No, the “OK” Gesture Is Not a Hate Symbol

Has the simple thumb-and-forefinger “OK” hand gesture become a white supremacist hand sign?

Source: No, the “OK” Gesture Is Not a Hate Symbol says the Anti-Defamation League.

Another day, another Internet meme – this time claiming that people making a popular “Ok” symbol with their thumb and index finger are actually expressing a symbol for “white power”. This in turn has been used to publicly accuse people who display the “ok” symbol as clandestinely flashing a white power symbol.

All thanks to social media propaganda!

 

 

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Measuring effectiveness of propaganda campaigns: How unpopular is the Obamacare individual mandate?

Previously, this blog pointed out that public opinion polls are primarily a measure of the effectiveness of propaganda. Routinely, members of the public are asked to have an opinion on subjects about which they likely know little and what they do know was disseminated to them through a variety of propaganda methods and channels.

The following item illustrates this well.

Trump said the individual mandate is “highly unpopular.” As recently as February 2017, a YouGov poll found that 65 percent of people opposed it, a finding that is consistent with earlier polls from other organizations. That’s a fair sign of the provision’s unpopularity.

On the other hand, when people were given more details about the mandate, they had a more favorable view, as high as about 60 percent.

Source: How unpopular is the Obamacare individual mandate?

The second paragraph confirms the thesis – a public opinion poll is measuring the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign and little else.

To illustrate, here is additional propaganda on this subject. There is much discussion of whether or not there must be an individual mandate. What if the individual mandate is a moot issue due to how the ACA itself is written?

The authors of the ACA defined what was meant by “affordable” – if the price of insurance is too high, the government cannot force someone to purchase insurance. Here is an example – a 64 year old married couple living in Laramie, WY with an income of $65,000 per year is above the subsidy cut off level – that means there is no subsidy assistance to them.

The lowest cost Silver plan available to them is (quoted screen capture from HealthCare.gov for 2018) a staggering $49,000 per year:

First, you may be surprised that ACA insurance premiums can cost near $50,000 per year. Second, you may surprised that a person with a $65,000 pre-tax income has an ACA insurance bill of $49,000 per year with a $5,000 deductible – and no subsidy. This means their costs are $54,000 per year … or about 100% of their after tax income.

Clearly, this couple cannot afford ACA insurance. The ACA recognized this and this can be seen in IRS Form 8965. For 2016, if the least cost Bronze plan exceeds 8.13% of your income (modified adjusted gross income or MAGI), then you are exempt from the mandate. The least cost Bronze plan for this couple is $2,750 per month or $33,000 per year.

If this couple’s income is LESS than $405,904 per year, then they are exempt from the ACA individual mandate to purchase this insurance per IRS Form 8965.

For couples or families over age 45-50, the ACA rates have risen so high, so rapidly, that  s likely a majority, and nearly everyone over age 55, are exempt from the individual mandate, by law.

If your insurance costs are $750/month, then you are exempt if your income is less than $110,000 per year. Surprised?

In effect, the individual mandate is a moot issue for perhaps most of the unsubsidized market.

When you see actual ACA price quotes like the above, what do you think of the individual mandate?

Does this illustrate how a public opinion polls merely measure the effectiveness of propaganda campaigns?

Notes

In Laramie, WY, there is a Gold plan that costs less than the cheapest Silver plan – for a mere $40,000 per year. Why is the Silver plan used in this example? Because the US Department of Health and Human Services uses the Silver plans as the “benchmark” and subsidies are given out based on the pricing of the lowest cost Silver plan in each market.

Is Laramie just an outlier? Perhaps, we have not looked at all markets. It is common, however, for the ACA rates to run $25,000 to $35,000 for families in different locations in the U.S. The NY Times just noticed this for the first time in November of 2017 – check it out. (The NY Times diagnoses the wrong root cause, however – to learn about the actual root cause and possible solutions see my paper.)

Why is there no subsidy for this couple? Because the subsidy cut off level has nothing to do with the cost of insurance. The cut off level is set to 400% of the regional poverty level. There is no connection what so ever to insurance costs. Thus, a couple earning $65,000 per year has an insurance premium of $49,000 per year and is ineligible for a subsidy. If they made just $1,000 less per year, they then qualify for a $43,316 per year subsidy from the taxpayers. (Of interest, the out of pocket payment by the subsidy recipient works out to about the 8.13% value – as insurance rates rise, the subsidy payment increases to keep the consumer’s costs at the ACA defined affordability level. Of interest, in another year or two, the costs of insurance for some will exceed their annual income – and the subsidy value will also exceed their annual income too).

