Friday, 29 July 2016

Terrorism and Social Media

Terrorist attacks have become an ordinary happening in today's world. The more they happen, the less affected we become and the less willing to do something about it. Though, if you give it a little thought, you might realize that terrorists are a Facebook user or a google search away from you, your household and your loved ones. Indeed, terrorists are all over social media, using it to achieve the most terrifying objectives.

Social media plays a tremendous role in reaching out to as many people as possible with low costs. This is an incentive for almost any type of organization, including the less legitimate ones, such as the those  perpetrating terrorism. According to an article in The Telegraph terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have totally embraced the web and are using it at full capacity for propaganda, recruitment and fund raising. Reportedly, ISIS has a very open approach by being active on most of the social media platforms. According to an article entitled "Terror on Twitter" P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking wrote that ISIS' posting activity has reached a peak of almost 40,000 tweets in one day, in 2014, during their invasion of the Mosul city in Iraq, when they simultaneously launched a Twitter hashtag campaign #AllEyesonISIS. Content such as video and images is daily uploaded by foot soldiers and then shared globally. In contrast, Al-Qaeda has kept a more reserved presence on social media that relies more on anonymization techniques. The same article mentions:

"Within hours, images of ISIS barbarity spread throughout the Arab world, sowing fear among Mosul’s residents and defenders. The social-media campaign gave an air of inevitability to the looming seizure of the city, and the atrocities that would follow. Despite the fact that they outnumbered the attacking ISIS force by 15-to-1, the Iraqi army units defending Mosul disintegrated and fled. A militia of no more than 2,000 ISIS fighters captured a city of 1.5 million."

Another article entitled "Social Media, Recruitment, Allegiance and the Islamic State" by Scott Gates and Sukanya Podder tries to render how the terrorists are using social media nowadays. It seems that ISIS has a media agency Al Hayat that has developed an "effective virtual propaganda machinery". They are constantly releasing videos and other materials that show insights from the group life style. In some content published, one can see troubling images of children holding decapitated heads, whereas in others, you see soldiers holding Nutella jars "to demonstrate familiarity with Western lifestyles". The message that they want to convey is usually about "governance, justice and new construction" by outlining the wrongdoings of the enemy and the lawfulness of ISIS. They are proving semi-proffesional skills by using "video rather than text, takes full advantage of the linguistic skills of members, and makes good use of music - all of which appears to resonate with western youth culture". The authors conclude that the online campaigns carried out by ISIS are "sustained by significant manpower. Linguistic and technical skills are clearly evident".

ISIS has completely embraced the modern techniques of social media marketing and took their activities to a whole new level, a level that has not been reached, to this moment, by any other terrorist organization. One of the main achievement is that they have managed to expand their operations way beyond their territory through a focused, systematic and efficient propaganda. Moreover, they manage to recruit adepts from both Middle East but also Western countries, profiles that have more differences than similarities in terms of incentives for embracing such a direction, as revealed by this article. Usually the social media campaigns developed by terrorists are used for recruitment (forums, targeted recruitment), intimidation (mass execution videos), coordination (the use of tolls that provide anonymity), propaganda (press releases, tweets etc.).

On the other hand there is an intense effort from governments, social media companies and many others to fight against online terrorism. As for now, it seems that the terrorists still hold the upper hand, by being able to always make the first move while taking advantage of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and privacy. Therefore, the fight against online terrorism is on a developing trend as more and more organizations and governments adopt at least one fighting method.

There are different ways of fighting terrorism online and in particular on social media, each one of them being more or less suitable for various situations. There is no best or worst solution but multiple methods can be applied in changing circumstances. Here there are, the most important ones, in a random order:

