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Staff Editorials

Time to turn up our online BS meters

What do you believe when you can’t believe anything? That question was recently posed by Aviv Ovadya, the chief technologist from the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility.

What the MIT graduate was referencing in an interview on BuzzFeed and a column he wrote for the Washington Post is the staggering amount of misinformation on the internet spread quickly and intentionally with ads on social media.

Fortune magazine reported that Facebook’s testimony to Congress indicated 80,000 pieces of content from Russia’s Internet Research Agency reached more than 100 million people during the past election.  The old-fashioned propaganda campaign also included 131,000 Twitter messages and 1,100 Youtube videos.

The extent is so widespread that Ovadya found a significant number of “top trending” news stories were inaccurate. The problem is that popularity, not quality or accuracy, rules the digital world. What gets the most clicks and likes goes to the top of everyone’s feed, but the algorithms that drive both Google and Facebook can be gamed with ads and “bots” to generate fraudulent likes and move news items up the list. Who cares if it’s right as long as you agree with it and it’s popular? That’s the sentiment behind this hijacking of information.

And it didn’t end with the election, when the school shooting in Florida happened, immediately a “bot” army controlled by Russia sprang into action making thousands of inflammatory posts, both for and against gun control. The purpose of these outrageous and insensitive posts, according to a New York Times story, was just to stir up the political fighting in this country.

Ovadya characterized the threat to widely disseminate false information as being like a car careening towards a cliff - and not only is no one trying to stop it, no one even sees the car.

This is the tip of the iceberg of the damage that can be unleashed by malicious and ingenious technology now rolling out.

Some of the new technology that the Center for Social Media Responsibility says is either already available or not far away:

• There are sites and software that initially could be used to create porn by putting the faces of celebrities into realistic sex scenes. Trashy in itself, but the same software could be used to settle a score with that annoying person at the office, “Hey y’all look at the video someone sent me.”

• With similar software you could find yourself shown shoplifting on one of the convenience store security videos that we all see shared online.

• A new software is described as “Photoshop for audio” could be used very well in phone scams such as “Hi grandma. I need to get your Social Security number again for that form.”

• We’ve all seen someone on Facebook apologizing about a message sent by their account that wasn’t really them. The next step: using what’s already on social media, advanced programs can scan your real posts and likes and then send a completely false message to you, made more believable as it would appear it came from a friend and include a topic you had discussed before. Imagine thinking your aunt sent you a Facebook message welcoming you back from a genuine vacation but then mainly telling how much weight she has lost, and here is a link to buy pills.

As described in the BuzzFeed story, we’ve already reached a point where any person could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did.”

You want a video of Trump kicking a kitten, well here it is. Need a video of Schumer punching a baby? Give us a minute. Hey, let’s have someone for local office caught on cell phone video saying they love Nazis. No problem with the software that is out there.Technology to distort reality is moving faster than gullible humans are able to adapt.

One of the first steps is to demand accountability from the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook. They are dominating the economy and it’s not too much to expect them to clean up their acts. Rather than running purely by programs and algorithms, asking them to hire more human monitors wouldn’t cut much into their hefty bank accounts.

Second, we all need to raise our fraud, fake scrutiny-threshold. Quit falling for, sharing, or liking every ridiculous story that comes along. We may never tame the technology, but we can all think for ourselves.

 

The elephant in the county: Lack of housing

One of the finer points that surfaced during the countywide comprehensive planning meetings is the lack of development here may be tied to the lack of affordable housing in the area which makes it hard to attract new employees and thus new companies. If there is no one to fill entry level positions, what company can move here?

In November 2017, Pickens County had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, the same rate as shown in October. This is down from 4.5 percent a year before. Pickens was estimated by the state labor department to have a labor force of 14,864 people with only 580 people officially unemployed.

[As a sidenote, unemployment figures must be taken with a grain of salt. They are projections based on people who collect unemployment. People who work in the construction/landscaping/ some self employed industry may not be making the list at all. And people who have collected the 14-20 weeks of unemployment benefits get booted off the rolls. That being said it’s the best figure we have.]

At first glance, our unemployment rate might be touted as a strong positive for the community – we must be doing something right as our jobless rate is the lowest around. But potential companies may focus on the small pool of 580 seeking work and move to another location with more employees to draw from. 

Official figures aside, we hear from area employers that finding enough warm bodies to fill a shift is difficult. 

The federal government considers 5 percent to 5.2 percent to be “full employment.” Pickens now sits more than a percent below the full employment rate.

In simple terms, there are people here with jobs they really don’t want or have the skills for, who are working because employers couldn’t find anyone else to show up.

It doesn’t take an economist to predict what would happen if our county had landed a big prospect in the past year. What if a company employing 100 showed up today?

As most of us here know, Pickens is a great place to live – if you can actually find somewhere to live. The comprehensive planning meetings made plain that there is no entry level housing and few choices at any price range. 

You hear stories of people who found jobs here but ended up living in adjacent counties as they couldn’t find anything here. 

At the final comprehensive planning meeting a couple of stakeholders discussed our particular brand of homelessness with people crowding in unsafe and unsanitary numbers into homes as there are no affordable alternatives.

