Archive for the ‘News’ Category

A [Selective] Field Guide to “Fake News” and other Information Disorders

Friday, January 12th, 2018

New guide helps journalists, researchers investigate misinformation, memes and trolling by Liliana Bounegru and Jonathan Gray.

Recent scandals about the role of social media in key political events in the US, UK and other European countries over the past couple of years have underscored the need to understand the interactions between digital platforms, misleading information and propaganda, and their influence on collective life in democracies.

In response to this, the Public Data Lab and First Draft collaborated last year to develop a free, open-access guide to help students, journalists and researchers investigate misleading and viral content, memes and trolling practices online.

Released today, the five chapters of the guide describe a series of research protocols or “recipes” that can be used to trace trolling practices, the ways false viral news and memes circulate online, and the commercial underpinnings of problematic content. Each recipe provides an accessible overview of the key steps, methods, techniques and datasets used.

The guide will be most useful to digitally savvy and social media literate students, journalists and researchers. However, the recipes range from easy formulae that can be executed without much technical knowledge other than a working understanding of tools such as BuzzSumo and the CrowdTangle browser extension, to ones that draw on more advanced computational techniques. Where possible, we try to offer the recipes in both variants.

Download the guide at the Public Data Lab’s website.

The techniques in the guide are fascinating but the underlying definition of “fake news” is problematic:


The guide explores the notion that fake news is not just another type of content that circulates online, but that it is precisely the character of this online circulation and reception that makes something into fake news. In this sense fake news may be considered not just in terms of the form or content of the message, but also in terms of the mediating infrastructures, platforms and participatory cultures which facilitate its circulation. In this sense, the significance of fake news cannot be fully understood apart from its circulation online. It is the register of this circulation that also enables us to trace how material that starts its life as niche satire can be repackaged as hyper-partisan clickbait to generate advertising money and then continue life as an illustration of dangerous political misinformation.

As a consequence this field guide encourages a shift from focusing on the formal content of fabrications in isolation to understanding the contexts in which they circulate online. This shift points to the limits of a “deficit model” approach – which might imply that fabrications thrive only because of a deficit of factual information. In the guide we suggest new ways of mapping and responding to fake news beyond identifying and fact-checking suspect claims – including “thicker” accounts of circulation as a way to develop a richer understanding of how fake news moves and mobilises people, more nuanced accounts of “fakeness” and responses which are better attuned to the phenomenon.
… (page 8)

The means by which information circulates is always relevant to the study of communications. However, notice that the authors’ definition excludes traditional media from its quest to identify “fake news.” Really? Traditional media isn’t responsible for the circulation of any “fake news?”

Examples of traditional media fails are legion but here is a recent and spectacular one: The U.S. Media Suffered Its Most Humiliating Debacle in Ages and Now Refuses All Transparency Over What Happened by Glenn Greenwald.

Friday was one of the most embarrassing days for the U.S. media in quite a long time. The humiliation orgy was kicked off by CNN, with MSNBC and CBS close behind, and countless pundits, commentators, and operatives joining the party throughout the day. By the end of the day, it was clear that several of the nation’s largest and most influential news outlets had spread an explosive but completely false news story to millions of people, while refusing to provide any explanation of how it happened.

The spectacle began Friday morning at 11 a.m. EST, when the Most Trusted Name in News™ spent 12 straight minutes on air flamboyantly hyping an exclusive bombshell report that seemed to prove that WikiLeaks, last September, had secretly offered the Trump campaign, even Donald Trump himself, special access to the Democratic National Committee emails before they were published on the internet. As CNN sees the world, this would prove collusion between the Trump family and WikiLeaks and, more importantly, between Trump and Russia, since the U.S. intelligence community regards WikiLeaks as an “arm of Russian intelligence,” and therefore, so does the U.S. media.

This entire revelation was based on an email that CNN strongly implied it had exclusively obtained and had in its possession. The email was sent by someone named “Michael J. Erickson” — someone nobody had heard of previously and whom CNN could not identify — to Donald Trump Jr., offering a decryption key and access to DNC emails that WikiLeaks had “uploaded.” The email was a smoking gun, in CNN’s extremely excited mind, because it was dated September 4 — 10 days before WikiLeaks began promoting access to those emails online — and thus proved that the Trump family was being offered special, unique access to the DNC archive: likely by WikiLeaks and the Kremlin.

There was just one small problem with this story: It was fundamentally false, in the most embarrassing way possible. Hours after CNN broadcast its story — and then hyped it over and over and over — the Washington Post reported that CNN got the key fact of the story wrong.

This fundamentally false story does not qualify as “fake news” for this guide. Surprised?

The criteria for “fake news” also excludes questioning statements from members of the intelligence community, which includes James Clapper, a self-confessed and known liar, who continues to be the darling of mainstream media outlets.

Cozy relationships between news organizations and their reporters with government and intelligence sources are also not addressed as potential sources of “fake news.”

Limiting the scope of a “fake news” study in order to have a doable project is understandable. However, excluding factually false stories, use of known liars and corrupting relationships, all because they occur in mainstream media, looks like picking a target to tar with the label “fake news.”

The guides and techniques themselves may be quite useful, so long as you remember they were designed to show social media as the spreader of “fake news.”

One last thing, what the authors don’t offer and I haven’t seen reports of, is the effectiveness of the so-called “fake news” with voters. Taking “Pope Francis Endorses Trump,” as a lie, however widely spread that story became, did it have any impact on the 2016 election? Or did every reader do a double-take and move on? It’s possible to answer that type of question but it does require facts.

Secrets to Searching for Video Footage (AI Assistance In Your Future?)

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Secrets to Searching for Video Footage by Aric Toler.

From the post:

Much of Bellingcat’s work requires intense research into particular events, which includes finding every possible photograph, video and witness account that will help inform our analysis. Perhaps most notably, we exhaustively researched the events surrounding the shoot down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine.

The photographs and videos taken near the crash in eastern Ukraine were not particularly difficult to find, as they were widely publicized. However, locating over a dozen photographs and videos of the Russian convoy transporting the Buk anti-aircraft missile launcher that shot down MH17 three weeks before the tragedy was much harder, and required both intense investigation on social networks and some creative thinking.

Most of these videos were shared on Russian-language social networks and YouTube, and did not involve another type of video that is much more important today than it was in 2014 — live streaming. Bellingcat has also made an effort to compile all user-generated videos of the events in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, providing a database of livestreamed videos on platforms like Periscope, Ustream and Facebook Live, along with footage uploaded after the protest onto platforms like Twitter and YouTube.

Verifying videos is important, as detailed in this Bellingcat guide, but first you have to find them. This guide will provide advice and some tips on how to gather as much video as possible on a particular event, whether it is videos from witnesses of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. For most examples in this guide, we will assume that the event is a large protest or demonstration, but the same advice is applicable to other events.

I was amused by this description of Snapchat and Instagram:


Snapchat and Instagram are two very common sources for videos, but also two of the most difficult platforms to trawl for clips. Neither has an intuitive search interface that easily allows researchers to sort through and collect videos.

I’m certain that’s true but a trained AI could sort out videos obtained by overly broad requests. As I’m fond of pointing out, not 100% accuracy but you can’t get that with humans either.

Augment your searching with a tireless AI. For best results, add or consult a librarian as well.

PS: I have other concerns at the moment but a subset of the Bellingcat Charlottesville database would make a nice training basis for an AI, which could then be loosed on Instagram and other sources to discover more videos. The usual stumbling block for AI projects being human curated material, which Bellingcat has already supplied.

