The battlecry of digital speech advocates – which is pretty much anyone who understands the value of the data revolution – is “information wants to be free.”
It’s also considered the core of the hackers ethos (however apocryphal it’s origins might be1), a philosophical justification for the actions of hackers, hacktivsts, whistleblowers and others who have spilled private and/or secret information into the public sphere.
As a journalist, it certainly drives my default outlook as well, with built-in caveats for any information that may inflict unnecessary harm on someone. I’ll fight long, drawn out and exhausting battles with government agencies over obtaining the data hidden away in their dungeons, if for no other reason than it belongs to the citizenry, not subterranean bureaucrats.
Many have risked their lives and freedom to liberate information for the public good, from Daniel Ellsberg2 to Aaron Swartz3 to Edward Snowden4 or any of the other flood of leakers that have emerged in Washington this year.
It seems that freeing information, more often than not, results in a more informed public. And the expression ‘information wants to be free’ goes hand-in-hand with another common phrase: the truth always comes out.
Like rivers seeking their lowest point, information doesn’t like to be kept secret, regardless of how hard one might try to repress it. You can only run from it so far, for so long.
But a lot of information isn’t free, and maybe not all of it should be?
For-profit journalistic institutions charge for access to much of their information, even while essentially giving away the most important and timely bits. Journalism is difficult, full-time work and funding it somehow is imperative (something I’ve believed long before becoming one of them). New ways to subsidize news reporting may emerge in the future, but for now, there is a fee to entry in the form of subscriptions and digital paywalls and that’s unlikely changing anytime soon.
More controversally, there are still repositories of publicly-funded scientific and medical research that ends up in the hands of for-profit publishers5. It’s been long argued all research that receives taxpayer dollars should be open to the public.
Of course, there’s the vast ocean of secret, classified information held by world governments that’s kept sequestered away in the name of national security – whether all of it should be or not.
And because some information can be extremely damaging to private individuals or society as a whole, one could argue that even if it eventually gets out, there should be efforts undertaken to minimize its impact for as long as possible.
Even if one prescribes to a worldview involving radical transparency, there are limits on freedom of speech and information. Reasonable people can argue over where those lines should be drawn. I’ll always err on the side of more flexible rules and greater transparency, particularly from powerful institions like governments, corporations and academia.
But at the end of the day, quality information takes time, money and other resources to produce and sometimes has far-reaching implications. So it’s a reasonable conclusion that even if information wants to be free – if it even wants anything at all6 – not all of it can be free all the time.
Benjamin Franklin said: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”
Or, just upload everything you’ve ever done and every bit of data associated you to the cloud. And those clouds aren’t fluffy with harp players sitting on them. Instead of Heaven, this afterlife is more akin to Hell since your final resting place will be cold, dark and subterranean.
We’ve seen digital immortality represented in science fiction many times. Some recent examples (mostly on Black Mirror) include:
a.) In the Battlestar Galactica spinoff Caprica1, one of the main characters is essentially replicated by her father using all of her social media activity. This digital avatar is a nearly perfect simulation of a dead person.
b.) In the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You2, most people have digital recording devices installed into their brains – their eyes acting as camera lenses – that chronicle everything they ever do and see. This information can be stored, played back and even enhanced both internally and externally on TV screens. These chronological.
c.) In another Black Mirror episode, San Junipero3, people’s brains are uploaded into a virtual reality server where they get to live in any decade of time they want, long past the deaths of their physical bodies.
Questions abound about what to do with people’s data after they die. What else is there to be done with it?
We’re already tracking everything with Fitbits, social media profiles and every other app conceived. Digital giants like Google and Facebook have amassed every byte of information about us that they can.
Note that none of this actually grants the dead longer lifespans. It’s for the benefit of the living. One could argue more effort could be spent prolonging life – and not in the insane ways Silicon Valley moguls are attempting7.
But it’s pretty much inevitable that our cemeteries will eventually be upgraded to include digital components. Whether it’s a digital mosoleum, a very convicing AI chatbot trained on the personality of the departed or massive databanks full of hard drives containing the virtual souls of the death, a natural extention of the Information Age will be forms of immortality beyond what Ben Franklin pondered.
There was a time in recent memory where a television production company was keen on creating a “Big Brother” reality show featuring Mars One explorers. Mars One, of course, is trying to send people on a one-way trip to the red planet as its first colonists.
If the show had happened and carried through to the ultimate fate of a Mars One crew – death on Mars, or much sooner into the mission – it’s another step toward the return to people’s morbid appetite for bloodsport and similar death-fueled events. Millions would have tuned in to see what could potentially be the first humans on another planet, and the consequences – unlike carefully controlled “reality TV” like “Survivor” – would be deadly.
Sure, we sadly have animal fighting and other terrible, illegal things going on that fall into the genre of bloodsport. And some consider boxing and MMA to be bloodsports, and perhaps, in the strictest of sense, they are.
But I’m talking about entertainment-centered events that involve a parade of human death. And not accidental deaths like in NASCAR either, but events where the fates of the unlucky are sealed and expected. A Mars One documentary or television show could certain be considered such a morbid extravaganza since space flight and exploration has notably ended in tragedy a few times2. Space is a brutal and unfriendly place for life. MarsOne, SpaceX and other private companies racing for the stars don’t have quite the experience and expertise of NASA.
As we approach our theoretical limit of 12 billion people on earth4 and live increasingly longer, human life may become less sacred. And we’re already obsessed with death and horror in our fiction, and are seemingly more desensitized to atrocities and terrorist attacks every year.
Whatever there’s a market for, someone will manage to exploit. If watching astronauts die in space will rake in ratings – and therefore profits – the taboo may eventually be broken.
