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Freedom of Speech, Abuse and Social Media

August 9, 2013 5 comments

Over the last year or so, social media sites have been attacked for allowing users to post abuse about other people onto their sites. These include examples of cyber-bullying on ask.fm or tweets on twitter calling for other users to be raped. The ask.fm posts have been implicated in a number of suicides while in one notable case, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the UK Parliament, was found guilty of libel for a tweet she posted implying somebody else was a paedophile.

Abuse via social media seems new. In fact this sort of abuse is old. The difference is not the abuse itself, but the level of publicity it receives. In the middle of the 19th century an anonymous individual sent letters to various people in the rural English town of Tetbury threatening to burn their property. Agatha Christie‘s 1942/43 detective novel “The Moving Finger” tells a story of letters sent to people in the quiet town of Lymstock that resulted in the recipients committing suicide. Not so different from the ask.fm cyber-bulling (except that as a Mrs Marple story, things were not so simple and in fact the letters were used as a cover for murder).

Hate letters – often called poison pen letters – go along with anonymous or silent phone calls as one way warped minds try and subvert the minds of opponents or people they dislike. (“The Moving Finger” includes the following: “The letters are sent indiscriminately and serve the purpose of working off some frustration in the writer’s mind. As I say, it’s definitely pathological. And the craze grows….“)

Hate letters are the ancestors of today’s abusive tweets and social media comments. There is, however, a difference. Whereas hate mail isn’t public, abusive tweets threatening rape or calling the victim an “ugly cow” are. This has a larger impact as the hatred is seen by many more people and so is much more distressing.

Social media platforms must take such abuse seriously. It can, and does, lead to suicides – especially if the victims already have low self-esteem. It can escalate and lead to false rumours, as happened with Lord McAlpine – libelled by Sally Bercow. Even worse, it could lead to action against the victim.

This is not a case of freedom of speech being blocked. It’s a case of free speech that is liable to cause harm to others being punished. Anybody who tries to justify abuse using arguments that they support freedom of speech is confusing “freedom of speech” with “free speech”. Freedom of Speech is the right to communicate opinions and ideas – and censoring these is one of the first signs of a restrictive society that can, and does, lead to totalitarianism. It is not, however, a right to “free speech” where you can call for the rape of women, or abuse others through words or images. Freedom of Speech also implies responsibilities that justify that freedom.

There are people who would happily ban or restrict social media and even much of the Internet completely.  In the latter case, this includes David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, who has called on search engines to create blocks for searches for abusive pornography or be forced to do so by law. Such calls will increase, unless the relevant sites (social media, search engines, etc.) show that they accept the responsibilities of their public position, and actively look at ways of fighting, blocking or reporting abuse themselves.    

Checking Facts: an Olympic Example of Ineptitude

May 9, 2012 Leave a comment

At the end of April 2012, the official web-site for the 2012 London Olympics was launched – listing participating countries. The list contained embarrassing errors – which illustrate how political and geographical ignorance overcame factual accuracy and even elementary school knowledge.

As an example, the web-site gives Asia as the location for Palestine  but the country next door – Israel – is in Europe. A quick check on any atlas will show that Israel is located in Asia – as are its neighbours (Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt).

When the web-site launched, this failure to check facts was even more inept. Originally the country profiles included the country capitals, population and currency. However for Israel the site initially put a blank for Israel and named Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, as the capital of Palestine. When this was pointed out (as reported by the Times of Israel) this was reversed – with Palestine’s capital left out. Meanwhile the US Dollar was listed as the official currency for Palestine.

It’s not difficult to check such facts. There are numerous web-sites that list country capitals, currency and much more. For example, About.com has a geography section listing capitals. About.com is compiled by subject experts and is a good first stop when looking for general information – whether about geography, science, or many other school curriculum topics. Wikipedia also has a page listing country capitals. A quick search on WolframAlpha lists Jerusalem as Israel’s capital although an equivalent search fails on Palestine – perhaps because Palestine is not yet a country.  There is also WorldCapitals.info – another listing, and the CIA Factbook, which correctly names Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Whatever one may think about the CIA as an organisation, its website giving information on the countries of the world is generally reliable and an excellent site for anybody trying to find geographical information.

Accepting that finding the above may be beyond the average Olympic bureaucrat, why not do a simple Google search to check the facts. Putting in Israel capital city as the search term quickly gives the answer: Jerusalem.

This failure hints that in fact the error may not have been just ineptitude but also included an element of political dogma that should be missing from the Olympics. I’m suggesting this because of a related error that appeared in the Guardian newspaper recently.

