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Why SourceFed is Wrong About Google and Hillary Clinton

June 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Digital publisher SourceFed is levying a pretty serious allegation at Google – namely that the search giant is consciously manipulating Google Instant search results to favor Hillary Clinton in her campaign for the Democratic nomination.

You can watch their explanation video, featuring SourceFed Host/Writer Matt Lieberman here. Update (2/2/17): Perhaps as an admission of fault (and worried about being labeled “fake news”), SourceFed has finally hidden the video on their YouTube account:

sourcefedvideo

It’s entirely possible that there’s manipulation of the election process via social media … however this video is in no way evidence of any conscious manipulation. Identifying that sort of pattern as an end user is extraordinarily difficult (which is the scary part) – and is certainly not achievable by a few people searching from a handful of devices in a Los Angeles office. Hopefully SourceFed relied on more than that – but thus far they’ve published none of their methodology. Other media outlets are now fact-checking SourceFed.

Update: Matt Cutts has weighed in and debunked the claims. The short answer is that Google doesn’t show pejorative results in Google Instant results for anyone (not just Hillary Clinton).

Here’s the problem: in order to make this claim, they would need verification from the same experiment replicated on hundreds of different computers (also browsers, devices, and time periods).

They would also need to standardize their measures, which would be nearly impossible because so many people use Google services and have individually-tailored instant search results delivered to them based on what Google knows about them through their Gmail content, YouTube comments and preferences, etc. Essentially they would need access to a random sample of hundreds (if not thousands) of users’ Google accounts to conduct searches from.

You can test this now if you’re signed into Google: search for “hillary clinton cri” and see what shows up. If Google is consciously manipulating the results, one would expect the same favorable treatment of Clinton to show up for every user (despite their individually-tailored preferences) – and yet this is not the case. My results differ:

mysearchofhillaryclintoncri

Even if a user isn’t signed in, Google (and Yahoo, Bing, Ask, etc.) still know a great deal about the user and make recommendations based on that information. For example, they know:

  • the user’s IP address (thusly location and ISP)
  • what time of day it is
  • the browser and version they’re using
  • whether they’re connecting via desktop or mobile.
  • what the user’s keystrokes were (including capitalization of proper names and how long it took to strike each key)

Even the information Google CAN’T get is a signal that Google uses to tailor searches to the user. That’s actually what we see in the SourceFed video – a Chrome browser with no user signed in:

Did Google Manipulate Search for Hillary    YouTube

Still with me? There’s more. Any results originally achieved are now going to be affected by the fact that SourceFed is influencing the results by encouraging people to test out their hypothesis (Observer Effect). Thousands of people are typing in “hillary clinton cri” and waiting (yet another signal to Google).

These are just SOME of the problems any researcher would need to overcome in order to detect this sort of bias as an end user.

The point SourceFed raises is legitimate – our digital media giants could be manipulating what we see for nefarious effect and we likely wouldn’t know about it until after the fact (if at all). However, what they’ve done is not evidence of such activity.

Update: After being rebutted by Google and SEO experts everywhere, SourceFed is doubling down on their lazy research and insisting they’re “comedians” so they get a pass on the requirement for rigorous research methodology in this response video. They admit to problems in their analysis, but claim they’re ‘ just asking questions, man’ – and they’ve left up the original video. What is particularly galling, however, is that they continue to promote the original [seriously-flawed] video – even as recently as today where it remains a pinned tweet on Twitter and a reshared post on Facebook mere minutes before this update was posted:


So “sorrynotsorry,” I guess. It’s kind of disturbing that SourceFed is owned by Discovery Communications and they tolerate this level of journalistic malpractice.

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UC Davis and Social Media Permanence

April 14, 2016 Leave a comment

You know the story. Back in 2011 University of California, Davis campus police officer Lieutenant John Pike was videotaped and photographed casually pepper-spraying students peacefully protesting tuition hikes. It quickly turned into a meme:

BmAnICkCEAAaYpI

The Sacramento Bee  just uncovered (through FOIA requests) that UC Davis paid a firm by the name of Nevins & Associates upwards of $175,000 to scrub references to the incident from the Internet.