And from there, watching more doomed souls for the sake of entertainment might only become more commonplace, especially as amateurs make their own streams.
This, of course, is already happening as people have taken to streaming murders, suicides and other violent events onto Facebook Live[^5]. Once that explodes into an even more popular occurence, the floodgates may be very difficult to close.
Griffiths, Sarah and O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “No more ‘Big Brother’ on the red planet: Endemol axes plans for reality TV show that would record life of Mars One explorers - but a documentary will still be made” Daily Mail. February 23, 2015. Link ↩
I think predictions are rubbish for the very short term. Whether trying to call elections before they happen, how political tides turn or even how much it will rain, the future can be a violatile venture to bet on.
But we can make vague, more longterm predictions with greater success. Broadening the expectations and removing the pressure of absolute precision can turn anyone into a thinksational prophet. Just ask Nostradamus.
To say I make predictions is kind of a misnomer. It’s more like an educated guess based on current trends that’s by no means empirical.
One of those little future thoughts is that within the next 20 years we’ll have positively identified evidence of extraterrestrial life.
I don’t know where, what form it will take, whether it will be a lifeform, a fossil or some gaseous particle trace that can only be explained by the presence of a non-terran creature. But within the next couple decades, we will know for absolute certain that life formed somewhere beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
While there are exciting exoplanetary targets1 for the hunt, odds are we’ll find something either on Mars2 or the oceanic moons of Europa or Enceladus3 well before we discover evidence beyond our own solar system.
Regardless of the details, the search is ongoing in earnest and it shouldn’t take more than 20 years to produce results. It could be far, far less.
This probably isn’t a very risky prediction. SETI has predicted finding intelligent extraterrestrials by 20405, putting this 20-year prediction within the same ballpark. This prediction has the added advantage of not needing the life to be intelligent. Any moving sludge or microbe that we can label with a fancy name will do.
Whether there’s any other life out there depends upon which side of the Fermi Paradox’s Great Filter6 one thinks we’re on. But the odds are extremely tiny that we’re alone. There could be 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations just in the Milky Way, according to maths, and that doesn’t account for all the non-intelligent stuff like space ferns and space bugs. It’s just a matter of finding them.
The implications for such a discovery would be vast for Earth’s cultures as a whole, unmooring public consciousness from intellectual institutions built upon the assumption of a human-centered universe.
And aliens in whatever form are probably at least just a little bit cool.
The beginning of the end.
Cybersecurity is paramount as more and more devices get connected to ever-expanding networks and cyberthreats multiply exponentially, putting your privacy and vital information at risk compromise.
Note that there is no such thing as absolute cybersecurity. Networks are by their nature open in order to facilitate data transfer for communications. The very recent Vault7 revelations from WikiLeaks and the previous Snowden NSA leaks show that the CIA, NSA and other state intelligence angencies have certain ways around whatever walls you build around yourself. But regardless, there are many steps you can take to better secure your privacy, access and important information. If you’re going to get hacked, best make them work for it.
This page is meant to be a living resource and is subject to update as new and better cybersecurity measures are developed.
Last updated March 8, 2017
Part I: Securing your accounts
1. Take inventory
Make a spreadsheet of all your various online accounts to make certain you aren’t forgetting any and to track which one’s you’ve secured.
Whether it’s for banking, credit cards, social networks, message boards, shopping or whatever, keeping comprehensive track of who has your information will help keep the process of securing your digital footprint much saner.
Mark them with a color or a label or something as you lockdown each one over the course of the following steps.
2. Setup a password manager
A password manager is key to securing your account logins.
Obviously, it’s a completely terrible idea to use the same password for everything, even though many, many people make this mistake. But nobody wants to write down or otherwise record a different password for each of their accounts. Not only is this really tough to keep track of, it’s also really unwise as hackers would only need to find your repository of passwords to potentially own your entire life.
The LastPass password manager extension for your browser – along with the mobile app on your phone – is the perfect solution. The beauty of LastPass, aside from being a free password manager (many other services cost) is that it encrypts all your information on the server side. So even if someone cracked LastPass’ server, they still wouldn’t be able to get at your stored information.
It also means you don’t need to remember all the random passwords you’ll be setting up in the next step. LastPass can store them all for you in a safe and secure way.
The only password you’ll need to remember – and this is really important – is the master password for LastPass, as the app and plugin only works when you’re logged into it. If you forget or lose this password, you can recover access, but it’s a huge pain. Make the master password something strong that you can memorize.
All that said, just signup for a LastPass account and it will step you through the process. LastPass has lots of great features and it’s simple to organize and categorize your various online accounts by type.
When installing the LastPass mobile app on your phone or tablet, it may prompt you to allow app form-fill. Definitely enable this as it will store and fill-in login information for apps as well as websites in the browser.
3. Strong passwords
Now that you’ve got a list of accounts going and a password manager to make your life easier, it’s time to assign new passwords to all of your logins.
As already mentioned, it’s vitally important that your passwords all be different. But it’s even more important for them to be complex, to the point where it’s unlikely you’ll ever remember what it is. Too many people use password1 or 12345 or their birthday, street address, school name, etc. Any password based on dictionary words is too easy for hackers and password cracking tools to break.
I recommend using Strong Password Generator to create new passwords. Alternative, you can use LastPass’ generator, but I prefer this one because the new randomly generated password will stay up on the screen for you, giving you ample opportunity to make certain both the website in question and LastPass have actually stored it.
If the password doesn’t conform to a particular website’s security rules, randomly generating a different one usually produces a very strong password that works. You’ll have to go down your entire list of accounts, logging into each one and using the password settings to reset your login information. This can be a lengthy task, but it’s well worth it.
Each time you assign a new password, LastPass will offer to save the account. Definitely say yes, then logout of the account and try to login again to insure everything is working.
