internet platforms presents a range of risks not traditionally associated with national security, including data privacy, freedom of speech, and economic competitiveness, and potential responses raise multiple considerations. This report offers a framework for both assessing and responding to the challenges of Chinese-owned platforms operating in the United States.

Make sure to read the full report titled Chinese Technology Platforms Operating In The United States by Gary P. Corn, Jennifer Daskal, Jack Goldsmith, John C. Inglis, Paul Rosenzweig, Samm Sacks, Bruce Schneier, Alex Stamos, Vincent Stewart at https://www.hoover.org/research/chinese-technology-platforms-operating-united-states 

(Source: New America)

China has experienced consistent growth since opening its economy in the late 1970s. With its economy at about x14 today, this growth trajectory dwarfs the growth of the US economy, which increased at about x2 with the S&P 500 being its most rewarding driver at about x5 increase. Alongside economic power comes a thirst for global expansion far beyond the asian-pacific region. China’s foreign policy seeks to advance the Chinese one-party model of authoritarian capitalism that could pose a threat to human rights, democracy and the basic rule of law. US political leaders see these developments as a threat to their own US foreign policy of primacy but perhaps more important a threat to the western ideology deeply rooted in individual liberties. Needless to say that over the years every administration independent of political affiliation put the screws on China. A most recent example is the presidential executive order addressing the threat posed by social media video app TikTok. Given the authoritarian model of governance and the Chinese government’s sphere of control over Chinese companies their expansion into the US market raises concerns about access to critical data and data protection or cyber-enabled attacks on critical US infrastructure among a wide range of other threats to national security. For example:

Internet Governance: China is pursuing regulation to shift the internet from open to closed and decentralized to centralized control. The US government has failed to adequately engage international stakeholders in order to maintain an open internet but rather has authorized large data collection programs that emulate Chinese surveillance.

Privacy, Cybersecurity and National Security: The internet’s continued democratization encourages more social media and e-commerce platforms to integrate and connect features for users to enable multi-surface products. Mass data collection, weak product cybersecurity and the absence of broader data protection regulations can be exploited to collect data on domestic users, their behavior and their travel pattern abroad. It can be exploited to influence or control members of government agencies through targeted intelligence or espionage. Here the key consideration is aggregated data, which even in the absence of identifiable actors can be used to create viable intelligence. China has ramped up its offensive cyber operations beyond cyber-enabled trade or IP-theft and possesses the capabilities and cyber-weaponry to destabilize national security in the United States.

Necessity And Proportionality 

Considering mitigating the threat to national security by taking actions against Chinese owned- or controlled communications technology including tech products manufactured in China the working group suggests an individual case-based analysis. They attempt to address the challenge of accurately identifying the specific risk in an ever-changing digital environment with a framework of necessity and proportionality. Technology standards change at a breathtaking pace. Data processing reaches new levels of intimacy due to the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Thoroughly assessing, vetting and weighing a tolerance to specific risks are at the core of this framework in order to calibrate a chosen response to avoid potential collateral consequences.

The working group’s framework of necessity and proportionality reminded me of a classic lean six sigma structure with a strong focus on understanding the threat to national security. Naturally, as a first step they suggest accurately identifying the threat’s nature, credibility, imminence and the chances of the threat becoming a reality. I found this first step incredibly important because a failure to identify a threat will likely lead to false attribution and undermine every subsequent step. In the context of technology companies the obvious challenge is data collection, data integrity and detection systems to tell the difference. By that I imply a Chinese actor may deploy a cyber ruse in concert with the Chinese government to obfuscate their intentions. Following the principle of proportionality, step two is looking into the potential collateral consequence to the United States, its strategic partners and most importantly its citizens. Policymakers must be aware of the unintended path a policy decision may take once a powerful adversary like China starts its propaganda machine. Therefore this step requires policymakers to include thresholds for when a measure to mitigate a threat to national security outweighs the need to act. In particular inalienable rights such as the freedom of expression, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly must be upheld at all times as they are fundamental American values. To quote the immortal Molly IvinsMany a time freedom has been rolled back – and always for the same sorry reason: fear.” The third and final step concerns mitigation measures. In other words: what are we going to do about it? The working group landed on two critical factors: data and compliance. The former might be restricted, redirected or recoded to adhere to national security standards. The latter might be audited to not only identify vulnerabilities but further instill built-in cybersecurity and foster an amicable working-relationship. 

