As a tech columnist, I’ve so far avoided writing about the Mueller Report, but after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s televised statement Wednesday, it’s time for me to weigh-in on the tech implications of what he found.
Although the picture painted by Mueller is largely a legal one, it is also a tech story because of the ways Russia interfered with the election as well as the president’s use of social media to act in ways that some have construed as possibly obstruction of justice.
The Mueller Report should be a wake up call for the entire tech industry, the nation as a whole and especially anyone who has ever logged into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or any other online service that disseminates information.
While Mueller found “insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy,” he clearly stated on Wednesday that Russia “used sophisticated cyber techniques to hack into computers and networks used by the Clinton campaign. They stole private information and then released that information through fake online identities and through the organization WikiLeaks.” He also said that “a private Russian entity engaged in a social media operation, where Russian citizens posed as Americans in order to influence an election.”
Mueller’s most important point was his conclusion, “that there were multiple, systemic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
Media literacy critical thinking and emotional intelligence
Mueller is right. But it deserves more than our attention. It also deserves a commitment by government, educators, tech companies and all of us to teach and learn media literacy, critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence.
While not in any way letting Russia off-the-hook or exonerating Facebook and Twitter on how they handled early signs of Russian interference, it’s important for all of us to examine our roll in believing or spreading false information.
I saw some of those early posts and ads which were later shown to be deliberate false information promulgated by Russia and I remember doing a bit of my own fact checking before taking them seriously. I also remember seeing how some of my Facebook friends, including a family member, were spreading these fake reports by posting links on their Facebook feed or repeating “facts” that were simply not true. I posted at the time and still believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to at least attempt to verify the accuracy of anything we see before we pass it on to others as truth. I admit one can never be 100% certain. Even legitimate news organizations sometimes get things wrong. But if you’re not sure of the veracity or legitimacy of a so-called news source, do a little research before sharing what is posted. And, if you later find out it’s not true, do what journalists do and issue a correction.
We’re all media personalities
I’m privileged to work as a journalist, but if you post on social media, you too are a media personality, even if you’re not getting paid and even if your reach may not be as big as some in the news media (though there are some social media users who have a bigger reach than many professional journalists). But whether you measure your audience in single digits or in millions, you have a responsibility to try to be accurate because, just like those of us in print or on the air, your reputation is based on what you say and no one wants to be known as a purveyor of false information.
Educators and parents
Educators and parents also have a responsibility when it comes to helping children cope with the fire hose of information coming at them. That’s why Kerry Gallagher and I wrote ConnectSafely.org’s Parent & Educator Guide to Media Literacy and Fake News (connectsafely.org/fakenews/). In the free online guide, we point to a November 2016 Stanford Graduate School of Education Report that found that more than 80% of middle and high school students surveyed were unable to distinguish between advertisements and real news stories. In fairness to teens, we also cited a December 2016 Pew study that found that nearly a quarter of adults admitted to sharing fake news in the past. Most didn’t know it was fake when they shared it.
It’s not just about media literacy but also emotional intelligence. If you examine the behavior of dictators, despots and demagogues, you’ll see how they use emotion to fire up their base, even when the facts aren’t on their side. Even politicians, clergy, professors and other speakers who aren’t despotic, often appeal to our emotions, which isn’t necessarily bad as long as we understand what they are doing.
In our guide, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence associate director Robin Stern, advised adults to “check in with your own feelings first and keep calm when talking to your children – even about a ‘charged’ piece of news. Help children to listen for facts and name their feelings. Encourage them to think about how producers create media to provoke feelings in the audience.”
Keep up the pressure
Finally, we must keep pressure on social media companies to do what they can to stem the tide of foreign interference and fake news. I don’t expect Facebook and Twitter to police the truthfulness of everything that’s posted, but I do expect them to expose those who deliberately and repeatedly lie and to remove any non-genuine accounts designed to mislead and manipulate voters.
And, while I’m not holding my breath, I would also appreciate it if politicians and elected officials would make a real effort to tell the truth when posting to social media and speaking to the public.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
Published at Thu, 30 May 2019 13:45:49 +0000