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13 December 2018

Why Every Writer Is The Tardis (And Every Reader Is A Companion)

The Tardis
The Tardis (Image via
I am a writer. By the title of this article, you might immediately assume two other things about me:
  • I am a fan of Doctor Who
  • I am a blue police box
One of your assumptions would be accurate. When I suggest that every writer is the Tardis, I do not imply that they are blue, that they are hollow or that they pretend to serve law enforcement.

But in most respects, writers are Tardises.

Bigger on the inside

The first thing one notices when stepping into the Tardis is...come on, say it all together with's bigger on the inside.

The first thing one notices when conversing with a writer is that he is bigger on the inside.

A writer accumulates a vast array of knowledge with every writing project. In fact, research is half the writing process. For instance:
  • When I wrote my own book on happiness, I read several dozen academic journal articles and at least a dozen other self-help books.
  • When I ghostwrote a true story of corporate espionage for a client, I learned a lot about HVAC, trades regulations, subcontracting and how an airport is built (among other things).
  • When I ghostwrote the hidden story behind the Underground Railroad and a forgotten town on the US-Canada border, this Canadian learned a lot more about American history than most Americans know.
I've written about mortgages and credit scores, about fertility and learning disabilities, about PTSD and medical procurement. I've written about the steel industry, ball bearings, the legal profession, various Christian themes, anger management, virtual reality, home renovations and LEED certification. The entire list would take up a few pages, but you get the idea.

I've forgotten much more than I remember, but I remember more than most non-writers are exposed to.

"The first thing one notices when conversing with a writer is that he is bigger on the inside."
"The first thing one notices when conversing with a writer is that he is bigger on the inside."


Ever meet a Tardis that wasn't finicky? It will take you where it wants to take you, rarely where you want to go. As long as you are happy being lead around, you'll get along just fine.

Ever meet a writer that wasn't finicky? Oh, yeah. We dwell on each word, determined to get it just right. We have our own ideas of how a story should go. Yes, editors are our friends...but we curse them for every comma they change.

When it comes time to write a screenplay from a novel, sparks fly (which is occasionally another ... um ... endearing feature of the Tardis).

Travels in time

In case it's lost on anyone that the Tardis is a time machine, it is. That's the whole point. It travels in space and time, taking its usually willing occupants with it to the near and distant past, and to the near and distant future.

It's taken the Doctor and his companions more than once to New New York, and several times to Victorian England. It took us to the Jagoreth space ship's explosion that created life on Earth, and it's taken us to the end of the Earth.

Like the Tardis, writers travel in time. We write about things that have already happened. As we write, we are transported.

We write about worlds that are yet to be created. As we write, we are transported.

How is this possible? What alien technology, known only to writers, allows us to travel in time?

Well, it's not technology. It's actually a not-so-secret time-travel manual I published on my own blog. But, sorry, you have to be a writer to make use of it. The good news is that you can become a writer if you are sufficiently motivated.

"Like the Tardis, writers travel in time. We write about things that have already happened. As we write, we are transported."
"Like the Tardis, writers travel in time. We write about things that have already happened. As we write, we are transported."

Travels in space

Of course, the Tardis travels not just in time, but in space. For instance, New New York is not even on Planet Earth.

The finicky Tardis will take its occupants whenever and wherever it feels like. By the way, that's what we writers do. You never know what spine-thrilling adventure the next chapter holds.

Reinvents itself

As we saw when the Tardis finally made its appearance in season 11, it looked totally new, both on the inside and on the outside.

"Oh, you've redecorated!"

And that's not the first Tardis redecoration. Every so often, the Tardis reinvents itself.

Writers do that, too. Consider Anne Rice, famous for her vampire novels. She also wrote Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Spoiler alert: there are no vampires.

She has also branched into erotica, and I'll go out on a limb to suggest the vampires are rare in those works.

As you can tell by my own list of a few of the topics I've written on, a ghostwriter reinvents himself for each new project.