Is the 8.13% value set by the ACA and the IRS too low? The government’s data indicates we spend about 18+% of national GDP on health care. By their reckoning, insurance plus out of pocket costs and miscellaneous expenses are going to result in an average family spending of perhaps 18% on health (this is a simplified explanation). Thus, 8.13% for insurance is the component of this spending that is used as the ACA “affordability” criteria. Higher than this, and the government says it is not affordable. The government had to pick some level and chose this one based on data. The government might have selected a different dollar value – for example, should the government mandate that you spend 120% of your income on health insurance?

The bottom line is that ACA health insurance is not affordable according to the ACA itself.

 

Washington Post, Miami Herald, CBS, Vox, Buzzfeed sourced stories from Russian social media propaganda

Major US “news” publishers cited tweets now known to originate from propagandists in Russia as the source for their reporting.

As you know, social media is always a reliable source for your news reports. Not. A legitimate question is why do all media now source content from unverifiable social media? From the Washington Post to the local TV news – all of them do this routinely.

The mass media that relies on social media becomes a conduit in the propaganda war. Journalists, of all people in the world, should be hyper sensitive to the use and abuse of propaganda.

Misinformation

“The extent to which legitimate, mainstream news outlets picked up and amplified Russian misinformation is an illustration of its pernicious reach”

And it is not just “Russian misinformation” – the root cause problem is that social media is a friction-less platform for the spread of propaganda by anyone, at zero cost. Everyone is spreading propaganda and misinformation.

If we focus on just that originating in Russia, we not only permit other propaganda originators to flourish, we encourage it!

The Washington Post, Miami Herald, InfoWars and other U.S. sites spread Russian propaganda from Twitter

Many online product review sites are paid by the company whose products they review

[I wrote this item in October but never published it. In light of the news about TripAdvisor.com deleting and censoring negative reviews, this item is now relevant. While this post is about mattress reviews, the same principle is at work with TripAdvisor – that is, the review site receives a sales commission for sending a sale to the vendor.]

The following link goes to a very long story about online mattress reviews. The short summary is that many mattress companies pay a sponsorship fee to the online reviewers and have taken extraordinary steps to control online reviews. These reviews have turned into “affiliate marketing” with links to the manufacturer or retailer’s web site with a spiff paid to the reviewer. Reviewers might receive $50 to $250 per mattress sold as affiliate marketing commissions.

Source: The War To Sell You A Mattress Is An Internet Nightmare | Fast Company

As mattress companies put more pressure on reviewers, some reviewers responded by writing negative comments on those that paid them lower spiffs. This eventually translated into lawsuits, followed by settlements and the disappearance of negative product reviews.

Everyone has their hand in someone else’s pockets to the extent that online reviews are today meaningless measure of the actual products. A positive review may be more of an indicator of who is paying whom.

None of this is new. Decades ago, the editor of a well known personal computer industry magazine said they only write positive reviews, and assured us  if they can’t find something positive about a product, then they do not publish a review. (Wink wink).

The only difference is that in the online world, fake reviews are easily accessible and widely distributed and it is easier to create fake review web site. Fake reviews can then be shared on social media.

Note – I probably write twice as many posts as I publish! For what ever reason, I probably have between 100 and 200 unpublished draft posts on this blog!

Facebook Ad scheme looks much like a fake news publishing model

The more we learn about the ads linked variously to parties in Russia, the more they look like online, social media-based, for profit, fake news publishers:

The Facebook ads placed by a Russian troll farm and released on Wednesday by the U.S. Congress Intelligence Committee show that the Russian propaganda campaign of 2016 didn’t favor either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Instead, it mocked and goaded America, holding up a distorted but, in the final analysis, remarkably accurate mirror.

….

The ads backed white nationalist as well as black causes. They often targeted Clinton before the election but switched to attacking Trump immediately afterwards. The ads against both were even visually similar.

….

Neither the trolls with their tiny budgets — at best, hundreds of thousands of dollars compared with the hundreds of millions spent by the candidates and their U.S. backers — nor Russian state media with their laughable reach compared with U.S. cable TV could have hoped to shape the election outcome.

