Archive for the ‘technology’ Tag

Hacking the Middle East

Simplistic pronouncements about the role of social media in stirring uprisings and toppling dictators have by now, thankfully, seemed to die down. That Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital tools have been important to the historic upheaval in the Middle East is an unimpeachable fact. And a closer look at how those tools played a part is more than just interesting — it may offer clues to major social and political movements of the future.

A gathering last week in San Francisco organized by Hacks/Hackers and HackDemocracy showcased some illuminating work on the subject. Stanford computer scientist Rio Akasaka shared an animation he made showing worldwide Twitter activity from Feb. 7 to 14 that used the hashtag #Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the United States and Europe figure most prominently in the dynamic constellation, but there was also a climactic surge across the Middle East, South Asia and South America as news spread on Feb. 11 that Hosni Mubarak no longer held power:

Each dot on the map, Akasaka said, represents a single tweet; at the peak of activity for #Egypt, he said, there were as many as 6,000 per minute.

After the Mubarak regime all but shut down the Internet in Egypt at the end of January, activists moved to work around the technological assault. Egyptians relied even more on mobile phones to connect to the outer world, said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of Al Jazeera English, in some cases texting and emailing trusted contacts elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe who would disseminate the info via Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter joined forces to launch speak2tweet, a service that helped Egyptian citizens keep information flowing online by way of voicemails.

Egyptian-born technology entrepreneur Amir Khella said that the R.N.N news hub on Facebook, which reportedly saw a veritable explosion of page views in late January, was the best “hack” he’d seen among any related to the revolution. The R.N.N page pulled together information via text messages, phone calls and emails from people witnessing various events on the ground. R.N.N would crosscheck multiple reports from the same approximate time and location, Khella said, in order to separate fact from rumor. (Who exactly is behind R.N.N remains unclear, he later told me.) It was a nimble kind of crowdsourcing born of the crisis.

No doubt there have been other useful applications of digital technology during this period of seismic change in the Middle East, and surely more will spring up in the months ahead. It’s also important not to overstate their role, and to examine how the Internet has been used nefariously by oppressive regimes.

Maybe in part it’s because the earlier proliferation of Facebook and Twitter in American culture was marked by some frivolity that writers such as Malcolm Gladwell haughtily dismissed them as a sideshow in the context of revolutions. (See Matthew Ingram for a sharp take on how Gladwell went astray.) But as the speakers last week in San Francisco reiterated, a great number of people in the Arab world are using them, and not primarily to muse about what they ate for lunch. Under pressure from the U.S. government, executives at Facebook and Twitter have made moves to keep their platforms viable for activists, and it’s doubtful that their motivations to do so were solely capitalistic.

“We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real-world activism,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, in a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom. She later continued: “The dramatic increase in internet users during the past 10 years has been remarkable to witness. But that was just the opening act. In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.”

This is Yahoo News on speed: too fast for a correction notice

Recently the Spanish-language site of Yahoo News reported that NASA had contracted with three companies to develop some truly incredible commercial aircraft. The future planes, Yahoo reported, could be available by 2025 and fly at 85 percent of the speed of light. Just imagine: You’d be able to jump aboard one of these suckers and zing from Vancouver to Capetown in, oh, about a fifteenth of a second. Now that’s newsworthy!

And perhaps it might even be possible — but it’s not true. As a MediaBugs user reported, NASA is in fact aiming for these future aircraft to reach 85 percent of the speed of sound. (Impressive in its own right, but nothing remotely approaching the speed of light.) Apparently somebody at Yahoo Noticias en Espanol had mistranslated the NASA press release from which the story was mostly drawn.

Even seemingly small errors in the news — in this case a single mistranslated word — can matter, and they should be corrected with care. The Yahoo story was fixed a day or two after the mediabug was posted — a positive outcome — although without any notice to the public that it was changed. [*See update below.] We don’t actually know how the error came to Yahoo’s attention; I couldn’t get any meaningful response from the company when I tried to let them know about it.

Which is quite difficult to do. Yahoo News has no corrections info or content of any kind, nor any real channel for contacting its editors or producers. (When I tried the “News Help Form,” found via a barely noticeable link in the page footer, I received a comically unhelpful “Escalation Notice,” followed a day later by an email from a customer service rep promising to “send this information to our editors if necessary.” By that point the article had already been fixed.)

As we revealed in an in-depth MediaBugs study published in November, many legacy print-news companies are still stumbling big-time when it comes to error reports and corrections online. Yahoo News, of course, can’t even plead about transitioning to digital in an era of dwindling resources; it is part of a pioneering technology company native to the two-way medium of the Web. So why isn’t it doing a better job with this stuff?

Part of the answer may be that Yahoo News primarily is an aggregation site, filled with wire service stories and links to reporting from other news organizations. But in July 2010 Yahoo launched The Upshot, a news blog with original content produced by a small handful of established reporters and editors. Yahoo News already commanded huge traffic, but now the company apparently was making a bid for greater news-media relevance (and, presumably, even more traffic). Its Twitter feed, followed by roughly 62,000 people, says that its “Tweets are hand-picked by the Y! News Team and 100% RSS feed free!” In other words, there are real people behind the curtain here.

