Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Brief #7: Exploiting a News Story

How Social Media Deals with Fake News 

Where Do You Get Your News?

How do companies - especially online, social media companies - deal with "fake news" spread by Russians, right-wing conspiracy theorists, Nazis and other nutty people?  If they just leave them alone, they get a lot of criticism for letting people spread "fake news," or bigotry, or hate.  Some companies have figured it out, and others are flailing.  If the social media companies just deleted everyone who shared or posted "fake news," they would get even more criticism, and lose customers (not to mention, revenue). Some would complain that their First Amendment rights are being violated (even though they would be wrong about that). Deleting posts might hurt the social media companies' businesses.  Last year, Twitter, Google and Facebook vowed to use something called "trust indicators" to stop the spread of fake news (FN) on their sites.  Before you continue reading, here's a really interesting article that tells the recent history of FN.

YouTube Fake News

YouTube has a lot of conspiracy nuts and other crazies posting videos.  They've now decided that whenever one of these people posts a conspiracy or other FN video, they will post a link to a Wikipedia article with the facts. That way, their customers can decide for themselves, whether the person in the video, or Wikipedia, is right. That's one interesting way to deal with the problem.  However, other YouTube users, such as in India, see a lot of FN. 

Fake Facebook

Facebook has faced a lot of negative judgement from the press, from Congress, and from others, for the role that they played in the last election (allowing Russians to post FN against Hillary Clinton). Besides the U.S., the FN also influenced the UK's Brexit election.    Last November, Democrats in congress found at least 14 FN ads bought by Russians on both Facebook and Instagram. (Instagram is owned by Facebook) Video

Also, many regular users get annoyed whenever Facebook allows any racist or hateful posts, yet they suspend people who show innocuous naked photos or who complain about the government (and to be fair, right wingers think the same thing, that Facebook is run by leftists who like to censor them).  They also got in trouble for targeted racist ads last year. They claim to be cracking down on hate groups and on FN.  One of Facebook's early investors, Roger McNamee, doesn't believe that Facebook really wants to do anything about it.  He says they're either unable or unwilling to do anything that will really work. Video

Instagram faces similar censorship criticismInstagram also had a lot of fake social media influencers (they use bots to make money from likes and fake comments), but they were working hard to get rid of them.

Twitter has also been criticized, like Facebook, for allowing Russians, bots and others to post FN, which affected the election.  In January, they mentioned in their blog that they were contacting users who interacted with Russian accounts that were spreading FN.  However, a new study at MIT concludes that Twitter's efforts aren't working and that FN spreads even faster and wider on Twitter than real news. Apparently, this is because FN stories are more interesting than real news. That makes sense, when you think about tabloids and other FN sources. They're always posting something outrageous or shocking because they want you to click on their link or spread the news to your friends.  Most people don't bother to check to see if it's real or not.  This is how urban myths and hoaxes start.   Not only that, but the study found that most FN is spread by real people on Twitter, not bots.  Video

In November, Twitter stopped verifying accounts (the process they use to tell which famous people online are authentic accounts) because they were vilified for verifying the Neo-Nazi rally organizer in Charlotte.   Twitter, of course, doesn't say that their verification is for famous people only. They say it's for accounts that are for "public interest."  Only they know what this means.  Many who run companies or organizations, like myself, have been turned down for verification, without any explicit reason given.

Conservatives are more likely to share FN on social media than liberals or moderates, which doesn't surprise me.   I know a lot of people on social media, of all types and backgrounds. It's almost always the conservatives that share the FN. After being online for 24 years, I have a really good perception of what is real and what's fake. Nine times out of ten, if I read something on social media that seems like it can't be true, it usually isn't.  Whenever I look up a particularly suspicious news item on Snopes, and give the person who posted it the link to the truth, I've seen many complain that Snopes is liberal and has an agenda, which is not true.   They say the same thing about Politifact, Wikipedia, or any other fact-checking, unbiased site. These sites pride themselves on being factual and unbiased, but that's apparently not enough for some people.  The sites are usually run by journalists or professors and have high ethical standards.

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Strangely enough, it seems that people who believe FN (probably because it fits in with their world view) don't believe it when unbiased fact-checking sites tell them that it's fake.  Perhaps they're also the ones falling for the Nigerian Prince scams, or the "Bill Gates will give you money if you share this post" kind of scams, too? Judging solely from what I've seen, many people seem to be in denial about reality and facts. As CBS News President David Rhodes said in this article, "part of the spread [of FN] is fueled by the fact that 'some people want to be manipulated' and would rather believe a fake version of events."   There's a famous quote by political philosopher John Stuart Mill, "Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative."  I'll leave it up to the pundits and philosophers as to whether that's true or not.