Nevins & Associates proposed:

[…] Objectives:

  • Launch an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor through strategic modifications to existing and future content and generating original content as needed
  • […] Advise and support UC Davis’ adoption of Google platforms to expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor […]

…which is impossible. You can’t scrub something from the Internet (which should be common knowledge, as many people have tried).

They have failed miserably as a quick search of Google Images illustrates:

Pepper Spray Cop Google Image Search Results

(Sidebar: I’m dying to see one of the monthly reports they promised to deliver the university, measuring the progress of their efforts.)

Not only that, but they’ve made the situation vastly worse because the attempt to stifle free speech in the name of sanitizing the reputation of the Chancellor and the university has erupted into a firestorm. As I write this, the Wikipedia page for UC Davis is already in the process of being updated with the details about the attempt to scrub references to the incident:

UC Davis Wikipedia Page in the Process of Being Updated About the Pepper Spray Incident

I’m completely dumbfounded that Nevins & Associates actually claimed they could deliver this result. I’m loathe to criticize colleagues in PR/digital, but this is the kind of behavior that gives digital professionals a bad name.

They should have told UC Davis the cold truth: you can’t erase anything online – and trying to do so inevitably worsens the situation AND alerts more of the public to it. There’s actually a name for this type of situation: the Streisand Effect.

Had they proposed that they would try to MINIMIZE the impact of the wealth of content about the pepper spray incident by amplifying positive messages, that would be fine. But words like “eliminate” and “scrub” should not be in the vocabulary of anyone who works in the digital world.

I’m also agog that the (presumably) college-educated leadership of UC Davis actually thought this was possible. Moreover, that they thought a firm with such a small digital footprint itself was capable of making it happen:

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If your organization faces a crisis of perception, the only path to follow are Arthur W. Page’s principles. The radically transparent era we live in has made them more relevant now than they were decades ago when he published them. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is not serving you well.

Why the Lost Finale Sucked a Rancid Tub of Expired Dharma Ranch Dressing

April 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Happy Lost Day Everyone! Here’s my (oddly-popular) review of the Lost series finale from 2010. Spoiler alert, obvs.

Derek DeVries - Imprudent Loquaciousness

[Update: If you haven’t seen this video, you need to check it out (I’m not the only one that feels this way).]

I was really disappointed by the Lost season finale.

From Season 2 of Lost: a Screen Capture of the Hydra Logo on the Tail of a Shark Swimming Past the Camera

From the start, Lost thrived on setting up curious questions and then answering them in a way that only posed more questions. Not only was that the theme for the show – but the entire social media-driven marketing apparatus around the show catered to that aspect:

  • the creators set up fake show-related websites and 800 numbers (grabbed by astute fans who analyzed screen captures from the show that flashed by business cards or papers tacked to walls) with curious pre-recorded messages – all of which were part of two separate alternate reality games (The Lost Experience and Find 815).
  • the network’s website for the show (laden with hidden multimedia content) was filled with seething, writhing fan…

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GVSU Email Hoax Takes Interesting Turn – Prosecutors Decline to File Charges

March 29, 2013 Leave a comment

As you may be aware, recently a student at Grand Valley State University was identified and confessed to sending out emails as part of a hoax that classes were canceled.  The Ottawa County Prosecutor’s office investigated the situation and has declined to file charges.

This is the curious part:

“‘We searched high and low and there was no criminal statute that we were aware of that was being violated,’ said Prosecuting Attorney Ron Frantz.”

Really?  Not even the Michigan Identity Theft Protection Act?  That’s curious because the Ottawa County Sheriff’s office even has a page devoted to handling ID theft cases.