Every reader is a companion

If every writer is the Tardis, every reader is a companion. The writer takes the reader on a trip. She takes them where and when she feels like it. The reader has three choices:
  • Follow along, as most companions do for as long as possible.
  • Do what Barbara and Ian did, what Martha and several other companions did – decide to stop travelling.
  • Follow Rosita's lead, and stay off from the start, in which case they aren't companions.
On the wings of the Tardis (Yes, I know that's not anatomically correct) companions get to travel in time and in space.

On the wings of the writer (also not anatomically correct, most of the time) readers get to travel in time and in space. Until they get off. Or they might choose not to open the which case they aren't readers.

Like the Doctor's companions, readers are observers to events. They don't change things. They don't interfere. They don't alter the course of history. They merely watch and listen.

Unlike the Doctor's companions, readers actually follow those rules of non-interference. In fact, readers are like companions who actually behave.

The same cannot be said of us rule-breaking writers, who have been known to be liberal with our interpretations of history (but somehow seem to avoid the paradox that our interference doesn't actually change history). Someday, I must ask Katherine Neville how she does that.

I feel I should apologize for not being a blue police box. If I was, I would actually be a Tardis. But, I'm not, so I'll have to settle for being a metaphor when I say that every writer is the Tardis. If you are a writer, add that to your CV: Tardis.

About Today's Contributor:

David Leonhardt - "Bigger on the inside"
David Leonhardt - "Bigger on the inside"
David Leonhardt is a ghostwriter and editor, who also runs THGM Writing Services. In that role, he coordinates a team of Tardises, serving individuals and small business clients. And that's something even the Doctor hasn't done. Yet.

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11 December 2018

Hollywood Icon Val Kilmer Joins BigSpeak's A-List Speakers

Val Kilmer
Val Kilmer (Image via BigSpeak)
He dazzled you as Iceman, he blew you away as Jim Morrison, and saved the world as Batman, and now Val Kilmer is taking on a new role as an exclusive keynote speaker with BigSpeak Speakers Bureau.
Last year, Kilmer hosted screenings of his one-man-show turned film, Citizen Twain. He will now be taking this performance on tour for the public through BigSpeak. See him in Citizen Twain or learn about his life as a Hollywood insider and his battle with cancer.
Kilmer became an international film star in the 1980s with Top Secret! and Real Genius. He's best known for his blockbuster films Top GunWillow, and The Saint

He was accepted into Juilliard's drama department at 17, making him the youngest acceptance to date. He appeared on Broadway in "The Slab Boys" with Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. Subsequently, he joined The Colorado Shakespeare Festival, starring in Hamlet in 1988.

Kilmer's film credits include: 

  • Doc Holliday in Tombstone 
  • Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's biopic The Doors  
  • the starring role in The Saint 
  • Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever
  • starring opposite Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat 
  • co-starring with Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau 
  • starring in the thriller The Ghost and the Darkness 
⏩ He also lent his voice to the first Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt.

Val Kilmer in Batman Forever (1995)
Val Kilmer in Batman Forever (1995) (Image via IMDB)
Kilmer is currently working on Top Gun's long-awaited sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. The film is in production and set to be released in 2020. 