Source: Facebook Ads Reveal the Real Russian Game – Bloomberg

If you click the “ads” link you can see some of the ads. They look very similar to the type of inflammatory, emotion hooking posts used by for profit fake news publishers.

There is not enough information released by Congress to tell if these ads linked back to ad supported pages. While links are shown in the metadata files, they go to FB pages that no longer exist.

Hackers and propagandists in Russia had worldwide targets, not just the U.S.

Source: Russia hackers had targets worldwide, beyond US election | The Seattle Times

When this story blew up in the fall of 2016, I turned to my server log files and noted my WordPress blogs of no importance were receiving hack attempts every day from locations all over the world. There were hack attempts from Russia. And Poland, Canada, China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey and a large number from the United States.

Any of the hack attempts could have been relayed via proxy servers, VPNs or onion routing hiding their real location. A hack from Russia might really be from Canada but might have been routed through a server in Russia to make it look like it was from Russia.

Hackers, including the U.S. government’s NSA, use techniques to make it look like their own source code was written in Russia, China, North Korea or elsewhere, by incorporating local language and pieces of known attack software into their own code.

Attributing the source of an attack is, unfortunately, not always a reliable art as there are many standard ways to hide one’s location in the world and obfuscate one’s fingerprints.

[Note – I have a degree in computer science and one of my graduate degrees is in software engineering.]

Hackers may be seeking access to private data, or to install their own ad/malware distribution systems on servers, or to install botnets, or to insert web links to influence search engine result placement – and on and on.

Some of the hacks could have originated from governments or from “script kiddies” (usually young people who download and run hacking tools) or criminal operations. The linked AP article argues that it takes teams of people, able to speak multiple languages, to interpret collected data, suggesting these hacks must be from government agencies. Apparently they have not heard of crowd-sourced projects that have contributors all over the world – hackers do this too.

The point is: hacking is way, way, way more widespread than most realize. Similarly, propaganda operations are way, way, way more widespread.

Propaganda and fake news, whether it originates in Russia or originates from U.S. based organizations is doing what propaganda does – it is attempting to manipulate you to adopt someone’s agenda.

Social media has expanded the opportunity for propaganda. Once upon a time, propagandists needed to own or rent printing presses and broadcast licenses. Today the barriers to entry are non-existent – just create a free account on Twitter and Facebook and you are in business!

(My own assumption is there are both non-state and state actors in Russia involved. And in China. And in the United States. And in many other countries around the world. They are all involved in various activities including direct hacking and infiltration, fake news and propaganda operations and much more. If we focus exclusively on Russia, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to other information campaigns. The U.S. government itself may be spinning a Russian-hacking story, exaggerating the evidence and conclusions. We have no way of knowing what is true or false in this matter.)

Update: Associated Press says 195 web addresses belonging to the Trump organization were also attacked and compromised by hackers “possibly operating out of Russia”.

Avoid TripAdvisor.com? Online reviews were censored, worked as propaganda

Update: TripAdvisor claimed to have apologized about deleting negative reviews but it turns out they lied about their apology: They had not apologized to the victim. One Senator is requesting the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate TripAdvisor over their use of false reviews. TripAdvisor’s stock price fell this week from about $40/share to $31/share and one analyst is forecasting a $28/share price. In August, several analysts had forecast $44-$47 share prices for TRIP.

 

As noted previously, online reviews of products and services are subject to manipulation. The problem is so bad that at least two online businesses help you identify fake reviews on Amazon.com: FakeSpot and ReviewMeta.

TripAdvisor is an online web site that offers user written travel reviews. But they did not disclose that TripAdvisor deliberately censored certain negative reviews of travel destinations and services according to a long report by USA Today.

TripAdvisor intentionally removed factual negative reviews – such as those by victims of crime and women who were sexually assaulted at facilities. In one example, TripAdvisor removed 27 negative reviews of one resort. Additionally, many of TripAdvisor’s “destination experts” who act as moderators have financial interests in the destination – such as they run a business in the area.

TripAdvisor did not disclose to users of the web site that they censored certain negative reviews.

TripAdvisor is an ad-based service that receives a commission when users click through links on the site to book hotels, for example.

