Online Predators

ABC13 News ran a story this week about a child predator putting up an ad on Craigslist to lure teenage girls. A Harris County Precinct 4 constable posing as a 14-year old girl nabbed the man when he requested the constable to send him “naughty pics” and solicited sex. The constable tracked the man to his phone via an IP address distributed from his company’s WIFI network. Authorities say this is a disturbing trend that’s growing exponentially – targeting young girls online. So I did a little research.

InternetSafety101.org says that “Often, we have an image of sexual predators lurking around school playgrounds or hiding behind bushes scoping out their potential victims, but the reality is that today’s sexual predators search for victims while hiding behind a computer screen, taking advantage of the anonymity the Internet offers.”

NetSmartz.org says, “Although the Internet did not create child predators, it has significantly increased the opportunities predators have to meet victims while minimizing detection.”

InternetSafety101.org published these 2010 statistics from the Journal of Adolescent Health:

  • Only 18% of youth use chat rooms, however, the majority of Internet-initiated sex crimes against children are initiated in chat rooms.
  • In 82% of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim’s social networking site to gain information about the victim’s likes and dislikes.
  • 65% of online sex offenders used the victim’s social networking site to gain home and school information about the victim.
  • 26% of online sex offenders used the victim’s social networking site to gain information about the victim’s whereabouts at a specific time.

Microsoft advises that parents can help protect their kids by knowing the risks related to online communication and being involved in their kids’ Internet activities. The company points out that online predators:

  • Find kids through social networking, blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging, email, discussion boards, and other websites.
  • Seduce their targets through attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts.
  • Know the latest music and hobbies likely to interest kids.
  • Listen to and sympathize with kids’ problems.
  • Try to ease young people’s inhibitions by gradually introducing sexual content into their conversations or by showing them sexually explicit material.
  • Might also evaluate the kids they meet online for future face-to-face contact.

So how can your kids reduce the risk of being victimized? Precautions that kids can take, include:

  • Never downloading images from an unknown source.
  • Using email filters.
  • Telling an adult immediately if anything that happens online makes them feel uncomfortable or frightened.
  • Choosing a gender-neutral screen name that doesn’t contain sexually suggestive words or reveal personal information.
  • Never revealing personal information about themselves (including age and gender) or information about their family to anyone online and not filling out online personal profiles.
  • Stopping any email communication, instant messaging conversations, or chats if anyone starts to ask questions that are too personal or sexually suggestive.
  • Posting the family online agreement near the computer to remind them to protect their privacy on the Internet.

If your child is being targeted, the FBI advises:

  • Contact your local police. Save any documentation including email addresses, website addresses, and chat logs to share with the police.
  • Check your computer for pornographic files or any type of sexual communication—these are often warning signs.
  • Monitor your child’s access to all live electronic communications, such as chat rooms, instant messaging, and email.

For more information, see the FBI’s publication: A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety.

The Internet and Virtual Pajama Parties

I have a single friend in Seattle who is redefining “social media.” She is one of those cutting-edge Internet users who is always one of the first to discover new ways to use the medium. She told me last week about a novel practice (for me at least) that she and her cross-country coterie of girlfriends have: virtual pajama parties via the Internet.

Every week at an appointed time, they all log on to the Internet together to watch a video. Because they live in four different time zones, this requires some coordination.

shutterstock_133967273They all pop their popcorn beforehand. Then they cuddle up with their laptops on the couch. They log into a video chatroom and establish connectivity. They pull up a streaming movie in a second window. Then on cue, they all hit “play” simultaneously. Throughout the movie, they comment on the action. “He’s hot.” “Can you believe she said that?” “What a dirt-bag!” “Do you think they’ll …?” When the movie is over, they continue chatting for a while before logging off and going to bed.

Some of the people in this group have never met in real life. They found each other online at a blog for writers and became friends by virtue of their mutual interests.

When I was a kid, people talked a lot about how television was replacing the fireplace as the center of American family life. Now the Internet is replacing the television and the “family” can be scattered around the globe.

Facebook and Self-Esteem

Viewing your own profile on Facebook can boost self-esteem, but also decrease your desire to perform according to a new study published in the June, 2013, issue of the journal Media Psychology by a University of Wisconsin professor Catalina Toma.

The study is entitled “Feeling Better But Doing Worse: Effects of Facebook Self-Presentation on Implicit Self-Esteem and Cognitive Task Performance.”