Mark each account you secure in your spreadsheet until they’re all locked down and stored in LastPass.
4. Disable browser login keys
Many browsers, like Firefox and Chrome, save your login information for most websites unless otherwise specified. Now that you’ve assigned strong passwords to everything and they’ve been successfully stored in LastPass, it’s wise to turn off any competing attempts to save your passwords.
First, this centralizes where your passwords are stored to a single secure location. Secondly, it’s likely lots of old passwords are hiding in your browser’s keychain and there’s a danger of them attempting to override the information stored in LastPass.
It’s just best to kill off any potential conflicts.
In Chrome, go to Settings > Show advanced settings > Passwords and forms and uncheck “Offer to save passwords with Google Smart Lock for Passwords.” Additionally, click “Manage Passwords” and delete every single entry in there.
5. Setup two-factor authentication
Not every website or service has two-factor authentication (2FA) just yet, but most big services do.
2FA is another layer of security where once your login password is entered, the website texts an additional verification code to your phone, which you must enter before proceeding. This insures that only those in physical possession of your smartphone can login to your services. This, ostensibly, confines the only valid user to you.
Login to every website on your list – which you can now easily do with LastPass – and check the account security settings for two-factor options. EFF has specific guides for major websites. If the feature is available, input your smartphone number. Mark each account on your list where 2FA is enabled.
A great 2FA app for your phone is Google Authenticator, which you should use wherever available.
6. Address Facebook
As you went through your list of accounts, you may have noticed several use your Facebook account to login.
Having everything tied to a Facebook account is certainly convenient, but it’s also an additional security risk and a challenge to lockdown. But there are certain services that require either Facebook or Twitter to login, so you may have to resign yourself to it in some cases.
Mark everything in your spreadsheet that uses a Facebook login. If Facebook is secure with a strong password stored in LastPass, these accounts are secure as well. Just don’t leave yourself logged in on unsecured devices or those you don’t own.
Part II: Secure your devices and networks
Now that your various online accounts are secured, protecting your desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet and home wireless network is the next vital step.
There’s a vastly threatening ecosystem of malware lurking out there that can takeover your computer, steal your information or just straight up spy on you. It’s especially exploded across the mobile landscape, putting an increasing number of devices at risk.
1. Install anti-malware
For desktops and laptops, MalwareBytes has free and paid versions for Windows and Mac. Both are very good. The paid version, for about $40, might be worth it for lifetime updates and round-the-clock system monitoring. But the free version works in a pinch and is effective you stay on top of running scans for malware and rootkits. There’s also a mobile version that’s worth installing.
For Windows machines, the Windows Defender comes with all modern versions of Windows like 7 and 10. Make certain it’s enabled.
There’s an argument to be made that expensive antivirus suites are pretty worthless in terms of keeping up with the slew of new threats appearing literally every day. But it also doesn’t hurt to have one. If you’re interested in the many protections one of these big programs can provide, splurging for Symantec Endpoint Protection isn’t a bad way to go.
2. Enable biometrics
If your smartphone, laptop or tablet supports biometric access, use it. The app version of LastPass will usually ask you to set this up. Unlocking the phone with a fingerprint swipe takes a little getting used to and might be annoying at first, but it’s far more secure should you somehow lose your device.
3. Secure your router
Make certain your router has a strong password as well, something stored and remembered by your devices but one that’s not publically available or easily broken.
If you’re like me and have frequent visitors who need my apartment’s wifi, you can setup a Guest network most of the time.
These instructions will vary among various wireless routers. It’s okay to ask your ISP for help too if they provided it to you.
4. Configure the firewall
Make certain your firewall is activated and running on your Mac or Windows laptop/desktop.
Part III: Secure your communications
Now that your accounts and devices are secured, it’s time to secure your data transmissions. Whenever you browse the Internet, send texts or send emails, it’s possible for hackers to intercept those communications. There are ways to make your daily communications more secure with some simple apps and tools.
1. Secure your browsing
For your daily browsing activities, at the very least it’s suggested you install HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension and mobile app that enforces the use of the HTTPS protocol, which is more secure than the standard HTTP.
For more robust browsing protection, The Onion Router (TOR) is slow-ish but effective for masking your online activities from prying eyes. Simple download the installer and it will setup a Firefox browser instance configured for super secure encrypted Internet connections. You don’t have to use TOR for everything, but it’s great for browsing you really don’t want to have tracked.
To really secure your online activities, using a VPN is suggested. It routes the connection in such a way that your IP address can’t traced. For mobile, the aforementioned [Lookout app] ](https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.lookout&hl=en) has a VPN. Otherwise, for every other kind of connection on laptops or desktops, a service like Spotflux is free and fast as far as VPN connections go.
2. Secure your texting
Telegram is a great all-purpose messaging app that provides secure communications for virtually every platform.
A great alternative is WhatsApp, which has end-to-end encryption and many other great features like archiving conversations and side-stepping international texting fees. It’s perhaps the most popular secure texting and messaging program and it automatically finds other users among your contacts.
3. Secure your emails
Gmail has pretty good security, but if you need additional security that includes encryption, there are a few tools you can implement.
The first is Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), which is a type of encryption that involves a pair of keys – one public and one private – to encrypt messages that only people with the key can decrypt.
PGP can be complex for the layperson to setup, but there’s a simple solution for browsers in the form of Mailvelope where you can easily generate new keys, encrypt emails and other online text fields.
The main drawback with Mailvelope is that it’s only for webpages and webmail. If you’re using Outlook, Thunderbird or another local email client, there are detailed instructions for both Mac and Windows.
If you really need secure email communications, using ProtonMail is free and allegedly the only email system the NSA can’t hack1.