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10 December 2018

FIRST MAN: DVD & Blu-Ray To Land In January 2019

From Universal Pictures Home Entertainment: First Man
From Universal Pictures Home Entertainment: First Man
Follow the gripping and captivating true story of the first manned mission to the moon in FIRST MAN, arriving on Digital and via the digital movie app MOVIES ANYWHERE on January 8, 2019 and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand on January 22, 2019 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. 
Hailed by critics as "the best movie of the year" (Collider) and "exhilarating" (Entertainment Weekly), FIRST MAN comes from acclaimed Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and stars Ryan Gosling (La La LandThe Big Short) as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy ("The Crown," Breathe) as Janet Armstrong in the heroic and emotionally driven journey through a pivotal moment in the history of mankind. 
Receiving two Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Foy) and Best Original Score (Justin Hurwitz), the critically acclaimed film is packed with bonus features including deleted scenes and special featurettes showing behind-the-scenes looks at creating the film.
The dangers of space were not exaggerated, and started with the terrestrial training. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) ejected seconds before the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle crashed and burned at Ellington Air Force Base...
The dangers of space were not exaggerated, and started with the terrestrial training. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) ejected seconds before the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle crashed and burned at Ellington Air Force Base... (Image via
Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen and from visionary filmmaker Damien ChazelleFIRST MAN is the riveting story behind the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. 
A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong's perspective, the film explores the triumphs and the cost—on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself—of one of the most dangerous missions in history. 
The critically acclaimed FIRST MAN comes from legendary executive producer Steven Spielberg(Jurassic World: Fallen KingdomSchindler's List) alongside fellow executive producers Adam Merims (Baby DriverStraight Outta Compton) and Josh Singer (The PostSpotlight) with a screenplay by Singer allowing audiences to relive the historic achievement in human history that has never been told cinematically. 
Filled with outstanding performances from an all-star cast led by Gosling and Foy alongside an incredible roster of supporting talent including Kyle Chandler (The Wolf of Wall Street, "Friday Night Lights"), Jason Clarke (Zero Dark ThirtyMudbound), Corey Stoll ("The Strain," "House of Cards"), Pablo Schreiber (Skyscraper, "Orange is the New Black"), Christopher Abbot ("The Sinner," Whiskey Tango Foxtrot),  and Ciarán Hinds ("Game of Thrones," Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), FIRST MAN  "explodes with cinematic wonder" (Inverse).

The Trailer:

4K Ultra HD, Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital Bonus Features:
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Shooting for the Moon – Take an intimate look at the production of FIRST MAN and the collaborative relationship between Director Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling.
  • Preparing to Launch – It's difficult to believe that FIRST MAN is the first major feature film to tell the journey of Apollo 11. Hear from Director Damien Chazelle and his cast why now is the time to tell the story of this historic event.
  • Giant Leap in One Small Step – A heroic character study, FIRST MAN sheds light on all the hard working individuals that got us to the moon and back.
  • Mission Gone Wrong – Watch as Ryan Gosling reenacts a test piloting sequence gone terribly wrong. Go behind the scenes to see how he trained to nail the landing, performing the majority of his own stunts.
  • Putting You In the Seat – Through the use of innovative technology, most of FIRST MAN was shot in-camera. Take an in-depth look behind the lens of this epic film.
  • Recreating the Moon Landing – Filmed in IMAX to show the vastness of the moon, find out all that it took to recreate the most famous moment in NASA history.
  • Shooting at NASA – Hear from Ryan Gosling and Director Damien Chazelle on how shooting at NASA brought unparalleled authenticity to FIRST MAN.
  • Astronaut Training – Go behind the scenes of the three day boot camp each of the actors underwent prior to filming FIRST MAN.
  • Feature Commentary with Director Damien Chazelle, Screenwriter Josh Singer and Editor Tom Cross
FIRST MAN will be available on 4K Ultra HD in a combo pack which includes 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray and Digital. The 4K Ultra HD disc will include the same bonus features as the Blu-ray version, all in stunning 4K resolution.

Cast: Ryan GoslingClaire FoyJason ClarkeKyle ChandlerCorey StollChristopher Abbot, Ciarán Hinds 
Casting By: Francine Maisler CSA Music By: Justin Hurwitz 
Costume Design: Mary Zophres 
Film Editor: Tom Cross ACE Production Design: Nathan Crowley 
Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren FSF Executive Producers: Steven SpielbergAdam MerimsJosh Singer 
Produced By: Wyck Godfrey p.g.aMarty Bowen p.g.a, Isaac KlausnerDamien Chazelle 
Based on the Book By: James R. Hansen 
Screenplay By: Josh Singer 
Directed By: Damien Chazelle

Technical Information

 4K Ultra HD 
Street Date: January 22, 2019 
Selection Number: 61201572 (US) / 61201574 (CDN) 
Layers: BD-100 
Aspect Ratio: Widescreen 16:9 2.40:1 
Rating: PG -13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language 
Video: 2160p UHD Dolby Vision/HDR 10 
Languages/Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish and French Subtitles  
Sound: English Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital 2.0, French Dolby Digital Plus 7.1, Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 
Run Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

Dolby Vision: 
FIRST MAN 4K Ultra HD is available in Dolby Vision. Leveraging the HDR innovation that powers Dolby's most advanced cinemas around the world, Dolby Vision transforms the TV experience in the home by delivering greater brightness and contrast, as well as a fuller palette of rich colors.