Still, good luck reaching them. In addition to trying the “help” form and contact via Twitter, I emailed an Upshot editor, Chris Lehmann, to see about reporting the “speed of light” error. He responded quickly and cordially, telling me that he had no idea whom to contact about it, particularly since the error was on the Spanish-language site. I commented that correcting a substantive error without any notice to the public is bad form. (Yahoo News has company in this practice: The New York Times and Reuters recently were caught doing this too.) “On the U.S. news blogs,” Lehmann said with regard to substantive fixes, “we always append an update to note when we’ve corrected the text.”

The Upshot also stands out from the Yahoo News mother ship by providing on its main page a visible list of editorial staff and their contact info. “Keep us honest,” editor Andrew Golis wrote last July. “Email us, comment on our posts, let us know when we’ve made a mistake. When we agree with you, we’ll be fast and transparent about fixing it, apologizing and explaining.”

The rest of the Yahoo News operation should get onboard with that agenda if it wants the public to trust in its content, already an uphill battle for the news media in general.

Here’s a suggestion to the managers of Yahoo News for a good start: Join the Report an Error Alliance. Put that snazzy little red-and-black button on every news page. When it bleeps with reader feedback, have somebody around to respond in reasonably short order (light speed won’t be necessary!) and publish the results in a transparent, user-friendly way.

UPDATE, 11:30 a.m. PT: Things have since accelerated farther away from clarity: When I returned to the Yahoo News story page today to check for an update I discovered that the text has changed back to the erroneous version first published. Whereas the segments in question had been changed from “la velocidad de la luz” to “la velocidad del sonido” they are now back to the former.

My suspicion is that while the first change was in all likelihood made by a person, the reversion to the error is probably due to a system glitch whereby that fix was overwritten. Of course, this points back not so neatly to the crux here — we have no effective way to inform Yahoo News about the problem, let alone get a clear explanation from them.

[Ed. note: This post also appeared today on the MediaBugs blog.]

CIA response to WikiLeaks: “WTF”

A report from the Washington Post on Wednesday describes an effort by the CIA to assess the impact of WikiLeaks on U.S. national security. The effort is known as the WikiLeaks Task Force. Apparently it’s also commonly referred to as “WTF” around the halls in Langley. While that acronym may be cracking some sardonic grins, the Post story also reveals a CIA perspective that is no laughing matter.

To some agency veterans, WikiLeaks has vindicated the CIA’s long-standing aversion to sharing secrets with other government agencies, a posture that came under sharp criticism after it was identified as a factor that contributed to the nation’s failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even while moving to share more information over the past decade, the agency “has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who recently retired. “They don’t even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked.”

Without a doubt the sharing of sensitive information among U.S. agencies remains a complex and unwieldy issue — perhaps as complex and unwieldy as the U.S. national security apparatus itself since it ballooned under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. But while a strong majority of Americans believe that WikiLeaks has harmed the national interest, it could be dangerously foolish to buy into a resurgent lockdown mentality.

In his indispensable 2006 book “The Looming Tower,” journalist Lawrence Wright investigated the devastating effect of turf battles among the CIA, FBI and NSA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Wright’s book, as I detailed in an essay for Salon, made a persuasive case that the 9/11 plot may well have been foiled if not for fatal duplicity on the part of the CIA, which jealously guarded its intelligence gathering from the criminal-investigation focused FBI. A crucial opportunity apparently came and went in late 2000:

In Yemen, [FBI agent] Soufan was on the trail of an al-Qaida figure closely connected with Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, two Saudi-born al-Qaida operatives who would later help seize planes on 9/11. The CIA had surveillance photos of all three men together from an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia the previous January, but when Soufan came knocking for information, the CIA slammed the door shut. It was part of what Wright calls “a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it.”

As I noted in my piece about WikiLeaks and cyber warfare earlier this month, some U.S. officials have been warning anew about the dangers of inter-agency turf battles. Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair recently told Congress, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”

What happens when the next 9/11 is in the works? The real imperative, it seems, is for the U.S. government to better protect any necessary secrets (the definition of which is another key subject — see Thomas Blanton on “the massive overclassification” of U.S. national security information) while improving upon the sharing of vital information among agencies. If it fails in that mission, the fallout could ultimately be far greater than anything perpetrated by the likes of Julian Assange and company.

WikiLeaks might make America safer

[Updates to this post, through Monday Dec. 13, follow below.]

When the “Afghan war logs” became public earlier this year, I focused on WikiLeaks from the standpoint of its huge impact on the media. The ongoing release of a quarter million State Department cables has since unleashed a torrent of hot debate about government secrecy and whether Julian Assange’s organization is a force for good or evil.

Like many others, I’ve marinated myself in related articles and commentary over the last week but remain ambivalent about some of the complex moral issues involved. I’ve also been pondering a question that seems noticeably absent from the discussion: Could it be that WikiLeaks is actually the best thing in a long time to afflict U.S. national security?

The cacophonous phenomenon on the world’s front pages has been a grand wake-up call — the rise of cyberwar is no longer a matter of theory. It’s here whether you believe Assange is an enemy or a hero. If it proves true that a low-level Army analyst was able to get his hands on such a colossal amount of sensitive documents, what does that say about Pentagon preparedness for the security challenges of the proliferating information age?