Leaking Resources for Federal Employees with Ties to ‘Shithole’ Countries

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Trump derides protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries by Josh Dawsey.

From the post:

President Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers Thursday in the Oval Office when they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, according to several people briefed on the meeting.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.

The EEOC Annual report for 2014 reports out of 2.7 million women and men employed by the federal government:

…63.50% were White, 18.75% were Black or African American 8.50% were Hispanic or Latino, 6.16% were Asian, 1.49% were American Indian or Alaska Native, 1.16% were persons of Two or More Races and 0.45% were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander…(emphasis added)

In other words, 27.25% of 2.7 million people working for the federal government, or approximately 794,000 federal employees have ties ‘shithole’ countries.

President Trump’s rude remarks are an accurate reflection of current U.S. immigration policy:

The United States treats other countries ‘shitholes’ but it is considered impolite to mention that in public.

Federal employees with ties to ‘shithole’ countries are at least as loyal, if not more so, than your average staffer.

That said, I’m disappointed that media outlets did not immediately call upon federal employees with ties to ‘shithole’ countries to start leaking documents/data.

Here are some places documents can be leaked to:

More generally, see Here’s how to share sensitive leaks with the press and their excellent listing of SecureDrop resources for anonymous submission of documents.

If you have heard of the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers, then you are thinking about the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. They do excellent work, but like the other journalists mentioned, are obsessed with being in control of the distribution of your leak.

Every outrage, whether a shooting, unjust imprisonment, racist remarks, religious bigotry, is an opportunity to incite leaking by members of a group.

Not calling for leaking speaks volumes about your commitment to the status quo and its current injustices.

The Watchdog Press As Lapdog Press

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

When Intelligence Agencies Make Backroom Deals With the Media, Democracy Loses by Bill Blunden.

From the post:

Steven Spielberg’s new movie The Post presents the story behind Katharine Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post. As the closing credits roll, one is left with the impression of a publisher who adopts an adversarial stance towards powerful government officials. Despite the director’s $50 million budget (or, perhaps, because of it), there are crucial details that are swept under the rug — details that might lead viewers towards a more accurate understanding of the relationship between the mainstream corporate press and the government.

The public record offers some clarity. Three years after Graham decided to go public with the Pentagon Papers, Seymour Hersh revealed a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program called Operation CHAOS in The New York Times. Hersh cited inside sources who described “a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States.” Hersh’s article on CIA domestic operations is pertinent because, along with earlier revelations by Christopher Pyle, it prompted the formation of the Church Commission.

The Church Commission was chartered to examine abuses by United States intelligence agencies. In 1976, the commission’s final report (page 455 of Book I, entitled “Foreign and Military Intelligence”) found that the CIA maintained “a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda” and that “approximately 50 of the [Agency] assets are individual American journalists or employees of US media organizations.”

These initial findings were further corroborated by Carl Bernstein, who unearthed a web of “more than 400 American journalists who in the past twenty‑five years have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency.” Note that Bernstein was one of the Washington Post journalists who helped to expose the Watergate scandal. He published his piece on the CIA and the media with Rolling Stone magazine in 1977.

Show of hands. How many of you think the CIA, which freely violates surveillance and other laws, has not continued to suborn journalists, up to and including now?

Despite a recent assurance from someone whose opinion I value, journalists operating on a shoe-string have no corner on the public interest. Nor is that a guarantee they don’t have their own agendas.

Money is just one source of corruption. Access to classified information, pretige in the profession, deciding whose newsworthy and who is not, power over other reporters, are all factors that don’t operate in the public interest.

My presumption about undisclosed data in the possession of reporters accords with the State of Georgia, 24-4-22. Presumption from failure to produce evidence:

If a party has evidence in his power and within his reach by which he may repel a claim or charge against him but omits to produce it, or if he has more certain and satisfactory evidence in his power but relies on that which is of a weaker and inferior nature, a presumption arises that the charge or claim against him is well founded; but this presumption may be rebutted.

In short, evidence you don’t reveal is presumed to be against you.

That has worked for centuries in courts, why would I apply a different standard to reporters (or government officials)?

Fact Forward: Fact Free Assault on Online Misinformation

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Fact Forward: If you had $50,000, how would you change fact-checking?

From the post:

The International Fact-Checking Network wants to support your next big idea.

We recognize the importance of making innovation a key part of fact-checking in the age of online misinformation and we are also aware that innovation requires investment. For those reasons, we are opening Fact Forward. A call for fact-checking organizations and/or teams of journalists, designers, developers or data scientists to submit projects that can represent a paradigmatic innovation for fact-checkers in any of these areas: 1) formats, 2) business models 3) technology-assisted fact-checking.

With Fact Forward, the IFCN will grant 50,000 USD to the winning project.

For this fund, an innovative project is defined as one that provides a distinct, novel user experience that seamlessly integrates content, design, and business strategy. The innovation should serve both the audience and the organization.

The vague definition of “innovative project” leaves the impression the judges have no expertise with software development. A quick check of the judges credentials reveals that is indeed the case. Be forewarned, fluffy pro-fact checking phrases are likely to outweigh any technical merit in your proposals.

If you doubt this is an ideological project, consider the implied premises of “…the age of online misinformation….” Conceding that online misinformation does exist, those include:

1. Online misinformation influences voters:

What evidence does exist, is reported by Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow in Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election, the astract reads:

Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many have expressed concern about the effects of false stories (“fake news”), circulated largely through social media. We discuss the economics of fake news and present new data on its consumption prior to the election. Drawing on web browsing data, archives of fact-checking websites, and results from a new online survey, we find: (i) social media was an important but not dominant source of election news, with 14 percent of Americans calling social media their “most important” source; (ii) of the known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favoring Clinton were shared 8 million times; (iii) the average American adult saw on the order of one or perhaps several fake news stories in the months around the election, with just over half of those who recalled seeing them believing them; and (iv) people are much more likely to believe stories that favor their preferred candidate, especially if they have ideologically segregated social media networks.

Or as summarized in Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media by Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild:


In addition, given what is known about the impact of online information on opinions, even the high-end estimates of fake news penetration would be unlikely to have had a meaningful impact on voter behavior. For example, a recent study by two economists, Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, estimates that “the average US adult read and remembered on the order of one or perhaps several fake news articles during the election period, with higher exposure to pro-Trump articles than pro-Clinton articles.” In turn, they estimate that “if one fake news article were about as persuasive as one TV campaign ad, the fake news in our database would have changed vote shares by an amount on the order of hundredths of a percentage point.” As the authors acknowledge, fake news stories could have been more influential than this back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests for a number of reasons (e.g., they only considered a subset of all such stories; the fake stories may have been concentrated on specific segments of the population, who in turn could have had a disproportionate impact on the election outcome; fake news stories could have exerted more influence over readers’ opinions than campaign ads). Nevertheless, their influence would have had to be much larger—roughly 30 times as large—to account for Trump’s margin of victory in the key states on which the election outcome depended.

Just as one example, online advertising is routinely studied, Understanding Interactive Online Advertising: Congruence and Product Involvement in Highly and Lowly Arousing, Skippable Video Ads by Daniel Belanche, Carlos Flavián, Alfredo Pérez-Rueda. But the IFCN offers no similar studies for what it construes as “…online misinformation….”

Without some evidence for and measurement of the impact of “…online misinformation…,” what is the criteria for success for your project?

2. Correcting online misinformation influences voters:

The second, even more problematic assumption in this project is that correcting online misinformation influences voters.