4. Secure your web searches
Whether Google is evil or not is up for debate. That Google is ubiquitous, omnipresent and mining every detail of your data for marketing purpose is not up for debate.
This isn’t meant to deter you from using Gmail, Google Docs or its multitude of other awesome, free services. Google at least make an attempt to transparently share what information it’s collecting about you.
Regardless, it’s probably a good idea to keep Google from knowing everything you’re searching for, ever. While 99% of your searches probably won’t raise any eyebrows, sometimes things can get taken out of context (there was once a writer for a TV murder-of-the-week procedural whose searches were made public, landing him at the center of suspicion and outrage).
To avoid being tracked every step of your online research, a secure, anonymous alternative to Google Search is DuckDuckGo, which claims not to collect anything on its users.
Part IV: Secure your personal information
Your accounts, devices, networks and communications should be far more secure now than they were upon starting this tutorial.
There are many background check information aggregators online, and chances are your personal information, including birthdates, phone numbers, addresses past and present, and much, much more is listed on there, sometimes for free but often for a price.
It’s hard to control whether you show up in these databases as lots of it is purchased information from both public and corporate sources. But there are ways to have yourself removed from many of these sites3 with enough time and patience.
Wiping yourself from the face of these databases can help mitigate the damage should troll armies try to dox you, order a million pizzas or a SWAT team to your house or otherwise try to wreak havoc upon your life.
To keep Google Analytics from tracking you, install this browser extension.
This is a list originally collected from reddit, complete with links to opt-out pages. Good luck.
Intelius.com* - Opt-out
Acxiom.com - Opt-out
MyLife.com - To request that a Member Profile or Public Profile be deleted, please contact Customer Care at 1-888-704-1900 or contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Upon receipt of these requests, and confirmation that you are requesting that your own profile be removed, please allow MyLife 10 business days to complete this removal. It may be necessary to contact you to validate that you are the profile owner requesting the removal. This is to ensure the correct identity and profile ownership before completing these requests, and is for the protection of our users and their privacy.
Zabasearch.com* - Opt-out
Spokeo.com - Opt-out
BeenVerified.com - Guide to opt-out
Peekyou.com - Opt-Out
USSearch.com* - Opt-Out
PeopleFinders.com - Opt-Out
PeopleLookup.com* - In order for PeopleLookup to suppress or opt out your personal information from appearing on our Website, we need to verify your identity. To do this, we require faxed proof of identity. Proof of identity can be a state issued ID card or driver’s license. If you are faxing a copy of your driver’s license, we require that you cross out the photo and the driver’s license number. We only need to see the name, address and date of birth. We will only use this information to process your opt out request. Please fax to 425-974-6194 and allow 4 to 6 weeks to process your request.
PeopleSmart.com - Opt-Out
PrivateEye.com - Opt-Out
Whitepages.com - Opt-Out
USA-People-Search.com - Opt-Out
Spoke.com - Opt-Out
PublicRecordsNow.com - Still determining how to remove…
DOBSearch.com - In order for us to “opt out” your public information from being viewable on the public DOBsearch People Finder search results, we need to verify your identity and require faxed proof of identity. Proof of identity can be a state issued ID card or driver’s license, or notarized letter. If you are faxing a copy of your driver’s license, you may cross out the photo and the driver’s license number. We only need to see the name, address and date of birth. Please fax to 516-717-3017 and allow 4 to 6 weeks to completely process your request. It is your responsibility to ensure legibility of your document
Radaris.com - Opt-Out
LexisNexis.com - Opt-Out
**Pipl.com - Opt-Out (Note on Pipl: this is a search engine that draws upon data from all the above sources. If you cleanse yourself from the other databases, your information fades from Pipl)
Kinda how things have been going lately.
A flood of disinformation is drowning social networks online and supplanting quality journalism as primary news sources for many Americans, risking the country’s future as a free republic.
The stratospheric rise of fake news – false information specifically presented as real journalism to deceive the audience – is an emerging crisis, compelling Oxford Dictionaries to christen 2016 the “year of post-truth”1 and triggering panic among pundits over whether America’s consumption of blatant lies in their media diet swayed the presidential election.
Countless articles have been written about this troubling phenomenon, though few solutions have been proposed or implemented.
But if tech giants are to blame for the spread of fake news, it’s the readers of these websites – like InfoWars, Breitbart News, Natural News, End the Fed, US Uncut or the slew of other news-ish seeming blogs – who have created a niche market for information that confirms their biases as they increasingly distrust and feel unrepresented by what’s nebulously referred to as “the media.”4.
Of course, fake news isn’t a new phenomenon5 by any stretch and yellow journalism used to run through the mainstream media’s veins6. But as journalism changed and matured, fake news was pushed to the fringes.
But those fringes have gained a bigger microphone in the digital age, as the one-time media consumer has become a content creator and then a pundit as the web mutated primarily into a vast chain of social networks. Fake news publishers would have remained underground and extremely niche in the previous media landscape. But now every conspiratorial screed can find its audience and expand its reach to the point where fact-checkers like Snopes7 and others struggle to keep up with debunking the endless influx of baseless, paranoid, exploitative rubbish.
As America’s obsession with conspiracy theories spreads across the Internet, fake news has taken on a distinctly politically partisan turn, deepening the ideological rift between red and blue America. Insane nonsense like claims that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta run a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlour8, Bernie Sanders still has secret ways to become president, birther conspiracies and other garbage pollutes people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds, ones each user often curates to their own to their political bend9.
People are desperately clinging to their confirmation bias while seeking information supporting their preconceived worldview rather than going to the trouble to learn from legitimate journalistic or academic sources with an open mind, and it’s further poisoning online discourse as users retreat to their bubbles10.
