How do you Solve a Problem Like Big Data?

This post is not about how to analyze big data – it is about impact and implications for laws, business and our society.  How do we ensure that our increasing reliance on data, algorithms and AI does not come at a cost?

Below, I include some great articles on the topic.  Please read on, and would love to hear your thoughts via the comments section below.

Bloomberg: Battling the Tyranny of Big Data

Mark Buchanan explores recent research and efforts, such as the Open Algorithms Projects; he says we must control how data are used, second, open up by making it more widely available, then re-balance power between companies and individuals.

Mashable: We put too much Trust in Algorithms, and it’s Hurting our Most Vulnerable

Algorithms have gone wild in Ariel Bogle’s piece; they incorrectly label welfare recipients as cheats, and blacks, recidivist risks, give rise to “mathwashing.”

Huffington Post: We need to know the Algorithms the Government uses to make important Decisions about Us

Writer Nick Diakopoulos, Fellow at Columbia Tow Center; Assistant Professor of Journalism, University of Maryland, cites similar issues, and shares a case study in transparency in which he “guided students in submitting FOIA requests to each of the 50 states. We asked for documents, mathematical descriptions, data, validation assessments, contracts and source code related to algorithms used in criminal justice, such as for parole and probation, bail or sentencing decisions.”

PHYS ORG: Opinion – Should Algorithms be Regulated?

Offers a point vs. counterpoint; Markus Ehrenmann of Swisscom says “Yes.” Mouloud Dey of SAS says “No.”

Seth Godin’s blog: The Candy Diet

The marketing guru says that algorithms are dumbing down media.

The Drum: In the Post Truth Era, the Quest to Surface Credible Content has only Just Begun

Lisa Lacy reports that Google amended its algorithm to combat holocaust deniers; but if manual intervention is needed for high profile fails, but what about other important issues that don’t get as much attention?

Foundation for Economic Education: What Happens when your Boss is an Algorithm?

Cathy Reisenwitz offers a nice primer, and argues for making algorithms open source.

The New York Times: Data Could be the Next Tech Hot Button for Regulators

Steve Lohr voices concerns about the growing market power of big tech, and explains potential antitrust issues arising from their collection of data. He writes: “The European Commission and the British House of Lords both issued reports last year on digital “platform” companies that highlighted the essential role that data collection, analysis and distribution play in creating and shaping markets. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development held a meeting in November to explore the subject, “Big Data: Bringing Competition Policy to the Digital Era.”



Share article on

In Defense of “Fake News”

More people are wondering about the weird crap that mysteriously appears in their news

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

Is News Today too Much Like the Magic 8 Ball?

feeds. How much is fake news? Did disinformation tilt an election? What are Google and Facebook going to do to clean up the mess?

You could almost hear the entire PR industry shifting uncomfortably amidst the backlash. I mean, crafting news (that some might call fake, or at least a stretch) is our stock in trade. We package propaganda as newsworthy information and sell it to the media; and, increasingly publish directly to the Web and social networks.

I understand that the fuss is more about blatant lies, not the average press release. But it highlights the challenges of determining what is newsworthy and true; a role that is increasingly being taken on by algorithms.

The Web and social media gave us all ways to easily share and spread information. This can include rumor, conjecture, commercial information, news, and yes, slander and outright lies.

I would never defend the last two; but will fight for our right to issue press releases, and traffic in other kinds of info. Any good system needs to be able to deal with all of this, i.e. anticipate some BS and surface the most credible and significant information, whether via the wisdom of the crowds, programs or a combination.

It is naïve to think that a publication, editors, or algorithms (which of course are written by humans) can present news without bias. The journalistic piece you just wrote might be pristine, free of opinion; but the very act of deciding which stories to feature shows partiality.

That said, the social networking platforms where more of us are getting news can do a much better job of separating the wheat from the chaff. I thought I’d share some of the great stories I’ve seen about the controversy and takeaways from each.

TechCrunch – How Facebook can Escape the Echo Chamber

Anna Escher says “Facebook is hiding behind its [position that] ‘we’re a tech company, not a media company’ … For such an influential platform that preaches social responsibility and prioritizes user experience, it’s irresponsible …”

She recommends that they bring journalists into the process, remove the influence of engagement on news selection during elections, and expand Trending Topics to show a greater diversity of political stories – not just the ones that are the most popular.