Facts, even “correct” facts do a poor job of changing opinions. Even the lay literature is legion on this point: Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does; Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds; The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Win Arguments; In the battle to change people’s minds, desires come before facts; The post-fact era.

Any studies to the contrary? Surely the IFCN has some evidence that correcting misinformation changes opinions or influences voter behavior?

(I reserve this space for any studies supplied by the IFCN or others to support that premise.)

I don’t disagree with fact checking per se. Readers should be able to rely upon representations of fact. But Glenn Greenwald’s The U.S. Media Suffered Its Most Humiliating Debacle in Ages and Now Refuses All Transparency Over What Happened makes it clear that misinformation isn’t limited to appearing online.

One practical suggestion: If $50,000 is enough for your participation in an ideological project, use sentiment analysis to identify pro-Trump materials. Anything “pro-Trump” is, for some funders, “misinformation.”

PS: I didn’t vote for Trump and loathe his administration. However, pursuing fantasies to explain his victory in 2016 won’t prevent a repeat of same in 2020. Whether he is defeated with misinformation or correct information makes no difference to me. His defeat is the only priority.

Practical projects with a defeat of Trump in 2020 goal are always of interest. Ping me.

Source Community Call | January 11, 2018 | Thursday @ 12pm ET – GMT 5pm – 9am PDT

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

A resource sponsored by OpenNews, which self-describes as:

At OpenNews, we believe that a community of peers working, learning and solving problems together can create a stronger, more representative, and ascendant journalism. We organize events and community supports to strengthen and sustain this ecosystem.

  • In collaboration with writers and developers in newsrooms around the world, we publish Source, a community site focused on open technology projects and process in journalism. From features that explore the context behind the code to targeted job listings that help the community expand, Source presents the people, projects, and insights behind journalism code.

    We also hold biweekly Source community calls where newsroom data and apps teams can share their work, announce job openings, and find collaborators.

On the agenda for tomorrow:

  • Reporting on police shootings – Allison McCann
  • Accessibility on the web – Joanna Kao

Call Details for Jan. 11, 2018..

Archive of prior calls

Mark your calendars!: Every-other Thursday @ 12pm ET – GMT 5pm – 9am PDT

Email Spam from Congress

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Receive an Email when a Member of Congress has a New Remark Printed in the Congressional Record by Robert Brammer.

From the post:

Congress.gov alerts are emails sent to you when a measure (bill or resolution), nomination, or member profile has been updated with new information. You can also receive an email after a Member has new remarks printed in the Congressional Record. Here are instructions on how to get an email after a Member has new remarks printed in the Congressional Record….

My blog title is unfair to Brammer, who isn’t responsible for the lack of meaningful content in Member remarks printed in the Congressional Record.

Local news outlets reprint such remarks, as does the national media, whether those remarks are grounded in any shared reality or not. Secondary education classes on current events, reporting, government, where such remarks are considered meaningful, are likely to find this useful.

Another use, assuming mining of prior remarks from the Congressional Record, would be in teaching NLP techniques. Highly unlikely you will discover anything new but it will be “new to you” and the result of your own efforts.

A/B Tests for Disinformation/Fake News?

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

Digital Shadows says it:

Digital Shadows monitors, manages, and remediates digital risk across the widest range of sources on the visible, deep, and dark web to protect your organization.

It recently published The Business of Disinformation: A Taxonomy – Fake news is more than a political battlecry.

It’s not long, fourteen (14) pages and it has the usual claims about disinformation and fake news you know from other sources.

However, for all its breathless prose and promotion of its solution, there is no mention of any A/B tests to show that disinformation or fake news is effective in general or against you in particular.

The value proposition offered by Digital Shadows is everyone says disinformation and fake news are important, therefore spend money with us to combat it.

Alien abduction would be important but I won’t be buying alien abduction insurance or protection services any time soon.

Proof of the effectiveness of disinformation and fake news is on a par with proof of alien abduction.

Anything possible but spending money or creating policies requires proof.

Where’s the proof for the effectiveness of disinformation or fake news? No proof, no spending. Yes?

Russians? Nation State? Dorm Room? Mirai Botnet Facts

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

How a Dorm Room Minecraft Scam Brought Down the Internet by Garett M. Graff.

From the post:

The most dramatic cybersecurity story of 2016 came to a quiet conclusion Friday in an Anchorage courtroom, as three young American computer savants pleaded guilty to masterminding an unprecedented botnet—powered by unsecured internet-of-things devices like security cameras and wireless routers—that unleashed sweeping attacks on key internet services around the globe last fall. What drove them wasn’t anarchist politics or shadowy ties to a nation-state. It was Minecraft.

Graff’s account is mandatory reading for:

  • Hackers who want to avoid discovery by the FBI
  • Journalists who want to avoid false and/or misleading claims about cyberattacks
  • Manufacturers who want to avoid producing insecure devices (a very small number)
  • Readers who interested in how the Mirai botnet hype played out

Enjoy!

IndonesiaLeaks [Leak early, Leak often]

Friday, December 15th, 2017

IndonesiaLeaks: New Platform for Whistleblowers and Muckrakers

From the post:

Ten media houses and five civil society organizations in Indonesia announced a collaboration this week to form a digital platform for whistleblowers.

IndonesiaLeaks will allow the public a platform to anonymously and securely submit information, documents and data sets related to the public interest. The information received by IndonesiaLeaks will then be vetted and verified for use in investigative reports by the ten affiliated media organizations.

The secure online platform is crucial in Indonesia due to the lack of whistleblower protection schemes. Those who take risks leaking information on offenses happening in their institutions are often prosecuted and intimidated.

“IndonesiaLeaks is designed as a collaborative platform between ten media houses to share tasks, responsibilities and resources, as well as risks,” said Wahyu Dhyatmika, the editor of IndonesiaLeaks member publication Tempo.co, at the platform’s launch in Jakarta on Thursday. “By creating this partnership, we hope the impacts of investigative journalism will be bigger and spread widely.”

A welcome surprise as a hard year for the media draws to a close. The chest pounding antics of the American President aren’t the only woes for the media in 2017, but they have been some of the most visible.

IndonesiaLeaks promises to give the sordid side of government (is there another side?) greater visibility. This collaboration will provide strength in numbers and resources for its participants, furthering their ability to practice investigative journalism.

I don’t read Indonesian but the website is attractive and focuses on the secure submission of documents. I rather like that, clean, focused, and to the point.

The collaboration partners to date:

Support these collaborators and other investigative journalists at every opportunity. You never know when one of their stories will impact your reporting on a frothing, tantrum throwing, press hater closer to the United States.

Journocode Data Journalism Dictionary

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Journocode Data Journalism Dictionary

From the webpage:

Navigating the field of data journalism, a field that borrows methods and terms from so many disciplines, can be hard – especially in the beginning. You need to speak the language in order to collaborate with others and knowing which words to type into a search engine is the first step to learning new things.

That’s why we started the Journocode Data Journalism Dictionary. It aims to explain technical terms from fields like programming, web development, statistics and graphics design in a way that every journalist and beginner can understand them.

Fifty-one (51) definitions as of today, 8 December 2017, and none will be unfamiliar to data scientists.

But, a useful resource for data scientists to gauge the terms already known to data journalists and perhaps a place to contribute other terms with definitions.

Don’t miss their DDJ Tools resource page while you visiting.

Don’t trust NGOs, they have their own agendas (edited)

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

The direct quote is “Don’t trust NGOs, they may have their own agendas.”

I took out the “may” because NGOs are committed to themselves and their staffs before any cause or others. That alone justifies removing the “may.” They have their own agendas and you need to keep that in mind.