  1. Content filtering:  Technically speaking content filtering is done by the company owning the  social media platform. Almost all of them, especially the most popular ones, provide a way of reporting abusive content and some of them also have anti-terrorism policies. According to some sources such as and "Terror on Twitter" YouTube cooperates with highly active human rights protection groups by making them “trusted flaggers” in order to flag ISIS content. Twitter has banned “indirect threats of violence” and specified in their policy that service providers take action on any threat or promotion of violence. Facebook proactively removes known jihadists from its service and can “remove content, disable accounts, and work with law enforcement” in cases where there appears to be a “genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety”. They also have mechanisms allowing all users to flag posts from other users that they find suspicious. At this level of shared policing  all of us can contribute by reporting anything suspicious and making the world a better place. 
  2. Counter-attack through positive campaigns: the main concept here is to try to fill the social media with positive messages aimed at countering the disinformation spread by terrorists. According to "Terror on Twitter" the U.S. government manages a series of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr accounts, such as the “ThinkAgain TurnAway” series, to highlight and counter misinformation spread by ISIS. There are also multiple other examples in this area from other states. 
  3. Monitor and track: an action typically done by law-enforcement. Government agencies can get input for their actions either by "suspicious" reporting done by social media platforms and their users or through using specialized software that detects dangerous profiles or events through special algorithms. Governments have started recently to build specialized teams of experts to deal with the new threats. In January 2016 The White House announced a new task force aimed at combating the spread of terrorist networks online "Countering Violent Extremism Task Force". Although the communication is not very clear on the exact future actions of the group, provisioned activities such as research, analysis, technical assistance, communications and interventions are pretty much hinting at the areas and type of actions that will be covered. According to another article from The Guardian "the British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age". Again, the available information is not very clear on what are their exact tasks, but on the British Army website you can find some basic information together with the fact that they have designated a department called Media Operations and Civil Affairs. Furthermore, a controversial approach comes from Israel, a country deeply confronted with terrorist activities, that uses social media in trying to foresee future terrorist activities based on "specially developed algorithms to monitor the social media accounts" as stated by The Economist.  This way they are able to build a list of potential suspects, and in some past cases, were actually able to stop terrorists before they deployed any attack. A similar initiative has been taken by EUROPOL who established a department called EU Internet Referral Unit. According to their first and only annual report, their job is to coordinate and share the identification tasks (flagging) of terrorist and violent extremist activities, to carry out and support referrals quickly in close cooperation with the industry and to support the EU member states in the same issues. The report mentions that they have removed 8949 types of content from the web. 
  4. Hacking: An unorthodox approach to fight terrorism was adopted by Anonymous, the famous hacking organizations. Late 2015 after the Paris attacks, Anonymous declared war to ISIS. It's not the first or the last message posted by Anonymous on this topic but real actions have also been noticed. According to a video published by Al Jazeera, 39.000 Twitter accounts were uncovered by them and most of them closed. In other cases DDoS and other hacking attacks were reported targeting ISIS websites. 
  5. Legislation: there are also initiatives, although in incipient phases, of regulating the way social media platforms should respond to the terrorist threat. A bill entitled "Requiring Reporting of Online Terrorist Activity Act" was recently reintroduced in the US Senate in December 2015. As described on the Congress website "this bill requires an electronic communication or remote computing service company that obtains actual knowledge of terrorist activity to report relevant facts and circumstances to appropriate authorities". The bill was dropped in the past due to oppositions from tech giants under the justification that "would turn private social media companies into government enforcers" as stated by the article mentioned above. Nevertheless new efforts are made now to revive the bill and pass it.

We might conclude that the social media has become a battle field, following on the trend of the overall cyberspace, that has even been declared an operational domain by NATO in June 2016 joining the other already existing four air, sea, land and space. We are now assisting to a tremendous arm race on social media where platform owner are playing an increasingly important role. Future policies in this area need a lot of attention and a coherent development, as social media, as a disruptive innovation, has already started revolutionizing the media and internet industries. In the fight against terrorism the right balance between law-enforcement, privacy and freedom of speech must be achieved and protected.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Three Gems from the Web - Every Tuesday (9)

Hello there,

How are you doing? I imagine you are either on holiday, or planning one, or maybe recovering from one. So since it is clear that we are all into the holiday topics more than into anything else, I am here to suggest to you three gems related to ... what else? ... HOLIDAYS.