Dolby Atmos Soundtrack: 
FIRST MAN Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD will feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack remixed specifically for the home theater environment to place and move audio anywhere in the room, including overhead. To experience Dolby Atmos at home, a Dolby Atmos enabled AV receiver and additional speakers are required, or a Dolby Atmos enabled sound bar.

Technical Information Blu-Ray:  
Street Date: January 22, 2019 
Selection Number: 61193705 (US) / 61193827 (CDN) 
Layers: BD-50 
Aspect Ratio: Widescreen 16:9 2.40:1 
Rating: PG -13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language 
 English SDH, Spanish and French Subtitles  
Sound: English Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital 2.0, French Dolby Digital Plus 7.1, Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 
Run Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

Technical Information DVD: 
Street Date: January 22, 2019 
Selection Number: 61193704 (US) / 61193826 (CDN) 
Layers: DVD 9 
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen 16:9 2.39:1 
Rating: PG -13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language 
 English SDH, Spanish and French Subtitles  
Sound: English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 
Run Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
More than a national effort: (left to right) Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) and Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) head for the Moon. (Daniel McFadden)
More than a national effort: (left to right) Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) and Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) head for the Moon. (Daniel McFadden) (Image via
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8 December 2018

We Asked Artificial Intelligence To Analyze A Graphic Novel – And Found Both Limits And New Insights

What can an algorithm find when it reads a book?
What can an algorithm find when it reads a book? (Vasilyev Alexandr/
With one spouse studying the evolution of artificial and natural intelligence and the other researching the language, culture and history of Germany, imagine the discussions at our dinner table. We often experience the stereotypical clash in views between the quantifiable, measurement-based approach of natural science and the more qualitative approach of the humanities, where what matters most is how people feel something, or how they experience or interpret it. 

We decided to take a break from that pattern, to see how much each approach could help the other. Specifically, we wanted to see if aspects of artificial intelligence could turn up new ways to interpret a nonfiction graphic novel about the Holocaust. We ended up finding that some AI technologies are not yet advanced and robust enough to deliver useful insights – but simpler methods resulted in quantifiable measurements that showed a new opportunity for interpretation.

Choosing a text

A graphic novel examined by artificial intelligence
A graphic novel examined by artificial intelligence. (Reinhard Kleist/Self Made Hero)
There is plenty of research available that analyzes large bodies of text, so we chose something more complex for our AI analysis: Reinhard Kleist’s “The Boxer,” a graphic novel based on the true story of how Hertzko “Harry” Haft survived the Nazi death camps. We wanted to identify emotions in the facial expressions of the main character displayed in the book’s illustrations, to find out if that would give us a new lens for understanding the story.

In this black-and-white cartoon, Haft tells his horrific story, in which he and other concentration camp inmates were made to box each other to the death. The story is written from Haft’s perspective; interspersed throughout the narrative are panels of flashbacks depicting Haft’s memories of important personal events.

The humanities approach would be to analyze and contextualize elements of the story, or the tale as a whole. Kleist’s graphic novel is a reinterpretation of a 2009 biographical novel by Haft’s son Allan, based on what Allan knew about his father’s experiences. Analyzing this complex set of authors’ interpretations and understandings might serve only to add another subjective layer on top of the existing ones.

From the perspective of science philosophy, that level of analysis would only make things more complicated. Scholars might have differing interpretations, but even if they all agreed, they would still not know if their insight was objectively true or if everyone suffered from the same illusion. Resolving the dilemma would require an experiment aimed at generating a measurement others could reproduce independently.

Reproducible interpretation of images?
Rather than interpreting the images ourselves, subjecting them to our own biases and preconceptions, we hoped that AI could bring a more objective view. We started by scanning all the panels in the book. Then we ran Google’s vision AI and Microsoft AZURE’s face recognition and emotional character annotation as well.

The algorithms we used to analyze “The Boxer” were previously trained by Google or Microsoft on hundreds of thousands of images already labeled with descriptions of what they depict. In this training phase, the AI systems were asked to identify what the images showed, and those answers were compared with the existing descriptions to see if the system being trained was right or wrong. The training system strengthened the elements of the underlying deep neural networks that produced correct answers, and weakened the parts that contributed to wrong answers. Both the method and the training materials – the images and annotations – are crucial to the system’s performance.