Wildlife Crimes: Focus On The Villain, Not The Victim by Ufrieda Ho, says in part:

Ease up on the blood shots, ditch the undercover ploys and think crime story, not animal story.

These are top tips from Bryan Christy, author, investigative journalist and National Geographic Society Fellow. He says environmental trafficking and smuggling should be treated like a “whodunnits” rather than yet another depressing tale of gore and horror.

Christy, a panelist at this morning’s GIJN session on Environmental Crime and Wildlife Smuggling, says: “We need to stop telling the rhino-victim story and start thinking about the trafficker-villain story.”

Christy says shifting the editorial telling of stories in this way is a tool to fight “sad story” fatigue. It trains the audience to follow the trail of a villain through plot-driven action rather than to be turned off by feeling hopeless and despairing in the face of another climate change story or another report on a butchered elephant.

“The criminal plot is also a pack horse – it can pack in a lot of information,” says Christy, understanding that the nature of environmental investigations on smuggling and trafficking is about exploring intricate webs.

That sounds like a data mining/science angle to wildlife crime to me!

There will be people in the field but connecting all the dots will require checking shipping, financial, even the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers for potential connections and leads.

Neo4j Desktop Download of Paradise Papers [It’s Not What You Hope For, Disappointment Ahead]

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Neo4j Desktop Download of Paradise Papers

Not for the first time, Neo4j marketing raises false hopes among potential users.

When you or I read “Paradise Papers,” we quite naturally think of the reputed cache of:

…13.4 million leaked files from a combination of offshore service providers and the company registries of some of the world’s most secretive countries.

Well, you aren’t going to find those “Paradise Papers” in the Neo4j Desktop download.

What you will find is highly processed data summarized as:


Data contained in the Paradise Papers:

  • Officer: a person or company who plays a role in an offshore entity.
  • Intermediary: go-between for someone seeking an offshore corporation and an offshore service provider — usually a law-firm or a middleman that asks an offshore service provider to create an offshore firm for a client.
  • Entity: a company, trust or fund created in a low-tax, offshore jurisdiction by an agent.
  • Address: postal address as it appears in the original databases obtained by ICIJ.
  • Other: additional information items.

Make no mistake, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) does vital work that isn’t being done by anyone else. For that they merit full marks. Not to mention the quality of their data mining and reporting on the data they collect.

However, their hoarding of primary source materials deprives other journalists and indeed the general public of the ability to judge the accuracy and fairness of their reporting.

Using data derived from those hoarded materials to create a teaser database such as the “Paradise Papers” distributed by Neo4j only adds insult to injury. A journalist or member of the public can learn who is mentioned but is denied access to the primary materials that would make that mention meaningful.

You can learn a lot of about Neo4j from the “Paradise Papers,” but about the people and transactions mentioned in the actual Paradise Papers, not so much.

Imagine this as a public resource for citizens and law enforcement around the world, with links back to the primary documents.

That could make a difference for the citizens of entire countries, instead of for the insiders journalists managing the access to and use of the Paradise Papers.

PS: Have you thought about how you would extract the graph data from the .AppImage file?

The Motherboard Guide to Avoiding State Surveillance [Where’s Your Security Cheat Sheet?]

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

The Motherboard Guide to Avoiding State Surveillance by Sarah Jeong.

From the post:

In the wake of September 11th, the United States built out a massive surveillance apparatus, undermined constitutional protections, and limited possible recourse to the legal system.

Given the extraordinary capabilities of state surveillance in the US—as well as the capabilities of governments around the world—you might be feeling a little paranoid! It’s not just the NSA—the FBI and even local cops have more tools at their disposal to snoop on people than ever before. And there is a terrifying breadth of passive and unexpected surveillance to worry about: Your social media accounts can be subpoenaed, your emails or calls can be scooped up in bulk collection efforts, and your cell phone metadata can be captured by Stingrays and IMSI catchers meant to target someone else.

Remember, anti-surveillance is not the cure, it’s just one thing you can do to protect yourself and others. You probably aren’t the most at-risk person, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice better security. Surveillance is a complicated thing: You can practice the best security in the world, but if you’re sending messages to someone who doesn’t, you can still be spied on through their device or through their communications with other people (if they discuss the information you told them, for instance).

That’s why it’s important that we normalize good security practices: If you don’t have that much to be afraid of, it’s all the more important for you to pick up some of these tools, because doing that will normalize the actions of your friends who are, say, undocumented immigrants, or engaged in activism. Trump’s CIA Director thinks that using encryption “may itself be a red flag.” If you have “nothing to hide,” your use of encryption can actually help people at risk by obfuscating that red flag. By following this guide, you are making someone else safer. Think of it as herd immunity. The more people practice good security, the safer everyone else is.

The security tips provided earlier in this guide still apply: If you can protect yourself from getting hacked, you will have a better shot at preventing yourself from being surveilled (when it comes to surveilling iPhones, for instance governments often have few options besides hacking the devices). But tech tools don’t solve all problems. Governments have a weapon in their hands that criminal hackers do not: the power of the law. Many of the tips in this section of the guide will help you not only against legal requests and government hacking, but also against anyone else who may be trying to spy on you.

You don’t have to turn yourself into a security expert. Just start thinking about your risks, and don’t be intimidated by the technology. Security is an ongoing process of learning. Both the threats and the tools developed to address them are constantly changing, which is one of the reasons why privacy and security advice can often seem fickle and contradictory. But the tips below are a good starting point.

Jeong writes a great post but like most of you, what I need is a security cheat sheet so I start off everyday with the same standard security practices.

Read Jeong’s post but think about creating a personalized security cheat sheet that requires your initials at the start of each day and note any security fails on your part for that day.

At the end of each week, review your security fails for patterns and/or improvements.

What’s on your security cheat sheet?

New York Times (on Dark Web)

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

Have you tried the New York Times (Dark Web) Site Map? AKA spiderbites.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion

Navigation has the usual Tor overhead, but not bad unless you expect an instance response. 😉

What’s your experience like?

I first saw this in the Hunchly Daily Hidden Services Report for 2017-11-01.

Data Hoarding Journalists and Information Security

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

A Study of Technology in Newsrooms

From the post:

We face a global media landscape rife with both uncertainty and excitement. The need to understand this new digital era — and what it means for journalists — has never been more urgent. That’s why we at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) launched the first-ever global survey on the adoption of new technologies in news media.

More than 2,700 newsroom managers and journalists, from 130 countries, responded to our survey, which was conducted in 12 languages. Storyful, Google News Lab and SurveyMonkey supported the research. ICFJ worked with Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) program to administer and analyze the survey, conducted using SurveyMonkey.

One highlight from the report:

Perhaps data hoarding journalists aren’t as secure as they imagine.

Considering they are hoarding stolen data for their own benefit, what would be their complaint if the data was liberated from them?

I’ve heard the “we act in the public interest” argument but unless and until the public can compare the data to their reports, it’s hard to judge such claims.

Notice I said “the public” and not me. There are entire areas of no interest to me or in which I lack the skills to judge the evidence. Interests and skills possessed by other members of the public.

I’m not interested in access to hoarded information until everyone has access to the same information. To exclude anyone from access is to put them at a disadvantage in any ensuing discussion. I’m not willing to go there. Are you?

Human Trafficking Resources (@gijn)

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

The Global Investigative Journalism Network, @gijn, has created three guide for investigative reporters covering human trafficking:

  1. Human Trafficking Resources: Data.
  2. Human Trafficking Resources: Stories.
  3. Human Trafficking Resources: Best Practices in Reporting.