Fake news, as a result, became a huge industry amid a particularly divisive and disgusting presidential election year. It doesn’t take a deep dive to discover the motive driving most fake news publishers is purely financial rather than ideological, with Macedonian teens targeting Trump supporters with fake news stories echoing what they want to hear11. Fake news mavens readily admit in interviews that their stories are completely fabricated and aimed at a specific audience’s beliefs to rake in advertising dollars. It’s the free market in action.
But there are plenty of ideological players as well. Breitbart News and InfoWars are run by personalities trying to push narratives directly in opposition to established fact. Political partisans too have jumped into this cesspool12, wielding websites that look like news publications to the untrained eye as weapons of party propaganda to wage war against their enemies across the aisle. And of course, foreign powers like Russia have long waged information warfare against the United States and were particularly active in 201613 as they attempted to affect the presidential race.
Information warfare and political propaganda aren’t anything new, but there was a time when even the most ghastly lies were more often simply distorted pictures of the facts, where politicians relied on spinning a grain of truth to promote their agendas.
But we’ve entered an era that’s not only post-truth or postmodern, but post-spin as well. Primary or even secondary sources don’t even seem to matter to the most ideological of those pushing fake news stories as they create narratives from whole cloth.
Digital news consumers are being victimized by misinformation mongers all too willing feed off their clicks. It’s gone beyond the mere mindless fluff of clickbait and entered a realm of exploitation.
While older, more conservative and less Internet literate Americans are those traditionally seen as most vulnerable to online hoaxes, teenagers also struggle to tell the difference between legitimate and false information sources14 and there’s been a rise in fake news tailored to liberal tastes. Nobody is truly exempt from being affected.
So while the fringe rightwing definitely has a fake news problem, it’s not a crisis uniquely belonging to them, as their far left counterparts and everyone else in between also can fall into the same trap.
Media literacy is at dangerously low levels in the United States and anyone can be taken for a fool. (full disclosure: I once fell for an abcnews.com.co story because I wasn’t careful and the headline very much spoke to my interests).
We seem to have crossed a dystopian threshold where even our leaders can’t tell or respect the difference between facts and lies and actively tries to blur the lines between them, where the head of Breitbart News can step into the national policy adviser’s chair15 and the ramblings of InfoWars frequently end up in news aggregators and social media feeds as if they are rooted in facts.
And worse, it’s spreading beyond America’s borders and into Europe16, threatening to engulf the planet in a blanket of noise where finding the truth becomes increasingly difficult for the average individual.
As a result, the confusion has deepened to the point where defining fake news has become distorted17, with people on both sides – and even fake news pushers themselves18 – misusing the term to discredit reports and publications they don’t like, regardless of their legitimacy, in a truly Orwellian fashion.
While stories from real news sources can have inaccuracies – reporters are only human – those instances can’t be considered “fake news” in the same way. There have also been times news organizations are deceived by official sources, but that’s not really fake news either, even if the story is demonstrably false, like many reports leading up to the Iraq War. Nor do websites that seem news-like but are clearly promoting satire like Clickhole or The Onion fit the narrowly tailored definition I’m seeking to highlight. Similarly, opinion websites with a liberal or conservative viewpoint, like DailyKos or National Review aren’t fake news either. But this hasn’t stopped people on both sides from trying to taint partisan or hyperpartisan websites as “fake” for simply espousing different worldviews.
It’s important to combat the propagation of fake news while respecting diversity of thought and to avoid using the label as a weapon to discredit political opponents19.
But what BuzzFeed News recently did when publishing an unverified intelligence dossier full of allegations about blackmail material against President Trump collected by Russia is very dismaying, and could certainly be considered fake news. I’m finding it hard to spot the difference between the unverified information posted by BuzzFeed and the metric ton of rubbish posted by InfoWars.
This only underscores the importance for journalists decrying the rise of fake news to value accuracy, integrity and nonpartisanship themselves20 to give their critique more weight in the eyes of a public that simply doesn’t trust the amorphous news ecosystem of radio, television, newspapers and the Internet commonly known as “the mainstream media.”
Though Facebook and Google are trying to crackdown on ad revenue streams that fuel fake news sites on their networks22, and Google just banned 200 fake news publishers from its AdSense services23, it’s important for the public to take the promotion of real news and media literacy into their own hands.
As we shift from an administration concerned about fake news24 to one that actively embraces it, it’s vital to support trustworthy journalism25 and promote our First Amendment rights of press and speech.
Welp, we’re here.
We didn’t get here as a result of any single election or event, nor is it the sole doing of any individual, group or ideology. The upheavals of 2016 had simmered for a long time beneath the surface, finally coming to full boil in a rapid-fire series of unexpected – yet not entirely befuddling – events that rocked society awake to the reality we’ve shifted into.
We live in a society resting on the fulcrums of information ubiquity and overload, technological advancement and devastation, greater understanding and declining memory, the least amount of conflict and the largest possible war.
Discussing and understanding the phenomena driving the current crises – both actual and potential – is vitally important. A free and open exchange of ideas is paramount to shattering the various ideological and cultural bubbles people across the world have retreated into.
But as the very meanings of words come under fire and facts are contested at every turn, finding common, definitive definitions of terminology is vital. Political propagandists, both on the right and left, are each trying to shift the window of discussion in their direction, to frame how people see and think about the issues at hand.
And that phenomenon is woven into the tapestry of our zeitgeist, which will we need to unravel to make sense of our dystopian information overload drowning the search for facts and truth.
Definition 1: “A dystopia is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many subgenres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, and/or technology.”
Definition 3: “Orwellian is an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past, including the “unperson”—a person whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practised by modern repressive governments.”