Toma found that the self-edited profiles people post on Facebook present idealized versions of themselves that provide a significant boost to self-esteem after looking at them for just five minutes.

Toma measured how quickly participants associated positive or negative adjectives with words such as me, my, I and myself. “If you have high self-esteem, then you can very quickly associate words related to yourself with positive evaluations but have a difficult time associating words related to yourself with negative evaluations,” Toma said. “But if you have low self-esteem, the opposite is true.”

Additionally, Toma investigated whether exposure to one’s own Facebook profile affects behavior. “We wanted to know if there are any additional psychological effects that stem from viewing your own self-enhancing profile,” she said. “Does engaging with your own Facebook profile affect behavior?”

Self-Satisfaction Decreases Motivation to Perform Well

The behavior examined in the study was performance in a serial subtraction task, assessing how quickly and accurately participants could count down from a large number by intervals of seven. Toma found that the self-esteem boost that came from looking at their profiles ultimately diminished participants’ performance in the follow-up task by decreasing their motivation to perform well.

After people spent time on their own profile they attempted fewer answers during the allotted time than people in a control group, but their error rate was not any worse.

“Performing well in a task can boost feelings of self-worth,” Toma says. “However, if you already feel good about yourself because you looked at your Facebook profile, there is no psychological need to increase your self-worth by doing well in a laboratory task.”

Viewing Others’ Profiles May Deflate Self-Esteem

Toma cautions, however, that “This does not show that Facebook use negatively affects college students’ grades.”  Previous research has actually shown that looking at the Facebook profiles of others could have some ego-deflating effects. In a study presented last year at the meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, people with lots of Facebook friends experienced a drop in self-esteem after viewing their friends’ status updates.

My Take

This research is a valuable contribution to self-affirmation theory. This theory states that people are motivated to maintain a feeling of self-worth, especially when their self-image is threatened.

Many highly motivated people are often driven by performance anxiety, the feeling that someone might be gaining on them. A few calm moments of reassurance from time to time can be healthy. Gazing at one’s accomplishments can be a good reminder of how hard work paid off.

However, excessive basking in the fading glory of yellowing press clippings can also keep one from moving forward. The more we live in the past, the less time we have to focus on the future.

Weather Apps Can Be Lifesavers When Tornadoes Approach

This blog is dedicated to exploring the side effects of new communication technologies. Often those unintended side effects are negative. In the last 24 hours, as killer tornadoes swarmed across Oklahoma, several positive side effects of the new technologies became apparent.

Extra Warning Time

Perhaps the most striking examples are weather apps for smartphones. ABC News last night interviewed a survivor of the devastating tornado packing 200 mile per hour winds that devastated Moore, Oklahoma. The survivor talked about how a weather app on his iPhone warned him of the approaching storm 15 to 20 minutes before it struck his location, giving him time to get out of its path.

It appeared that he used my favorite weather app, one called RadarScope. This powerful app enables users to see storms coming at them in real time from more than 100 miles away. Many other apps can do that too. What makes this one so powerful is its stunning accuracy and range of measurement tools.

I’ve found that RadarScope’s accuracy can be measured in city blocks and minutes. In addition to reporting storms’ reflectivity, it also reports velocity, rainfall amounts, storm height, movement at different levels within storms, and much more. It’s a tool designed for professional meteorologists that amateurs can also appreciate.

As I write this 12 hours after the storm struck Moore, the death toll there has already reached 91 and is expected to climb even higher. One can only wonder how much worse the tragedy would have been were it not for weather apps that gave people time to evacuate or reach storm shelters.

Lost-and-Found Role for Social Media

Social media are also already playing a role in the recovery from this storm. As people find mementos, they are posting images of them online, turning the Internet into the world’s largest lost-and-found system.

How social media impact stock traders

The Washington Post published a fascinating article last week about the fake Associated Press twitter post by hackers. It provides insights into the incident that triggered a stock market landslide of 1000 points. The article by Dina ElBoghdady and Craig Timberg appeared in the April 24, 2013, issue. According to the Post, a hacker group called the Syrian Electronic Army allegedly hijacked high-profile twitter accounts owned by Western organizations that cover the civil war in Syria. In addition to the AP account, the accounts of NPR and CBS “60 Minutes” have also been hacked.

In the Associated Press case, the hackers posted a false story about explosions at the White House that injured the President. “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured,” read the tweet. The “news” came shortly after the Boston Marathon Bombing. As a result, there was heightened sensitivity; the hoax seemed plausible.