It’s a tough subject this close to the holidays but the victims of human traffickers don’t enjoy holidays, 365 days out of the year.

What I missed in “Best Practices” was mention of the use of data science to combat human trafficking.

On that score, a starter set of three resources:

Data science can help us fight human trafficking by Renata Konrad and Andrew C. Trapp.

Combating Human Trafficking Using Data Science (Booz Allen whitepaper)

How Data Analytics Is Helping to Fight Human Trafficking by Alex Woodie.

It’s unlikely that human traffickers are more cyber secure than your average corporation or government agency, so there is a role for hackers to breach information systems used by human traffickers.

If you have resources on human trafficking to suggest, contact @gijn.

New Maltese Investigative News Website – Security Suggestions

Friday, November 10th, 2017

Three Experienced Maltese Journalists Open Investigative News Website by Tim Diacono.

From the post:


“The vile execution of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is a wakeup call for civic action, to stop the greed and the rot and to assert the power of the pen over the might of criminals who want us to remain silent as they pile up their profits,” the journalists wrote in their first editorial. “It was nothing short of a declaration of war on our serenity and freedom to stand up to be counted.”

“We have come together to create The Shift months ago thinking that there could not have been a better time for a nonpartisan voice with a clear agenda for good governance, which speaks its truth to power respectfully but firmly, keeping a distance from economic and partisan agendas. We never could have anticipated that our country would descend into this nightmare,” they added.

“We have decided to take the plunge now because we also want to contribute to the civic awakening which followed the brutal elimination of a journalist who spoke her truths to power. We do not seek to step in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s shoes and our style and approach is very different. But we promise to honour the best part of her legacy, that of being a thorn in the side… of whoever is in power.”

To the extent The Shift can be “…a thorn in the side… of whoever is in power,” I’m all for it.

On the other hand, the organizers of The Shift should consider working with an umbrella organization that provides basic security.

The Shift organizers should retain their independence but among the more glaring flaws of their current site:

  1. http:// instead of https://
  2. No PGP key for encrypted email
  3. No secure drop box for leaks
  4. No advice on secure contacts
  5. Contact form requires name and email?
  6. … others I’m sure…

The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) maintains a great list of Digital Security resources.

Even if someone else in your organization is tasked with digital security, have a nodding acquaintance with the GIJN resources and revisit them on a regular basis.

Don’t be a passive consumer of security services.

Passive consumers of security services are also known as “victims.”

Open Ownership Project

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

Open Ownership Project

From about page:

OpenOwnership is driven by a steering group composed of leading transparency NGOs, including Global Witness, Open Contracting Partnership, Web Foundation, Transparency International, the ONE Campaign, and the B Team, as well as OpenCorporates.

OpenOwnership’s central goal is to build an open Global Beneficial Ownership Register, which will serve as an authoritative source of data about who owns companies, for the benefit of all. This data will be global and linked across jurisdictions, industries, and linkable to other datasets too.

Alongside the register, OpenOwnership is developing a universal and open data standard for beneficial ownership, providing a solid conceptual and practical foundation for collecting and publishing beneficial ownership data.

I first visited the Open Ownership Project site following two (of four) posts on verifying beneficial ownership.

What we really mean when we talk about verification (Part 1 of 4) by Zosia Sztykowski and Chris Taggart.

From the post:

This is the first of a series of blog posts in which we will discuss the critical but tricky issue of verification, particularly with respect to beneficial ownership.

‘Verification’ is frequently said to be a critical step in generating high-quality beneficial ownership information. What’s less clear is what is actually meant by verification, and what are the key factors in the process. In fact, verification is not one step, but three:

  1. Ensuring that the person making a statement about beneficial ownership is who they say they are, and that they have the right to make the claim (authentication and authorization);

  2. Ensuring that the data submitted is a legitimate possible value (validation);

  3. Verifying that the statement made is actually true (which we will call truth verification).

Another critical factor is whether these processes are done on individual filings, typically hand-written pieces of paper, or their PDF equivalents, or whole datasets of beneficial ownership data. While verification processes are possible on individual filings, this series will show that that public, digital, structured beneficial ownership data adds an additional layer of verification not possible with traditional filings.

Understanding precisely how verification takes place in the lifecycle of a beneficial ownership datum is an important step in knowing what beneficial ownership data can tell us about the world. Each of the stages above will be covered in more detail in this series, but let’s linger on the final one for a moment.

What we really mean when we talk about verification: Authentication & authorization (Part 2 of 4)

In the first post in this series on the principles of verification, particularly relating to beneficial ownership, we explained why there is no guarantee that any piece of beneficial ownership data is the absolute truth.

The data collected is still valuable, however, providing it is made available publicly as open data, as it exposes lies and half-truths to public scrutiny, raising red flags that indicate potential criminal or unethical activity.

We discussed a three-step process of verification:

  1. Ensuring that the person making a statement about beneficial ownership is who they say they are (authentication), and that they have the right to make the claim (authorization);

  2. Ensuring that the data submitted is a legitimate possible value (validation);

  3. Verifying that the statement made is actually true (which we will call truth verification).

In this blog post, we will discuss the first of these, focusing on how to tell who is actually making the claims, and whether they are authorized to do so.

When authentication and authorization have been done, you can approach the information with more confidence. Without them, you may have little better than anonymous statements. Critically, with them, you can also increase the risks for those who wish to hide their true identities and the nature of their control of companies.

Parts 3 and 4 are forthcoming (as of 9 November 2017).

A beta version of the Beneficial Ownership Data Standard (BODS) was released last April (2017). A general overview appeared in June, 2017: Introducing the Beneficial Ownership Data Standard.

Identity issues are rife in ownership data so when planning your volunteer activity for 2018, keep the Open Ownership project in mind.

The Great Wall of Journalistic Secrecy – Paradise Papers

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

At time mark 21:20, you learn the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is absolutely committed to being The Great Wall of Journalistic Secrecy between you and the Paradise Papers.

Even secrecy-before-effectiveness agencies of the U.S. government, the CIA, the FBI and the NSA, among others, pay more lip service to the idea of transparency than the ICIJ.

The ICIJ claim its secrecy protects the privacy of some while its members profit from violating the privacy of others, sounds more like the current US president than a credible news organization.

What were the conditions under which the ICIJ was entrusted with this leak? How are the interests of the leaker advanced by the ICIJ’s handling of this leak? Those are are only two questions the public will never have answered if the ICIJ has any say in the matter. Numerous others will occur to you.

Perhaps the ICIJ should have some preliminary period of exclusive access to the leaked materials, say 3 years from the first published report based on the leaked materials. But thirty-six months is more than long enough for the public to wait to confirm for itself the claims and stories published by ICIJ members.

If transparency is important for government, it is even more important for watchdogs of government.

Scoop Mainstream Media on “… 6 Russian Government Officials Involved In DNC Hack”

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

You have read US Identifies 6 Russian Government Officials Involved In DNC Hack or similar coverage on Russian “interference” with the 2016 presidential election.

Here’s your opportunity to scoop mainstream media on the identities of the “…6 Russian Government Officials Involved In DNC Hack.”

Resources to use:

Russian Political Directory 2017

The Russian Political Directory is the definitive guide to people in power throughout Russia. All the top decision-makers are included in this one-volume publication, which details hundreds of government ministries, departments, agencies, corporations and their connected bodies. The Directory is a trusted resource for studies and research in all matters of Russian government, politics and civil society activities. Government organization entries contain the names and titles of officials, postal and e-mail addresses, telephone, fax numbers plus an overview of their main activities.

