The World We Live In

Things have gotten so crazy and divisive lately that it’s now increasingly obvious that people are living in alternate realities. Our filter bubbles have become so completely isolating that they are impervious to commonly understood baseline facts such as science and reason. Some examples:

And today Vox has a terrifying piece which imagines a world where even a well-documented case of malfeasance by the current administration might be rejected out of hand by a misinformed and untrusting public.

That insular partisan far-right media is also full of nonsense like Pizzagate that leaves the base continuously pumped up — outraged, infuriated, terrified, and misled. At this point, as the stories above show, the conservative base will believe anything. And they are pissed about all of it.

At least the stock market is still breaking new records. I shudder to think what will happen if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

Carl Bernstein at ONA 17

Recently, SmartNews (my employer) hosted Carl Bernstein, the distinguished, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, at the Watergate Hotel during the annual Online News Association conference in Washington, DC.

Under a full moon on a warm DC evening, Mr. Bernstein inspired us all to strive harder to make use of the powerful “reportorial platform” the digital era provides us to seek out, “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

Mr. Bernstein reminded us that it is not the job of the press to undo a candidate or knock a one out of office. The mission of the press is to uncover the truth, in context and developed through great investigative reporting so that the people may make the important decisions that drive our democracy.

But lately the press has been,

disfigured by celebrity, celebrity worship, gossip, sensationalism, manufactured controversy (particularly in the press), denial of our society’s real conditions (good and bad), and by a political and social discourse that we (the press) the politicians, and the people have allowed to devolve into a cacophony of name-calling, idealogical warfare and, especially, easy answers to tough questions

He pleaded for all journalists to keep their focus on the larger story. Even with the new tools available today, it is the unique perspective and context that comes from knocking on doors and “shoe leather” reporting that will unearth the truth required by our democracy. To gather that truth we all needed to be better listeners.

His remarks concluded with a quote from his editor at the Washington Post, the late Ben Bradlee.

The more aggressive our search for the truth, the more some people are offended by the press. So be it. I take great strength knowing that in my experience the truth does emerge. It takes forever sometimes but it does emerge. Any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.

Amen to that.

Perspective

When your job brings you in regular contact with tragedy on a mass scale (as it does when you work in a newsroom) the rush & tumble of getting the news out gets in the way of stopping to feel the personal impact of these events. As I’m certain will happen with the Napa/Sonoma fire situation, I am now reading personal stories out of Las Vegas.

This from the NY Times’ Reporter’s Notebook hit me hard.

I checked out of that Mandalay Bay suite on Saturday morning, excused from reporting duties, and flew home in the hopes of making my daughter’s soccer game. I found the red rose from the vigil, starting to fade and wilt, in a vase on the kitchen counter. When we got to the game, we and the other parents were somewhat surprised to see Stacee’s husband and extended family there, too. Warming up with the girls was No. 8, with her long ponytail.

We all wore orange ribbons, attached by safety pins, including the girls on both teams. The Novato team wore orange armbands with the initials “S.E.” Before kickoff, both squads came across the field to the spectator side and lined up in straight lines. Our team’s coach asked the parents to stand for 30 seconds of silence. And then two of the league’s better teams played a rather meaningless soccer game, only this one felt about as meaningful as anything I’ve ever watched.

And it was late in the second half when the ball suddenly swung from one end to the other, and Stacee’s daughter gave chase through three retreating opponents and beat them all to the ball. And in one blink-and-you-missed-it moment, she booted the ball into the corner of the net for what held on as the winning goal.

Her teammates chased her and swarmed her, and they and she looked as free and happy as girls can be on a sunny fall Saturday afternoon with their friends. The parents jumped and cheered as loudly as I’ve heard parents cheer at a kids’ soccer game. Behind my sunglasses, I was bawling. It was the first time I’d cried all week.

The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey

Preventing Harry Tuttle

My last post, Democracy’s Soft Underbelly warned how algorithms for content distribution and advertising have been weaponized to alter public opinion.

The most disturbing aspect of the affair is there is no public evidence of the ad campaigns so there is literally nothing to talk about. When there is no public record of what ad creatives were used, there can be no debate over the of the veracity of the claims made or appropriateness of the imagery used. This recently changed as Facebook has now turned over evidence (most likely because of a warrant) to Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is looking into Russian hacking of the election.