1. Here - if you don't know this app yet you are missing out. It is the best GPS you can have on your smartphone, and you don't need Internet. Nevertheless, you need to download your maps in advance. So plan your travel well, and go discover without fear of getting lost or huge roaming bills for data traffic. 
2. WiFi Map - is a great app that you will find extremely useful when traveling or when you are out and about in the city. It will give you the nearest wifi networks together with ... THE PASSWORDS (how great is that?). So make sure to install this app before you go on holidays and you will be able to post fresh photos on your social media literally everywhere. And since we are talking mobile data traffic, try installing Onavo Extend to make better use of your mobile data plan. This app will help you get much more traffick for the buck you spend on your mobile internet subscription and that is particularly important when you are traveling abroad, is it not?

3. SunSmart- its name is relatively straight forward, it's a sunscreen reminder app. Nevertheless, using this app will make you feel much better about your exposure to the sun, especially when you have kids. It's free and rather basic, but very much used by us.

Hope you liked our picks. There are dozens of other useful things out there. Never forget to check Airbnb for alternative accomodation options, Skyscanner for alternative air ticket flights, and Uber or Waze to help you get around.

Happy holidays!

PS: I put in the links to the iTunes versions of the apps, but they are all available for free on GooglePLay for Android users as well.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

10 Consequences of the Quantified Popularity

People now have a direct measure of their popularity, and this can be really daunting, especially for those who are not realistic about their social abilities. Although some might argue that the number of people in our social networks doesn't  necessarily reflect on our actual popularity,  my informed guess is that it does say something about our perceived sociability. Nonetheless, although numbers do say something, if you don't take the time to verify the data through "qualitative " methods, sheer numbers can be very misleading, just like in statistics.

Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, came up with a piece of research about the effects of nurturing friendships and social connections on people's lives. He uncovered the tremendous health benefits of having true and meaningful relationships and, most interestingly,  he tried to quantify the average amount of social connections people generally have. Therefore, he revealed what is now called the "Dunbar number", stating that people generally establish between 100 and 200 social connections (commonly referred to by its average, 150).

Nowadays, roughly 10 years into the social media era, having 100 or 200 connections would categorize us as being socially disconnected or unpopular. What is, then, the magical number? How should we navigate in today's life without feeling unworthy of attention or unpopular?

These are questions people commonly struggle with for fear of being left out. It is all due to the culture of showing off, to the building of social media personas that don't have much to do with our real selves, and to the lack of privacy and moderation that social media interactions incur.

So how then, does the quantified popularity affect us and the people around us?

  1. We are encouraged to become friends with people we don't really know - that poses threats to our well being as well as disconnects us from our true friends by watering down our connections.
  2. We get worn out - following so many people's activity on SM as a result of the competition for new connections, gets people exhausted and not very eager to establish connections in real life and be authentic and curious about them. 
  3. We never feel popular enough - there will always be more popular people out there, and we will always want to acquire more popularity to become like them, which can have us go down into a negative spiral. Back in the day when you didn't have an exact measure of other people's popularity or your own, you relied on feelings, sensations, feedback from peers, actual smiles and rejections that helped you alter your behavior and shape your personality in accordance with whom you wanted to become . It is now only likes and shares, that can mean an infinite amount of things.  
  4. Popularity feeds off itself - not many people realize that social media popularity increases in a geometric progression, just like investment money or disease spreading. The more people you have in your network, the more chances of people seeing you and getting connected with you. That is why is far more hard to get your first 100 connections than to get from 3200 to 3300 connections. 
  5. Popularity equals loss of privacy - the loss of privacy is twofold. On one hand, you have to expose yourself by generating interesting content such as photos, videos, text or shared content, and on the other hand, you have to give up on your entry barriers into your online community. The consequence, is getting more and more exposed to people that you know less and less.
  6. If you want to revert, it can backfire - imagine that you might, one day, want to decrease your network to gain more privacy, or might want to change the nature of your online presence without losing popularity. This is a very risky and complex process, people might get offended with real life consequences, as well as you might get offended or even disappointed or depressed. 
  7. Unless you have a purpose, working up your popularity on Social Media is an utter loss of valuable time - that is probably why SM networks are becoming more and more commercial, because unless you can actually sell your popularity online, trying to be popular is a merely vain and unproductive enterprise.
  8. We dilute our messages - as a consequence of going over our real life popularity we have to rationalize more our interactions and become less authentic. As a result, we end up diluting our messages, connecting less and shouting more. We start using catchy short sentences with emoticons and question marks instead of real phrases and real dialogues with people.
  9. We devalue feedback - although is such an important part of life and the sign of true communication and learning, more often than not, when we think only of our SM popularity we deter feedback. Feedback frightens us, eats up our resources, engages us emotionally, detracts us from our path, makes us human. So what do we do? We ignore it, we diminish its importance by aggregating it and turning it into graphs, we take pride in sticking to our plan in spite of criticism and we focus our resources on producing new content instead of reaching out to people, because our purpose is not communication, but popularity.
  10. A false sense of status - SM popularity can confer a certain degree of social acclaim or fame, but building up one's status is a complex affair that involves real life interactions, approval of peers, reputation and long term commitments to a cause with outstanding results in the process. And while I am not saying that one excludes the other, falsely taking social media popularity as status could lead the most naive of us spending their valuable resources on a false cause. 
I am sure there is plenty more to talk about around the popularity topic. The reason I am speaking about it is because I believe I could add up to a conversation that although it is of great importance is being left out and ignored. Social media feeds itself from out need of approval, social status, belonging and being valued by our peers. It is also very customary to use shortcuts in judging other people, so that, more often than not, we would rather  look at the numbers on Facebook or Twitter rather than engage in a thorough interaction with the people we are interested in. And all at the expense of true interaction, true communion, that scientists such as Robin Dunbar have proved to be of such great importance to our health and well-being.

