The new media is powerless

People think of the media as the powerful behemoth that’s capable of swaying public perception.

On the contrary, I think public perception sways the media.

Companies like Facebook, Google and even Amazon, have gone all-in on the confirmation bias, the idea that people like and prefer information that confirms their existing ideas and biases. No one likes being told their wrong about religion, climate change or even smoke, you can a great Ted Talk by Eli Pariser here.

Google knows that the best search engine is the one that provides you the most ‘relevant’ results–but relevance is a subjective term that depends more on the user than it does the search term.

A PKR member searching from Anwar Ibrahim may not like to see a anti-Anwar blog exposing his homosexual behavior, to them this result is irrelevant, even inaccurate. But to a rabid UMNO supporter this post is the complete opposite, both relevant and accurate.

Two different users, one single search, two different outcomes.

Google isn’t interested in providing you the ‘correct’ answer, it’s interested in provided you the answer you’re looking for–two completely different things. To do this, Google evaluate 200 different signals or ‘clues’ that leak out of your browser onto Google, to differentiate search results it presents to you, they try to figure who you are before providing you an answer.

Think of it as a funnel, that sieves through all relevant search results, and presents to you what they think is the answer you’re looking for. Obviously, not everyone typing in Anwar Ibrahim into the search bar is looking for the same content, and Google expends equal effort to guess your intent as it does to search for relevant answers.

Google knows that when you do a search, click the first link and never return, that they’ve done their job well, that you’ve found what you were looking for. But do a search and come back a minute later, and that suggest the result wasn’t relevant, and you’ve returned to get a better hit.

With funky algorithms and a whole bunch of computing power, it then takes this feedback and tailors future search results specifically for you–your own Google, one made especially for your biases, beliefs, and misconceptions.

The driver for all of this is of course money!

The more relevant searches presented, the more you’ll use Google–and more searches means more money for Google.

The downside is that you’re unlikely to bump into content you’re disagreeable with that doesn’t confirm your bias, and you’re now living in an echo chamber where the Google results, Youtube videos, Twitter tweets and Facebook posts reflect your inner opinions and biases. Hopefully you’re never going to see something offensive or disagreeable to you ever again–at least not by accident.

You really have to go out of your way to look for disagreeable content online, which is why I subscribe to Helen Ang, Parpukari, Rocky Bru even Lim Sian See, just so I see content would churn my stomach–the filter bubble is real and dangerous, and unless you’re acutely aware of it, the consequences can be devastating.

Prior to the 2013 general elections, I was 100% certain the opposition would win–by a freaking landslide!! All but a handful of my friends were going to vote for pakatan, and all the Facebook post and Malaysiakini reports suggested this was going to be the first time Barisan would lose.

But they didn’t. Barisan won comfortably, how could I have been so wrong?

And then I realized, that my Facebook timeline and twitter feed wasn’t an accurate reflection of Malaysian society, and the filter bubble made the effect even more pronounced, and being unaware of such things, I wrongly assumed certain outcomes.

Facebook wants you to stay on Facebook, and thus provides you more content you like–which is content like you (bundled with all your biases and conceptions with it). You don’t see a different point of view unless you actively seek it, and most people don’t bother, so that friend you likes to post pro-government post may already be hidden from your timeline even though you’re close friends.

This is also why a Terrorist attack in France gets more media attention than a terrorist attack in Pakistan–because let’s face it, the latter is going to get more shares and likes, and media companies (that we so often blame for lack of coverage) are simply responding to this explicit signal and creating more content for the stories people read.

The Malay Mail report 6 month ago, that quoted your’s truly exposing the government’s purchase of surveillance software got 1,500 likes on Facebook. A report about ISMA denouncing feminism as the cause for “women forgetting their place in society” got 400% more engagement in just 2 days.

If you were a purely rational news editor of a media outlet, where would spend your journalistic resources? On covering a multi-million dollar mega-shrimp project that would affect thousands of poverty stricken farmers, or on a goat that looks like a human if viewed from a certain angle. It’s an easy decision if the latter get 1,900 Facebook likes, and the former gets 1 (yes, just one).

comparison2

In many ways, the media gives you what you want–and what you want is less Pakistani terrorism and more Kim Kardashian.

The media isn’t to blame–you are!

With modern analytic software and social media integration, determining which stories are read and which aren’t is now an exact science, and the vicious cycle continues to weed out content you’re less likely to enjoy, stripping down all alternative view-points till you end up with a single customized utopian feed that gives you (and only you) content you like.

We might be consuming a lot more media than we were 10 years ago, doing it from more diverse sources, but ironical the content is more homogeneous, less diverse, and dangerous!

‘The Media’ is still powerful, but the power has been diluted across hundreds of sources, so that each individual media company (whether it’s newspapers, digital or radio) has no power over it’s readership’s views , partly because it is already preaching to the choir and partly because viewers who don’t like the op-ed can click somewhere else instantly.