“The episode, while lasting only several minutes, has drawn scrutiny from the FBI and a bevy of regulators while also highlighting the hair-trigger nature of today’s markets, where the demand for greater speed clashes with the occasional reality of misinformation,” say ElBoghdady and Timberg. They continue:

“Automated high-speed trading accounts for about half of daily stock market volume, and while few traders admit to having their algorithms make decisions based on a single tweet, several said the use of social media is growing. This kind of computerized trading tends to exacerbate market fluctuation, especially during sudden drops in prices, critics say.”

However, the article also points out that some dispute whether the stock market plunge involved computerized trading. “It’s not clear whether Tuesday’s market drop was caused by fast-fingered humans or computers seeing the words “explosions” and “White House” in a tweet,” say the authors.

They interviewed people who claim that computerized trading was not the cause of the market drop because of a 23 second delay between the tweet and the plunge. “That’s not compatible with computer trading,” said one. “If it was computer algorithms that were trading, the market would have moved in a fraction of a second.”

Regardless of whether humans or computers acted on the misinformation, the incident underscores how vulnerable we all are to unknown assailants who may be half a world away, sitting in a coffee house somewhere, armed with nothing more than a latte and a laptop.

Do Electronic Communications Contribute to Political Gridlock?

Gallup released today a poll showing that 65% of Americans say the U.S. Senate should have passed the measure on April 17 that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases. The poll also showed that only 29% agree with the Senate’s failure to pass the measure. How do background checks for gun purchases get killed in the Senate when two thirds of Americans want them?

A close friend observed that widespread, instant awareness which electronic communications foster may contribute to Congressional gridlock. Her theory goes something like this.

Politicians used to posture to their supporters in public, then go into “smoke-filled back rooms” – where compromises were reached in private – and do what they thought was right. Today, the harsh and constant glare of media attention makes that more difficult. A reporter, blogger, or special interest group is always waiting somewhere with a camera, ready to remind the world that “during your campaign, you said…”

I buy her theory and would add to it by saying:

  • Media proliferation and competition has intensified the spotlight that makes compromise difficult.
  • Special interest groups have changed the media landscape. They now have the power to reach wide audiences through self-published web sites whose authorship may be disguised.
    • They intensify that spotlight even more because they are unfettered by the need for balance, they often blur the distinction between reportage and advocacy.
    • As advocates, they can and often do paint issues as black and white rather than recognize shades of gray.
    • When advocates have a horse in the race, they tend to see compromise as a loss rather than a partial win.
  • Instant awareness can instantly mobilize opposition forces against any compromise on the table.

Of course, cultural and philosophical factors also exist that contribute to Congress’ inability to reach compromise on important issues. Nevertheless, I am stunned that our political leaders can’t even agree on something that two out of three voters want.

The background check issue is just symptomatic of a bigger issue facing Congress – gridlock. Another Gallup poll shows that only 15% of Americans approve of the job congress is doing. This approval rating is less than half the average for the last four decades – 33 percent.

Global Awareness and Extremism

Does the global awareness, made possible by electronic media, foster extremism?

After the Marathon bombing, I got into a discussion about extremists with some friends. It was prompted by the killings of so many innocent people in Boston. And Newtown. And Aurora. And Virginia Tech. And 9/11. And Oklahoma City. And. And.

Like many people, in the days after such incidents, I asked myself, “What could possibly lead someone to do that?” I began to wonder if this was another case of “All the world’s a stage.” Certainly, the killings took place on a world stage. The timing, location and media coverage ensured that.

I wonder to what degree the publicity provided an incentive to the terrorists. Were they out to make a name for themselves within the Jihadist community? That’s certainly a possible motive for the crime.

The alleged perpetrators also reportedly used the Internet to learn how to make bombs. So in this case, the Internet may have also provided the method.

Another story involving the Internet also made headlines this week. Yesterday, a hacker  broke into the Associated Press twitter account. The hacker posted a false story claiming the White House had been bombed and that the President was injured. The hoax triggered a wave of computer-related stock selling on Wall Street. The Dow dropped more than 170 points in minutes. The stock market loss exceeded $200 billion. Even though the market itself rebounded when the hoax was discovered, it is not clear how individual investors fared. Depending on the timing of individual sell and buy executions, investors could have made large profits or been wiped out.