Now it is your turn to let us know what you think. Use any of our handles below or the comment section on this page. Have a great day!

Facebook: @newsocialmediageek
Twitter: @socialmgeek

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Three Gems from the Web (8) - Every Tuesday

Hello everybody!

Not sure you've realized I missed last week's Tuesday, but in case you wonder, we had a little "off" time, but we are now back with fresh ideas and good vibes. :))

It was hard to pick the three gems this week because we've discovered plenty of new things in the best way possible, by interacting with people in real life. One big conclusion after a week ( it is actually more than two weeks) of mainly offline living is that technology, if used smartly and wisely, is a huge enhancer of joyful and productive living.

For this week, I am suggesting a game, an App and a YouTube channel. As usual, I am focusing on digging out entertaining and/or useful software and websites

1. For those holiday nights with friends and family make sure at least one of you has this game installed on their phone: Heads Up. It will cost you 1 Eur on AppStore but you can find free alternatives if you don't want to pay. This is basically a charades game in which players mimic or use signs/words to help the one of you holding the phone on their forehead guess what is written on the screen. One tilt of the phone will change the screen to the next word or phrase to discover. This game is especially entertaining as you add up the time pressure and the nice video feature that allows you to see who's mimicking was the funniest!

2. DragonDictation is a free app that has proven to be very useful for me in the last few months. It is a versatile app that can help you take notes, dictate emails or social media posts, and even start writing an essay, article or blog. That helps you make full use of your most inspired moments, be them during a stroll in the park or on a sunbed at the beach.

3. SciShow is a friendly and extremely interesting science channel on YouTube where you can make your procrastination episodes add up to your general knowledge. The channel displays short clips (less than 5 mins each) in which they explain mundane or curious things or phenomena in a scientific yet approachable manner. In my opinion, it is extremely useful for teenagers and students among which it has a huge followship (3,5M subscribers).

Hope you liked our picks. Check them out and let us know what you think.

Have a great Tuesday, wherever you are!

Thursday, 7 July 2016

On The Future of Social Media

Social media has definitely changed our worldview in the last 10 years. It has been a real phenomenon that has involved almost all online players, from individuals, companies, governments and even criminals. As to what it did to us personally, I've written about social media changing us in this previous post.