Censorship and Cherry-Picking

Consequently, TripAdvisor became a propaganda operation – using the method of censorship to create artificially positive views of destinations and travel services. The effect is to present users with a cherry-picked selection of overly positive reviews – by censoring truthful bad reviews.

USA Today: TripAdvisor removed warnings about rapes and injuries at Mexico resorts, tourists say.

Update: TripAdvisor says they are no longer censoring reviews.

TripAdvisor official statement acknowledges they did indeed censor certain reviews in the past and blames it on a “family friendly” wording policy such that reporting about a crime in a review was not “family friendly”. TripAdvisor continued this policy for many years, in spite of numerous users trying to get their attention.

The company has a conflict of interest in that their income comes from ad-sales and especially commissions paid by destinations when users click through to purchase travel services.

What we need next is an online review web site – that reviews online review web sites! And which will be filled with bogus reviews too!

Zuckerberg says Facebook is open to social media laws regarding foreign interference

“I’ve expressed how upset I am that the Russians tried to use our tools to sow mistrust,” he said. “What they did is wrong and we are not going to stand for it. For those who have followed Facebook you know that when we set our minds to something, we’re going to do it.”

Source: Zuckerberg Is ‘Dead Serious’ About Russia, Open to Legislation – Bloomberg

Unfortunately, as documented on this blog, there is extensive creation and distribution of fake news and related propaganda from people in the United States.

The root problem is that share-able social media is a friction-less platform for the spread of propaganda messaging. No one has identified an effective solution to corral this serious problem.

“Changing the Subject” and false comparisons to deliver your message

Verge reports the Trump administration will drop a mandate to require all automobiles to contain automated vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems.

The reporter writes

Under the Obama administration, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said V2V technology would greatly enhance autonomous driving technology to, “provide 360-degree situational awareness on the road,” and improve vehicle safety. [Emphasis added as the quote is about vehicle safety]

and then follows that with:

The Trump administration’s decision comes at a time when traffic fatalities in recent years have jumped to levels not seen since the 1960s.

Source: US set to drop proposed vehicle-to-vehicle communications mandate – The Verge

How do you interpret the above statement? Perhaps that vehicle safety is falling and traffic fatalities are increasing rapidly?

The reporter did a twist from vehicle safety to a numerical count of traffic fatalities presumably thinking they are the same measure. They are not.

Context Matters

Here is a chart of annual traffic fatalities since 1900. If you squint you can see that current traffic fatalities are just about equal to 1960. Thus, the reporter’s statement is true. But note that rates have only been below 1960 levels during the past half dozen years and may have bubbled upwards as part of normal annual variation.

But the reporter leaves out two crucial details

  1. The population of the U.S. has grown dramatically since 1960.
  2. The number of miles driven each year by each driver increases by about 1-2% per year.

When the fatality rate is converted to deaths per miles traveled – the only meaningful way to compare 57 years of data – we get a measure of vehicle safety. (There are other measures too.)

We now see that vehicle safety has reached an all time historical low – and is about ten times better than in 1960!

We do not know if the reporter is deliberately propagandizing this story.  The reporter has confused vehicle safety with a numerical count of traffic fatalities. This may just be really, really bad reporting. Or perhaps the reporter is using a false comparison to make his own point, whatever that is.

This technique of a false comparison is common in propaganda – and arguments – and we easily fall for it because its a magician’s sleight of hand that we do not notice.

Continue reading

June 2015 article about Internet Research [Agency] in Russia

The article details an attempt to gather information about the Internet Research [Agency] organization in St Petersburg, Russia, described as a professional propaganda operation run by an oligarch. This article is of interest in its description of a propaganda operation. The article was published in June 2015, well before the U.S. media and political interest in social media propaganda.

I friended as many of the trolls on Facebook as I could and began to observe their ways. Most of the content they shared was drawn from a network of other pages that, like Ass’s, were clearly meant to produce entertaining and shareable social-media content. ….. The posts churned out every day by this network of pages were commented on and shared by the same group of trolls, a virtual Potemkin village of disaffected Americans.

The quoted section illustrates how social media acts a friction-less platform for the distribution of propaganda. “Like”, “Share” and “Comment” are all, by default the same – they all end up sharing a post to more people.

IRA is not the only social media propaganda operation. Unfortunately, there are many more and the others are being ignored.

An even earlier story appeared in 2013 describing the trolling operation of the IRA.