Definition 7: “Postmodernism describes both an era and a broad movement that developed in the mid to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism which marked a departure from modernism. While encompassing a broad range of ideas and projects, postmodernism is typically defined by an attitude of skepticism or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies, and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including the existence of objective reality and absolute truth, as well as notions of rationality, human nature, and progress. Instead, it asserts that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, or political discourse and interpretation, and are therefore contextual and constructed to varying degrees. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, self-referentiality, and irony.”
Definition 9: “In semiotics and postmodernism, hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.”
Definition 11: “Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance. While this has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life, but was less notable before the advent of the Internet.”
This past November, rising webhosting costs and general frustration with the inefficient setup of my server in the age of Git and source control prompted me to take control of my digital destiny.
It took six excruciating months – blowing well past my New Year’s Eve goal – but eventually I successfully pushed all of my previously Wordpress-based projects to a static setup on Github Pages.
Nothing highlights how many people don’t see your websites than taking them down for two months without hearing a word from anyone.
But managing the half-dozen websites I host has never been easier or more robust and portable. While at times frustrating, the process was educational, fun and rewarding overall.
In the process, I found myself needing to relaunch all of my websites. And what good is a relaunch without a makeover? My webhosting and personal tech got a serious upgrade over the past few weeks, including new hardware in my Macbook, a boost to Marshmellow on my phone, a fancy new server sitting in my apartment, faster Internet, a shiny new tablet and more. My whole techno landscape is shiny and new.
After dragging my blogs through design hell, they joined the ranks of the flat, minimalist, mobile responsive sleek beasts roaming the web these days.
Frey Hargarten, my primary resume-ish web project, is where most content I produce across numerous publications and platforms is aggregated, mostly for my own gratification and convenience, but also to expand my digital footprint in order to avoid cross-pollination with other people’s work or mistaken identity in search results.
As Alan Moore famously said1, “If you are on a list targeted by the CIA, you really have nothing to worry about. If however, you have a name similar to somebody on a list targeted by the CIA, then you are dead.”
I’m not super worried that a CIA wet team will assault my apartment. But even then, while my name is rare, it’s not unique.
Jeff Hargarten is its most common permutation. Jeffrey Allan Hargarten if I were a snobby tweed-clad academic. Frey Hargarten if you were in a small circle that knew me during my lost years.
There aren’t a lot of us Jeff Hargartens around. The story goes that those with my last name are all fairly closely related and come from the German Rhineland. So I pity the John Smiths, Jane Does and Alan Smithees2 of the world. Seriously, do parents want to constantly hear about their kids being found adrift in a river or directing B-movies?
But while the Hargarten name is rare and of murky origin, I am not one-of-a-kind. There’s another Jeff Hargarten3 out there, a doppleganger of sorts. But he’s an older gentleman than I, meaning he’s not my good twin. He seems to own the company NORAM4 in Milwaukee and sells clutch brakes for bikes, tractors, go-karts, chainsaws and other things that would certainly kill me if I used them. There have also been rumblings of a couple others out there, and in the past I’ve been confronted with information related to a Jeff Hargarten who is most decidedly not me.
The fact that I’m not one-of-a-kind in any way, shape or form – like most of humanity – enhances the importance for me to lay claim to my social media identity before anyone else. In this uber-competitive job market within a vastly expanding global digital community, personal branding is vital, and not in a Gwyneth Paltrow my-stuff-is-goop kinda way5, but rather where my work in unmistakably mine.
Essentially, I had to upload myself online in Matrix-like fashion before anyone else could move into my piece of personal real estate. From there, it’s possible to define myself before anyone else does, to climb in the search results and craft my identity and brand name in order to hide my innumerable deficiencies.
With the sheer number of articles I’ve written for various publications, and even some that I haven’t6, I’m already well-placed in a Google search.7 But that’s not good enough. My relative, that other guy – they can still be found hiding the tall grass of Jeff Hargartenia.
What the Internet says we are has apparently become more important than who we actually are. What’s real has become secondary to online reputation and image. Vague postmodern memories of identity – mere echoes of people we haven’t really known or experienced – are more important in our Huxley-esque dystopian present than getting to actually understand another human being on a personal level. Ratcheting-up our number of followers, friends and subscribers vastly outweighs how many close personal relationships we maintain. While some Millennials might slowly be shifting away from this philosophy to reclaim real life one Instagram rage-quit at a time9, the necessity of maintaining an effective digital presence isn’t dissipating anytime soon.
Back at the University of Minnesota a handful of years ago, the New Media and Culture class taught by @professorshayla (who incidentally shares a name with an online porn-star whom I couldn’t find after a lengthy search) we discussed the concept of hyperreality10 where our minds reinterpret what’s real upon encountering digital simulations of reality. Hyperreality is reality by proxy, our subconscious assignment of meaning to innately meaningless symbols substituting for a person, institution or object. Jean Baudrillard11 used the example of an insanely-detailed map of the world so accurate and large that it covers the world. As reality beneath the map crumbles, the simulation remains and few notice the world they’re living in is no longer the original.
Of course, that leads to a brain-twisting journey through existential philosophy where the very concept of reality is questioned since what we see as real is actually just light-based signals translated by our brains, an insignificant sliver of an electromagnetic spectrum too vast for us to comprehend. Like Alice’s extended acid trip through Wonderland, the concept of what’s really real gets turned on its head before being decapitated by the Queen of Hearts.
We’re already live in a world where curating our online personas takes priority over cultivating ourselves, where the our very essence and focus is uploaded into a frigid underground server room in the Silicon Valley (or Sweden12 and Iceland13 in the case of controversy). In that virtual cloud, information becomes immortal and our digital footprint, that hyperreal representation of ourselves, will persist long after our deaths.