We can compare it, to some extent, with the internet boom happening in the 1990s, where companies and individuals started rushing online when realizing the benefits that online communications would bring to their businesses or individual activities. In this context, social media might appear as an improved subsequent phase of the internet development which resulted in the "dot-com bubble" in the late 1990s (this is not to say we will have a social media bubble in the next years).Anyway, social media has evolved a lot in recent years, and to some extent, it's clearly drafting the future of the overall internet.

In the following, I will be trying to synthesize some of the upcoming improvements/developments that will affect social media in the future:

  1. Streaming live video: As posting videos is much more readily available and people become aware that its impact can be much bigger, usual texting is easily converging into video streaming. By the way, think about law enforcement regarding driving and texting, while there is no restriction to streaming while driving. Therefore, Facebook (Live), Periscope, YouTube, and LinkedIn already offer such functionalities, and it seems that, in the near future, it will be  adopted by more and more social platforms. Moreover,  social media platforms that only work with live streams such as Snapchat, Vine or Beam are gaining huge momentum and various professional services (i.e. Ustream, Livestream) offer functionalities that you can use and integrate within different platforms.
  2. Virtual reality (VR): Some people say that in the next year we will see a switch in the way classic displays are used. It could happen that you enter in an office of a multinational and find people using VR glasses instead of mere monitors. VR will definitely improve the way we work and socialize by allowing us introduce human gestures when communicating. Psychology attributes more than 50% of the understanding of a message in human communication to it's non-verbal components (such as posture, hand and eye movement, inflections, etc). Therefore, we have reasons to believe that VR will bring about more effective and more intense human communication.  To further understand how VR works, have a look at this videoIn 2014 Facebook bought an important company in the field (Oculus VR) and the results are already impressive. 
  3. Artificial Intelligence (AI): As Wikipedia puts it, an "ideal intelligent machine is a flexible rational agent that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of success at an arbitrary goal". Not to be confused with artificial general intelligence (AGI) which is "the intelligence of a (hypothetical) machine that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can" and can also involve machine consciousness. In other words, AI is giving you a hand by doing something for you, sometimes before you thought of it. You can already notice such AI functionalities like: face recognition, voice recognition and control (Siri), news feed filtering algorithms, chat bots, semantic search etc. 
  4. Wearable integration: Wearables include all types of gadgets that you use daily for different types of activities, they incorporate a small computer  and usually you can wear them as accessories. In this category we can find smartwatches, glasses, activity trackers and others. The trend now is to integrate as much of these gadgets with your social media accounts. You can benefit from instant communication of your activity with your online community, personalized content, whereas the social media platforms can also benefit from your activity tracker statistics for marketing purposes (gyms, healthy restaurants etc.).
  5. Telepathic communication: although in a very early stage it's a thought that Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO) has expressed openly. "One day, I believe we'll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You'll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too, if you'd like. This would be the ultimate communication technology," he said. 
Below you can find a chart presenting the 10 yr Facebook road map as presented in the F8 conference 2016.

Facebook 10 years roadmap
Before we consider these developments, though, we need to agree that in order to facilitate the development of such features and technologies, more speed and more bandwidth are necessary.  Internet infrastructures and connectivity have become a key area of development as more and more investments are done in broadband technologies. Reaching out to as many people as possible worldwide is one of the biggest goals of social media platforms. That is why more people connected to the internet with higher speeds mean more revenue for companies. Drones, satellites, new mobile telephony technologies and standards (5G) are now getting a lot of attention as enhancers of connectivity between people around the globe.

Along with the development of social media and the underlying infrastructures, there comes another big challenge for the industry. How to analyze the enormous amounts of data collected. And there comes big data, a concept that appeared around 2007, that deals with techniques for analyzing large data sets or sometimes unstructured information. Social media companies are investing a lot in those kind of technologies and in skilled people. 

It is certain that we will have interesting changes in the next 10 years as to what regards the development of social media, and they will probably become an even greater business tool. Just having an online connection won't be enough, people and businesses will also have to get engaged in social media. Let's just hope that the current free basic features will remain free.