The Guardian states (note my emphasis):

The caption on a photograph featuring passengers on a tram in Jerusalem observing a two-minute silence for Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, wrongly referred to the city as the Israeli capital. The Guardian style guide states: “Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel; Tel Aviv is”

This, as can be seen by the previous listings, is hogwash and is a political attempt by the Guardian to redefine a country’s right to name its own capital city. While it is true that most countries position their embassies in Tel Aviv, this is because of the disputed nature of Jerusalem – despite it being the location for Israel’s government and other national institutions. Failure to give the truth is a disservice to the Guardian’s readers and discredits its position as a leading UK newspaper.

When newspapers such as the Guardian and bodies such as Britain’s National Olympic Committee start to rewrite facts (or fail to check facts) then what hope is there for a genuine peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. What is worrying is that this constant repetition of false information relating to Israel and Palestine is an example of what is commonly termed the Big Lie (Große Lüge).  Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf

“But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.” (Volume 1, Chapter 6).

The false information relating to Israel in the press now often outweighs the truth. Even the terminology used has become the accepted dictum – and as Hitler counselled, is repeated over and over and over.

As an example, it is rare that the term used for the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war is anything other than “occupied territories”. In fact, the Gaza strip was given back to Palestinian rule in 2005 and is no longer under Israeli control, and much of the captured territory (that Jordan annexed following the 1948 war) is under Palestinian rule (as had been the objective of the 1947 UN partition plan). Actual ownership of this land is disputed as there is no clear-cut international agreement on who owns the territory. Thus the correct term should be “disputed territories”. Anything else (i.e. “occupied” – as used by anti-Israel protagonists or “liberated” as used by the Israeli right-wing) is inaccurate.

Another example of a propaganda lie used against Israel is the word “apartheid” with Israel accused of adopting apartheid policies to discriminate against the Palestinians. Wikipedia states that

the crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

Proof that the apartheid claim is a lie is not hard to find. Arab citizens of Israel have full voting rights, rights of employment, education and free movement (which was not the case for black Africans during the apartheid regime in South Africa). There are Arab members of the Israeli parliament (which have included Arab ministers such as Ayoob Kara and Raleb Majadale) and Arab supreme court judges (for example Salim Joubran).  Israel’s giving control of Gaza to the Palestinians shows that Israel’s intention is not to maintain dominance over the Palestinians. Yet the lie that Israel is an apartheid State is repeated over and over and over again – just as Hitler counselled for false propaganda.

Using propaganda to make political points makes sense in war but doesn’t make sense when seeking peace. Peace requires honesty, together with an attempt to seek common ground and compromise without propaganda lies, so that reconciliation and trust can be built leading to bridges that end conflict. This applies to all parties – whether involved in the conflict or on the sidelines.

A failure to identify falsehood by basic checking of facts – such as the location of Israel’s capital – does the opposite and prolongs the state of conflict, reinforcing those who choose to believe propaganda over truth. In this, the Guardian and the London2012 websites are both guilty – as continuously repeating such lies (taking Hitler’s advice) aims to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign State, and the right of Jews to live freely and govern themselves in  Israel.

Disagreements at the top

March 16, 2012 1 comment

This week the news reported the departure from their companies of two executives – both long-standing.

Greg Smith’s departure from Goldman Sachs, after 12 years, has been reported globally. This is not surprising – as everybody loves to hate bankers, and investment banks. The claim that Goldman Sachs viewed clients as “muppets” is a delicious image, and so it’s not surprising to see a journalistic feeding frenzy following Smith’s resignation letter, published in the New York Times on 14 March 2012.

The real question however is whether Smith’s departure matters. I think that it depends on what clients do, and I suspect that the answer will be very little or perhaps nothing. Obviously Goldman Sachs’s aim is to make money. In a testosterone fueled environment, bravado, where clients are called muppets and phrases such as “hunt elephants” (referring to getting customers to spend more with you) shouldn’t be a surprise. If anything, the discussion will raise again (for a few more weeks) the issue of banker remuneration. It may even have a salutary effect by making firms such as Goldman Sachs emphasise that ethical behaviour in business must be the norm, and that the 1980s dogma that “greed is good” is not an asset post the 2008/9 financial crisis. As Goldman Sachs has said in response:

In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.

In fact, as the Economist suggests, the real muppet may be Smith himself, for not realising that clients aren’t stupid, and that if they weren’t getting value from the firm they’d move elsewhere. I suspect that the real reason for Smith’s resignation was sour grapes. Perhaps somebody got a bigger bonus. Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely he’ll find similar work with other banks – as no company will want to employ somebody who is quite so vocal in their condemnation of their former employer.