But I’ve started considering an alternative, a unique take on my name and online identity, and have decided to gradually switch my online persona and professional bylines to Frey Hargarten, that permutation of Jeffrey from my past that’s now purely being exploited for cynical branding purposes. Jeff still exists in day-to-day “real” life, but online he will be submerged, leaving a mad scramble for power among my various relatives/dopplegangers.
Over time, this space will likely flesh into a fuller representation of my career to supplant previous interpretations of my name and digital presence.
Either that, or I’ll get bored with it, neglect to update it regularly and just end up posting random tidbits interesting only to me. Actually, that sounds a lot more representative of who I am.
I report, write and design news things. I get a lot of feedback from readers. Some is good. Some is bad. Some is threatening, completely insane or both.
At my publication, the emails and phone numbers of writers are attached to our content, so we occasionally get some quality one-on-one time with our readers. It can be valuable and enriching to get that kind of feedback. But other times, the interaction can be frustrating, and getting some people off the phone without being completely rude is nigh impossible. But for those who don’t like talking to people, the news media might be the wrong industry to work in.
It’s the other kind of feedback that’s created a real problem though, one that’s been with us for a while and entirely borne of the digital age: online comments.
Those two words fill many a digital editor with both dread and amusement and have simultaneously become a joke and a major concern in newsrooms across the world.
The window of discussion on many comments often ranges from passive-aggressive to outright hostile and deranged, touching upon conspiracy theories, all the things we can thank or blame President Obama for and how every topic — no matter how seemingly benign — touches on political, cultural, racial, gender and other divisions.
None of this is news to anyone, particularly those in the media.
We frequently have had to shut down comment threads that have descended into personal attacks, threats and disgusting, bigoted language, only to have the same discussion move away from a political story and continue on stories somewhere like the Home and Garden section. There are some kinds of stories — particularly those involving crime or race — that simply have comments disabled from the get-go. And the emails sent to content listservs whenever we shutdown comments on a controversial story can lead to us being compared to Hitler via email, proving again and again the validity of Godwin’s Law.1
The other law that frequently applies is Poe’s Law,2 where extreme views and parodies of those who actually hold such views can seem indistinguishable, devolving discourse into a mush pile of smirks and rage.
This plague of trolls, hatemongers and other assorted habitually angry readers has prompted some major publications like Popular Science3 and Bloomberg4 to kill comments all together, while the Huffington Post5 and others vanquished anonymity in discussion sections. Some have chosen simply not to engage with the problem: Vox and the Verge launched without in-house comments at all. Newsrooms across the country are navel-gazing on what to do about this daily problem on their websites and social media pages.
And therein lies a struggle as the free press deals with balancing open dialogue against the public incitement of hatred by commenters taking place on their digital turf. Journalism, the only profession explicitly protected by the First Amendment, has to delicately walk the line between protecting the spirit of its sister rights and protecting itself and its readers from a groundswell of hateful and oftentimes personal commentary.
The issue might be“resolved” across the pond where the European Court of Human Rights ruled in summer 2015 that news websites can be fined for the content of their comments sections.6 But in the United States, that would be a dicey solution.
Of course, First Amendment rights pertain to the government’s ability to make and enforce laws and don’t necessarily apply to private entities. But for journalism, which is viewed as a public trust — aka the Fourth Estate — there does seem to be an implicit expectation of free and open communications that run both ways between media entities and the citizenry they claim to serve.
In a culture full of safe spaces and growing sensitivity and awareness of oppressed and marginalized communities, it’s easy to forget that vitriol can be a constructive part of public discourse. Pathos, Ethos and Logos are each important parts of making an argument with different impacts on different audiences even if they can sometimes descend into ad hominem attacks
That’s not an excuse for racism or bigotry or threats or illegal content, of course. Those things we could do without. But even trolls and the harshest of pundits can make a point.
Those looking to strike a compromise to keep comments sections while reducing the poison found therein have advocated axing anonymous comments7, which about 25 percent of people have made.8 Research does show that people are more likely to say horrible things about individuals and groups if they can hide behind the shroud of an anonymous screen name.9 Surely if they have to stand by their comments with their real name and perhaps even their photo, discussions would moderate themselves.
That logic seems sound. But upon entering the fray of the endless digital rage war, that proposition starts to lose steam. One has to look no further than Facebook on any given hour to see people have absolutely no problem making the same kinds of dreadful commentary using fully identifying credentials. It’s lead to media organizations, even those that have abandoned native commenting threads, to hire stringers or assign editors to constantly police Facebook comments — which can be an exhausting and repetitive exercise.
There have long been tensions between the advocacy of free speech and a social desire to crackdown on hate speech. Every time the Westboro Baptist Church shows up at a soldier’s funeral, there are always those vocally wishing their presence wasn’t legal. SCOTUS hasn’t outlined restrictions on hate speech like they have against defamation, fighting words, incitement, obscenity and other First Amendment exceptions. Part of that is rooted difficulties defining exactly what hate speech is.
So where do we draw the line? When it comes to discussion communities, on one extreme rests sites like 4chan with nearly complete anonymity and few posting rules. On the other extreme are mainstream news websites that have disabled comments entirely. And when it comes to trolls themselves, there are those merrily playing devil’s advocate trying to push discussions and reveal people’s attitudes and kneejerk reactions — and then there are the racists, bigots and assorted crazy people spewing threats and hatred that promote a chilling effect on constructive discussion.
Is there a middle ground?