To conclude, I will tell you about an interesting post by Jason Falls I've recently come across regarding an upcoming social media backlash. He argues:

" there will be a day when people all around the world look up from their smart phones, their laptops and their Twitter and realize it’s been weeks since they’ve spoken to another human being, live and in person. And on that day, there will be a select group of social networks that will survive the backlash – those whose online community has a vibrant carry-over offline. Again, it won’t be a bust. It will only be a short pendulum swing back to a sense of humanity. We cannot become machines. It is beyond our nature to allow that to happen. As our lives become more digitally intertwined, we will begin to establish boundaries to strengthen our human connections and put our electronic ones in proper perspective."

Well, indeed this is a possible scenario, although Falls's post  was published in 2008 and we are now 8 years later. Indeed, social media has become a great part of our lives. There are kids nowadays who learn using social media at a very early age. For them, social media may become as natural as breathing. Indeed, though, for some other generations, the backlash phenomenon might appear. I am thinking now of people over 35 people that were not raised in the social media milieu that they might want at some point to remember the good old days where discussions were carried out over a pint of beer or coffee and not through a midnight chat or video streaming. Nonetheless, a total backlash would be too much, I believe that generational backlashes of certain degrees seem more probable.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Three Gems from the Web - Every Tuesday (7) but not this Tuesday :))

Hello all,

I haven't spent online more than 3 hours this week, and therefore, I have no gems to unearth for you. Nevertheless, I have some thoughts about what it feels to be away from the Internet for a week:

  • generally life is much more intense than the innumerate hours spent on the Internet;
  • the less Internet you consume, the better you sleep;
  • the Internet as a navigation tool, as a phone-book, as an information center, as a weather forecast, as a sharing tool, are all useful and taken for granted;
  • the less you get involved with it, the less trouble it gives you;
  • the more you move physically, the less you use the Internet;
  • big data is free but making sense of it is very expensive;
  • the more people you have around you, the less internet you need;
  • big data is biased, is about lonely people only;
  • people revert to Internet when they are not happy with what is happening around the
  • following the example of "Earth Day" (when we switch off electricity) we should have an "Offline Day" to remind us of the important things in life.
Happy Tuesday and have a great summer, everybody!

Friday, 1 July 2016

You won't believe WHO CAME TO VISIT! It's not who you think!

Don't you just hate being misled by catchy titles that spark your curiosity?

These are called clickbaits and are used all around the internet. And the reason they are so popular with content creators is that THEY WORK.

As you might assume by now, nothing spectacular happened, not to me, anyway. This post is about grabbing attention in social media (and further). Click bait is a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks. Clickbait headlines typically aim to exploit the "curiosity gap", providing just enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.

Clickbaits tap into people's habit of reading headlines on their feeds (be them social media or news-feeds) and they make sure they are that sensational that they receive a click once read/viewed. Most commonly, titles have something marginal to do with the content of the material your are directed to. They are deliberately vague so as not to be dismissed as lies, but in fact they are.

Networks such as Buzfeed or Upworthy are well known for their extensive use of clickbaits, while Facebook has openly declared it is fighting against them. Their algorithm is trying to track clickbaits by analyzing the time spent on the clicked link and the amount of positive feedback the post gets on the platform (shares and likes).  Facebook's fight against clickbaits has been announced around 2013, but I am not sure it worked that well. What do you think?

Here is what 20th century headlines would look like if written today. 

Image credit: xkcd
Why did they become so common place if they are so annoying?
Well, I have three quick possible explanations:

  • our decreasing attention span forces content producers to make use of it so as to stand a chance to be viewed;
  • with all the marketing and the publicity we are subjected to, deception is less impugned by society to the extent that it became morally acceptable;
  • standard monetizing of web traffic has put more focus on the number of page visits than on actual time spent on an internet page and/or the quality of the experience people have on a certain web page quantified through actual user feedback.
There's plenty of other explanations, but then again, there are bigger problems in the world than clickbait, so I will stop here. My aim was to make you a little more aware of the internet slang and give you a glimpse into the problematic. While for the majority of us this is a marginal although rather annoying issue, for some clickbait is their job and source of income. 

Have a great weekend, you all!

P.S. I didn't lie. We have family coming over to visit. All very normal and boring, but it means the world to us :)) (Love your family with all your heart!)