The Biden administration is faced with a daunting challenge to review and develop appropriate cyber policies that will address the growing threat from Chinese technology companies in a coherent manner that is consistent with American values. Only a broad policy response that is tailored to specific threats and focused on stronger cybersecurity and stronger data protection will yield equitable results. International alliances alongside increased collaboration to develop better privacy and cybersecurity measures will lead to success. However, the US must focus on their own strengths first, leverage their massive private sector to identify the specific product capabilities and therefore threats and attack vectors, before taking short-sighted, irreversible actions.

Just Try One More

And find out what you are made of. In her autobiography, American ultra-marathon open water swimmer and international swimming hall of famer, Penny Lee Dean describes overcoming life’s adversities and conquering the elements when you just try one more.

Water is an unforgiving element. The oceans are a hostile domain for man. Unlike land, where an ultra-marathon runner may rest during a grueling 100 mile race, the open waters have no mercy: stop swimming and you’ll die. This makes swimming an intriguing sport for many athletes. When it comes to long-distance swimming, however, there are few people as groundbreaking as Penny Lee Dean.

As a native of California, her childhood is marked by moving around several swimming clubs across the Bay Area. Through a series of setbacks within short-distance races Penny identified her talent and passion for endurance swimming. Those early days were filled with invaluable lessons to improve swimming style and to build up mental and physical strength. The longer the swims, the more she needed to acknowledge pain and then go beyond it.

“In marathon swimming, more than in any other sport, the mental attitude is at least 85 percent of the battle.”

What I found fascinating about Penny Lee Dean is her early dream of swimming the English Channel. This goal weaves like a red thread throughout this book. It guides and drives all her important decisions. And in order to make her dream become a reality she was fortunate enough to have an influential coach: Siga Rose. They quickly became a high-performing unit with Siga taking Penny to the next level in a dynamic, ever-changing ocean environment. Persistent training in the ocean with increasing distances elevated Penny into a position where she would attempt to swim 22 miles across open water from Los Angeles to Catalina crossing the Catalina Channel.

Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, is fraught with a deep struggle for love and compassion. Her account of her mother appears like a pendulum that would swing from love and care to not feeling supported and left vulnerable. While her mother was instrumental to find the best coaches and teammates available in the early 1970s Penny also saw the relationship of her mother and father break apart. The emotional struggle with it helped her to build up a mental fortitude that is fueled by an intensity to go further, faster.

Despite her personal adversities with her family, her internal battles against herself, Penny always found her way back to just try one more and see where it would take her. With this unshakable attitude she overcame unimaginable physical pain, emotional stress, jellyfish and the mental trepidation when faced with dynamic swells, waves, high winds and ever changing open water conditions. 

I found many invaluable lessons in Penny Lee Dean’s autobiography. Her description of building up mental toughness through setting affirmations, repeating affirmations and linking those affirmations to concrete goals are commonplace nowadays, but her story takes place in the 1970s when amateur and professional sports were far from scientifically researched as they are nowadays. I was also intrigued by her daily, unwavering discipline. It almost appears as if her daily schedule didn’t change for about two decades: rise by 6am, training in between 6:45am to 6pm, and in bed by 9pm. It speaks to the sacrifices athletes must take on in order to achieve greatness. But it also speaks to the level of passion and dedication she had for the sport. While I chose this book to learn more about overcoming the elements and testing myself in the open waters I sure don’t see myself swimming at ultra-marathon distances. However, the beauty of this autobiography is its simple message: just try one more when you feel you can’t go any further. It’s applicable to your studies, to your family or work struggles or when life hit you hard. Just Try One More is just that: don’t think, do it.     

An Economic Approach To Analyze Politics On YouTube

YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is said to be a gateway to introduce viewers to extremist content and a stepping stone towards online radicalization. However, two other factors are equally important when analyzing political ideologies on YouTube: the novel psychological effects of audio-visual content and the ability of monetization. This paper contributes to the field of political communications by offering an economic framework to explain behavioral patterns of right-wing radicalization. It attempts to answer how YouTube is used by right-wing creators and audiences and offers a way forward for future research.

tl;dr

YouTube is the most used social network in the United States and the only major platform that is more popular among right-leaning users. We propose the “Supply and Demand” framework for analyzing politics on YouTube, with an eye toward understanding dynamics among right-wing video producers and consumers. We discuss a number of novel technological affordances of YouTube as a platform and as a collection of videos, and how each might drive supply of or demand for extreme content. We then provide large-scale longitudinal descriptive information about the supply of and demand for conservative political content on YouTube. We demonstrate that viewership of far-right videos peaked in 2017.