Truly comprehensive in scope, and listing all federal and regional government ministries, departments, agencies, corporations and their connected bodies, this directory provides a uniquely comprehensive view of government activity.

For playing “…guess a possible defendant…,” $200 is a bit pricey but opening to a random page is a more principled approach than you will see from the Justice Department in its search for defendants.

If timeliness isn’t an issue, consider the Directory of Soviet Officials: Republic Organizations:

From the preface:

The Directory of Soviet Officials identifies individuals who hold positions in selected party, government, and public organizations of the USSR. It may be used to find the incumbents of given positions within an organization or the positions of given individuals. For some organizations, it serves as a guide to the internal structure of the organization.

This directory dates from 1987 but since Justice only needs Russian sounding names and not physical defendants, consider it a backup source for possible defendants.

For the absolute latest information, at least those listed, consider The Russian Government. The official site for the Russian government and about as dull as any website you are likely to encounter. Sorry, but that’s true.

Last but be no means least, check out Johnson’s Russia List, which is an enormous collection of resources on Russia. It has a 2001 listing of online databases for Russian personalities. It also has a wealth of Russian names for your defendant lottery list.

When Justice does randomly name some defendants, ask yourself and Justice:

  1. What witness statements or documents link this person to the alleged hacking?
  2. What witness statements or documents prove a direct order from Putin to a particular defendant?
  3. What witness statements or documents establish the DNC “hack?” (It may well have been a leak.)
  4. Can you independently verify the witness statements or documents?

Any evidence that cannot be disclosed because of national security considerations should be automatically excluded from your reporting. If you can’t verify it, then it’s not a fact. Right?

Justice won’t have any direct evidence on anyone they name or on Putin. It’s strains the imagination to think Russian security is that bad, assuming any hack took place at all.

No direct evidence means Justice is posturing for reasons best know to it. Don’t be a patsy of Justice, press for direct evidence, dates, documents, witnesses.

Or just randomly select six defendants and see if your random selection matches that of Justice.

New York Times Goes Dark (As in Dark Web)

Friday, October 27th, 2017

The New York Times is Now Available as a Tor Onion Service by Runa Sandvik.

From the post:

Today we are announcing an experiment in secure communication, and launching an alternative way for people to access our site: we are making the nytimes.com website available as a Tor Onion Service.

The New York Times reports on stories all over the world, and our reporting is read by people around the world. Some readers choose to use Tor to access our journalism because they’re technically blocked from accessing our website; or because they worry about local network monitoring; or because they care about online privacy; or simply because that is the method that they prefer.

The Times is dedicated to delivering quality, independent journalism, and our engineering team is committed to making sure that readers can access our journalism securely. This is why we are exploring ways to improve the experience of readers who use Tor to access our website.

One way we can help is to set up nytimes.com as an Onion Service — making our website accessible via a special, secure and hard-to-block VPN-like “tunnel” through the Tor network. The address for our Onion Service is:

https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/

This onion address is accessible only through the Tor network, using special software such as the Tor Browser. Such tools assure our readers that our website can be reached without monitors or blocks, and they provide additional guarantees that readers are connected securely to our website.

The New York Times (NYT) “going dark,” benefits the Tor project several ways:

  • Increases the legitimacy of Tor
  • Increases the visibility of Tor
  • Lead to more robust Tor relays
  • More support for Tor development
  • Spreading usage of Tor browsers

Time to press other publishers, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, the Daily Beast, The Hill, NPR, the LA Times, USA Today, Newsweek, Reuters, the Guardian, to name only a few, for Tor onion services.

Be forewarned, a login to the NYT destroys whatever anonymity you sought by accessing https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/.

You may be anonymous to your local government, but the NYT is subject to the whims and caprices of the US government. A login to the NYT site, even using Tor, puts your identity and reading habits at risk.

Gender Discrimination and Pew – The Obvious and Fake News

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Women are more concerned than men about gender discrimination in tech industry by Kim Parker and Cary Funk.

From the post:

Women in the U.S. are substantially more likely than men to say gender discrimination is a major problem in the technology industry, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in July and August.

The survey comes amid public debate about underrepresentation and treatment of women – as well as racial and ethnic minorities – in the industry. Critics of Silicon Valley have cited high-profile cases as evidence that the industry has fostered a hostile workplace culture. For their part, tech companies point to their commitment to increasing workforce diversity, even as some employees claim the industry is increasingly hostile to white males.

Was Pew repeating old news?

Well, Vogue: New Study Finds Gender Discrimination in the Tech Industry Is Still Sky-High (2016), Forbes: The Lack Of Diversity In Tech Is A Cultural Issue (2015), Gender Discrimination and Sexism in the Technology Industry (2014), Women Matter (2013), to cite only a few of the literally thousands of studies and surveys, onto which to stack the repetitive Pew report.

Why waste Pew funds to repeat what was commonly known and demonstrated by published research?

One not very generous explanation is the survey provided an opportunity to repeat “fake news.” You know, news that gets repeated so often that you don’t remember its source but it has credibility because you hear it so often?

“Fake news,” is the correct category for:

…even as some employees claim the industry is increasingly hostile to white males.

Repeating that claim in a Pew publication legitimates the equivalent of cries coming from an asylum.

One quick quote from Forbes, hardly a bastion of forward social thinking dispels the “hostile to white male” fantasy, The Lack Of Diversity In Tech Is A Cultural Issue:


It has been a commonly held belief that the gender gap in tech is primarily a pipeline issue; that there are simply not enough girls studying math and science. Recently updated information indicates an equal number of high school girls and boys participating in STEM electives, and at Stanford and Berkeley, 50% of the introductory computer science students are women. That may be the case, but the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year that twice as many men as women with the same qualifications were working in STEM fields.

A USA Today study discloses that top universities graduate black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering students at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them. Although these companies state they don’t have a qualified pool of applicants, the evidence does not support that claim.

When 2/3 of the workers in a field are male, it’s strains the imagination to credit claims of “hostility.”

I have no fact based explanation for the reports of “hostility” to white males.

Speculations abound, perhaps they are so obnoxious that even other males can’t stand them? Perhaps they are using “hostility” as a cover for incompetence? Who knows?

What is known is that money is needed to address sexism in the workplace (not repeating the research of others) and fake news such as “hostile to white males” should not be repeated by reputable sources, like Pew.

Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts – Danger of Inaccurate News (Spoiler – Trump)

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Why Inaccurate News is a Threat by Josh Pasek.

Pasek’s clip is part of the larger Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts.

Pasek uses a couple of examples from the 2016 presidential campaign to conclude:


So what we end up with, then, is an environment where we have an ideal news consumer or even a suboptimal news consumer. And what can happen as they get and interact with inaccurate information, is they come to a point where their views and the way that they start voting, making decisions, etc., can be based on something that’s wrong. And that, in turn, can mean that we elect people who aren’t necessarily the candidates that will best enact what people want. That people end up saying that they’re for a particular thing. When, in fact, if they knew more about it, they’d be against it. And those sorts of biases can be hugely pernicious to a democracy that successfully represents what it is that its people want.

Pasek has decided “inaccurate information” resulted in the election of Donald Trump and that’s his proof of the danger of inaccurate news.

If you remember his earlier comments about inference, his case runs like this:

  • There was inaccurate information reported in the media during the 2016 presidential election.
  • Therefore inaccurate information was responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

I don’t doubt inaccurate information was circulating during the 2016 presidential election but it’s a terrifying leap from the presence of inaccurate information crediting a presidential election to that single cause.

