How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump -MIT Technology Review

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This detailed and thoughtful article asks “How did digital technologies go from empowering citizens and toppling dictators to being used as tools of oppression and discord?” and what can we learn from the experience?

The Lessons:

  1. the weakening of old-style information gatekeepers (such as media, NGOs, and government and academic institutions), while empowering the underdogs, has also, in another way, deeply disempowered underdogs.
  2. the new, algorithmic gatekeepers aren’t merely (as they like to believe) neutral conduits for both truth and falsehood. They make their money by keeping people on their sites and apps; that aligns their incentives closely with those who stoke outrage, spread misinformation, and appeal to people’s existing biases and preferences.
  3. the loss of gatekeepers has been especially severe in local journalism. While some big US media outlets have managed (so far) to survive the upheaval wrought by the internet, this upending has almost completely broken local newspapers…
  4. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  5. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  6. Russia exploited the US’s weak digital security—its “nobody but us” mind-set—to subvert the public debate around the 2016 election.

The way forward?

“If digital connectivity provided the spark, it ignited because the kindling was already everywhere. The way forward is not to cultivate nostalgia for the old-world information gatekeepers or for the idealism of the Arab Spring. It’s to figure out how our institutions, our checks and balances, and our societal safeguards should function in the 21st century—not just for digital technologies but for politics and the economy in general. This responsibility isn’t on Russia, or solely on Facebook or Google or Twitter. It’s on us.”

For the full article, see: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611806/how-social-media-took-us-from-tahrir-square-to-donald-trump/

FBI will revert to using fax machines, snail mail for FOIA requests -The Daily Dot

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So much for the relentless march of technological progress. “the FBI will no longer accept FOIA requests via email. Instead, requesters will have to rely on fax machines and standard mail (“snail mail”) in order to communicate with the agency’s records management division.”

  • “The new procedure mirrors that of other agencies that intentionally rely on archaic technologies to process public records requests. The Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, only accepts such requests by fax, while the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which researches advanced technologies on behalf of the Pentagon, also ditched email a few years ago in favor of old-school fax machines. The FBI’s records division has also been known to use computers from the 1980s specifically to create technological roadblocks.”

 

http://www.dailydot.com/layer8/fbi-foia-records-requests-email-fax/

How Internet censorship protects Iranian businesses -al Monitor

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Given that this is a short article, it provides a fairly detailed look at Iran’s strategy for containing social media. It also makes the somewhat surprising argument that the rational is increasingly economic rather than political:

“These days, social media sites and the Internet in general are increasingly being looked at through an economic lens in Iran. This shift is the result of two main developments: first; the government’s relative success with containing security risks presented by the web, and second, an increasing realization of the business potential of the Internet — including social media.

Iran’s security apparatus has been accumulating the skills and expertise to limit the security risks presented by social media ever since the protests in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election.

In terms of infrastructure, Iran has separated the global Internet from domestic traffic by implementing a national information network. In critical moments, this control enables the authorities to switch off global Internet access without interrupting the domestic network on which day-to-day affairs are run. Having parallel web infrastructure is critical, considering Iran’s increasing dependence on electronic services. For instance, the total electronic financial transactions in Iran in a 24-hour period peaked at 150 million this year on March 19. Consequently, Iran has transferred a major portion of servers and databases from foreign to local firms, resulting in an increase in domestic Internet traffic — from 10% to 30% of overall traffic in May. There are plans to increase domestic traffic to 80% in the near future.

In regard to social media, Iran has been moving in two parallel directions. It has mastered data-mining techniques, enabling it to find potential troublemakers who use the web as a tool for stirring political unrest. This expertise has proven effective, as attested by the tracing and capturing of several cells of online political activists in past years. Iran has also established several organizations to produce online content and fight the political opposition’s activities on the web. These measures have contained short-term security risks to a large extent. However, long-term social and cultural transformations resulting from exposure to online media still remain a concern for the Islamic Republic’s elites.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/11/iran-filtering-policies.html#ixzz3r7ENqytV

for further reading, see:
Rouhani battles judiciary over Internet censorship
http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/05/iran-rouhani-battled-judiciary-internet-censorship.html#ixzz3r7FuWNR2
and
Will Iran’s national internet mean no world wide web?
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22281336

NSA leaks suggest Iran learned cyberwarfare from US attacks -Engadget

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“The US government and various security researchers have connected Iran to a number of egregious cyberattacks in the past, including one launched against the Navy. And based on a 2013 NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden that The Intercept has just published, they’ve also long suspected that Iranian officials learned cyberwarfare from the West’s previous attacks against the country’s computers. The NSA is also apparently worried that the country’s cyberweapons are becoming more and more potent, as it continues to improve and not just replicate its enemies tactics. As you might have guessed, Iran’s crusade to give its enemies a taste of their own medicine began with the attacks against its nuclear facility.”

http://www.engadget.com/2015/02/10/nsa-iran-cyberwarfare/

 

For further reading on this topic:

Wired: An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon

This article provides a very detailed overview of the stuxnet operation:

“Stuxnet, as it came to be known, was unlike any other virus or worm that came before. Rather than simply hijacking targeted computers or stealing information from them, it escaped the digital realm to wreak physical destruction on equipment the computers controlled.”

An Unprecedented Look at Stuxnet, the World’s First Digital Weapon

 

NYTimes: Nuclear Facilities in 20 Countries May Be Easy Targets for Cyberattacks

“WASHINGTON — Twenty nations with significant atomic stockpiles or nuclear power plants have no government regulations requiring minimal protection of those facilities against cyberattacks, according to a study by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The findings build on growing concerns that a cyberattack could be the easiest and most effective way to take over a nuclear power plant and sabotage it, or to disable defenses that are used to protect nuclear material from theft. The countries on the list include Argentina, China, Egypt, Israel, Mexico and North Korea.”