Yet another story about the Internet and terrorism broke today. A teenager from the Chicago suburb of Aurora was arraigned on terrorism charges. The FBI accused the American-born man of seeking to join an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization through a website which the FBI itself set up as a sting operation. The site urged readers to “join your lion brothers… fighting under the true banner of Islam”. Ethical questions aside, the incident illustrates how the Web can be used effectively to recruit would-be terrorists to extremist causes.

My Take

I believe that electronic media – especially the Internet – can foster extremism for several reasons:

  • Electronic media provide instantaneous global publicity, a powerful lure for people who consider themselves to be outcasts, downtrodden or powerless.
  • The global publicity of acts of terrorism multiples the fear inspired by the original acts, another powerful lure for would-be terrorists.
  • The Internet provides a high degree of anonymity. This removes much of the fear of getting caught.
  • The ease of Internet publishing provides a vehicle for extremist groups to recruit.
  • Non-existent editorial standards on the Internet allow the publication of manuals on how to make bombs, poisons, etc. that any child can find.
  • The Internet provides a way for people with extreme interests to find each other and form groups. Feeling that “I’m not alone” can remove social constraints that might otherwise inhibit people from taking violent action.
  • The Internet itself is a vehicle for committing many crimes. Without twitter, the stock market calamity would not have happened.

Electronic media amplify the voices of extremists on the fringes of society and give them an unequal “share of voice.” “Ordinary people doing ordinary things” does not constitute “news”; planting bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon does. It guarantees worldwide publicity for weeks. That’s a ticket to immortality for the lost and lonely, the alienated antis, and those who feel bitter or betrayed.

Digital media and crime suspect identification

For law enforcement authorities, “digital footprinting” may be the next big thing in suspect identification.

cellphoneimageofcrowd

The past week provided several new examples of the unintended consequences of new media – all related to the Boston Marathon Bombing case. While many of the side effects I discuss in this blog are negative, In this case, they were mostly positive.

Public supplies thousands of images

Shortly after the bombings near the finish line in this year’s Boston Marathon, law enforcement authorities put out the word through television that they were interested in receiving cell phone pictures and videos from onlookers. Their theory: that the perpetrators would be visible somewhere in the photos.

The public responded. At one point, according to ABC news, the deluge of images pouring into the FBI temporarily crashed their site. So great was the outpouring of support from the public that ABC dubbed the phenomenon “clicktivism.”

Within days, the FBI identified two suspects with the help of facial recognition software to track the thousands of faces in the crowd.

Suspect identification

They correlated the citizen-supplied videos and images with security camera footage from surrounding stores and found two young brothers carrying backpacks large enough to conceal pressure cookers packed with explosives. The color of the backpacks also reportedly matched the color of charred fabric found at the scenes. Through analysis of the images, authorities were also able to identify the brothers at the locations where the bombs exploded.

The authorities then circulated images of “Suspect 1” and “Suspect 2” through mass media. Within minutes, the images went viral and the FBI was able to put names with faces from the leads.

The FBI continued to investigate the suspects’ digital footprints … with the help of social media.

A cell phone reportedly played another key role in tracking down the suspects. As authorities closed in on the suspects, they allegedly carjacked someone to get away. The person who was carjacked reportedly told authorities that the the brothers had confessed responsibility for the bombings to him. The person who was carjacked also left his cell phone in the car when he got away. Using the GPS tracking technology built into the cell phone, authorities closed in on the suspects, shot one and captured the other alive.

Digital footprinting

The remaining suspect is still far from a trial. However, it’s likely in this case that digital footprinting may prove to have the evidentiary value of fingerprinting.

At the top of this post, I said the side effects of digital media were “mostly” positive. Evidently, the Internet also played a negative role. According to news reports, the suspects may have used to Internet to learn how to make the bombs.

Ironically, this one case shows the best and the worst of digital media.

Crisis Coverage of Boston Marathon Carnage

This is a followup to my previous post about crisis coverage and changing news preferences which I wrote a week before this year’s Boston Marathon. A terrorist planted two bombs near the finish line of Boston Marathon this year. To date, the bombs killed three people. Seventeen more are in critical condition. Hundreds more were injured.

Initial Reaction: Turn on the TV!

As a teenager, one of my dreams was to run the Boston Marathon. So the bombings saddened me greatly. After learning of them, I rushed home and turned on the television. My DVR captures both the local and national news each night. Within the first half hour of the watching the national television crisis coverage, I saw the same sickening scenes of carnage replayed at least twenty times. The local crisis coverage was a replay of the national, but twice as long.  As I watched the recordings, I found myself fast-forwarding through the repetitive horror shows. They felt like a nightmare from which I could not escape.