Then, we turned the AI loose on the book’s images. Just like on “Family Feud,” where the show’s producers ask 100 strangers a question and count up how many choose each potential answer, our method asks an AI to determine what emotion a face is showing. This approach adds one key element often missing when subjectively interpreting content: reproducibility. Any researcher who wants to check can run the algorithm again and get the same results we did.

Unfortunately, we found that these AI tools are optimized for digital photographs, not scans of black-and-white drawings. That meant we did not get much reliable data about the emotions in the pictures. We were also disturbed to find that none of the algorithms identified any of the images as relating to the Holocaust or concentration camps – though human viewers would readily identify those themes. Hopefully, that is because the AIs had problems with the black-and-white images themselves, and not because of negligence or bias in their training sets or annotations.

Bias is a well-known phenomenon in machine learning, which can have really offensive results. An analysis of these images based solely on the data we got would not have discussed or acknowledged the Holocaust, an omission that is against the law in Germany, among other countries. These flaws highlight the importance of critically evaluating new technologies before using them more widely.

Finding other reproducible results
Determined to find an alternative way for quantitative approaches to help the humanities, we ended up analyzing the brightness of the pictures, comparing flashback scenes to other moments in Haft’s life. To that end, we quantified the brightness of the scanned images using image analysis software.

We found that throughout the book, emotionally happy and light phases like his prison escape or Haft’s postwar life in the U.S. are shown using bright images. Traumatizing and sad phases, such as his concentration camp experiences, are shown as dark images. This aligns with color psychology identifications of white as a pure and happy tone, and black as symbolizing sadness and grief.

Having established a general understanding of how brightness is used in the book’s images, we looked more closely at the flashback scenes. All of them depicted emotionally intense events, and some of them were dark, such as recollections of cremating other concentration camp inmates and leaving the love of his life.

We were surprised, however, to find that the flashbacks showing Haft about to punch opponents to death were bright and clear – suggesting he is having a positive emotion about the upcoming fatal encounter. That’s the exact opposite of what readers like us probably feel as they follow the story, perhaps seeing Haft’s opponent as weak and realizing that he is about to be killed. When the reader feels pity and empathy, why is Haft feeling positive?

The middle image in this sequence shows an example of a bright flashback.
The middle image in this sequence shows an example of a bright flashback. (Reinhard Kleist/Self Made Hero)
This contradiction, found by measuring the brightness of pictures, may reveal a deeper insight into how the Nazi death camps affected Haft emotionally. For us, right now, it is unimaginable how the outlook of beating someone else to death in a boxing match would be positive. But perhaps Haft was in such a desperate situation that he saw hope for survival when facing off against an opponent who was even more starved than he was.

Using AI tools to analyze this piece of literature shed new light on key elements of emotion and memory in the book – but they did not replace the skills of an expert or scholar at interpreting texts or pictures. As a result of our experiment, we think that AI and other computational methods present an interesting opportunity with the potential for more quantifiable, reproducible and maybe objective research in the humanities.

It will be challenging to find ways to use AI appropriately in the humanities – and all the more so because current AI systems are not yet sophisticated enough to work reliably in all contexts. Scholars should also be alert to potential biases in these tools. If the ultimate goal of AI research is to develop machines that rival human cognition, artificial intelligence systems may need not only to behave like people, but understand and interpret feelings like people, too.The Conversation

About Today's Contributor:
Leonie Hintze, Ph.D. Student in Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages, Michigan State University and Arend Hintze, Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology & Computer Science and Engineering, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

7 December 2018

CAIR Opposes Nomination of U.N. Ambassador Nominee Heather Nauert

Heather Nauert
Heather Nauert
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, today called on the Trump administration to withdraw its nomination of Heather Nauert for the position of U.N. ambassador, saying she is "Unqualified and Islamophobic."
Early next year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a nomination hearing for Nauert. CAIR is urging the Senate and members of the Foreign Relations Committee to oppose and vote "NO" on Nauert's nomination for the position of U.N. ambassador.