The more interesting departure however, from a strategic perspective, was that of Richard Brasher, the UK boss of the supermarket Tesco. Brasher was the most high profile departure since new CEO, Philip Clarke, replaced Sir Terry Leahy. Leahy retired from Tesco at the end of February 2011 and since then a number of other senior executives have left or are leaving the firm. These include

  • David Potts, head of the Asian operations who will retire, aged 55, from Tesco in June;
  • Andy Higginson, head of Tesco bank and former group finance and strategy director – also aged 55;
  • David Reid, Tesco’s chairman – who was replaced by Sir Richard Broadbent in November 2011;
  • Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco’s director of corporate and legal affairs, who will retire from Tesco in January 2013. Lucy Neville-Rolfe’s role is being split into two – neither of which will be a board post;
  • Richard Jones, Head of Clothing who has moved to the private Irish supermarket, Dunnes, taking the same role;
  • Laura Wade-Gery, CEO of Tesco.com and Tesco Direct, and head of non-Food, who has moved to a board-level position with Marks & Spencer.
The news stories reporting Brasher’s departure mentioned Tesco’s poor winter sales implying that this was the reason for the change. Philip Clarke will take over Brasher’s role, combining the job of UK CEO with that group Chief Executive. Some reports suggested that deep disagreements existed between the two over strategy for the UK – which issued its first profit warning for 20 years. Tesco has not denied this. Although originally Clarke said that there was no rift between the two, he changed his tune after the announcement of Brasher’s departure, saying

You can’t have two captains in a team

However it’s not just Brasher that seems to be finding a problem. The number of senior executives – especially long-standing executives – leaving Tesco suggests profound disagreements at the top.

David Reid was expected to retire and Tesco had been looking to appoint a new chairman to replace him. Potts, Higginson and Neville-Rolfe are also reported to be retiring. Their departures, so close together, suggests an unhappiness with Clarke’s management of Tesco as generally companies try and prevent large-scale boardroom changes to ensure continuity.

When a board is split over strategy and cannot agree, continuity is not possible. Management is all about consensus and agreement on the path that should be followed.  If this is not possible  there has to be change, with one side or the other leaving. The alternative is chaos, resulting in the company losing share and profitability as the focus moves to internal dispute, rather than market growth. This appears to be the situation at Tesco – forcing Philip Clarke to assert his authority. It was either his head or Brasher’s. As Clarke said: there can only be one captain.

 

Note: After writing the above article I came across a great Harvard Business Review blog looking in depth at Goldman Sachs culture and how it may have changed over the years since Greg Smith started (and why). Worth reading for any Goldman Sachs watchers:

http://blogs.hbr.org/fox/2012/03/greg-smiths-resignation-op-ed.html

Internet Explorer is for Dummies! Anatomy of a hoax.

August 7, 2011 15 comments

Good business intelligence quickly identifies information that is real and what’s false – or should. It’s important that decision making is based on accurate, factual data – as otherwise bad decisions get made. So how do you tell whether something is real or fake?

Generally, the first rule is to check the source or sources.

  • Are they reputable and reliable?
  • Is the information in the story sensible and reasonable?
  • What’s the background to the story – does it fit in with what’s already known?

The problem is that even if information passes these tests it may still not be true. There are numerous examples of news items that sound true but that turn out to be false. One example is a BBC news story from 2002 quoting German researchers who claimed that natural blondes were likely to disappear within 200 years.   A similar story appeared in February 2006 in the UK’s Sunday Times. This article quoted a WHO study from 2002. In fact, there was no WHO study that stated this – it was false. The story of blonde extinction has been traced back over 150 years and periodically is reported – always with “scientific” references to imply validity.

The “Internet Explorer users have lower IQs” hoax

Often, the decision to accept a news item depends on whether or not it sounds true. If the story sounds true, especially if supported by apparent research then people think that it probably is – and so checks aren’t made. That is why a recent news story suggesting that users of Internet Explorer have lower IQs than those of other browsers was reported so widely. Internet Explorer is often set up as the default browser on Windows computers, and many users are more familiar with Explorer than other browsers. The suggestion that less technologically adept users (i.e. less intelligent users) would not know how to download or switch to a different browser made sense.

I first read the news story in The Register – an online technical newspaper covering web, computer and scientific news. Apart from The Register, the story appeared on CNN, the BBC, the Huffington Post, Forbes and many other news outlets globally (e.g. the UK’s  Daily Telegraph  and Daily Mail). Many of these have now either pulled the story completely, just reporting the hoax, or added an addendum to their story showing that it was a hoax. A few admit to being fooled – the Register, for example, explained why they believed it: because it sounded plausible.

The hoax succeeded however, not only because the story itself sounded plausible, but also because a lot of work had been put in to make it look real. The hoaxer had built a complete web-site to accompany the news item – including other research, implying that the research company concerned was bona fide, other product details, FAQs, and even other research reports, etc. The report itself was included as a PDF download.