Mueller’s investigation has received copies of the Russian-bought ads and details about the specific account information and targeting criteria the buyers used to distribute their ads, according to the (Wall Street) Journal, citing people familiar with the matter. TechCrunch

“Democracy dies in darkness” is the new Washington Post tagline. The only way to have an open civic debate about the new threat to public discourse posed by advertising on social media platforms is to review the evidence. There needs to be transparency about how advertisers are paying their way into the hearts and minds of their target audiences. With transparency comes accountability.

If you’re going to target me, I deserve to know.  All ads and ad copy must be stored, shared, and freely available to anybody in a searchable database. So if I want to see ads targeted at African-Americans in a swing state, I can just type “African-Americans aged 35-60 with a college degrees” and show me all the ads that were done. – Jason Calcanis, This Week in Startups

This database of ads, freely available to the public, would expose any questionable or unethical activity by advertisers and hopefully prevent heavy-handed regulation of this industry which has been such an important driver of economic growth.

A democratic society evolves through transparency and public debate. Advertisers that operate in the open will be forced to self-regulate themselves in full view of public opinion. Without public exposure, advertising standards and interpretation of these standards will remain behind closed doors.  In such a world, reform will come through an opaque and inevitably bureaucratic regulations that will stifle innovation.

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film  Brazil cast a satirical eye on a world  where bureaucracy and regulation have run amok. Nothing can be done without the appropriate paperwork. Harry Tuttle (played by Robert De Niro) is the terrorist heating engineer is our hero of common sense.

Have you got a 27B/6?

* It’s been pointed out that the title of this post is misleading. We do not want to “prevent” Harry Tuttle, he’s the hero and one of my favorite characters. We want to avoid being “Brazilled” – Thanks Stephen Davidson!

Democracy’s Soft Underbelly

Let me explain.

It’s now well-documented that outside forces took advantage of social media platforms to spread rumors in order to swing the 2016 presidential election. Journalists digging into the story are looking more closely at the tools used to purchase advertising that helped amplify these rumors, and are horrified by what they are discovering.

Last week Pro Publica discovered you can target “jew haters” and BuzzFeed News found that on Google you could target phrases such as “blacks ruin everything”

In the days of print, each advertisement was reviewed by multiple people from both the organization that bought the ad and the publication that ran it. Extreme care was taken to make sure the advertising complemented the editorial and the message was the right fit for the audience, not only to maximize effectiveness but also to avoid instances such as the one below.

Despite careful review, print ad placements sometimes backfire

Online advertising is a delicate balance between scale and quality. The dream is to serve a perfectly targeted ad to as many people as possible. But because of the scale, it is impossible to manually review each and every ad creative for quality and fit. In the online world, people “optimize” and let the algorithms do the work.

While at Yahoo, I met with an advertiser who wanted to learn about our behavioral targeting options. I was working with a team that was thinking about exposing detailed facets of the massive Yahoo audience that would help advertisers reach very specific segments. When I walked into the room, the client had a spreadsheet he was using to allocate his million-dollar budget. After asking a few questions about his goals, I proposed a few very targeted criteria to build his target audience. Unfortunately, he grew frustrated because the total audience was too small and we were going to have to run hundreds of queries to build up the reach he needed. He didn’t have the time to continue the exercise nor appetite to keep track of all the data to show ROI to his client. The meeting wrapped up with four very broad buckets into which he poured roughly $250k each and called it a day.

He couldn’t be bothered with the details.

This is the state of online advertising today. The tools available to reach massive scale are even more sophisticated but to do it right, with quality, requires manual oversight. Ad units can be configured to dynamically swap out ad copy and assets depending on the target audience, which can also be built algorithmically. Ad spend adjusts automatically and APIs monitor trending keywords to take early advantage of trending topics and get broad reach on the cheap.

“Programmatic Advertising” is a blanket term for techniques used to automatically generate thousands of “personalized” ads at massive scale. Because it’s automated, generating ad copy variants and target segments is inexpensive. The downside is that quality suffers if you take out the human element, leaving the robots to mind the store.

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There are many examples that show us that resulting matches still need regular review. As long as ad matching algorithms such as Google’s and Facebook’s remain black boxes, a regular human review is necessary to prevent the unexpected.

Which brings me back to what we’re learning today. Last week Facebook shared that ad placements made to “amplify divisive messages” were used to influence the 2016 elections. We are slowly uncovering the extent of information warfare that uses social media platforms to weaponize fake news. Using programmatic advertising to draw attention to and amplify these campaigns is a natural extension.