Tim O’Reilly – Media in the Age of Algorithms

Tim’s exhaustive Medium piece looks at all sides. He rails against “operating from an out-of-date map of the world [in which] algorithms are overseen by humans who intervene in specific cases to compensate for their mistakes,“ and says:

“Google has long demonstrated that you can help guide people to better results without preventing anyone’s free speech… They do this without actually making judgments about the actual content of the page. The ‘truth signal’ is in the metadata, not the data.”

Tim makes an analogy between news algorithms and airplanes “Designing an effective algorithm for search or the newsfeed has more in common with designing an airplane so it flies… than with deciding where that airplane flies.”

He cited an example from the history of aircraft design. While it’s impossible to build a plane that doesn’t suffer from cracks and fatigue… “the right approach … kept them from propagating so far that they led to catastrophic failure. That is also Facebook’s challenge.”

Nieman Lab – It’s Time to Reimagine the Role of a Public Editor

Mike Ananny writes about the public editor’s role, and the challenges they face in the increasingly tech-driven environment. He writes:

“Today, it is harder to say where newsrooms stop and audiences begin. Public editors still need to look after the public interest, hold powerful forces accountable, and explain to audiences how and why journalism works as it does — but to do so they need to speak and shape a new language of news platform ethics.”

He asks “Will the public editor have access to Facebook’s software engineers and News Feed algorithms, as she does to Times journalists and editorial decisions?” and says:

“… public editors must speak a new language of platform ethics that is part professional journalism, part technology design, all public values. This means a public editor who can hold accountable a new mix of online journalists, social media companies, algorithm engineers, and fragmented audiences — who can explain to readers what this mix is and why it matters.”



Share article on

Latest PR Gambit: Publishing on Platforms

Back in the day (“the day” being about 10 years ago), we had a simple message for PR shoe-737084_1920clients who wanted to get in on the social media and blogging action.

It was: “Go forth and blog too. Master the channels that are accessible to all.” Those who took the time to produce quality content, nurture social communities and post consistently saw their online influence grow.

Now, the open web is being challenged by the growth of social networking platforms. They’re places we go to connect, and get entertained and informed. Their news clout is growing, as the networks are increasingly publishers and aggregators of content. The social networks reach vast audiences with precise targeting – compelling attributes for marketers.

In short, if you are in the news business or want to promote your own, you are missing out if you are not on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

But there are a number of challenges along the way. It takes PR out of our media-centric comfort zones. It’s not obvious how to use social networking channels to accomplish your goals, which generally include coverage KPIs.

Sure, many in PR have jumped on the social media and content marketing bandwagons. We can handle Tweeting and blogging quite well. But getting your news seen and covered or appreciated by the right audiences, especially if your profile does not already have umpteen million friends/followers, is another matter.

Success generally requires a combination of paid and organic promotion as well as an understanding of the algorithms, those wonky programs that determine what appears in our news feeds. But they are black boxes and constantly changing. Plus, ad options may be unfamiliar, and they’re also moving targets.

How does one figure this all out? Listen, read, and more important, experiment. Dip your toes in. Test, validate, then repeat.

Reading this blog is a good start, as it offers commentary, articles about best practices and links to the right resources. The networks can be opaque, when it comes to specifics about their algorithms – but they do inform about changes and make recommendations.

In short, there are no pat answers, although one could invoke advice similar to the words at the beginning of the article: go forth and publish on Facebook (for example). Learn about the secrets of shareable content and how to get into the news feed.

I’ll close with an example from the world of politics, which seems fitting since the election has been front and center. It’s an article that ran awhile back in the NY Times Sunday magazine.

What do you think? Could a similar approach work beyond the field of politics? What ideas does this give you for PR? See the link and excerpts below, and please share your comments.

Inside Facebook’s… Political Media Machine
[Facebook’s] algorithms have their pick of text, photos and video produced and posted by established media organizations… But there’s also a new and distinctive sort of operation that has become hard to miss: political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook, uniquely positioned and cleverly engineered to reach audiences exclusively in the context of the news feed…

These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook… cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media…

But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web…
Truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news…. The point is to get [users] to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.



Share article on

DigiDig Studies the Impact of AI and Algorithms on Society

banner-1571986_1920Full story is on Flack’s Revenge

I’ve had many great conversations with my friend and PR authority Toni Muzi Falcone about the impact of technology on the field and society at large. Recently he told me about a new effort that he helped conceive – DigiDig – a website and citizen-led group dedicated to studying this area.

They started in Italy (the website for now is almost entirely in Italian) and have an international focus. I asked Toni to tell me more, and he shared the following:

“DigiDig questions the algorithmic society. It is a start-up community, launched on October 9, 2016, of some 150 Italian digitally active and prominent citizens wishing to better understand, discuss and raise awareness of peers on issues related to ‘user power’ vis-à-vis XXI century global robber barons.