Make sure to read the full paper titled Right-Wing YouTube: A Supply and Demand Perspective by Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1940161220964767

YouTube is unique in its combination of leveraging Google’s powerful content discovery algorithms, i.e. recommending content to keep attention levels on its platform and offering a type of content that is arguably the most immersive and versatile: video. The resulting product is highly effective to distribute a narrative, which caused journalists and academics to categorize YouTube as an important tool for online radicalization. In particular right-wing commentators make use of YouTube to spread their political ideologies ranging from conservative views to far-right extremism. However, the researchers draft a firm argument that the ability to create and manage committed audiences around a political ideology who mutually create and reinforce their extreme views is not only highly contagious to impact less committed audiences but pure fuel to ignite online radicalization.

Radio replaced the written word. Television replaced the spoken word. And online audio-visual content will replace the necessity to observe and understand. YouTube offers an unlimited library across all genres, all topics, all public figures ranging from user-generated content to six-figure Hollywood productions. Its 24/7 availability, immersive setup by incentivising comments and creating videos, allows YouTube to draw in audiences on much stronger psychological triggers than its mostly text-based competitors Facebook, Twitter or Reddit. Moreover, YouTube transcends national borders. It enables political commentary from abroad ranging from American expats to foreigners to exiled politicians or expelled opposition. In particular the controversial presidency of Donald Trump triggered political commentators in Europe and elsewhere to comment (and influence) the political landscape, its voters and domestic policies in the United States. This is important to acknowledge because YouTube has more users in the United States than any other social network including Facebook and Instagram.

Monetizing The Right

YouTube has been proven valuable to “Alternative Influence Networks”. In essence, potent political commentators and small productions that collaborate in direct opposition of mass media, both with regard to reporting ethics and political ideology. Albeit relatively unknown to the general populous, they draw consistent, committed audiences and tend to base their content around conservative and right-wing political commentary. There is some evidence in psychological research that conservatives tend to respond more to emotional content than liberals.

As such, the supply side on YouTube is fueled by the easy and efficient means to create political content. Production costs of a video are usually the equipment. The required time to shoot a video on a social issue is exactly as long as the video. In comparison drafting a text-based political commentary on the same issue can take up several days. YouTube’s recommendation system in conjunction with tailored targeting of certain audiences and social classes enable right-wing commentators to reach like-minded individuals and build massive audiences. The monetization methods include

  • Ad revenue from display, overlay, and video ads (not including product placement or sponsored by videos)
  • Channel memberships
  • Merchandise
  • Highlighted messages in Super Chat & Super Stickers
  • Partial revenue of YouTube Premium service

While YouTube has expanded its policy enforcement of extremist content, conservative and right-wing creators have adapted to the fewer monetization methods on YouTube by increasingly relying on crowdfunded donations, product placement or sale of products through affiliate marketing or through their own distribution network. Perhaps the most convincing factor for right-wing commentators to flock to YouTube is, however, the ability to build a large audience from scratch without the need of legitimacy or credentials.

The demand side on YouTube is more difficult to determine. Following the active audience theory users would have made a deliberate choice to click on right-wing content, to search for it, and to continue to engage with it over time. The researchers of this paper demonstrate that it isn’t just that easy. Many social and economic factors drive middle class democrats to adopt more conservative and extreme views. For example economic decline of blue-collar employment, a broken educational system in conjunction with increasing social isolation and lack of future prospects contribute to susceptibility to extremists content leading up to radicalization. The researchers rightfully argue it is difficult to determine the particular drivers that made an individual seek and watch right-wing content on YouTube. Those who do watch or listen to a right-wing political commentator tend to seek for affirmation and validation with their fringe ideologies.

“the novel and disturbing fact of people consuming white nationalist video media was not caused by the supply of this media radicalizing an otherwise moderate audience, but merely reflects the novel ease of producing all forms of video media, the presence of audience demand for white nationalist media, and the decreased search costs due to the efficiency and accuracy of the political ecosystem in matching supply and demand.”

While I believe this paper deserves much more attention and a reader should discover its research questions in the process of studying this paper, I find it helpful to provide the author’s research questions here, in conjunction with my takeaways, to make it easier for readers to prioritize this study: 

Research Question 1: What technological affordances make YouTube distinct from other social media platforms, and distinctly popular among the online right? 

Answer 1: YouTube is a media company; media on YouTube is videos; YouTube is powered by recommendations.

