Things That Matter

From WhatsApp To Facebook, Here’s How Social Media Has Been Weaponized Against Free And Fair Democracy

Social media has been credited with the success of mobilizing young voters to elect Barack Obama into office; it was the catalyst and accelerator of the Arab Spring; it put racial injustice at the forefront with #BlackLivesMatter. 

But with each story celebrating how the tech tool has helped democracy, there’s a matching narrative with nefarious players choosing to use it in order to undermine free and fair governments. One does not need to look too far to find a recent example of this issue—the 2016 election and the Trump administration is synonymous with fake news.

Our personal data has been weaponized by third-party organizations attempting to sway elections without regard to the will of the voters.

Credit: @SusanSoloman / Twitter

The Great Hack,” a 2019 documentary, provides further proof of how data from Facebook was weaponized by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting company, in order to give rise to the Trump Administration, Brexit and other far-right political agendas. 

The way this was done was bombarding swing voters with messaging that stoked their fears. Depending on information collected from a one-click personality test, a personality assessment was made and then used to manipulate them for the benefit of Cambridge Analytica’s clients. Some people might believe themselves to be smarter than the person who willingly gives up personal data to a third-party vendor who uses it to sell them things. However, Cambridge Analytica was so far-reaching because they didn’t just crawl the profiles of the original user giving access, they also mined that person’s network—regardless of the fact that they did not have permission.

How much information was collected, who was targeted and how that data was used remains a mystery. What is clear is how a tool meant to connect family and friends, is being used in a way it was not intended for. Which begs the question of whether or not technology is threatening the democratic process. 

“For all the negatives said about social media, what cannot be denied is that it is the greatest tool so far invented to spread awareness of an issue to the masses,” Andrew Selepak, media professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, and Director of the graduate program in social media, said. “Politicians who didn’t have the money or connections of the establishment would never be heard or have the opportunity to win office.” 

It’s true, the internet, followed by social media, is often touted as an equalizer. But what happens when some of these viral social cause campaigns are actually orchestrated to meet the needs of the people who are working to sabotage progress?

Take the “Do So!” movement in Trinidad and Tobago.

“The Great Hack” offers it up as a case study on the topic. The campaign, orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL, targeted young people in the country—a key voter demographic—and encouraged them not to show up at the polls. They labeled it as a sign of resistance against the politics around voting. Young people participated in rallies, YouTube videos promoting the campaign sprung up organically and street art promoting the cause peppered the prime minister’s home.

A Cambridge Analytica executive explains how on Election Day, the Afro-Caribbean youth did what the Do So! campaign wanted. They stayed home and didn’t vote. However, the Indian kids showed up at the polls. Even though they participated in the protests and made their pledge not to vote, they did. Why? The exec explains how they knew this sub-set would not go against the wishes of their parents. They had fun participating in the protests and counterculture, but in the end, their personality profile predicted a certain behavior that was manipulated by Cambridge Analytica to get the election results they wanted.

Even apps like WhatsApp have served to radicalize supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Credit: @xeni / Twitter

According to an in-depth report on Huffington Post, WhatsApp helped spread misinformation about Bolsonaro’s left-wing challenger. WhatsApp, which is used primarily as a text messaging service in the U.S., has a much different purpose in Brazil. A reported 120 million people in the South American country use WhatsApp from everything ranging from text messaging to disseminating news and information in groups.

According to the report on Huffington Post, these groups resembled a pyramid with a small group of influencers at the top creating misinformation intended to go viral and passing it to larger groups to spread the information and serve as an online army.

The most notorious moment from the misinformation campaign on WhatsApp was the attacks on Bolsonaro’s opponent Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro supporters spread information stating that Haddad openly endorsed homosexual pedophilia. The baseless claim took on a life of its own on WhatsApp reaching such proportions that Haddad’s campaign and reputable news outlets had to reject the notion.

Is this enough to say technology is hurting democracy? Not necessarily.

Credit: @ewarren / Twitter

“Tech is inherently amoral—it doesn’t care about right and wrong—it simply does whatever it’s programmed to do,” Monica Eaton-Cardone, tech expert and COO of Chargebacks911 says. “In the hands of a responsible, egalitarian society that respects individual rights and personal liberties, tech can preserve and enhance our greatest democratic ideals.”

This is perhaps the alarm “The Great Hack” is trying to raise. The tech giants have created an enormous problem where our personal data can be used against us. It’s not a partisan issue. Both sides of the political parties are being duped into fearing and hating people unlike them. The film underlines the damage done to the execution of a free and fair election—stressing it will take years to recover from. 