Especially without asking inaccurate information as compared to how much accurate information?, how many voters were influenced?, to what degree were influenced voters influenced?, to which candidate were they influenced?, in which states were they influenced?, what other factors impacted voters?, to what degree did other factors influence voters?, etc.

Without much deeper and complex analysis of voters and their voting behavior, claims that inaccurate information was in circulation, while factually true, are akin to saying the sun rose and set on election day, 2016. True but its impact on the election is far from certain.

Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts – Claims vs. Deductions

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Auto-grading for the first quiz in Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts marked my responses as incorrect for:

On the contrary, in a news report, both:

  • “In a survey of Americans, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to believe that September 11th was a government cover-up.”
  • “Scientists have looked for a potential link between vaccinations and autism an cannot find any evidence across multiple epidemiological studies.”

are claims by the person reporting that information.

You have no doubt heard surveys show a majority of Americans favor gun control. Would your opinion about those reports change if you knew the survey asked: “Do you think convicted murderers should be allowed to own guns?” Prohibiting gun ownership by convicted murderers is a form of gun control.

Knowing the questions asked in a survey, how respondents were selected, the method of conducting the survey and a host of other information is necessary before treating any report of a survey as anything other than a claim. You have no way of knowing if a reporter knew any more about the survey than the statement shown in the test. That’s a claim, not “systematically derived evidence … [that] reflects deductive testing using the scientific method.”

The claim about scientists and a link between vaccinations and autism is even weaker. Notice you are given the reporters conclusion about a report by scientists and not the report per se. You have no way to evaluate the reporters claim by examining the article, what “multiple epidemiological studies” were compared, out of a universe of how many other “epidemiological studies,” in which countries, etc.

I don’t doubt the absence of such a connection but “summarizes deductive evidence that was generated to specifically and rigorously evaluate a particular question. It reflects deductive testing using the scientific method” is an attempt to dress the claim by a reporter in the garb of what may or may not be true for the scientific study.

Reporting a scientific study isn’t the same thing as a scientific study. A scientific study can be evaluated, questioned, etc., all things that a bare report, a “claim” in my view, cannot.

Every report of a scientific study should link or give a standard reference to the scientific study. Reports that don’t, I skip and you should as well.

Thinking Critically About “Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts” (Coursera)

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts by Will Potter, Josh Pasek, and Brian Weeks.

From “About this course:”

How can you distinguish credible information from “fake news”? Reliable information is at the heart of what makes an effective democracy, yet many people find it harder to differentiate good journalism from propaganda. Increasingly, inaccurate information is shared on Facebook and echoed by a growing number of explicitly partisan news outlets. This becomes more problematic because people have a tendency to accept agreeable messages over challenging claims, even if the former are less objectively credible. In this teach-out, we examine the processes that generate both accurate and inaccurate news stories, and that lead people to believe those stories. We then provide a series of tools that ordinary citizens can use to tell fact from fiction.

To honor the exhortations “use critical thinking,” here are some critical thoughts on course description for “Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts.”

How can you distinguish credible information from “fake news”?

The description starts with black and white, normative classifications, one good, “credible information,” and one bad,“fake news.” Information other than being alive or dead is rarely that clear cut. As Tom Petty recently proved, even being dead can be questionable.

You are being emotionally primed to choose “credible information,” as opposed to evaluating information to determine the degree, if any, it should be trusted or used.

Reliable information is at the heart of what makes an effective democracy,

A remarkable claim, often repeated but I have never seen any empirical evidence for that proposition. In critical thinking terms, you would first have to define “reliable information” and “effective democracy.” Then using those definitions, provide empirical evidence to prove that in the absence of “reliable information” democracy is ineffective and with “reliable information” democracy is effective.

It’s an easy claim to make, but in the context of a critical thinking course, isn’t more required than repeating popular cant?

I’ll grant many theories of democracy are predicated upon “reliable information but then those theories also posit equal treatment of all citizens, another popular fiction.

yet many people find it harder to differentiate good journalism from propaganda.

As opposed to when? What is the baseline for when people could more easily “…differentiate good journalism from propaganda…?” Whenever you hear this claim made, press for the study with evidence to prove this point.

You do realize any claiming such a position considers themselves capable of making those distinctions and you are very likely in the class of people who cannot. In traditional terminology, that’s called having a bias. In favor of their judgment as opposed to yours.

Increasingly, inaccurate information is shared on Facebook and echoed by a growing number of explicitly partisan news outlets.

You know the factual objections by this point, what documentation is there for an increase in “inaccurate information” (is that the same as false information?) over when? When was there less inaccurate information. Moreover, when were there fewer “explicitly partisan news outlets?”

By way of example, consider these statements about Jefferson during the presidential election in 1800:


In the election of 1800, ministers spread rumors that Jefferson held worship services at Monticello where he prayed to the “Goddess of Reason” and sacrificed dogs on an altar. Yale University president Timothy Dwight warned that if he became president, “we may see the Bible cast into a bonfire.” Alexander Hamilton asked the governor of New York to take a “legal and constitutional step” to stop the supposed atheist vice president from becoming head of state. Federalists who opposed him called him a “howling atheist,” a “manifest enemy to the religion of Christ,” a “hardened infidel,” and, for good measure, a “French infidel.” As Smith describes it, insults like these were issued forth from hundreds of pulpits in New England and the mid-Atlantic. When Jefferson won the election, many New England Federalists buried their Bibles in their gardens so the new administration would not confiscate and burn them.

It may just be me but it sounds like there was “inaccurate information” and “explicitly partisan news outlets” available during the presidential election of 1800.

When anyone claims there is more “inaccurate information” or “explicitly partisan news outlets,” ask for percentage evidence against some base period.

Surely if they are devoted to “credible/reliable information,” they would not make such statements in the absence of facts to back them up. Yes?

This becomes more problematic because people have a tendency to accept agreeable messages over challenging claims, even if the former are less objectively credible.

People accepting messages they find agreeable is a statement of how people process information. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Kahneman.

The claim goes off the rails with “…even if the former are less objectively credible.”

Where does “…less objectively credible.” come from? It’s a nice sleight of hand but never fall for anyone claiming an “objective” context. It doesn’t, hasn’t and won’t ever exist.

You can make claims from the context of a community of people, scholars, experts, etc., that is every claim originates in shared values and worldview. (See Stanley Fish if you are interested in the objectivity issue.

As with all such claims, the authors have a criteria for “objectively credible” they want you to use in preference to other criteria, suggested by others.

There’s nothing wrong with advocating a particular criteria for judging information, we can all do no more or less. What I object to is cloaking it in the fiction of being beyond a context, to be “objective.” Let us all put forth our criteria and contend for which one should be preferred on an equal footing.

In this teach-out, we examine the processes that generate both accurate and inaccurate news stories, and that lead people to believe those stories. We then provide a series of tools that ordinary citizens can use to tell fact from fiction.

I can almost buy into “accurate” versus “inaccurate” news stories but then I’m promised “tools” to enable me to “…tell fact from fiction.”

Hmmm, but “Who is this class for:” promises:

This course is aimed at anyone who wants to distinguish credible news from “Fake News” by learning to identify biases and become a critical information consumer.

I don’t read “…learning to identify biases…” as being the same thing as “…tools…to tell fact for fiction.”

The latter sounds more like someone is telling me which is fact and fiction? Not the same as being on my own.

I’m enrolling in the course now and will have more comments along the way.

The crucial point here is that “critical thinking” should be universally applied, especially so to discussions of critical thinking.