Research Question 2: How have the supply of and demand for right-wing videos on YouTube changed over time?

Answer 2.1: YouTube viewership of the extreme right has been in decline since mid-2017, well before YouTube changed its algorithm to demote far-right content in January 2019.

Answer 2.2: The bulk of the growth in terms of both video production and viewership over the past two years has come from the entry of mainstream conservatives into the YouTube marketplace.

This paper offers insights into the supply side of right-wing content and gives a rationale why people tend to watch right-wing content. It contributes to understanding how right-wing content is spreading across YouTube. An active comment section indicates higher engagement rates which are unique to right-wing audiences. These interactions facilitate a communal experience between creator and audience. Increased policy enforcement effectively disrupted this communal experience. Nevertheless, the researchers found evidence that those who return to create or watch right-wing content are likely to engage intensely with the content as well. Future research may investigate the actual power of the recommendation algorithm on YouTube. While this paper focused on right-wing content, the opposing political spectrum including the extreme left are increasingly utilizing YouTube to proliferate their political commentary. Personally I am curious to better understand the influence of foreign audiences on domestic issues and how YouTube is diluting the local populous with foreign activist voices.

Threat Mitigation In Cyberspace

Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake provide a detailed rundown of the evolution and legislative history of cyberspace. The two leading cybersecurity experts encourage innovative cyber policy solutions to mitigate cyberwar, protect our critical infrastructure and help citizens to prevent cybercrime.

The Fifth Domain, commonly referred to as cyberspace, poses new challenges for governments, companies and citizens. Clarke and Knake discuss the historic milestones that led to modern cybersecurity and cyber policy. With detailed accounts of how governments implement security layers in cyberspace, gripping examples of breaches of cybersecurity and innovative solutions for policymakers, this book ended up rather dense in content – a positive signal for someone interested in cybersecurity, but fairly heavy for everybody else. Some of the content widely circulated the news media, other content is intriguing and through-provoking. While the policy solutions in this book aren’t ground-breaking, the authors provide fuel for policymakers and the public to take action on securing data, but, perhaps more importantly, to start developing transparent, effective cyber policies that account for the new, emerging technologies within machine learning and quantum computing. Personally, I found the hardcover edition too clunky and expensive. Six parts over 298 pages, however, made reading this book a breeze.

What Is Parler?

The capitol riots on January 6th, 2021 left four insurgents and one law enforcement officer dead. The alternative social media platform Parler immediately became the focus of the investigation of this violent attack against democratically elected leaders of the 117th United States Congress. Was a social media platform used to coordinate the insurgents? Did Parler facilitate online radicalization against democratic leaders by allowing extremist content? An independent data analyst used scraped geolocation data from Parler users to create an interactive map to identify insurgents, track their movements and establish links to content posted by Parler users as they attempt to disrupt the certification of the electoral college vote and beyond. Another group of researchers wrote a captivating research paper about Parler’s account and content mechanisms. The researchers drew upon a large set of data. Analyzing more than 120 million pieces of content from more than 2 million Parler users they demonstrate the inner workings of account level content and content level moderation. It is an invaluable read to better understand Parler’s operations and how the platform managed to grow throughout the second half of the Trump presidency culminating in the capitol riots. But, perhaps more importantly, their contribution offers insights into Parler’s role of creating a platform for extremist content, its detrimental influence on American politics and the preventable translation into real world harm. 

tl;dr

Parler is an alternative social network promoting itself as a service that allows its users to “Speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being deplatformed for your views.” Because of this promise, the platform become popular among users who were suspended on mainstream social networks for violating their terms of service, as well as those fearing censorship. In particular, the service was endorsed by several conservative public figures, encouraging people to migrate there from traditional social networks. After the events of January 6 2021, Parler has been progressively deplatformed, with its app being removed from popular mobile stores and the entire website being taken down by their hosting provider. In this paper, we provide the first data-driven characterization of Parler. We collected 120M posts from 2.1M users posted between 2018 and 2020 as well as metadata from 12M user profiles. We find that the platform has witnessed large influxes of new users after being endorsed by popular figures, as well as a reaction to the 2020 US Presidential Election. We also find that discussion on the platform is dominated by conservative topics, President Trump, as well as conspiracy theories like QAnon.