From anecdotal accounts (certainly not a comprehensive survey) it seems that rent here starts at $600-$800 for small places and pretty regularly run $1,100 to $1,500, not including utilities. As a comparison, RentCafe.com, using national information, calculates that Atlanta has an overall average rent of $1,300 per month. It would seem that people here are bringing home rural Georgia wages, but paying metro-area rents. Very small supply and constant demand means high prices – nothing shocking here.

As the comprehensive planning meeting further showed, the idea of adding more housing supply, particularly affordable or multi-family complexes, is a thorny subject. Several speakers urged the county/cities to look at ways to foster walkable areas for residential development near the downtown of Jasper.

Others, however, countered that large residential developments rarely pay off in terms of additional taxes covering the additional costs to a county.

We are not sold on the idea, nor advocating that Pickens needs a lot more affordable housing; a nice bedroom community is not a bad plan for the future. Nor do we support government getting involved in any private industry, especially when there are limits on both sewage capacity and water supply that need to be taken into account.

We are pointing out that when growth is discussed, lack of housing should be identified as an underlying condition that plays a role in industrial and commercial development.

Courage shouldn’t be needed when speaking out

By Dan Pool, Editor

I had a surprising conversation earlier this year with a woman who said she wanted to comment on some political issues but was afraid to. She held liberal views and was scared that if she aired her opinions in our letters to the editor, she might face real physical persecution.

More surprising to me: this was the second conversation like this I’ve had in the past couple of months. The first was with a senior citizen who wanted to join the chorus calling for increased tax exemptions for seniors. The senior worried that if she publicly expressed her support, the good ol boys/powers that be, might retaliate against her or her property.

I cautiously told both that while I couldn’t guarantee their safety, I strongly doubted anyone would be so enraged by a contrary opinion they would seek the writers out for acts of intimidation or violence.

American history certainly is filled with cases of assault over political issues, a few duels and some heinous murders. But, to my knowledge, we’ve never had any crimes committed against anyone for expressing their views in the Progress.

We have had plenty of spirited debates. I remember one offer in print to take up a collection so a public gadfly could relocate but it was written in jest – I assume. The person never relocated and I don’t think the proverbial hat was ever passed.

To find out whether it was likely someone might face peril over being outspoken, I went to the provocateur supreme, Andy Kippenhan. As Progress readers know, Kippenhan occasionally pens tracts supporting abortion rights, takes church leaders to task as well as extolling climate change efforts. Clearly his views run counter to many in the community and his writing style is fiery.

Andy said he has been told a few times that “he is brave” for so defiantly bucking the mainstream and he has had people express general concern for his safety. But he has never been subject to any intimidation or face-to-face threats over his writings.

As far the Progress itself, we’ve had some pretty mad people call and, rarely, come by. We’ve also had a few people commend us for being brave in publishing something. Usually the belief is that the good ol boys might be out to get us. I, frankly, have never seen evidence of a cabal of rednecks seeking to carry out nefarious deeds for political gain.

    We’ve had a few encounters with the commission chair and Jasper mayor where they expressed their displeasure with our coverage (mostly unwarranted in our opinion). But the idea that we might face more than red-faced discussions with Rob Jones, John Weaver or council member Sonny Proctor seems farfetched.

In November of last year, a t-shirt began appearing at some political events with the phrase “Tree, Rope, Journalist, Some assembly required.” Could you imagine if you substituted policeman, teacher, preacher for journalist what the reaction would be? On the national level there is cause for concern.

The times are changing and with scenes like Charlottesville, VA and the ability to enflame passions on social media, perhaps the time will come when we in Pickens County have to worry about violence here. We hope not.

We hope that even if you find ours or someone else’s opinion presented in these pages offensive, you’ll keep the debate respectful or at least not-violent. (We love letters to the editors with strong and well-presented local voices. Remember our 400 words max. length.)

I hate it that (at least) two people have been silenced from the public dialogue over fears of violent reprisals. I tenuously feel their concerns unwarranted. I want to believe that in this county everyone is free to speak their mind without worrying about slashed tires or busted windows.

Despite what is seen in Washington, and big cities and other places, let’s rise above that here with open dialogue and respect for dissenting views.

A Culture of Mean

Quiz: A new restaurant comes to town. You eat there the first or second day they are open. What do you do? 

 

A) Eat your meal and go home. 

B) Eat your meal, go home, then discuss the experience with your family. 

C) Eat your meal, go home, immediately give the restaurant 2 stars and a scathing review on their Facebook page, citing such “transgressions” as no one to greet you, lettuce issues, servers who didn’t seem to know where to bring food, or napkins not in the right place. 

 

In a civil world answer B would be the correct answer, but in this new Culture of Mean answer C is becoming more and more common (and, incidentally, happened to a restaurant in Jasper last month). While those claims in answer C may very well be true, the impact of such a public bashing does a lot of things – it puts a new restaurant in a guilty-until-proven-innocent mode. Not only do they have to work out the kinks of their first week in business, right out of the gate they’re up against a low online rating (which people no doubt pay attention to and base restaurant choices on). 