The intention is to connect with the many similar or analog groups that populate the global digital space. Our immediate focus includes Brussels and New York, but we also wish to dialog with New Zealand, Kazakhstan and Namibia.

Its promoters are academics, intellectuals, journalists, managers, lobbyists, elected officials, communicators, writers, sociologists, and polemicists.

Following two open house sessions in Rome and Milano last June, a coordinating committee of six was formed and a web space just opened a few days ago containing a shared ‘manifesto’ plus opinions and comments in Italian and English.

The manifesto, titled: ‘the algorithm as a technology of freedom?’, defines its main issue as

(…..) the active and critical observation of the true nature of the global process reorganizing social and economic life, focused on the development and exchange of cognitive products of artificial intelligence.

As algorithms simplify digital procedures as well as the automation of humanity’s most delicate and discretionary activities, we cannot accept that such process proceeds in disrespect of the elementary rules of transparency, information and access to participation to its decision-making processes and operational standards.

If it is true that –as often affirmed by creators, shareholders and executives of those global groups – we are in fact confronted with a new ‘public sphere and/or space’ (and we very much believe it is so) – we also insist that the mechanisms creating new alphabets, social structures and determining influences over individual choices, need to be understandable, shared, socially negotiable and integrated.(…).

No membership fees, but requests for contributions via PayPal at info@digidig.it



Share article on

Breaking into Facebook’s News Feed: 3 Stories, 9 Tips

Facebook has made quite a few changes to its algorithm and news feed in recent months, as has been news-1592592_1280chronicled on this blog.  Digiday said that some publishers are responding by focusing more efforts on SEO.

But where does this leave brands and marketers who want to target Facebook users with news and content?

You need to change with times. These days, your content should be informative, relevant and entertaining – it helps if the topics resonate with your friends and family.

There were quite a few good posts that recommended strategies in light of the updates.  Here were three that stood out, and three tips for each.

In A Publisher’s Guide to Facebook’s News Feed Updates, the Newswhip blog shared these tips:

  1. Focus on organic reach and stories shared by actual users vs. brand pages
  2. Use engagement metrics to inform strategy and content creation
  3. Stay attuned to what interests your readers and work hard to serve a niche audience

The same blog follow up with more good advice: How to Adapt to Facebook’s “Personally Informative” News Feed. It offered a helpful pointer to how Facebook defines Personally Informative. This means staying in tune with audience interests. Newswhip recommends:

  1. Creating an RSS aggregator featuring the news sources favored by your desired audience
  2. Building your personal brand – the changes favor peer-to-peer sharing
  3. Being genuine, avoiding clickbait and deception

To the last point, Facebook’s more recent changes target and penalize click bait.  The Hootsuite blog featured a story on How to Get Clicks without resorting to Clickbait.  It recommends:

  1. Be accurate, the headline shouldn’t promise more than the content delivers
  2. Create an emotional connection
  3. Take the time and care to craft an effective headline

 



Share article on

Steal this News Feed (How to get Into Facebook Trending)

I don’t typically write about reverse engineering news feeds. This blog is about hacking the feed in a hacker-1500899_1280figurative sense; i.e. boosting the odds that your news gets featured in the social networks that dominate our attention these days. It’s less about black hat, more smart marketing and communications.

But I thought I’d share a story about the actual hacking of algorithms. In Quartz, David Gershgorn wrote that Stealing an AI Algorithm and its data is a “high school-level exercise.”  He wrote:

Researchers have shown that given access to only an API, a way to remotely use software without having it on your computer, it’s possible to reverse-engineer machine learning algorithms with up to 99% accuracy. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft allow developers to either upload their algorithms to their cloud or use the cloud company’s proprietary AI algorithms, both of which are accessed through APIs.

The article explained how you can crack the algorithm’s logic by sending queries, and evaluating the answers:

Think about making a call to a machine learning API as texting a friend for fashion advice. Now imagine you were to send your friend thousands of messages…  After driving your friend insane, you would get a pretty clear idea of their fashion sense, and how they would pick clothes given your wardrobe. That’s the basis of the attack.

However, anyone who wants to hack Facebook’s news feed would not benefit from this approach, which relies on the availability of an API that’s accessible to developers in the cloud.