How to Spot Fake News

No matter what one's political beliefs are, it's up to all of us as good citizens to find the truth and facts. Don't just believe whatever you read and hear, whether it's on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube; whether it's on the evening news, CNN or FOX news.  If it doesn't sound likely, or if it sounds too good to be true, look up the facts online. If the only people saying it online are right-wing sites, tabloids or FOX news, then it's probably a lie. If a news story is real, everyone covers it. Unlike what some people try to claim, news organizations mostly just care about news (and of course, getting paid for putting out the news - they are businesses as well as journalists).  If there's a real story, they will all cover it. They don't want to be scooped by other news networks.  If you read something in the National Enquirer or People Magazine, would you just believe it? Or would you look for better sources?  There are lots of sites out there spreading FN, or that have bias, whether it's social media posts, or Breitbart, or TMZ.  They sprinkle a little truth and facts in there to make it believable, but most of what they say is skewed or outright lies.  News sites like Reuters, AP; real newspapers like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are well-respected news sites that don't have much bias in their news (their opinion columns are completely different and labeled as such, so you know the difference).  This site tells you the most unbiased and most trustworthy news organizations, and how people of all political types view them. Video
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It will be interesting to see how social media survives all of the criticism and whether they really can keep the FN out.  This article explains why this task is almost impossible, and that the social media companies don't have a lot of incentive to spend much time or money on the problem.  In another article, 32 business experts were asked about the future of social media.   Only two of them mentioned FN and how Facebook and Twitter would crack down on them.  I think that the social media companies are hoping that the criticism will die out, but I think that it will become even stronger, especially as the next presidential election draws near. They may face even bigger challenges if they're not able to at least minimize the FN.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Brief #6 - Copyright or Fair Use

CBS/Paramount Versus Star Trek Fans


A Copyright Will Protect You from Pirates

U.S. copyright law basically says that if you create something, you own it. Nobody can use it without your permission. This includes your writing (even if it’s not officially published), photos you take, artwork you make, or ideas you've created.  You don't have to make any special statement or pay the copyright office to make it official, although some feel that doing so helps your case if you have to sue someone for stealing your work.  The law protects the creators and artists from people stealing their work without paying for it or asking their permission.  There are a few exceptions, such as work published before 1923 (public domain), or very small parts of the work used (fair use), or work used for educational purposes (also fair use).  The copyright expires 70 years after an author's death, usually.  However, copyright can be renewed by the author's family or company. In 1992, that renewal became automatic. It's a little more complicated than that, but this is the simple description. Video Clip

How Napster worked

There is a lot of copyright violation online because it's so easy to do, and most people and companies don't bother to press charges against others for copyright violation if the person is not making money from their work.  Sometimes, the company will just send the person a threatening letter, telling them to take down the work, and threaten to sue them if them don't.  However, if a company notices that many people are using their works without permission, even if they're not making money from it, then they will sue. This is what happened to Napster and other file-sharing sites. The music business realized that they were losing money from all of the file-sharing going on, so they put a stop to it by fining a few high-volume users, which scared most others. Plenty of file-sharing still goes on, but it's not nearly as easy to do now as it once was.  The same is true of downloading TV shows and movies.  Also, these companies started offering cheap downloads: $1 per song, or $3 to see a TV show, or $15 or more to see a movie, which made it easier for people to get the content and not break the law.  Still, most people who write blogs or have a Facebook page or small website use plenty of photos and other content from other sites without asking their permission. It's very easy to just find an image on Google images, download it and use it.  Most of the time, the person doesn't even bother to say where they got the photo or information.  They are risking getting one of those "cease and desist" letters, though, and a lawsuit, which could cost them a lot of money. Video Clip
Our Gang

Fans of TV shows, comic books and movies have been writing fan fiction (AKA Fanfic) for a long time (stories about their favorite characters). They've also been making fan films for a very long time. In fact, the first "fan film" was in 1926, and it was an "Our Gang" fan film. Once science fiction conventions came along in the 70's, fans had somewhere to show their films. Once the internet came along, fan films increased. The increase in broadband and streaming in the early 2000's made them even more popular. No one cared about copyright laws because these were just for fun. They showed fans' love for their favorites, and no one was making any money from them. They were in a legal "grey area." LINKS
Star Trek: New Voyages cast

 There are many Star Trek fan films and series.  The first online full-length fan TV series was made by "Star Trek: New Voyages." Their first episode, "Come What May" was in 2004. You could download their episodes or watch them streaming, but most people still didn't have broadband then, so downloading was the better option.  James Cawley was the writer, director, producer and star of the show. He also used to do Elvis impersonations, and you can tell that by looking at him. He played Captain Kirk in the production (Cawley left the role of Kirk to focus more on production. Brian Gross played Kirk in the second half of the 10 episodes).  He made beautiful sets that look just like the original ones from the 1960's TV show.  The script was so-so, but it did seem a lot like an old Star Trek episode.  To me, it seemed like something between an amateur and professional production. Their acting was fine, but the timing was a little off, either because of bad directing or editing.  However, by their next episode, and the one after that, they had improved quite a lot. For long-time Trekkies, it was great to watch more Star Trek episodes with our favorite characters (even if they were played by different actors).  They soon had some great guest-stars from the original Star Trek episodes as well as real Star Trek writers doing their shows. They were nominated for the prestigious Hugo award, among other things. Videos