“The real failure we’ve seen so far in tech is that the pervasive use of propaganda has become a whole new industry,” Alexander M. Kehoe, co-founder of Caveni, says. “While we may have become numb to the propaganda posters that worked on our ancestors, the effectiveness of new strategies—deep fakes, social media bots, convincing fraudulent news sources—is making it incredibly easy to spread misinformation. Tech, like all tools, can hurt or help, depending on who is using it and for what purpose.”

And perhaps this is why Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who uncovered the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, made an emotional plea to the “gods of Silicon Valley,” in a Ted Talk earlier this year. Her voice cracks as she asks them to consider their role in all of this—and not in just terms of profit.

As to the answer of whether or not this new form of communication is a blessing or curse, Eaton-Cardone said it best.

“Tech is simply a tool, it’s our responsibility to use it wisely.”

READ: The Alarming Issues Raised In ‘The Great Hack’ Will Keep You Up At Night

As The Impeachment Trial Heats Up, Trump’s Defenders Start To Crack Under Pressure

Things That Matter

As The Impeachment Trial Heats Up, Trump’s Defenders Start To Crack Under Pressure

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On Dec. 18, just before Christmas, a gift arrived at the House of Congress, two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. After what seemed like an eternity of “will Trump ever be impeached?” the moment some Americans have been calling for finally came to fruition. Yet, the moment of justice against Trump was quickly fogged when Republicans began to attempt to derail the proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it perfectly clear that articles of impeachment presented from the House chamber to the Senate chamber would be dismissed because no Republican would ever vote to impeach Trump. Then something magical happened. People started talking.

Almost a month after the House voted to impeach President Donald Trump, Rep. Nancy Pelosi finally sent the articles of impeachment to the Senate floor on Jan. 15 to begin the impeachment trial.

Credit: @speakerPelosi / Twitter

It took a while for Rep. Pelosi to get those articles of impeachment to the Senate, but many believed she had a strategic plan. After all, Sen. Mitch McConnell said he wouldn’t allow any witnesses or hear any new evidence. So, Rep. Pelosi must have had a plan, right? 

“In an impeachment trial, every Senator takes an oath to ‘do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.’ Every Senator now faces a choice: to be loyal to the President or the Constitution,” Pelosi said in the letter, according to NPR. Rep. Pelosi also said she didn’t expect a fair trial. She proceeded, anyway. 

Democrats also announced they would have impeachment managers. Speaker of the House Pelosi named seven diverse lawmakers, including one Latina. 

Credit: @AlexNBCNews / Twitter

The seven lawmakers were picked because they have a legal background or expertise and also have served in Congress for decades. 

What’s remarkable about this diverse group of impeachment managers is that, as the New York Times notes, when President Bill Clinton had his impeachment trial in 1999, the impeachment managers back then were 13 white men. This time around, Trump is getting Rep. Adam B. Schiff, House Intelligence Committee chairman and lead manager, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Committee on House Administration, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Val Demings, member of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, Rep. Jason Crow, member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Sylvia Garcia, member of the House Judiciary Committee. 

On the same day that the trial got underway — and the managers were sworn in, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the trial  — new revelations against Trump and others came roaring out of the TV.

Credit: @revsusanrussell / Twitter

If you’ve been keeping up with the impeachment process, you should know that Trump’s being impeached for asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son for corruption. That’s what all of this is about, Trump asking for personal favors to get dirt against a politician who is seeking to run for office. Trump has said many times that request was not a favor. Now, at least one person involved in the Ukraine exchange of information is throwing Trump and many others under the bus. If you need a full refresher of the entire mess, click here

Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s lawyer Rudi Giuliani, told multiple journalists that Trump’s request to get dirt on Biden was known by all.

Credit: @cnnbrk / Twitter

“Because of my Ukrainian background and my contacts there, I became like Rudy’s assistant, his investigator,” he told the New Yorker. “I don’t do anything on my own. I don’t lobby people. I go get information. I set up a meeting. I make sure that the call went right. I make sure the translation is done right.”

“President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” he told Rachel Maddow, “He was aware of all my movements … I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.”

Even people who once said they never met Parnas, including Rep. Devin Nunes, finally admitted to having known Parnas.

Credit: @jennyrachelpal / Twitter

Just last month, Rep. Nunes said he wasn’t sure who Parnas was and added that he would never speak to random people. However, like many people connected to the scandal, Nunes has now admitted that he has talked to Parnas. Rep. Nunes went on Fox News to say that he did look back at his records and realize he had talked with him. 