More careful review of editorial content posted to social networks is important to verify facts and prevent the spread of “fake news.” On the flip side, advertising platforms need review as well because ad targeting is also rife with repugnant audience segments automatically suggested by the algorithms. As they should, Facebook and Google have both said that more rigorous review is on the way but there will always be the tension of profit motives to discourage too rigorous a lens.

In the late-90’s, the movie Wag the Dog spins a tale of how a Washington “spin doctor” (Robert De Niro) hires top Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to engineer public opinion. The film made light of the gullible public but there was a broader, cynical message about how media (and the press) can be used to manipulate public opinion.

Today we are seeing this same scenario played out, but instead of manipulating public opinion through TV and Hollywood, public opinion is bought and sold using social networks and online advertising.

SmartNews CM with Riho Yoshioka

Television markets in Japan are much more centralized than in the United States. Therefore it’s pretty efficient to allocate marketing dollars to old school TV ads (in Japan they are called “CM” as in “commercials”) to give brand lift to online marketing.

This month SmartNews dropped a set of short TV spots featuring Riho Yoshioka, and up-and-coming actress in Japan.

1 minute of news in the morning can change your life is a rough translation of the “catch phrase” of the campaign and each clip follows Riho’s character through her day.

– getting up in the morning and checking the “newspapers” before going to work
– making productive use of her morning commute
– reading our new curated International section to practice her English
– reading the news while putting on her makeup to make her evening conversations more interesting
– checking the news in the afternoon because it’s always morning somewhere in the world – right?

Hope you like it! I’m not sure how often it’s running but would love to hear if you see them on TV in Japan.

IKEA’s augmented reality app

It’s no coincidence that the Swedish home furnishing superstore IKEA timed the announcement of their AR app IKEA Place to drop shortly after Apple’s much anticipated announcement of their AR-optimized phones the iPhone 8 & iPhone X.

First announced back in June, the final release of IKEA Place will take advantage of Apple’s ARKit to not only match the proper scale, also apply the texture of the material, proper lighting and shadows.

“I think that augmented reality and virtual reality will be a total game changer for retail in the same way as the internet, only this time much faster” said Michael Valdsgaard, IKEA’s head of digital transformation, who leads a team of 70 that have been working the past nine weeks to load thousands of IKEA products into the app in preparation for release next week in conjunction with Apple’s iOS 11.

Dropping a virtual chair into your living room with true to scale is the perfect broad-scale use case for AR. Browsing furniture and sharing screenshots of them in situ before you make a big purchase is what will spread this new tech to the masses.

Hillary Clinton on Trump

HRC is on tour to promote her book, What Happened. She was on the popular liberal podcast, Pod Save America and shared this snipped which I’ve transcribed and linked to below.

I wrote this book to come to try to come to grips with what happened but also to sound the alarm about what I think could still and may well happen.

I think Trump, left to his own devices, unchecked, would become even more authoritarian than he has tried to be. Also remember, the right wing, aided and funded by Mercers, Koch brothers, etc, is very serious about calling a Constitutional Convention. They need 34 states, last I checked they were at 28, 29.

Part of their gerrymandering is to control state legislatures, elect republican governors and to call a Constitutional Convention. If you really get deep into what they’re advocating, limits on First Amendment, no limits on the Second Amendment, limits on criminal justice, there is a very insidious right wing agenda.

So when I say that he doesn’t just like Putin, that we wants to be Putin. I’m not saying he’s going to start killing journalists but I am saying he likes the idea of unaccountable, unchecked power. We’ve never had to face that in a serious way in our country.

https://breaker.audio/e/22734699 (jump to 35:54, I have also left a comment on the page)

tedr

So many wonderful stories being shared about Ted Rheingold who passed away today after a brave battle with cancer. I met him a few times to help out with the Dogster blog when I was at Six Apart and continued to bump into him from time to time during the Web 2.0 days and we would swap tales about community building and how we transfer online the genuine sense of sharing and “goodness” (does anyone even say that anymore?) our tight little community felt.

Through the years our paths drifted apart but he was always there online with a quip or short one-liner just to let you know he was there, connecting to you and keeping the spirit going.

While the man in the dog suit at a board meeting is classic Ted, this is how I remember him, dressed up but comfortably stylish while teaching the rest of us all that is fun and possible with the latest technology.

We miss you @tedr but your spirit lives on in all of us.

skateboarding in the 60's