Star Trek: Continues cast

Another popular Star Trek fan film series is "Star Trek: Continues." Just like "Star Trek: New Voyages," it continued the 5-year mission of the Enterprise.  They, too, had some guest-stars from the real Star Trek series. I haven't watched it, but I hear from friends that it's very good.  CBS/Paramount, who owns the rights to the Star Trek series, allowed these shows to flourish because no one was making any money on them.  They didn't bother suing them for copyright because they knew that it increased Star Trek fandom, so that fans would continue to go to the Star Trek movies, watch any Star Trek shows, and buy Star Trek merchandise.  The son of  Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek," is behind this one. Videos

Prelude to Axanar

 A short film "Prelude to Axanar" was produced in 2014. The group, Axanar Productions, raised money on Kickstarter to finance it, just as "Star Trek: Continues" had done previously.  Like all of the others, this was a fun fan film, not made for profit.  However, they did raise $100,000 for their film, instead of the $10,000 they were shooting for. The film was a huge hit with fans. It was very professional and had real actors, including ones from the Star Trek series.  The acting and writing were outstanding and praised by many. It felt like a real Star Trek film, even though it didn't cost millions of dollars, like those do. Trailer

Star Trek animated GIF of Chekov and Sulu

Apparently, CBS/Paramount felt threatened by Axanar, so they sued them in 2015 for copyright violation.  In January, 2017, they settled the lawsuit. The Axanar filmmakers agreed to CBS/Paramount’s guidelines for their next film, and they will make two 15-minute films instead of the 90-minute film they had planned. Video

Star Trek fans

In 2016, they issued a list of guidelines for future fan films to use. These are very restrictive guidelines that will prevent any future Star Trek fan shows or films from being longer than 15 minutes.  Also, they're no longer able to use any real professional actors (former Star Trek actors or otherwise), or make their own Star Trek costumes or props, or spend more than $50,000. It's pretty limiting. Video

Star Trek: Discovery

It seems clear that CBS/Paramount was alarmed by the professional quality of Axanar; they felt threatened that fans would watch those shows instead of their own Star Trek franchise.  The last Star Trek movie, "Star Trek: Beyond," was released in 2016, and another film was announced early this year, with the same cast (and possibly directed by Quentin Tarantino).  The new series, "Star Trek: Discovery" debuted this past Fall on CBS All Access. CBS is really pinning their hopes on the success of "Star Trek: Discovery" and its other original shows, to get more subscribers for All Access, to compete with Netflix/Amazon/Hulu. Video

Star Trek movies cast

In this context, it makes sense why CBS/Paramount might object to these fan films or shows. However, in my opinion, it makes them look very bad to come down so hard on fans and to issue such ridiculous rules. They already have upset a lot of older Star Trek fans with the reboot movies, and with charging people to watch the recent series, so this lawsuit doesn't help CBS/Paramount's image.  It seems like their attitude is, "Star Trek fans will watch any Star Trek stuff we make, no matter how much they hate us." I'm not sure that's true. You really can't underestimate devoted fans; nor can you deliberately cause bad PR and expect people to forget about it.  Those who grew up watching the original Star Trek believe that it was about hope, love, peace and uniting with our fellow creatures for the greater good, not about making money or lawsuits.  Unfortunately, CBS/Paramount is a corporation, and they operate in the world of making profits and answering to shareholders. A recent Newsweek article argued that copyright laws should be loosened and that Star Trek should lead the way, bringing us inevitably into that Utopia imagined by the Star Trek creators. Video

Meanwhile, James Cawley stopped making episodes of "Star Trek: New Voyages" (because of the new guidelines); you can take a tour of his Star Trek sets in Ticonderoga, New York.  "Star Trek: Continues" finished their 5-year mission (still violating the new guidelines) and quit. "Star Trek: Renegades" took the name "Star Trek" and all of the "Star Trek"-related logos off their production.  Fans are still making new fan films and TV shows. Some follow the restrictions, and some don't.  Whether there will be more lawsuits from CBS/Paramount is anyone's guess. Links

Perhaps to win back some good PR, CBS/Paramount announced last summer that they will partner with Cawley to make a Star Trek Fan Film Academy. In September, FOX created a new show called "The Orville" that seems to be a very good Star Trek spoof that just barely gets past the copyright laws.  Many fans prefer this show to the other recent official Star Trek efforts. Video

Star Trek original cast