So, what about figurative hacking? As this recent NiemanLab piece relates (it also references Gershgorn) Almost No one Knows How Facebook Trending Algorithm Works (But Here’s an Idea). Joseph Lichterman wrote:

Trending now… features broad topics surfaced by the algorithm. According to Facebook’s guidelines, the engineers overseeing Trending are “responsible for accepting all algorithmically detected topics that reflect real-world events.”

Based on some sniffing around, he determined that these thing can help you get into Facebook Trending:

  • Make sure your content includes keywords or hash tags that are trending
  • Don’t spam (Facebook detracts for frequent posting)

What do you think? I’ll be sharing many more tips about how to optimize your news for the Facebook news feed in an upcoming post.



Share article on

Platforms as Publishers: 6 Key Takeaways for Brands

I checked out a NY Daily News Innovation Labs event last week: Platforms As Publishers: where are We news-644847_1920Now? A panel of experts spoke about their work with the social media platforms, and implications for the news business.

Claire Wardle of Tow Center moderated the session, which included Samantha Barry, of CNN; Allison Lucas, from Buzzfeed; Vox Media’s Choire Sicha; and Carla Zanoni of Wall Street Journal.

The timing was interesting, given all the excitement about Facebook Trending News.  Also, there was a reference to BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon video that recently went viral (yes, they did use safety goggles).

You will only learn so much at an event like this.  News is a competitive business, and they likely keep most of their cards close. Still, I found it to be interesting, a friendly and apparently open dialog.

Some say that the platforms are the present and future of the news, content and marketing arenas.  Publishers need to go where audiences are, and marketers should be right there too. It was great for this PR guy to have a front row seat on the conversation, and learn more about how some of the top names regard and work with the social media platforms.

The Tow Center ran a nice recap, as did NY Daily News.

So can brand publishers get in on the action too?  What if you want your news to run on social media?

Below I include key takeaways for brands.

  • Don’t just focus on traffic; use social media to build relationships and create a news and content habit that makes the brand relevant.
  • Listen to the audience, use social media to learn new storytelling ways
  • Size does matter, platforms make deals with the largest publishers; who in turn hire small armies of editors, and content, social, engagement and revenue experts. Unless you are a major brand with similar clout and budgets, you need to find other ways.
  • The only constant is change – if you are doing the same thing you were six months ago, you’re probably losing, in the words of CNN’s Samantha Barry.  Experiment and innovate, or be left behind.
  • Have “cool kids” AKA early adapters blaze a trail with new projects and then bring others along
  • Vary strategies and metrics based on goals, features and audiences of each platform

See below for curated tweets on Storify.

 

 

 



Share article on

Hack the Art at Creative Tech Week

This topic was cross-posted on FlacksRevenge.com

My local tech networking and meetup wanderings took me to a cool destination last night – the opening party of Creative Tech Week, at the Clemente Center on the Lower East Side.

I had been invited to CTW and did not quite know what to expect. What is all this about a mashing up creativity and tech? Do we really need another dot dot dot Week? According to the website:

From VR, 3D printing and hackathons to fashion tech, data visualization, digital art, interactive installations and STEAM, Creative Technology is front and center in innovation success stories across the corporate and non-profit landscape. Creative Tech Week… is a crowd sourced festival created to showcase the cutting-edge research, art, media, and community initiatives being generated in the field of creative technology.

The evening’s speakers broke it down further. Founder and President Isabel Davis spoke about the festival, and how it all came together over the past year. CTW It is an extremely ambitious undertaking, spanning ten days, two boroughs, and hundreds of lectures, satellite events, demos and art installations. There is an expo, and three hubs: Community, Arts, and Industry (all explained in the About page). The Expo and Community hubs are in Brooklyn; Arts and Industry, in Manhattan.

See this link for more about the impressive team behind CTW. After Isabel spoke, we heard from Asher Remy-Toledo and Mark Bolotin, directors of the Art Hub. They explained their roles, and ties to Hyphen Hub: a center (Hub) that encourages connections (Hyphen) between art and tech. CTW Co-founder Dawn Barber (also co-founder of NY Tech Meetup) said a few words, before Paolo Antonelli of MoMA took the stage and delivered a great keynote.

In between the talks I had the chance to check out the exhibits at Clemente Center Arts Hub. I was curious about how Arduino, big data visualization, and 3D printing can help create to art. My eyes got wider as I checked out Arduino-driven hammers that smash plexiglass; computer-driven musical instruments, sculptures, videos and images.

If it all sounds a little gimmicky, the results were anything but; they were IMG_2749stunning and brilliant, as you can tell from the images. One of the most eye-grabbing (some might say shocking) was a wall of what looked to be ghostly white PVC plastic phalli that go up or down based on the price swings of associated stocks (it looked to be a heavy trading day).