So far some contents of “cablegate” itself have informed our view of just how serious an issue this is. As the Times reported on Sunday, “repeated and often successful hacking attacks from China on the United States government, private enterprises and Western allies” have been taking place since as far back as 2002. One previously unreported attack “yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mails and a complete list of user names and passwords from an American government agency.”

The China cables also show the fire with which WikiLeaks plays; you get the sense that if some of the redacted names were revealed, it could potentially be disastrous, both to individuals involved and to U.S. intelligence gathering.

It’s noteworthy that the Obama administration’s assessment of the damage from WikiLeaks has consistently been inconsistent. The latest round has Attorney General Eric Holder saying that “national security of the United States has been put at risk,” while Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that concerns about potential harm are “significantly overwrought” and that the disclosures will have a “fairly modest” impact on foreign policy. The mixed message would seem to suggest that the U.S. government yet lacks a coherent approach to safeguarding the nation’s information infrastructure.

In the later years of the Bush administration, the federal government began to prioritize cyberwar, a focus continued by the Obama administration. But today there are the troubling, all too familiar signs of unpreparedness, agency turf wars and legal muddle. The Pentagon’s Cyber Command seeks to expand its powers aggressively and is, not coincidentally, publicizing that fact now. According to the Washington Post, its general in charge recently testified to Congress that he could not adequately defend the country against cyber-attack because it “is not my mission to defend today the entire nation.” If an adversary attacked power grids, he said, a defensive effort would “rely heavily on commercial industry.” Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair warned, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”

By some accounts the world hasn’t seen anything yet in terms of the looming dangers of cyberwar. An attack could cripple America, argues former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, striking everything from train routes and electrical grids to bank data and medical records.

WikiLeaks over the last few months, then, may have exposed U.S. government vulnerability in an alarmingly useful way, if one not much in line with Assange’s ideas about undermining state power. You can bet it has lit a serious fire under officials involved with the nation’s cybersecurity, who now must be working that much more intensively to plug any leaks in the ship of state and build up defenses against future attacks. They are, of course, likely toiling in secrecy. For now, anyway.

UPDATE: On the eve of his arrest in London, Assange publishes an article in The Australian: “Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths.” He opens with a quote from Rupert Murdoch: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

UPDATE 12/8/10: Hackers sympathetic to Assange and WikiLeaks have launched a series of cyberattacks in recent days, targeting MasterCard, PayPal and a Swiss bank. (Could Twitter be next?) The Guardian looks into the “shadowy group” allegedly behind the attacks:

A 22-year-old spokesman, who wished to be known only as “Coldblood”, told the Guardian that the group – which is about a thousand strong – is “quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals” and wish to be a force for “chaotic good”.

There is no real command structure in the group, the London-based spokesman said, while most of its members are teenagers who are “trying to make an impact on what happens with the limited knowledge they have”. But others are parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time – and resources – on their hands.

It’s really too bad that Stieg Larsson isn’t still around to witness all this.

Also: Some incisive comments at the cross-posted version of my piece on MoJo from Matthew Rotando on the implications of escalating cyberwar.

And: A great primer on WikiLeaks and roundup of coverage from Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

UPDATE 12/13/10: The WikiLeaks saga itself continues to ratchet up the potential for cyberwar. With a secret grand jury in Virginia reportedly now considering criminal charges against Assange, a headline in today’s Daily Mail raises the specter of retribution for Assange’s potential extradition: “Britain on cyber warfare alert as Whitehall prepares for WikiLeaks revenge attacks on Government website, it reads. Apparently “bank details of taxpayers and benefits claimants” could be at risk.

Stateside, meanwhile, the Times’ Scott Shane reports movement on the cyberwar front: “Whether or not the Obama administration tries to prosecute those who disseminated the information, it is determined to use technology to preserve its secrets. The Defense Department is scaling back information sharing, which its leaders believe went too far after information hoarding was blamed for the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot. The department has also stripped CD and DVD recorders from its computers; it is redesigning security systems to require two people, not one, to move large amounts of information from a classified computer to an unclassified one; and it is installing software to detect downloads of unusual size.”

WikiLeaks exposed

No matter where you come down on the veracity, morality or impact of WikiLeaks’ mountainous Afghan “war diary,” its release has been a fascinating event. It prompted me to reread Raffi Khatchadourian’s first-rate New Yorker profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, where several passages have fresh resonance in the wake of the latest document dump. (Back in April WikiLeaks made waves when it released a controversial video showing an attack by a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad that killed seven people including two journalists.) There’s been much debate since Sunday, not to mention pushback from the White House, about whether WikiLeaks’ disclosures endanger U.S. troops and allies. Assange takes a provocative stance in this regard. As Khatchadourian reported back in early June:

I asked Assange if he would refrain from releasing information that he knew might get someone killed. He said that he had instituted a “harm-minimization policy,” whereby people named in certain documents were contacted before publication, to warn them, but that there were also instances where the members of WikiLeaks might get “blood on our hands.”