“I didn’t remember the name. But I did remember going back, looking at where I was at the time. Because you know you can do that now,” he said, according to CNN. “You actually know where you physically are. Checked it with my records, and it was very clear. I remember that call, which was very odd, random. Talking about random things. And I said, ‘Great, you know, just talk to my staff’ and boom, boom, boom. Which is normal, standard operating procedure.”

Seems like the impeachment trial is just heating up and more information is casting doubt on Trump and his most ardent defenders.

READ: Kellyanne Conway Is Convinced That Americans Think the Impeachment Process is a Sham

Brazilian Researchers 3D-Print Part Of The Face For Cancer Survivor

Things That Matter

Brazilian Researchers 3D-Print Part Of The Face For Cancer Survivor

@mr_nobody / Twitter

A Brazilian cancer survivor has been fitted with a prosthetic eye and face to cover the hole that a devastating bout of skin cancer left. Denise Vicentin, 52, beat her cancer a decade ago and has since been living without a part of her jaw and her right eye ever since. Vicentin was so self-conscious about her battle scars, she became afraid to go out in public. People would stare at her everywhere she went and, soon, her social life and marriage fell apart. “[Before] when I was on the metro or train, I tried not to pay attention to the stares. At places like the bowling alley, I felt them looking, and the person would even leave when they saw me,” she told the Daily Mail.

Ten years later, researchers were able to create a custom prosthetic using just a smartphone camera and a 3D printer. Now, she feels like she has her ‘missing piece’ and says she is so happy that she even sleeps with it on.

Years ago, she was offered a hand-made prosthetic, but it would have cost her half a million dollars.

CREDIT: @MR_NODOBY / TWITTER

A portion of her right jaw was removed, making it difficult for her to eat and slurring her speech. One of Vicentin’s most painful wounds left behind by the cancer was her inability to navigate throughout society without being ostracized or made to feel different. When doctors offered her the opportunity to have a prosthetic made for her, she had no choice but to turn it down. It would have cost over half a million U.S. dollars. 

Waiting for the right moment may have paid off for Vicentin. As technology has advanced, the capabilities of 3-D printing are only just now being realized. Vicentin sought out an alternative treatment at São Paulo’s Paulista University just last year and is already walking into 2020 with a new lease on self-confidence.

The final prosthesis just took 12 hours to create and a fraction of the cost thanks to 3-D printing technology.

CREDIT: @VAZIYETCOMTR / TWITTER

The research team at Paulista University formulated a plan to give Vicentin her ‘missing piece.’ Vicentin would have to undergo several surgeries over the next year in order to fit the prosthesis. Then, the doctors took 15 photos of Vicentin’s right eye socket from a simple smartphone. From there, they were able to use all the images to digitize a 3-D model that would eventually become the blueprint for the 3-D printer. 

The final model was printed and refined in just 12 hours, from a mixture of silicone, resin, and synthetic fibers. After the 3-D printer created the technical piece that would sit flush on Vicentin’s face, a bit of human artistry was applied to make the prosthetic as realistic as possible. The researchers painted the prosthetic to match Vicentin’s exact eye hue and skin color. They even individually secured lashes to resemble that of her other eyelid.

The research team has been perfecting 3-D prosthetics since 2016, offering new levels of confidence to over 50 patients so far.

CREDIT: @CANAL_44 / TWITTER

Dr. Rodrigo Salazar has specialized in maxillofacial prosthetics for the last few years and has married technology with medicine to create lasting change for his patients. In order to get a proper model for a prosthetic, he used to have to create a mold of the patient’s face, on the patient’s face. Today, he needs only a smartphone camera to capture the necessary data to create a model prosthetic. 

Vicentin never expected skin cancer to become a defining chapter of her life.

CREDIT: @VAZIYETCOMTR / TWITTER

When Vicentin was in her early 20s, she found a strange growth on her face and went to the doctor. It was a tumor, but it was benign, non-cancerous. She had it surgically removed and thought that was the end of it. It returned again, once again, benign. She had it removed a second time and enjoyed nearly 20 more years tumor-free. Ten years ago, the tumor came back, but it was malignant, slowly ravaging the right side of her face.

Today, Vicentin has titanium hooks surgically placed around her eye socket in order to be able to securely wear the prosthesis and take it off when she pleases. So far, Vicentin has been wearing the prosthetic for just a month and she loves it. ‘It was a long time looking at a face which was missing a piece, so I am so happy. I only took it off to clean it – I even slept with it,” Vicentin told the Daily Mail