The May issue of The Atlantic has funny-scary piece about a social engineering contest on Twitter. Titled Are You Following a Bot?, the brief article outlines a recently concluded experiment by the Web Ecology Project wherein socialbots (programs) were let loose on the Twitter network to try to win friends and influence people.
Turns out, they did pretty well. According to the Web Ecology post on the contest, “In under a week, Team C’s bot was able to generate close to 200 responses from the target network, with conversations ranging from a few back and forth tweets to an actual set of lengthy interchanges between the bot and the targets.”
Think of the labor that can be saved if you outsource all those boring tweets about what you ate for lunch and the cute thing your cat did today to a bot! Free from the chains of Twitter, regular people will have scads more time for walking around outside, or engaging in F2F conversations with other actual people. And, if socialbots can pass the Turing Test, marketers have gained a powerful new spamming tool.
Apparently, the applications of the tech may be a bit more sinister than that. As The Atlantic story noted, “A week after [the Web Ecology Project's] experiment ended, Anonymous, a notorious hacker group, penetrated the e-mail accounts of the cyber-security firm HBGary Federal and revealed a solicitation of bids by the United States Air Force in June 2010 for ‘Persona Management Software’—a program that would enable the government to create multiple fake identities that trawl social-networking sites to collect data on real people and then use that data to gain credibility and to circulate propaganda.”
In 2010, more Americans got their news from the net than from newspapers, according to the State of the News Media Report 2011, recently released by the Pew Trust. “The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing,” the report stated.
The study also identifies the structural changes underlying this shift in news consumption. “In the 20th century, the news media thrived by being the intermediary others needed to reach customers. In the 21st, increasingly there is a new intermediary: Software programmers, content aggregators and device makers control access to the public. The news industry, late to adapt and culturally more tied to content creation than engineering, finds itself more a follower than leader shaping its business.” Therefore, it’s not surprising that online ad revenue also exceeded ad revenue earned by newspapers in 2010.
Readers have certainly seen a change in the quality of news in the past decade and a half. Because the tools used to collect and disseminate information have become so inexpensive, anybody can be a reporter and a publisher. Consequently, there’s a lot more “content” available, but less actual news. At the same time, old media sources like big metro papers, are engaged in a race to the bottom as they cut costs to adapt to the new business model. In between are a lot of so-called news organizations — AOL, Demand Media, Fox News — that are predicated on the idea that content must be cheap to be profitable.
The result is that the signal has been flooded with noise. Actual news has been replaced with conjecture, opinion and amateur reporting. A related effect of this shift in the business of news is that there is no longer a sense of consensual reality. As traditional media outlets chase more narrowly defined audiences, the idea of a “mainstream view”, or center, has vanished.
New technologies have always changed the way people learn and think. The printing press, steamships, the telegraph, radio and television have all caused upheavals in the news business. The internet is no different. Soon, I hope, people will find methods and sources to pull meaning from this muddle of information.
Here are a few predictions (more baseless opinion) about the shape of the news business in the future. Old media, newspapers and television, will continue to shrink budgets and cut staff until they arrive at a profitable business model — or fold. Radio is the exception to this, probably because radio’s cost of production is already low, but also because its mode of delivery is highly portable and convenient for news consumers.
The news field will become more crowded as amateurs pile in and various crowd-source schemes are tried and discarded. The successful model will probably be programmatic: an algorithm or faceted filter that pulls from dozens of live feeds to render a digest of current events. Google News is already doing something like this with their News For You filter.
The authoritative, professional sources of news that emerge will either be subsidized or collectivized. Subsidized news has been around a long time. The BBC and the CBC are leading examples. Newer players, like Al Jazeera, will thrive with this model too. Collectivized news, like the Associated Press and Reuters, will become more dominant as news outlets pool resources to get quality reporting. Citizen collectives like Democracy Now, Common Dreams and Wikileaks will also become more prominent.
And, finally, The New York Times’ new online subscription fees won’t add much to the company’s revenue. Although the method of implementing the new paywall is savvy, the price point is too high. At $35 a month for an all-access digital subscription, the NYT won’t see many non-institutional subscribers. For more info on that see nytimes.com/access.
Director General of Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, spoke at the TED conference last week about the revolutions sweeping North Africa. Here’s the video:
Based in Doha, Quatar, Al Jazeera is an international television network and internet broadcaster that has led coverage of the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Palestinian-born Khanfar was a war correspondent, then Baghdad bureau chief of the network and is now director general of Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, whose name means “the island” in Arabic, can been seen online at english.aljazeera.net.
Recent events in North Africa have underscored the importance of open networks in promoting free societies. As citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya rose up to challenge entrenched regimes, those same governments attempted to shut off the flow of information. Libya is the latest example as internet connections in the country were disabled on Friday.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, there are very few nations that tolerate a completely unfettered internet. Parson’s student Yuxi You has mashed up censorship data from the OpenNet Initiative and Reporters Without Borders into a series of infographics. Check the whole set on Yuxi You’s portfolio site.
Here in the United States, market-driven censorship is a greater threat to open networks than government intervention. On Thursday Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.) introduced an amendment to the budget bill that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing its already weak net neutrality rules. The FCC’s December stand on net neutrality was widely regarded as inadequate to protect free speech. Since then, there have already been a few lawsuits attempting to force ISPs to adhere to the existing net neutrality rules.
Last week, Ars Technica reported, officials from the Commerce Department and private security firms met at Stanford to discuss the development of a government administered digital identity ecosystem. “What we are talking about is enhancing online security and privacy and reducing and perhaps even eliminating the need to memorize a dozen passwords, through creation and use of more trusted digital identities,” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told the attendees. The full text of Mr. Locke’s speech is posted on the Commerce Department’s site.
An interesting feature of the Commerce plan is the use of cellphones as security tokens. Businesses are already doing this. Bank of America, for example, issues a text message containing a security code to a customer’s cellphone as a prerequisite to larger online transactions. The customer has to input the security code to complete the transaction.
Despite what Libertarians and privacy mavens may think, there is a need for online identity verification and government may have a role to play in that process. The government already issues Social Security numbers, drivers licenses and passports, so it’s not unreasonable to look to a government agency to help administer a digital ID. In November, the German government rolled out a new national identity card with an RFID chip in it. The European Union is still wrestling with the concept of an EU identity card.
Like the other cards issued by the federal and state governments in the US, the digital ID would have to be voluntary. One would hope that a national digital identity program would also adhere to the Laws of Identity set out by Microsoft’s Kim Cameron in 2009.
Another promising feature of the plan set out by Commerce Secretary Locke was the establishment of NPEs — Non-Person Entities, such as corporations and service providers. Imagine how much spam would be eliminated if you set your mail system to only accept messages from validated NPEs and individuals.
There is still a lot of work to be done on this plan. There have already been some security flaws found in the German ID card. However, the institution of a safe and reliable identification method will ensure the viability of the net as a place for commerce and communication.