Also widely discussed right now is the idea of WikiLeaks as a kind of roguish champion of transparency — one that is itself frustratingly, if perhaps necessarily, opaque. Khatchadourian also considered this problem in striking terms: “Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most — power without accountability — is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.”

I highly recommend reading the full profile if you haven’t; Assange’s personal background and various perspectives are quite illuminating with regard to the global splash his organization currently is making.

Another major theme since Sunday has been the story’s impact on media itself. Without a doubt we are in an evolutionary moment. Jay Rosen has some great thoughts on the ramifications of WikiLeaks’ rise: “In media history up to now,” he says, “the press is free to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the laws of a given nation protect it. But Wikileaks is able to report on what the powerful wish to keep secret because the logic of the Internet permits it. This is new. Just as the Internet has no terrestrial address or central office, neither does Wikileaks.”

There’s another aspect of the freshly tweaked media equation that I find fascinating: How effectively Assange and his (unknown) collaborators played a bunch of prominent global news institutions in the service of their cause. Why did they give the trove of so-called war logs to the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel first, rather than just release all the raw material for anyone to dive into from the get-go?

“It’s counterintuitive,” Assange explained in October 2009. “You’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”

It’s certainly no coincidence that three media giants (from countries with troops in the war zone) were offered the embargoed material; WikiLeaks could bet that the New York Times wasn’t going to pass on it knowing that the Guardian or Der Spiegel might well produce a big exposé (and vice versa). You can sense the effect of this calculation bristling beneath comments from New York Times executive editor Bill Keller about his organization’s subsequent reporting project:

First, The Times has no control over WikiLeaks — where it gets its material, what it releases and in what form. To say that it is an independent organization is a monumental understatement. The decision to post this secret military archive on a Web site accessible to the public was WikiLeaks’, not ours. WikiLeaks was going to post the material even if The Times decided to ignore it.

Keller also noted: “At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.”

By which Rosen further points out: “There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.”

Here are some additional pieces to the WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story that are well worth checking out:

Amy Davidson with a thoughtful take on the huge trove of raw information: “WikiLeaks has given us research materials for a history of the war in Afghanistan. To make full use of them, we will, again, have to think hard about what we are trying to learn: Is it what we are doing, day to day, on the ground in Afghanistan, and how we could do it better? Or what we are doing in Afghanistan at all?”

Philip Shenon discussing the WikiLeaks phenomenon on “Fresh Air”: “You certainly hear at the Pentagon, at the White House, concern that one of these days somebody is going to leak something really important to an organization like Wikileaks. The example given to me is American nuclear secrets or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Would Wikileaks put that out to the world without much filtering, and isn’t there a threat in that?”

Steven Aftergood, a respected voice on government secrecy, noting that WikiLeaks represents a creative solution to “over-control of government information” — but ultimately blasting WikiLeaks as being “among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honor the rights of individuals.”

The WikiLeaks “about” page, which offers some bold declarations of purpose: “In an important sense, WikiLeaks is the first intelligence agency of the people. Better principled and less parochial than any governmental intelligence agency, it is able to be more accurate and relevant. It has no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interest is the revelation of the truth. Unlike the covert activities of state intelligence agencies, WikiLeaks relies upon the power of overt fact to enable and empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.”

Here’s the main page for the New York Times series.

And you can follow WikiLeaks activity on Twitter. (Bio: “We open governments.”)

UPDATE 7/28/10:
Forget the dismissive Pentagon Papers comparison that’s becoming conventional wisdom — see this sharp analysis from Joel Meares at CJR on the value of the Afghanistan docs: “The WikiLeaks documents put an underreported war back on the nation’s radar. It doesn’t matter that the pundits are yawning.”

Also now on CJR: Clint Hendler traces in detail how the WikiLeaks docs made their way into the Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel, “from Brussels, to a bunker, to blockbusters.” Part of his reporting underscores my view above as to how Assange played his hand with the three powerhouse news outlets:

On June 22, during a six hour coffee-soaked meeting in a Brussels café, Davies [a Guardian reporter] says Assange suggested another idea — that The Guardian and The New York Times be given an advance look at some information the site had on the Afghanistan war, with each paper publishing their own takes on the documents. Within the next twenty-four hours, Davies says Assange told him Der Spiegel should be included as well.

The piece recounts the unusual, highly secretive collaboration between the three news outlets that followed, as well as differing views on Assange’s involvement in the process. It’s an intriguing read that answers some questions while raising others — not only about how a rather mysterious new media force drove a global news cycle, but also about how things will go down when WikiLeaks makes its next move to foment a “global revolution,” as it puts it, in government and institutional accountability.

UPDATE 7/29/10:
Some commentators have suggested that the WikiLeaks story essentially was over after a couple days. Far from it, judging by the reaction of U.S. officials.

Speaking at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday, Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that the disclosures had “potentially dramatic and grievously harmful consequences,” including for Afghans identified in the documents who had helped the U.S. war effort. Added Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff: “Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” (It’s interesting that Mullen seemed to refer to Assange’s source as a single person.) Meanwhile, the Justice Department apparently is looking into possible espionage charges against Assange and his organization. (That may be a stretch.) And Assange has said that WikiLeaks has another 15,000 unreleased Afghan war documents in its possession.