Fact-Free Reporting on Kaspersky Lab – Stealing NSA Software Tip

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

I tweeted:

@thegrugq Israelis they hacked Kerspersky, saw Russians there, tell NSA, lots of he, they, we say, few facts.

[T]the grugq‏ @thegrugq responded with the best question on the Kaspersky story:

What would count as a fact here? Kaspersky publicised the hack when it happened. Does that count as a fact?

What counts as a fact is central to my claim that thus far, all we have seen is fact-free reporting on the alleged use of Kaspersky Lab software to obtain NSA tools.

Opinions are reported but not facts you could give to an expert like Bruce Schneier ask for an opinion.

What would I think of as “facts” in this case?

What did Israeli intelligence allegedly see when it hacked into Kaspersky Lab?

Not some of the data, not part of the data, but a record of all the data seen upon which they then concluded the Russians were using it to search for NSA software.

To the automatic objection this was a “secret intelligence operation,” let me point out that without that evidence, the NSA and anyone else further down the chain of distribution of the Israeli opinion, were being manipulated by that opinion in the absence of facts.

Just as the NSA wants to foist its opinion on the public, through unnamed sources, without any evidence for the public to form its own opinion based on facts.

The prevention of contrary opinions or avoiding questioning of an opinion, can only be achieved by blocking access to the alleged evidence that “supports” the opinion.

Without any “facts” to speak of, the Department of Homeland Security, is attempting to govern all federal agencies and their use of Kaspersky security software.

Stating the converse, how do you dispute claims made by unnamed sources that say the Israelis saw the Russians using Kaspersky Lab software to look for NSA software?

The obvious answer is that you can’t. There are no facts to check, no data to examine, and that, in my opinion, is intentional.

PS: If you want to steal NSA software, history says the easiest route is to become an NSA contractor. Much simpler than hacking anti-virus software, then using it to identify likely computers, then hacking identified computers. Plus, you paid vacation every year until you are caught. Who can argue with that?

Online Verification Course (First Draft) [Open To Public – January 2018]

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

First Draft launches its online verification training course

From the post:

Journalists strive to get the story right, but as we are bombarded by far more information than ever before, the tools and skills crucial to telling the whole story are undergoing a profound change. Understanding who took the photo or video, who created the website and why, enables journalists to meet these challenges. Verification training, up until now, has largely been done on the job and as needed. But today, we’re thrilled to announce the launch of our online verification course.

In this course, we teach you the steps involved in verifying the eyewitness media, fabricated websites, visual memes and manipulated videos that emerge on social media. The course is designed so that anyone can take the course from start to finish online, or educators can take elements and integrate into existing classroom teaching. For newsroom training managers, we hope the you can encourage your staff to take the course online, or you can take individual videos and tutorials and use during brown-bag lunches. We provide relevant and topical examples — from events such as Hurricane Irma and the conflict in Syria — to show how these skills and techniques are put into practice.

The course is open only to First Draft partners until January 2018, so consider that as an incentive for your organization to become a First Draft partner!

I haven’t seen the course material but the video introduction:

and the high quality of all other First Draft materials, sets high expectations for the verification course.

Looking forward to a First Draft course on skepticism for journalists, which uses the recent Wall Street Journal repetition of government slanders about Kerspersky Lab, which is subsequently discovered to be: “we (Israel) broke into the Kerpersky house and while robbing the place saw another burglar (Russia) there and they were looking for NSA software, so we alerted the NSA.” How Israel Caught Russian Hackers Scouring the World for U.S. Secrets

Only an editor suffering from nationalism to the point being a mental disorder would publish such a story without independent verification. Could well all be true but when all the sources are known liars, something more is necessary before reporting it as “fact.”

Busting Fake Tweeters

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

The ultimate guide to bust fake tweeters: A video toolkit in 10 steps by Henk van Ess.

From the post:

Twitter is full of false information. Even Twitter co-founder Ev Williams recognizes that there is a “junk information epidemic going on,” as “[ad-driven platforms] are benefiting from people generating attention at pretty much any cost.”

This video toolkit is intended to help you debunk dubious tweets. It was first developed in research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Arena Program at the London School of Economics to detect Russian social media influence during the German elections. It was also the basis for a related BuzzFeed article on a Russian bot farm and tweets about the AfD  — the far-right party that will enter the German parliament for the first time.

This is an excellence resource for teaching users skepticism about Twitter accounts.

For your use in creating a personal cheatsheet (read van Ess for the links):

  1. Find the exact minute of birth
  2. Find the first words
  3. Check the followers
  4. Find Twitter users in Facebook
  5. Find suspicious words in tweets
  6. Searching in big data
  7. Connect a made up Twitter handle to a real social media account
  8. Find a social score
  9. How alive is the bot?
  10. When (and how) is your bot tweeting?

Deciding that a Twitter account maybe a legitimate is only the first step in evaluating tweeted content.

The @WSJ account belongs to the Wall Street Journal, but it doesn’t follow their tweets are accurate or even true. Witness their repetition of government rumors about Kerpersky Lab for example. Not one shred of evidence, but WSJ repeats it.

Be skeptical of all Tweets, not just ones attributed to the “enemy of the day.”

OnionShare – Safely Sharing Email Leaks – 394 Days To Mid-terms

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

FiveThirtyEight concludes Clinton’s leaked emails had some impact on the 2016 presidential election, but can’t say how much. How Much Did WikiLeaks Hurt Hillary Clinton?

Had leaked emails been less boring and non-consequential, “smoking gun” sort of emails, their impact could have been substantial.

The lesson being the impact of campaign/candidate/party emails is impossible to judge until they have been leaked. Even then the impact may be uncertain.

“Leaked emails” presumes someone has leaked the emails, which in light of the 2016 presidential election, is a near certainty for the 2018 congressional mid-term elections.

Should you find yourself in possession of leaked emails, you may want a way to share them with others. My preference for public posting without edits or deletions, but not everyone shares my confidence in the public.

One way to share files securely and anonymously with specific people is OnionShare.

From the wiki page:

What is OnionShare?

OnionShare lets you securely and anonymously share files of any size. It works by starting a web server, making it accessible as a Tor onion service, and generating an unguessable URL to access and download the files. It doesn’t require setting up a server on the internet somewhere or using a third party filesharing service. You host the file on your own computer and use a Tor onion service to make it temporarily accessible over the internet. The other user just needs to use Tor Browser to download the file from you.

How to Use

http://asxmi4q6i7pajg2b.onion/egg-cain. This is the secret URL that can be used to download the file you’re sharing.

Send this URL to the person you’re sending the files to. If the files you’re sending aren’t secret, you can use normal means of sending the URL, like by emailing it, or sending it in a Facebook or Twitter private message. If you’re sending secret files then it’s important to send this URL securely.

The person who is receiving the files doesn’t need OnionShare. All they need is to open the URL you send them in Tor Browser to be able to download the file.
(emphasis in original)

Download OnionShare 1.1. Versions are available for Windows, Mac OS X, with instructions for Ubuntu, Fedora and other flavors of Linux.

Caveat: If you are sending a secret URL to leaked emails or other leaked data, use ordinary mail, no return address, standard envelope from a package of them you discard, on the back of a blank counter deposit slip, with letters from a newspaper, taped in the correct order, sent to the intended recipient. (No licking, it leaves trace DNA.)

Those are the obvious security points about delivering a secret URL. Take that as a starting point.

PS: I would never contact the person chosen for sharing about shared emails. They can be verified separate and apart from you as the source. Every additional contact puts you in increased danger of becoming part of a public story. What they don’t know, they can’t tell.