In fact most pages had been copies from a genuine company, Central Test headquartered in Paris and with offices in the US, UK, Germany and India – as was highlighted in an article in CBR Online.

Red Flags that indicated the hoax

To its credit the technology magazine, Wired.com spotted several red flags, suggesting that the story was a hoax, stating that “If a headline sounds too good to be true, think twice.”

Wired commented that the other journalists hadn’t really looked at the data, pointing out that “journalists get press releases from small research companies all the time“. The problem is that it’s one thing getting a press release and another printing it without doing basic journalistic checks and follow-throughs. In this case,

  • the “research company” AptiQuant had no history of past studies – other than on its own web-site;
  • the company address didn’t exist;
  • the average reported IQ for Internet Explorer users (80) was so low as to put them in the bottom 15% of the population (while that for Opera users put them in the top 5%) – scarcely credible considering Internet Explorer’s market share.

After the hoax was exposed, the author, Tarandeep Gill, pointed out several red flags that he felt should have alerted journalists and admitted it had been a hoax i.e.

1. The domain was registered on July 14th 2011.
2. The test that was mentioned in the report, “Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (IV) test” is a copyrighted test and cannot be administered online.
3. The phone number listed on the report and the press release is the same listed on the press releases/whois of my other websites. A google search reveals this.
4. The address listed on the report does not exist.
5. All the material on my website was not original.
6. The website is made in WordPress. Come on now!
7. I am sure, my haphazardly put together report had more than one grammatical mistakes.
8. There is a link to our website AtCheap.com in the footer.

The rationale and the aftermath

Gill is a computer programmer based in Vancouver, Canada, working on a a comparison shopping website www.AtCheap.com. Gill became irritated at having to code for earlier versions of Internet Explorer – and especially IE 6.0 which is still used by a small percentage of web users. (As of July 2011, 9% of web-users use Internet Explorer versions 6.0 and 7.0 with a further 26% using version 8.0. Only 7% of web users have upgraded to the latest version of Internet Explorer – v9.0).

The problem with IE versions 6.0-8.0 is that they are not compatible with general web-standards making life difficult for web designers who have to code accordingly, and test sites on multiple versions of the same browser – all differing slightly. (As you can’t have all 4 versions of Internet Explorer IE6.0 – IE9.0 on the same computer this means operating 4 separate computers or having 4 hard-disk partitions – one for each version).

Gill decided to create something that would encourage IE users to upgrade or switch, and felt that a report that used scientific language and that looked authentic would do the trick.  He designed the web-site, copying material from Central Test, and then put out the press release – never expecting the story to spread so fast or far. He was sure he’d be found out much more quickly.

The problem was that after one or two reputable news sources published the story everybody else piled in. Later reports assumed that the early ones had verified the news story so nobody did any checks. The Register outlined the position in their mea culpa, highlighting how the story sounded sensible.

Many news outlets are busy flagellating themselves for falling for the hoax. But this seems odd when you consider that these news outlets run stories on equally ridiculous market studies on an almost day basis. What’s more, most Reg readers would argue that we all know Internet Explorer users have lower IQs than everyone else. So where’s the harm?

The facts are that AptiQuant doesn’t exist and its survey was a hoax. But facts and surveys are very different from the truth. “It’s official: IE users are dumb as a bag of hammers,” read our headline. “100,000 test subjects can’t be wrong.” The test subjects weren’t real. But they weren’t necessarily wrong either.

You may disagree. But we have no doubt that someone could easily survey 100,000 real internet users and somehow prove that we’re exactly right. And wrong.

The real issue is that nobody checked as the story seemed credible. Competitive Intelligence analysis cannot afford to be so lax. If nobody else bothers verifying a news story that turns out to be false, you have a chance to gain competitive advantage. In contrast those failing to check the story risk losing out. The same lessons that apply to journalists apply to competitive intelligence and just because a news story looks believable, is published in a reputable source and is supported by several other sources doesn’t make it true. The AptiQuant hoax story shows this.

Meanwhile the story rumbles on with threats of lawsuits against Tarandeep Gill by both Microsoft (for insulting Internet Explorer users) and more likely by Central Test. Neither company is willing to comment although Microsoft would like users to upgrade Internet Explorer to the latest version. In May 2010 Microsoft’s Australian operation even said using IE6 was like drinking nine-year-old milk. If Gill has managed to get some users to upgrade he’ll have helped the company. He should have also helped Central Test – as the relatively unknown company has received massive positive publicity as a result of the hoax. If they do sue, it shows a lack of a sense of humour (or a venal desire for money) – and will leave a sour taste as bad as from drinking that nine-year-old milk.

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