Porn at the Pentagon, Glenn Beck’s gunman, MILF rebels and ancient mullets

Inspired by a robust number of clicks from the first three installments, herewith is another bundle of microblogging, back by popular demand! I’ll return to lengthier writing in this space in the near future; for now I’m occupied with our preparations to expand MediaBugs into a national project (this fall), trying to scale something of a brick wall at Bloomberg, and working on a couple of other research & writing projects. Meanwhile, I think I’ve discovered a handy addendum to the maxim: The art of writing is rewriting, indeed, but the art of writing also is turning off your Internet access for a little while. Until next time… enjoy.

*

Is it “douchebag” or “douche bag”? @LoriFradkin has the answer! http://bit.ly/cafs3d about 1 hour ago

oh, lovely: child porn at the Pentagon, US intel agencies “at risk of blackmail, bribery, and threats” http://bit.ly/dxZDaB about 1 hour ago

you can bet the farm this crazed Calif. shooter watched Glenn Beck and/or Fox News. See quotes from his mom: http://bit.ly/cIKMf2 11:02 AM Jul 19th via web

Told ya so! re Oakland gunman likely inspired by Glenn Beck: http://bit.ly/axh2kL Wed Jul 21 14:01:48 2010

how to stop gorging on digital information: http://bit.ly/crZRZ4 Wed Jul 21 08:33:11 2010

once the heart of the Mayan empire, now a “rapidly deforesting mini-narco-state” http://nyti.ms/dD45S4 9:10 AM Jul 19th

some pretty f–@%*! funny Blagojevich ringtones: http://bit.ly/cOg4VW 11:46 AM Jul 16th

97-year-old stoner seriously bummed out by Vallejo authorities: http://bayc.it/p2P/ 10:24 AM Jul 15th

the Moro Islamic Liberation Front: a rebel group with a headline-grabbing name! http://bit.ly/bbFDtM 10:01 AM Jul 15th

Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd take it to the hole on Lebron and Jim Gray http://youtu.be/KtIaMr2hGeI 9:51 AM Jul 15th

Utah one-ups Arizona on anti-immigrant fear mongering http://nyti.ms/b30CfF 10:38 PM Jul 14th

but U.S. still in critical condition RT @nprpolitics Cheney Recuperating From Heart Surgery http://n.pr/dwbwVu 2:37 PM Jul 14th

CBS News: The Netherlands Win World Cup! (by a score of “SCORE to SCORE”) http://bit.ly/aon754 3:14 PM Jul 12th

apparently the mullet is ancient history: http://bit.ly/d4cs1p 9:19 AM Jul 12th

Lots more straight from the source, right here.

Hard to get a fix

Just about every professional journalist under the sun will tell you that accuracy and transparency in news reporting are essential to a media organization’s credibility. It would seem to follow, then, that most newsrooms would make tracking and correcting errors a priority — particularly in the digital age, in which they have unprecedented capability to interact with the public. But that’s not at all the case right now. Over at MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg and I have just published our first major report on the state of corrections practices across the Bay Area news media. What we found will not boost public confidence:

The results of MediaBugs’ first survey of Bay Area media correction practices show that 21 out of 28 news sites examined — including many of the region’s leading daily newspapers and broadcast news outlets — provide no corrections link on their websites’ home pages and article pages. The websites for 17 of the 28 news organizations examined have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.

Sites that do offer corrections-related content frequently make it relatively difficult to find: It is located two or three obscure clicks into the site, or requires visitors to use the site’s search function. Once located, the corrections content is, in most cases, poorly organized and not easily navigated.

In the above report, you can see the specific rundown for most major news outlets headquartered in or regularly covering the Bay Area (including some major national outlets). We’re not just looking to highlight these problems; we also hope to encourage news organizations to fix them — and the good news here is that the necessary improvements are pretty easy to make. To that end, we’ve also published a companion piece outlining best practices in error reporting and corrections.

Also see Scott’s excellent post over at MediaShift Idea Lab for more insight into why news sites have stopped short in this realm — and where we think they should be headed, most ambitiously. (Nutshell: Adding a “Report an error” button as a standard feature on every news page online. The promotion of which is a project in our pipeline.)

And be sure to check out the fun little movie we just released (with the help of our talented friends at Beep Show) — the hard-hitting yet heart-warming story of MediaBugs, as told by men in shorts.

Bonsai music, the sound of sadness, and a killing via Twitter

Gentle readers: It’s been another busy month, including a trip to MIT for the Future of News and Civic Media Conference, where we showcased the first phase of MediaBugs and hung out with a bunch of interesting folks working on some intriguing cutting-edge projects.

In lieu of posting here since an early June dive into the Gulf calamity, I offer a third experimental installment of self-aggregated micro-blogging, which has proven a considerably easier way to riff while on the run. (Also see installments one and two.) Nicholas Carr may believe web links are rotting our brains, in which case I’ve already spoiled your screen, but I’m more with Steven Johnson on the “greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture” thing. Happy browsing.