Make sure to read the full paper titled An Early Look at the Parler Online Social Network by Max Aliapoulios, Emmi Bevensee, Jeremy Blackburn, Emiliano De Cristofaro, Gianluca Stringhini, and Savvas Zannettou at https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.03820

Source: https://9to5mac.com/2021/01/11/parler-app-and-website-go-offline/

 

Watching Right-Wing Media Is Associated With Higher COVID-19 Infection Rates And Death

A recent study on compliance with health recommendations investigated the effects of exposure to partisan media on our attitudes and behaviors. Understanding the value-attitude relations towards public health information is important to structure an effective media narrative. This is to successfully minimize the harm of the coronavirus caused by non-compliance with health recommendations. Moreover it sheds a light on the importance of a healthy, bi-partisan media diet.

tl;dr

Exposure to right-wing media has been shown to relate to lower perceived threat from COVID- 19, lower compliance with prophylactic measures against it, and higher incidence of infection and death. What features of right-wing media messages account for these effects? In a preregistered cross-sectional study (N = 554) we test a model that differentiates perceived consequences of two CDC recommendations—washing hands and staying home—for basic human values. People who consumed more right-wing media perceived these behaviors as less beneficial for their personal security, for the well-being of close ones, and the well-being of society at large. Perceived consequences of following the CDC recommendations mediated the relationship between media consumption and compliance with recommendations. Implications for public health messaging are discussed.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Why is right-wing media consumption associated with lower compliance with COVID-19 measures? by Vladimir Ponizovskiy, Lusine Grigoryan and Wilhelm Hofmann at https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/5b3cn

Source: Sean Hannity, Media using coronavirus coverage as political weapon, Published on March 10, 2020 by Fox News on YouTube

Under the theory of planned behavior, a triad of beliefs (attitude towards the coronavirus, normative acceptance of coronavirus personal protective measures, and control of adherence to coronavirus health information) feeds into a consumer’s evaluation to form intent to behave in a certain way. A recent German study applied the theory of planned behavior to predict a consumer’s attitude towards health information recommending to frequently wash hands and to observe stay-at-home guidance to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Specifically the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Research in health communications demonstrated that even when the health information is intentionally designed to evoke a behavioral change, relevant and non-redundant, the actual behavioral change in the consumer is negligible.

Now most beliefs do not necessarily result in behavioral change. It requires a certain type of belief: value-instantiating beliefs (VIB). These are personal beliefs derived from perceived consequences of objects, actions or events that are measured against personal values. For example, a value might be security of family and self. An action might be compliance with health information. Sentences such as “COVID-19 is dangerous”, “Social distancing restricts my freedom” or “Masks offer no protection” demonstrate the range of strength and impact on the value-attitude relations of a consumer. This study applied VIBs to differentiate consumer compliance with simple coronavirus protections based on their exposure to either right-wing or left-wing media. Right-wing media were represented by Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Breitbart. Left-wing media were represented by CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. Here the underlying hypothesis rests on the idea that right-wing media, in direct comparison to left-wing media, is less likely to present COVID-19 health information in the form of CDC recommendations as positive and is more prone towards downplaying the protective measures over individual liberty or personal self-determination. Therefore, the researchers focused on features of COVID-19 information that is likely to induce an assessment or a behavioral change, i.e. recommendations designed to stress the importance of hygiene and self-isolation within one’s personal bubble in the context of COVID-19. The goal was to map out relevant elements that influence attitudes towards COVID-19 protection measures and the behavioral compliance with them. 

They found that consumers of right-wing media register CDC recommendations as less meaningful to their security and in line with their values. This results in less positive attitude towards COVID-19 health information and lower compliance with simple coronavirus protections. In other words, the more Fox News a person consumed, the more indifferent was that person’s attitude towards the positive effects that washing the hands and staying at home has on their health. This led to higher infection rates and death. The researchers were limited by a number of factors, however, ranging from establishing causality between media consumption that translated into behavior and tracking these changes over a longer time period. They were nevertheless able to demonstrate that not just individual health but the health of the general public and its ability to combat the COVID-19 pandemic is influenced by the accuracy of the presentation of health information concerning COVID-19 and highlighted the associated risks of ignoring them. This research helps media professionals to reframe their presentation of health information and it offers valuable insights to develop countermeasures against political abuse of health information through partisan media.

COVID-19
Get the latest information from the CDC about COVID-19          

Wear a mask over your nose and mouth to protect yourself and others and stop the spread of COVID-19.
 
Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) from others who don’t live with you.

Avoid crowds. The more people you are in contact with, the more likely you are to be exposed to COVID-19.  
Wash your hands often.

More information on how to protect yourself and others from contracting the coronavirus can be found here: 
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html