It is not just about eye candy or art; there are many weighty topics and impressive speakers throughout the festival (which started 4/29 and will end this Saturday), addressing subjects that aim to connect art, design, community, tech and industry.

Here is the schedule. I will try to get to a bunch of the sessions over the remaining days, and encourage you to check it out; there is just so much good stuff here.



Share article on

How to Pitch an Algorithm

android-161184_1280 calculator-695084_1280The Wall Street Journal had an interesting op-ed this week. The Algorithm is the EditorJeffrey Herbstandroid-161184_1280 android-161184_1280wrote: “Social media companies quickly are becoming the dominant news providers… Four in 10 adults in America now get news from Facebook and one in 10 from Twitter.”

Similarly, WGBH News posted an article: How Facebook Became our Biggest News Publisher – and Why we Should be Worried.

The articles warn about the implications of tech companies becoming news organizations, vs. the distribution channels they claim to be; their newsfeeds increasingly determine what we see.

If the algorithm is now the editor, how long will it be before PR people become code-driven bots (cue up sarcastic comments about PR)?

I have not tried to pitch an algorithm recently (well, ever); and it might not be obvious for many of us in the field how to deal with these new realities.  Does our job as PR pros end after we get our clients in an article?  What if the story does not make the feed?

The New York Times argues that media need to become more data-driven to survive:

“Hooking people on your… news  is [hard]… But news organizations have ways they never had before to figure it out… Through real-time analytics, reporters and editors know how many people are reading their work and through which devices and sites, how long those readers are sticking with it, and what they’re ignoring.”

In other words, online media are now getting ratings… and publishers can learn from them. So, what gets attention and survives the social filter?  The article continues:

“Videos, podcasts, short items of interest that can be read easily on smartphones, and almost anything with ‘Trump’ rate well. Perhaps counterintuitively, deeply reported features and investigative pieces…  draw readership levels that were never possible in the print-only era.”

The last part validates my post Wonky Articles Trump other Forms of Content.

Despite the title of this post, I do not suggest that you go out and pitch an algorithm.  I do recommend becoming more data driven.  Get smart about the new ways in which content and news get shared and consumed.  Apply this insight to make sure that your coverage makes the cut.

 



Share article on

What Does it mean to Hack a Feed, and why Should PR Care?

So what does it really mean, to “hack the feed”? Here are some of the key ideas, from articles that I wrote wireless-155910_1280for Flack’s Revenge, MarketingProfs and Entrepreneur.

This is an excerpt from the first:

“If you are interviewing PR agencies, a good question to ask is: ‘what business are you in?’ If they say: ‘Getting you media coverage, building visibility,’ politely show them the door.

The reason is that any agency worth its salt knows that press coverage will happen.  But in a sea of noise and info choices, it is the ability to break through and connect with audiences that makes the critical difference. In short, the correct answer is the ‘attention business’.  And getting attention – quality attention – is getting more challenging every day.”

The second story said:

“Sure, many still turn on the TV to stay on top of current events, pick up a newspaper or magazine, or type in the URL of their favorite news site. But, more often than not, they are getting news from aggregators, sharers, and curators—whether via algorithms (in the case of LinkedIn and Facebook), from their friends on Twitter, or via professional curators such as Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.

Where does that leave you if you are readying a launch or you have news to promote? To get the attention of your intended audience, you need to understand how and where they get information—and work hard to ensure that your news is right there.”

The third piece further explains:

“Much of the problem has to do with information overload. How do people cope? We scan. We prioritize. We note what’s trending. Google and the social networks track our content engagement, and adjust news feeds accordingly. People stir the content soup in myriad ways and, in doing so, affect their popularity.

The result is that the architecture of content and news distribution has changed. It’s no longer primarily top down. Sure, big media still has reach and influence, but the revolution is by and large user-driven, with a healthy dose of platform and algorithmic selection thrown in.”

The challenges are clear – info overload, media fragmentation, changing information flows and consumption trends – what is the solution? The above stories provide some answers.  I urge you to click the links and read them.

But if it were so easy, we wouldn’t need a whole blog like this to break it down – right?!!

The Hack the Feed ethos is not about hacking in the black hat sense. It embraces technology solutions – but is driven by an understanding that you must start with information consumer – and communicate on their terms.  It is about earning a place in increasingly inundated attention spans, breaking through with content that is read, makes an impression and inspires action.



Share article on