But in order to keep readership numbers up, media outlets churn out content that their already bias readership agrees to, just to keep ad revenue numbers stable–but confine us to a filter bubble and echo chamber of opinions.

A newspaper editor for a Malay Daily in Malaysia is not going to allow a pro-Israel op-ed not just because they’ll most likely get in trouble legally, they’re likely to get in trouble financially as well–but if an entire section of Malaysian society has never heard of an alternative viewpoint of Israel how can they ever gain insight into the matter?

And while some people think the filter bubble is OK, to me it’s like feeding an entire population with Big Macs and Chicken Nuggets. Sure we all know the thin bastard next door that gobbles fast food everyday and lives healthy and happy, but for most people that diet is going to have severe and irreversible consequences in the long run.

I fear we may end up a society that can’t handle disagreement and lose our ability to rationalize and debate ideas, simply because we only consume content we agree with–and what’s worse is that we blame the media for what is essentially our fault.

The internet was meant to be democratic, a marketplace of ideas. Apparently in a perfect marketplace, people only shop for what they want.

Isn’t that sad?

Making the world safe for Technology

quote-to-make-the-world-safe-for-democracy-woodrow-wilson-67-97-51On April 2nd, 1917, the President of the United States of America addressed an extraordinary session in congress, asking them to authorize America to declare war against the central powers in World War 1.

Across the Atlantic, the European continent had been devastated by nearly 3 years of bloody conflict. Regardless of who started the war, President Wilson was sure the war was at it’s tail end and he knew that if America stayed a neutral observer any longer, it might not get a seat at the table to discuss peace terms.

President Wilson had an agenda to setup the League of nations, to ensure that such wars would never be waged again, and this would truly be the war to end all wars.

Sadly, with hindsight we know the truth, that America would reject the League of Nations, and the peace treaty at Versailles would act more as a 20 year armistice than an indication of true lasting peace.

America was a pale shadow of what is it today. Britain was the richest country on earth and had the biggest Navy while Germany had the best industry and the biggest army. America was a sleeping giant, but one awoken by WW1 and one that has never slumbered since.

But what made her go to war?

What compelled this great nation, whose on founding fathers warned would never go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, to take up arms and cross an ocean to wage war?

Many think it was Lusitania, some suggest the Zimmerman telegrams, but those were merely side distractions to the true cause of America’s involvement. The true reason for her involvement and ultimate victory is found in one sentence from the speech of President Wilson on that fateful day–The world must be made safe for democracy.

It wasn’t that America was trying to impose democracy on Europe or Asia, rather it was merely making it safe for democratic principles to thrive in the face of despotic monarch and militaristic dictators. Contemporary American foreign policy fails to distinguish between making the world safe for democracy and imposing democracy.

America can never please her critics, get too involved and she’s accused of meddling in affairs, while staying neutral and distant invites the critic of indifference to human suffering.

But not all dangers to democracy come in the form of dictators with armies at their disposal, and in one sense America continues to make the world safe–while the rest of us remain blissfully unaware of her efforts. Continue reading

Full Disk Encryption with the keys inside

Nobody really knows how the FBI is hacking into iPhones.

Well nobody, except Cellebrite and the FBI themselves.

We can safely assume that the underlying crypto wasn’t hacked–that would be truly catastrophic for everyone’s security, and way above the pay grade of a company like Cellebrite.

So we have to conclude that somehow the FBI has managed to trick the iPhone into giving up it’s encryption keys, or bypassed the Passcode protections on the phone. Apparently the hack doesn’t work on iPhone 5S and higher devices,  and obviously this can’t be a software bypass (because all iOS devices literally run the software), so it has to be a hardware limitation, one that probably affects the key storage. Continue reading

When bad advice comes from good people

What happens when a government agency tasked with providing cybersecurity “guidance” and “expertise” gives you advice like “avoid uploading pictures of yourself to avoid the threat of black magic”?

And then goes into damage-control claiming that it “was just a casual remark and did not represent the federal agency’s official position on the matter”,  only to follow-up with more ridiculous advice like “passwords should be changed constantly to prevent identity theft and hacking”.

Sometimes I sigh so often my wife gets worried—or annoyed, maybe both 🙂

First-off you know my view on black magic, and for an agency under MOSTI to make such an anti-science remark is just appalling. Secondly, from a security point of view, changing passwords regularly doesn’t help, and they cause more harm than good by encouraging users to use easy to remember passwords that they transform after every iteration. Think superman123, then superman456…etc.

In fact, research from Microsoft suggest changing your passwords regularly isn’t worth the effort, and the best one can do is use a password manager that would allow you to have passwords that are both unique and hard to remember across all online services you use.

The fact, that the head of cybersecurity Malaysia is giving advice that most people in the security community consider obsolete doesn’t exactly calms your nerves. Continue reading