*

Rolling Stone is “back on a roll.” And apparently not because of that booty-licious Lady Gaga cover. http://nyti.ms/dssVSY about 6 hour ago via web

#BP’s audacious new plan to drill, baby, drill off Alaska: http://nyti.ms/cQ6RVn Thu Jun 24 17:37:58 2010

embattled and/or bespectacled journos reportedly should not stir outcry about senseless murders in the leafy suburbs: http://bit.ly/9RBzFK Thu Jun 24 14:42:41 2010

A serious bonsai tree jam: http://j.mp/dubR2D Wed Jun 23 18:59:19 2010

ancient big weather and what may be the world’s largest dinosaur graveyard: http://bit.ly/bP2wZd Wed Jun 23 15:38:14 2010

The same intervals that express sadness in music also found in speech: http://ow.ly/21KDz Tue Jun 22 11:05:53 2010

Utah attorney general live tweets execution by firing squad: http://yhoo.it/bv3ol8 Fri Jun 18 12:20:12 2010

in Iraq, “the biggest campaign of dog execution ever.” And KBR is involved. http://bit.ly/azxcYc Fri Jun 18 08:37:46 2010

CNN “expert” says that Obama’s Gulf speech used, uh, too many words, or words w/too many letters, or… somethin’ http://bit.ly/cUfOZg #dumbcoverage Thu Jun 17 12:01:11 2010

what’s the carbon footprint of that thing you’re about to buy? Very cool project, Sourcemap, from CFCM at MIT http://bit.ly/zA1a4 #knc10 Wed Jun 16 15:36:58 2010

Tom Waits’ personal playlist: http://bit.ly/bMlZAp Wed Jun 16 15:29:46 2010

now that’s politics with brains! accusing your opponent of “waterboarding” the economy: http://politi.co/cTGh0a #WTF Mon Jun 14 12:49:57 2010

“We must save the oceans if we want to save mankind.” -Jacques Cousteau (born 100 yrs ago this Friday) #oilspill Wed Jun 9 14:42:11 2010

AP dateline: UNDER THE MURKY DEPTHS OF THE GULF OF MEXICO (reporter into “thickest patch of red oil I’ve ever seen”) http://yhoo.it/cfQfaH Wed Jun 9 09:38:34 2010

the catastrophe of oil-soaked birds, explained: http://bit.ly/doM9gd #BP #oilspill #alt-energy-now Tue Jun 8 11:32:34 2010

The deep dark shades of BP’s Gulf oil spill

[Updates from Sat, Sun, Mon (2x) are below.]

The oil-drenched marine life preparing to testify on Barry Blitt’s June 7 New Yorker cover did not make me smile in the slightest. (I doubt humor, even the dark kind, was Blitt’s core intent.) It’s an effectively painful riff on the slow-motion horror story continuing to seep from the Gulf region. Like so many others over the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to look away from the gush of media coverage on BP’s oil spill calamity; what follows below is a roundup of things I’ve found to be the most illuminating or compelling along the way. As I suggested a week ago, I think this disaster — which will go from terrible to far worse before it’s over — will likely be a paradigm-changing event, one that will force a fundamental shift in U.S. energy policy. That is if, god willing, U.S. leaders and a great many of the people who elect them realize that such a shift must be the necessary outcome of this god-awful historic event.

*

Blitt’s characters say it one way; these terribly vivid, awfully real pictures of moribund wildlife, from the AP’s Charlie Riedel, say it all.

ABC reported yesterday that, not long after the disaster began, BP and the Feds conspired to withhold footage indicating a much more massive oil spill than initially conveyed to the public.

There have been multiple reports this week that BP has tried to prevent the media from documenting animal deaths in the Gulf region.

The NOAA has been tracking the scope and movement of the devastation, including views of the spill from space. It’s huge.




The astonishingly tone-deaf CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, used Facebook to issue an apology, as if BP’s tapping into social media gives it or its inept leader any prayer of scrubbing clean their blackened names.

A guy who does damage control for Blackwater (since whitewashed as “Xe Services”) offered some “advice” to BP about dealing with a public relations disaster: “There are times when you have to man up and take your lumps, and this seems to be one of those times.”

Susan D. Shaw, a marine toxicologist, suited up in some protective gear and swam directly into the spill. “What I witnessed,” she later wrote, “was a surreal, sickening scene beyond anything I could have imagined.”

MoJo’s industrious Mac McClelland has been reporting from the front lines and continues tweeting about it here.

Some imaginative work by “DIY mappers” has helped document the spreading fallout and build an independent data set of oil spill imagery.

And if the reality of this nightmare hasn’t yet sunk in… Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” has plenty of additional heartbreaking images.

UPDATE 6/5/10: Although for obvious reasons they’re unhappy about it, members of Wyoming’s Casper Petroleum Club recognize that the energy paradigm shift is coming.

The fallout has reached Florida, darkening the mood in the Tampa Tribune: “Forget ‘drill baby drill’ and realize it’s time we start shifting our fuel needs to safer alternatives. … This sickening slick will do more damage than we can imagine. It’ll affect us in ways we can’t consider. But the images now are burning deep in people’s minds. It’s going to be a long summer.”

UPDATE 6/6/10: Ian Urbina pulls together documentation and testimonials in the Sunday Times showing that nobody in the private sector was effectively in charge of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, either before the disaster or in its aftermath. The federal government also failed: “a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.” It appears nobody took the prospect of a blowout seriously: “The rig’s ‘spill response plan,’ provided to The Times, includes a Web link for a contractor that goes to an Asian shopping Web site and also mentions the importance of protecting walruses, seals and sea lions, none of which inhabit the area of drilling. The agency approved the plan.”