Second Reaction: Revulsion

In the four days following the event, there have been countless reruns of the original blasts, endless shots of the carnage, hundreds of interviews with first responders and spectators, and absolutely nothing new in terms of actual news.

Inevitably, the coverage makes me recall those terrible first few days after 9/11. The countless reruns of the event, the endless shots of the carnage, hundreds of interviews with first responders … and absolutely nothing new in terms of actual news. It all seems so familiar.

Third Reaction: Switch to Digital Coverage

This time, however, I’ve rationed my news consumption. I find myself watching far less crisis coverage on television. I rely instead on the AP Mobile News app on my iPhone. It pings me when there’s a new development in the case; I read the lead of the story; and then I return to my regularly scheduled life. No disrespect is intended for the victims of the bombing, the people of Boston or runners everywhere. I’m sure they all wish they could do the same.

Looking back at my previous post about televised crisis coverage, it feels strangely prophetic at this moment. The smaller screen that I now rely on has changed my emotional reaction to events. I am certainly no less shocked by what happened last Monday. However, I do NOT feel as though I’m being swept into the vortex of the horror show. And I do NOT feel as though a terrorist’s actions have seized control of my life. The medium that I now rely on has definitely changed my emotional reaction to the event.

Will news consumption preferences change media crisis coverage?

In 2004, Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles, published a poignant essay entitled Media Crisis Coverage: To Serve and to Scare. It was published in the Journal of Media Psychology.

Professor Fishoff examines what he calls the “dysfunctional partnership between the media and the public in our increasingly media-centric lives.”  He describes the intimate, adrenaline-fueled dance between viewers and producers of television crisis coverage and observes:

“The thin line between gut-wrenching, vital information and a news-sponsored horror show begins its fade to oblivion.”

In 2001, days after 9/11, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project titled How Americans Used the Internet After the Terror Attack found that 81% of all Americans said they got most of their information from TV; only 3% of Internet users got most of their information about the attacks from the Internet.”

In his essay Media Crisis Coverage, Fischoff observed:

“During a crisis, many viewers, particularly those with 24-hour cable news shows, seek out the constant drumbeat of news coverage to stay informed and reduce the stress that accompanies uncertainty.  But watching hours of crisis coverage footage can often have the opposite effect.  Visual images go directly to the most primitive parts of our psyche, pushing all the fear buttons.  Anxiety is elevated.  People watch in order to calm themselves.  The more they watch, the more they want to watch because the more anxious they feel.  And the cycle continues.”

To reduce the psychological trauma and anxiety of being drawn into news/horror shows, Fischoff made a number of recommendations. One had to do with the size of the screen that viewers used to watch crisis coverage.

“Shrink the size of the image,” said Fischoff.  “Here is another example of when size matters: According to Detenber (1996), size is important to emotional response. It is important to babies in perceiving others, and to adults when watching a movie in a theater. Image size positively affects the arousal and dominance dimensions of emotional responses. Size is a primitive heuristic (in animals, for example, who is prey and who is predator, or who is too powerful to safely take on) that influences a range of judgments. Films seen as large images on a screen elicit stronger feelings of arousal than the same films when viewed on small screens disbursing small images.”

After reading this essay, I began to wonder about two things:

  • Will the trend toward getting news from the Internet, especially via smartphones and tablets, reduce the traumatic stress that people feel when viewing crisis coverage? Their screens are much smaller than televisions’ (70″ LED screens seem to be the current norm for new TVs).
  • In times of real crises, such as 9/11, will people revert back to getting news from TV because of the “quality” of coverage it presents?

Fast forward ten years. By 2011, Pew found that “The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing.” The report also found that in December 2010, 41% of Americans cited the internet as the place where they got “most of their news about national and international issues,” up 17% from a year earlier.

Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project

 My Take

Current Internet news coverage fundamentally differs from television news coverage. It tends to be more text than video focused, although this is beginning to change with increases in bandwidth. The comparative lack of video and sound remove much of the visceral “you-are-there” impact of crisis coverage. And if digital coverage becomes too repetitive, i.e., with endless reruns of the Twin Towers falling, viewers can easily switch “channels” or topics. The Internet offers millions of URL’s to choose from.

I suspect that the shift to digital news consumption will have a psychologically mitigating effect on consumers. I also suspect, for television producers, the real horror show will be their bottom line.