CAIR said Nauert promoted Islamophobic smears while employed as a Fox News anchor.
In 2013, she criticized special swim classes for a group of Somali-American girls, describing the classes as the "minority becoming the majority at one community pool. Sharia law is now changing everything."
In a 2009 Fox special on "stealth jihad," she interviewed Islamophobic panelists, including notorious Islamophobes like Robert SpencerFrank Gaffney and Nonie Darwish, who claims that "Islam should be feared, and should be fought, and should be conquered, and defeated, and annihilated." Nauert has also defended Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric.
SEE: Trump's New State Department Spokesperson Spread Anti-Muslim Hate as Fox News Anchor 

Nauert previously bashed refugee students in Pennsylvania for wanting "an even better" public education and falsely claimed that child migrants from Central America were "an illegal health risk."
Other than her current position as State Department spokesperson, Nauert has no apparent diplomatic or government experience or expertise.
"Heather Nauert does not represent our nation's diversity or its commitment to treating all Americans with equality and respect," said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.
"Such an important post should not be occupied by someone who is clearly unqualified and Islamophobic," said CAIR Government Affairs Director Robert McCaw. "There are many other individuals who do have the knowledge and background necessary for this post. Ms. Nauert's nomination should be withdrawn."
In June, CAIR applauded the decision by members of the United Nation's International Organization for Migration (IOM) to reject President Trump's nominee for the position of director general to lead the organization, a post held by Americans since 1951.
It was reported that members of the IMO rejected Isaacs's nomination due to his past Islamophobic statements and in response to Trump administration policies such as the Muslim ban and migrant family separations.
SEE: CAIR Welcomes Rejection of Trump's Islamophobic Nominee for U.N. Migration Post 

CAIR has reported an unprecedented spike in bigotry targeting American Muslims, immigrants and members of other minority groups since the election of Donald Trump as president. The Washington-based civil rights organization has also repeatedly expressed concern about Islamophobic and racist Trump administration policies and appointments.
The Washington-based organization's recently-released 2018 Civil Rights Report, "Targeted," showed a 17 percent increase in bias-motivated incidents against American Muslims from 2016 to 2017, and a 15 percent increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in that same time period. Preliminary data for 2018 indicate that there have been 927 hate incidents targeting American Muslims.
"Targeted" - CAIR’s 2018 civil rights report
"Targeted" - CAIR’s 2018 civil rights report (image via
New CAIR Report: Trump's Muslim Bans Increased Anti-Muslim Discrimination, Violence

3 Ways Facebook And Other Social Media Companies Could Clean Up Their Acts – If They Wanted To

Mark Zuckerberg - under fire, but not without options.
Mark Zuckerberg - under fire, but not without options. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Facebook is in crisis mode, but the company can take major steps to fix itself – and the global community it says it wants to promote. Facebook founder, CEO and majority shareholder Mark Zuckerberg need not wait for governments to impose regulations. If he and other industry leaders wanted to, they could make meaningful changes fairly quickly.

It wouldn’t be painless, but Facebook in particular is in a world of hurt already, facing criticism for contributing to civil unrest and sectarian turmoil around the world, delayed responses to disinformation campaigns, misleading users about data-handling policies, and efforts to discredit critics – not to mention a budding employee revolt.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media companies are causing society-wide damage. But they tend to describe the problems as much smaller, resulting from rogue individuals and groups hijacking their systems for nefarious purposes. Our research into how social media can be exploited by manipulative political operatives, conducted with Joan Donovan at the Data & Society research institute, suggests the real problem is much larger than these companies admit.

We believe the roots lie in their extremely profitable advertising systems, which need a major overhaul. We have identified some key changes that these giant powerhouses could make right away. These moves could reduce opportunities for political manipulation and limit the harm to democratic societies around the world.

Users’ minds in the crosshairs
Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media companies have built an enormous digital influence machine powered by user tracking, targeting, testing and automated decision-making to make advertising more effective and efficient. While building this supercharged surveillance system, companies have promised users and regulators that targeted advertising is mutually beneficial for both consumers and advertisers.