UPDATE 6/7/10: The New Yorker’s June 7 cover notwithstanding, even the blackest crisis needs its dark satirists; the most compelling stuff has been flowing from @BPGlobalPR since mid May. Here’s a semi-toxic sampling:

Try our cap operation at home! Hold a funnel over a firehose, sell what you catch and proclaim victory! #bpwins about 13 hours ago via TweetDeck

Words can not express how sorry we are. So we are going to stop apologizing and just give our investors 10 billion dollars. 7:48 AM Jun 5th via TweetDeck

Found driftwood that looks like Jesus crying oil. Not sure what it means but we’re charging 20 bucks to see it. #bpcares 9:27 AM Jun 4th via web

ANNOUNCEMENT: No one is allowed to look at our oil. All Gulf residents are required to close their eyes until this is over. 7:16 PM Jun 3rd via web

We’ve hired Dick Cheney’s former publicist to head up our PR dept. Hopefully she can make us as lovable as Dick Cheney. 12:18 PM Jun 1st via Twitterrific

OMG This isss ridciulsus. playing a drinking gamee where we drink a shot everytme we seeee an oily birdddd!!! LOL! so wasted!!11 #pbcares 5:03 PM May 31st via web

Flying Rand Paul in to consult. Evidently he’s an expert at keeping black out of places. #bpcares 8:06 PM May 27th via web

Of course, bp cares about the fishing industry as well. Now, all tuna from the gulf coast comes pre-packaged in oil. #you’rewelcome #yum 1:58 PM May 27th via web

UPDATE II – 6/7/10: Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering: A few days back the guy behind @BPGlobalPR, Leroy Stick, explained his schtick:

I started @BPGlobalPR, because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bullshit PR statements. No solutions, no urgency, no sincerity, no nothing. That’s why I decided to relate to the public for them. I started off just making jokes at their expense with a few friends, but now it has turned into something of a movement. As I write this, we have 100,000 followers and counting. People are sharing billboards, music, graphic art, videos and most importantly information.

Why has this caught on? I think it’s because people can smell the bullshit and sometimes laughing at it feels better than getting angry or depressed over it. At the very least, it’s a welcome break from that routine. The reason @BPGlobalPR continues to grow is because BP continues to spew their bullshit.

I’ve read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR. First of all, who cares? Second of all, what kind of business are you in? I’m trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company? One pickledick actually suggested that BP approach me and try to incorporate me into their actual PR outreach. That has got to be the dumbest, most head-up-the-ass solution anyone could possibly offer.

Do you want to know what BP should do about me? Do you want to know what their PR strategy should be? They should fire everyone in their joke of a PR department, starting with all-star Anne Womack-Kolto and focus on actually fixing the problems at hand. Honestly, Cheney’s publicist? That’s too easy.

Also dig Mr. Stick’s closing call to arms: “In the meantime, if you are angry, speak up. Don’t let people forget what has happened here. Don’t let the prolonged nature of this tragedy numb you to its severity. Re-branding doesn’t work if we don’t let it, so let’s hold BP’s feet to the fire. Let’s make them own up to and fix their mistakes NOW and most importantly, let’s make sure we don’t let them do this again.”

AP’s complicated Seinfeld episode

Recently a MediaBugs user reported that an Associated Press story had misidentified the “Seinfeld” character George Costanza as Jerry’s “neighbor” on the show. Eventually the AP’s west coast entertainment editor, Steve Loeper, responded to an inquiry about the matter, and the AP subsequently decided to publish a correction.

It was a positive outcome, but here’s the rub: Getting to it involved no less than contacting five different people, sending eight emails and making three phone calls — and it took more than three weeks to get a result.

Indeed, one of our early observations with MediaBugs has been that reporting an error to news organizations — even (or is it especially?) large, reputable ones — can be difficult and time-consuming.

When the “Seinfeld” bug appeared on our site on April 28th, I searched online for a specific channel through which to contact the AP regarding errors. I couldn’t find one. (Apparently one does not exist; more on that in a minute.) The AP story had no byline but was datelined Los Angeles, so I looked up the LA bureau and sent an email to the news editor there, Brian Melley. Having been a news editor myself at a busy national media outlet, I knew his inbox was likely to be inundated. I followed up with another email two days later. A couple days after that I tried calling, and emailed again on the heels of that. Then I also tried emailing the LA bureau chief, Anthony Marquez.

Next, I thought to contact an acquaintance who works as a reporter for the AP in Washington, to see if I was even poking in the right place. I learned from her that the news service has a decentralized system for corrections; the AP reporter and/or editor on a specific story apparently is responsible for handling any potential correction. I had been poking in the right place, if to no avail.