I have no idea for certain and smarter people than myself may eventually come up with some good solutions. A couple things cross my mind though that are drawn from my own experience:
1.) For several of my childhood years, I was a moderator for gaming-related bulletin boards — yeah, good ol’ BBS, a long-forgotten yet still-present throwback compared to today’s social media landscape. Boards like those I worked for and sites like Something Awful — a granddaddy of online communities — knew that digital communities thrived best when those who care the most about them were allowed to tend them. The best and most constructive commenters were promoted to community moderators and bestowed powers to police threads and to wield their banhammers with discernment. They knew who the real destructive elements in the community were and who were merely the harmless trolls poking the bear. They had a vested interest in keeping communities going and actively shepherding constructive, on-topic commentary. Some — including myself — even got paid a little something, depending upon the website.
I have seen it tried at various new media websites but lack the data to know how well it worked.
Is it a model that can be adopted in a world of Disqus, Facebook-driven comments and other social media platforms? It’s hard to say and might require some adjustments to commenting platforms, and perhaps it’s better suited for websites that have retained in-house commenting systems.
But I’m interested to know whether it’s worth a try to combat a growing problem of toxic commentary while preserving the constructive, open discussions vital for our democracy.
2.) I’ve also kicked around the potential value of installing a quiz at the end of each article that would-be commenters must answer before posting.
It’s been clear over the years that the worst comments I get on my articles are from those who clearly have not read a single word of the piece beyond perhaps the headline. Could a basic quiz about facts from the story act both as a filter against those who just want to incite hatred while also providing a brief cooling down period before people write anything?
Many comment threads seem to be drowning in ill-conceived hot takes and staggering misconceptions about the subject matter, which cause emotions and words to run wild. Maybe being required to take a moment to breathe and ponder before posting could help?
These suggestions could be completely off base, but might be ways to mitigate at least some of the hatred while preserving online discourse surrounding the news.
Further discussion welcomed. Feel free to leave a comment.
Beaujon, Andrew. “25% of people have posted anonymous comments, Pew finds” Poynter. September 5, 2013. [Link](http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/222912/25-of-people-have-posted-anonymous-comments-pew-finds/0 ↩
To paraphrase Alan Moore, his “V for Vendetta” depicted a world under constant audio and visual survelliance – and obviously, someone in London thought that was a fantastic idea.
London has been the scene for many works of dystopian fiction, from George’s Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” and P.D. James’ “The Children of Men.” Each has centralized government surveillance as hallmarks of future societies. It would seem London has already crossed the threshold of establishing omnipresent eyes tracking the activities of average citizens.
A vast network
The cameras really are everywhere and have simply become part of public life, peppered throughout the Underground and every London borough. Most paradoxical are signs prohibiting photography in certain public buildings, posted right next to the CCTV advisory. They can record us, but we must not record them.
About three years ago now, the BBC plotted a density map1 of CCTV cameras in England. The Borough of Wandsworth had the highest number of cameras per thousand people, totaling about 1,113 individual devices, outnumbering the surveillance networks in Boston, Dublin and Johannesburg. Islington has about one camera per every 1,000 sets of feet walking the streets. The City of London has about 619 cameras to cover a population of 9,000, a staggering 68.7 cameras per 1,000 people.
Creeping feelings of being watched extend beyond London’s vast limits too. The Shetland Islands and Corby – two of the smallest local authorities in the United Kingdom – both have more CCTV cameras than are run by the San Francisco Police Department.
Security and transparency
CCTV recordings are subject to the Data Protection Act2, so people can request the footage of themselves going about their business, dancing with a sign or whatever. Similar to U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests, these can be frustrating to file and wait for.
Police have argued that to provide full maps of CCTV placements would be useful to terrorists, so few complete listings exist. Some boroughs, like Lambeth, do have local maps available.3 Artist Manu Luksch mapped the cameras around Whitehall4, though not without encountering significant police resistance.
The paranoia is somewhat understandable, since the British seem genetically predisposed to being blown up after years of battling the IRA, surviving the Nazi Blitz and more recently, the July 7, 2005 London Tube bombings. In that latter case, CCTV did nothing to prevent the attacks. For the July 21, 2005 bomb attempts to follow, authorities could merely hit rewind and see what happened, which is useful5 from the standpoint of prosecuting those responsible.6 But the constant drone of overhead voices throughout the Underground is how CCTV cameras hang from the ceiling “for your safety and security.”
Privacy advocates view CCTV as an affront to personal liberties. Though do people really have a right to privacy in public spaces? A photojournalist would claim snapping pictures of someone on the streets for publishing is fair and legal practice. Is it really any different when the government does it?
Debate rages over whether CCTV impacts crime statistics, with some reports showing little effect7 save for on car-related infractions, even while three quarters of anti-crime spending is allocated to the networks. Critics claim it’s used to spy on legal protests8, classrooms9 and pubs.9 Studies have argued the impact is difficult to measure10 because camera presence can lead to increases in reported criminal activity, which can skew numbers of actual crimes committed, prevented or punished.
Senior police officials have both supported CCTV as an investigative tool while others have questioned whether it’s being used effectively.11
Some Brits seem convinced it’s meant only as a deterrent, explaining why signs and voices are constantly warning people whenever CCTV is in use. If police really wanted to capture criminals in the act and prove the system’s effectiveness, wouldn’t they be more shifty about it? The cameras aren’t always turned on either, and the sheer number of devices on the network make it inconceivable they can all be individually and constantly monitored anyway, as demonstrated by the Tube bombings.
Wandsworth, with its very high concentration of cameras, had a 8.69 percent crime rate in May 2012.12 Neighboring Richmond had 7.07 percent and is in the bottom ten boroughs for number of cameras. Comparing the Metropolitan Police’s London crime map13 and City of London statistics14 against the BBC’s camera density findings1 and ONS population statistics15 doesn’t seem to yield a direct connection between CCTV presence and criminal incidents. There are varying socioeconomic factors contributing to crime rates, but can data be produced demonstrating CCTV’s direct impact on those numbers? Or is it merely a data collecting system to better prosecute criminals after the fact?