In this bargain, users are supposed to receive more relevant ads. Facebook, for instance, explains that its “interest-based advertising” serves users who “want to see ads that relate to things they care about.” It’s true that these methods can identify ads that connect with users’ actual interests. But the very same data-driven techniques that tell a surfer about a new board design can also identify strategic points where people are most vulnerable to influence.

In particular, the leading social media advertising systems let political operatives experiment with different ads to see which are the most effective. They can use these tools not only to see if certain issues resonate with particular targets but also test for fears or prejudices that can be invoked to influence political behavior.

This misleading ad impersonated racial justice activists to urge black Americans not to vote for Hillary Clinton.( U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Intelligence – Democrats)

One key way to do this is to make people feel that someone else represents an emotionally charged threat to their identity. In 2016, for instance, Russia-linked operatives bought thousands of Facebook ads targeted to specific audiences suggesting Hillary Clinton had insulted their group’s dignity or threatened their safety. Some ads alleged Clinton espoused disrespect for specific occupations, like coal miners, or racial groups, like African-Americans. Others claimed she would confiscate guns or supported radical political movements seeking to overturn familiar ways of life.

Targeting political ads is not unique to online advertising, but the tools of digital ad systems are vastly more powerful than traditional mass media. Advertisers can try out several versions of an ad simultaneously and receive almost instant feedback on which ones most effectively drive specific audiences to share, like or comment on them. This digital feedback loop helps political operatives refine their tactics, probing for just the right images, words and emotions to influence very specific subgroups of citizens.

Move fast and fix things
Members of Congress and even some key Silicon Valley figures have begun discussing the need for tighter government oversight and greater accountability in digital advertising. Change need not wait for politics.

Based on our analysis, here are some steps companies could take right away – on their own. These moves may hurt the firms’ finances, but would demonstrate serious and lasting commitment to limiting their platforms’ usefulness in political manipulation campaigns.

As their first move, social media companies could stop allowing their ad services to be used as freewheeling experimental laboratories for examining their users’ psyches. Just as marketers and academic researchers must obtain permission from their test subjects, political advertisers that run online ad experiments could get informed consent in advance from every user who is involved. Companies should ask for users’ consent in specific notifications about ad experiments and not penalize users for opting out by limiting their access to services. We suspect many users would opt out of these tests if given the choice, but in any case this policy would help draw public attention to the hidden manipulation tools that platforms offer to their real customers: the political and commercial advertisers who pay the bills.

Make targeted political advertising transparent
To increase transparency and limit the ability of special interests to secretly influence politics, social media companies could refuse to work with so-called dark money groups. All political advertisers should be required to disclose their major donors in a format users can easily access.

A new policy banning dark money ads would respond to evidence that political operatives have used impersonation and manipulative ad tactics to stir in-fighting or sow division among coalitions of their adversaries. Impersonation clearly work best when ad sponsors are able to hide their identities and motives. Anonymous ads are also more likely to violate ethical standards simply because no one fears being held responsible for them.

Make platforms more democratic
A more significant change social media companies could make would be to introduce democratic oversight of how they collect and use people’s data.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg recently took an initial step in this direction, announcing that he will create independent review panels to handle users’ appeals against the company’s removal of content it judges inappropriate. He explained that he wanted to ensure “these decisions are made in the best interests of our community and not for commercial reasons.”

Whatever you think about this plan – and it has been greeted with plenty of skepticism – Zuckerberg’s reasoning acknowledges that because social platforms have become so central to democratic life, their own policies and design decisions require democratic accountability.

A more ambitious vision would let independent ethics panels representing diverse communities of users set enforceable policies for ethical political advertising. Similar sorts of groups are common in medicine and are emerging in artificial intelligence, among other fields. The details of how such committees operate will be critical to their success. If these committees are set up in partnership with nonprofit organizations with proven records of advocating for democratic communication and campaign finance transparency, perhaps they could help social media companies earn greater public trust by prioritizing democracy over maximizing their profits.The Conversation

About Today's Contributors:
Anthony M. Nadler, Associate Professor of Media and Communication Studies, Ursinus College and Matthew Crain, Assistant Professor of Media, Journalism and Film, Miami University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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