Next I tried emailing another person I knew of who used to work in the AP’s LA bureau, to ask if there was anyone else there I might try. He suggested contacting Loeper. After a couple of emails and a voicemail, Loeper responded in timely and good-humored fashion, and we were on our way to a correction. (While the bug ostensibly had been posted by a “Seinfeld” devotee, Loeper subsequently told me via email that the AP “got the definitive word from Rick Ludwin, the NBC executive in charge of the ‘Seinfeld’ series back in the ‘90s, who noted that Kramer and Newman lived in Jerry’s building, but George had his own apartment in another building and also lived with his parents for a time.”)

In the end, AP did right by the error. It wasn’t an earth-shattering one. But rather than getting into whether it’s important for such errors to be corrected (see here and here for why we believe it is), a simple question instead: why does it have to be so hard to get an error fixed?

You can almost hear Jerry working it into one of those nightclub monologues he used to close the show with: “What’s the deal anyway with these newsroom people? You see a simple mistake, so you try to let them know — you email and you call, and you call and you email, and… nothing. Really? What’s the deal with that?” (Cue laugh track.)

[Cross-posted to the MediaBugs blog.]

MediaBugs: Where you fix the news!

I’m excited to announce that we’ve opened the doors today to MediaBugs, a new project intended to help improve the quality of news coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you see an error or problem in a news report that you think needs to be corrected, please come on over and submit a bug report! From there, we’ll help start an open conversation between you and the journalist(s) behind the story, with the aim of getting the issue resolved.

For more about the thinking behind MediaBugs and how it works, check out this report from Mallary Jean Tenore today at Poynter Online. Craig Silverman (of “Regret the Error” fame and one of our project advisers) tells Tenore that “fact checking is becoming one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age.” If so, we should soon have plenty of fresh bug reports for the Bay Area public and media community to consider. As Tenore points out, research by Scott Maier, a journalism scholar from University of Oregon, shows that fewer than 2 percent of errors in daily newspapers ever get corrected. (And there are reams of errors, studies show, in newspapers and across all manner of news media.)

We also hope that journalists will benefit from MediaBugs. We’ve met with many of them around town over the last couple of months to introduce the project, and have been pleased to encounter lots of interest and positive response. Not only do we think MediaBugs offers newsrooms a handy new tool for tracking error reports, we also hope it will help them win greater confidence among their readerships. As Tenore suggests in her piece:

While running a correction might make journalists cringe, doing so can actually make them look good. Maier said public opinion research shows that the public tends to trust the media more when they see corrections being made. In that sense, correction-tracking software like MediaBugs, Maier and Silverman said, can help journalists gain credibility.

And that could only be a good thing, with said credibility having tanked of late.

For some great related reading, also see Silverman’s own recent piece for CJR, in which he notes that corrections aren’t just for journalists and news organizations anymore: “Anyone who generates content or shares information will inevitably encounter a moment when they have to correct a mistake. Thanks to the Internet, mobile devices and other technologies, more and more people are engaging in content creation—and the act of correction.”

UPDATED: More on the project launch from Megan Garber at Nieman Journalism Lab. Also, here’s where you can follow MediaBugs on Twitter.

UPDATED, 10/27/10: MediaBugs has gone national.

Tactile porn, Sarah Palin and a cool brown dwarf

Loyal readers: Until I can return to writing in this space more frequently, here below is another microblogging fix to bridge the gap. (Complete with shamelessly SEO’d headline.) At the moment I’m immersed in the launch of MediaBugs, working on a magazine profile of comic actor Amy Poehler and continuing research for a long-term project on Haida Gwaii. And running around quite a bit with our very active Vizsla pup, Renzo. (Did I mention—yikes!—also planning a wedding?) Meantime, if you have an appetite for more links beyond the below, follow the daily feed here.

***

pornography for the blind: http://bit.ly/causwb about 3 hours ago
  
Sarah Palin is getting very rich http://bit.ly/aOwfJy about 3 hours ago

James Cameron, eco-warrior: http://j.mp/AvatLula Heartening, but does he have the political skills to be effective? http://nyti.ms/blKA2T about 21 hours ago

via St. Louis Post-Dispatch, revelations of J. Edgar Hoover’s media obsession http://bit.ly/b0hDBd about 23 hours ago

GOP prepping for war on Obama’s next Supreme Court nom? http://n.pr/dwdQP1 Of course they are—beware talk otherwise: http://wp.me/prtei-oG about 24 hours ago via web
  
it’s true, I’ve been wanting to say this for a while: Cool Brown Dwarf Found Lurking http://bit.ly/d37n6w 9:55 AM Apr 12th via web

#Treme off to a good start, music alone worth the price of admission. Fun to see Kermit Ruffins still going strong at Vaughn’s… 11:23 PM Apr 11th via web

sexual abuse scandal haunting the Pope reaches the Bay Area: http://bit.ly/cHFqGb 4:17 PM Apr 9th via web

Essential reading for media: @dangillmor on NYT getting in bed with Apple over iPad http://bit.ly/drT4eo 10:25 PM Apr 8th via TweetDeck
  
How John McCain is short-selling his soul! http://bit.ly/ciaTsy (watch the whole thing) 9:39 AM Apr 8th via web

Once again in California, looks like it could be a Chinese railroad http://s.nyt.com/u/cqo 6:17 PM Apr 7th via API
  
this is a great dog story: http://nyti.ms/bXEAyN 2:28 PM Apr 6th via web

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.