These days this kind of unfair and cruel online behavior is more the rule than the exception in social forums like Twitter, Facebook, and in chat rooms like Reddit. We’ve all got “that Facebook friend” whose feed is a stream of soapbox rants and negativity, but things can get much more serious than political rants.  

Take the unfortunate events with a high school production of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a prime example of this new Culture of Mean. According to the NY Times, a white teenager was recently cast in the lead role of Esmeralda, a 15th-century Romanian woman, and a young student activist objected. Ithaca High School eventually cancelled the play because of student pushback, then “an online mob targeted the town with threats and racial epithets. Students received pictures of themselves with swastikas plastered on their faces.” 

There’s also the relentless and widespread cyberbullying that has led to teen suicides, and the rampant sexting culture in our schools.   

In what world is it okay to send students death threats? Or for students to be so nasty and disrespectful to each other that they want to take their own life? Why do people act so differently online than they do when they’re face-to-face? 

In a Psychology Today article, Liraz Margalit, Ph.D calls online interaction “unsynchronized communication.” She says, “the interaction need not be coordinated because the behavior is not directed by the other person’s feedback. People in online interactions are much more casual because they do not have to be attentive to each other’s signals. Verbal and symbolic feedback is not immediate, so there is no need to be constantly aware of the other person's responses.”

Translation: we can be as mean as we want online because we don’t have to see first-hand how it impacts other people. 

Margalit goes on to discuss this virtual world with language that conjures up images of the holodeck on Star Trek, a world where, “When playing a computer war game, for example, we can experience excitement, frustration and tension, but we can never be injured.” She says interactions online make social media users “feel connected without the difficulties and complexities involved in face-to-face interactions.” 

People are cruel online for all kinds of reasons – it’s safe, it’s a way to get attention or show power they would (or could) never show in real life. But even though these interactions are “virtual,” they aren’t like the holodeck and don’t come without consequences. They have real impacts on real people (the pen is indeed mightier). Let’s remember to be decent human beings, and when we’re online let’s refrain from saying things we wouldn’t say to someone’s face.  

 

Numb to school shootings?

On Sunday, family and friends of 15-year-old Preston Cope filed into the Benton, Kentucky high school to pay their last respects at the campus where he had been shot and killed just days earlier.  When word of the shooting got out, his father had raced to the school like other scared parents, recognizing his son’s socks inside an ambulance.  

The latest school shooting happened in Kentucky and left not only Cope, but one other classmate dead and 14 others wounded. It was the third US school shooting in 48 hours and the 11th in the three weeks since the start of the year. To be fair,  one was an adult suicide in a school parking lot and another was a student suicide in a school bathroom. 

But if you start scrolling school shooting details over the past year, it’s clear enough the number of students on campus with guns shooting at people happen so often it is easy lose count quickly.

While we may have seen or heard the headlines, we have become so desensitized to the words “school shooting” and “mass shooting” that it hardly registers a blip on our radars as long they happen far away from Pickens County. Headlines like NPR’s recent “School shootings are sad, but no longer surprising” is a tragically accurate description. 

Gunfire ringing out in American schools used to be  shocking. Now it’s just part of modern America.  

The killings in Kentucky were quickly passed by with only two deaths. If another school shooting takes place next week, we may be shocked and saddened all over again - but not surprised.

Wake Forest University, Marshall County High School in Kentucky, Italy High School in Texas, and the Net Charter School in New Orleans have all had campus shootings this year - this year. - all before February. According to the New York Times, Columbine, when it happened in 1999, “was the nation’s fifth-deadliest mass shooting since World War II, surpassed only by attacks at a Luby’s restaurant in Killeen, Tex, in 1991 (23 deaths); at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., in 1984 (21); at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 (15); and at a post office in Edmond, Okla., in 1986 (14). Yet today, not one of those shootings is among the five deadliest. That category, which previously covered more than 30 years, is now occupied entirely by shootings from the past decade - all but one from the past five years.” 

Fifty-eight people were killed in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting (more than 400 were wounded); the Orlando nightclub shooting last year, 49; the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, 32; and Sandy Hook Elementary, 27. The Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., saw 26 people killed. 

While incredibly sad, the news of another mass shooting - whether on a school campus or a small Baptist church - just doesn’t create the shock value it did when Columbine happened. It was the first mass shooting in nearly eight years that killed 10 or more people. 

According to an FBI study of 160 active-shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, nearly a quarter occurred in educational settings and more than half of those were at junior or secondary schools.

There’s only so much our psyches can take. Who among us wouldn’t rather focus on Grammy awards or Oscar nominations or - heaven help us - where the Kardashian clan is vacationing than contemplate the horrors of a mass shooting? 

It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just a hardwired protective instinct. When news of the next mass shooting hits our newspapers and runs across our TV screens, take a moment, pause to honor those poor souls affected and then, for our own good, take a step back from news and social media. Talk to people, donate money, volunteer for a cause like stopping child abuse - often the cause of adult violence. Advocate for better prevention and treatment for mental health.

We can’t stop all the bad things in the world, but we can live our life by our own values, speak up against injustice, and be a positive influence in our families and communities. Do what you need to do to escape the daily stress of living in the modern world where this happens all too often.