Typically email hacking (as this appears to be a case of given that the email was purportedly sent from the professor’s email account) can constitute a variety of crimes:

  • Computer Fraud: Unauthorized Access to a Protected Computer is a crime if that computer system belongs to a bank or a governmental entity (which presumably GVSU is the latter).
  • Wire Fraud: GVSU uses Microsoft Exchange for faculty email, so it’s possible that this could constitute wire fraud if the server housing the email system is located outside of the state of Michigan (which is ever more common as we increasingly move to cloud-based data systems).

Even if the student didn’t actually access protected email accounts to send the emails (rather he spoofed the account information when sending the emails) I would think this violates identity theft laws.

Three Ways the Mitch McConnell Campaign Shows how not to use Social Media

March 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Team Mitch McConnell Harlem Shake Comments Ratings Disabled

Talking Points Memo noted this morning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign today released a Harlem Shake meme video featuring college students re-enacting the format of a lone dancer dancing until the beat drops in the song and all hell breaks loose. As I’m fairly certain they’ll pull the video as soon as they notice how badly it’s faring in the public space, here’s a cached version:

Ignoring the fact that the voc-over that starts the song is from a reggaeton artist named Héctor Delgado and declares “Con Los Terroristas” which is Columbian/Spanish for “With the Terrorists,” there are a number of problems with the effort.

  1. Know Your Publics: The video is ostensibly to appeal to a younger audience, and campaign spokesperson told CNN that college students actually contacted the campaign and offered up the idea.  I don’t have the data in front of me, but I’m betting McConnell’s base doesn’t have much to do with Harlem, Youtube or college given that the legislator led the effort to cut Pell Grant funding recently and stands at odds with younger voters on a wide range of issues.  Moreover, Kentucky lags behind the rest of the country in broadband Internet access penetration (coming in at 45th in the US) which doesn’t bode well for HD streaming video content as a delivery method.
  2. Social Media Means Participation: As of right now, both comments and ratings are disabled for the video on YouTube.  Not only that, but comments are disabled for four of the six videos Team McConnell has uploaded in the last year.  When you disable the participatory elements of social platforms – you run the risk of driving people to other spaces where they can participate beyond your ability to join the conversation.
  3. Timing is Everything: The video was published today, but I remember seeing pitches to corporate clients about jumping on the Harlem Shake bandwagon weeks ago, and the phenomenon peaked on February 10 when as many as 4,000 videos were being uploaded to Youtube per day.  The speed at which social media moves means most organizations are completely incapable of responding in time to actually appear in-tune and actually risk appearing clueless and out-of-sync with the times.

On that third point, I leave you with a video the Minnesota Timberwolves shot that encapsulates the sentiment toward the Harlem Shake by an increasingly larger portion of the public (which includes a font-based jab at their rivals the Miami Heat in the close):

[Infographic] Teaching By the Numbers

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I usually don’t post the work of others on my blog, but TeacherSalaryInfo.com didn’t do a good job of making the content social:

Teaching America
Via: Teacher Salary Info

Remember the Opportunity Cost

May 27, 2010 Leave a comment

A Case Study in Opportunity Cost: Gardening

I’m definitely not the first one to point this out, but I was reminded today how important it is to consider the opportunity cost of what you’re doing.  It’s not easy to do, because we frequently get caught up trying to keep up with the volume of work coming our way and rarely have time to look up and consider long-term strategy.  We also have to fight appeals to tradition (“this is the way we’ve always done it”).

Once-a-year planning retreats aren’t enough either – it needs to be something everyone continually re-evaluates (if for no other reason than how quickly the communications mediums around us are changing).

Every task you perform at work is like a square in a garden box; completing it removes the possibility of something else.  Not only that, but we’re increasingly having to do more with less.  Is that newsletter as effective as a Facebook fan page?  Is Yellow Pages advertising as effective as a Facebook ad campaign?  Is that annual fundraising event really worth all the bother, or could you get better results with a lot of personal appeals?

You likely know the answers, and you need to give yourself permission and time to ask the questions.