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.

Steubenville Rape and Social Media: All the Internet’s a Stage

Shakespeare begins Act II, Scene VII of As You Like It with the immortal words, All the world’s a stage.” In this play, he catalogs the seven stages of a man’s life. Among them is the competitive phase of life which Shakespeare calls “the soldier.” At this age, people seek to gain recognition, even though it may be short lived and at the cost of their own lives. As Shakespeare puts it, they are:

Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

These nine words sum up the millions spawned by the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial of two high school football players. They were found guilty of raping a teenage girl who was reportedly so drunk that she could not consent to sex, although the defense disputed her state of consciousness at the trial.

This is not the first time things got out of control at a party that mixed minors with alcohol. So what made this case so notorious? In my opinion, the case made national headlines because:

  • Teens at the party posted videos and pictures of the event on social media sites [1]
  • Those who witnessed the rape made hundreds of tweets about it, yet did nothing to stop it or report it to authorities [1]
  • Prosecutors used this trail of online evidence to convict the teens [2]
  • An online video showed males joking about the victim callously and remorselessly, exemplifying what some call a “culture of rape” and others call “cultural rot” [3]
  • Two girls reportedly threatened on Twitter to kill the victim and may now be prosecuted separately for their threats [4]
  • These teens claimed that they did not think they were committing crimes
  • Social media, rivals of mainstream media, were at the heart of the affair

It was a Shakespearean tragedy in every sense of the phrase and a perfect media firestorm. The case involved a small town, teenagers, football, rape, alcohol, the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, ruined lives, rival mediums, outrage and more. Even hackers got in on the action when Anonymous posted the video. See Anonymous Leaks Horrifying Video of Steubenville High Schoolers Joking About Raping a Teenager ‘Deader than Trayvon Martin’. (Warning: This is about ten minutes long and emotionally difficult to watch.)

The video above, even though it focuses primarily on one male, clearly shows that several were competing with each other to describe the events of that night in the most degrading terms possible. That the video was later posted online and used as evidence in a felony trial makes Shakespeare’s words seem prophetic.

“Seeking the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth.”

As I’ve been writing these 522 words, the number of search results reported by Google on “Steubenville rape” increased by more than one million (from 219,000,000 to 220,000,000). The Internet truly has become the stage where tragedies like this play out.

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[1] http://prinniefied.com/wp/steubenville-high-school-gang-rape-case-firs/

[2] Twitter, YouTube Make Steubenville Case Even More Complicated

[3] Patricia Leavy, PhD: Boys Seeking Celebrity Prom Dates, Steubenville, and How the Media Still Don’t Get it

[4] Two charged with threats in Steubenville rape case – CBS News, Girls Threaten Steubenville Rape Accuser On Facebook, Twitter; 2 Face Charges In Ohio

How Search Engines Can Help Perpetuate Misinformation

Before we get into this, I want acknowledge that search engines put a world of relevant information at our fingertips and that they help people find answers faster than ever before. They’re great. I love ’em. I use ’em. But I also see a dark side to them.

Ask anyone a question. If they don’t know the answer, in all likelihood, they will Google for it from a smartphone. Voila! answers! Are they accurate? Are they true? These are much bigger questions.

searchforanswersA frequently quoted book, Prioritizing Web Usability (2006) by Jakob Nielsen, claims 93 percent of Web searchers never go past the first page of results. Yet Google and other search engines often return millions of pages.

At one time, an army of professional authors, editors, reviewers, librarians and fact checkers helped verify and screen information before dishing it up to readers. Today, that verification process applies to only a tiny fraction of all the information put online. Anyone can self-publish anything. “No experience necessary” often equates to “no truth or accuracy required.”

Limitations of Search Engines and Human Brains

Search engines simply report all references to a phrase on the Internet; they make no attempt to determine the truth or accuracy of claims. Yet most people assume the truth of something published. Why?

A 2012 report called Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science by Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich Ecker, Colleen Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook of the Universities of Western Australia, Michigan and Queensland[1] concludes that, “Cognitively, it is much easier for people to accept a given piece of information than to evaluate its truthfulness.” (Comment: this is especially true when search engine results stretch to thousands or millions of pages.)

The Stickiness of Misinformation

This fascinating report surveys academic literature relating to why we believe certain things we read or hear – even though they may be false. It begins with a discussion of several public policy issues, such as health care reform, vaccinations, and justifications for wars. It also discusses why misinformation is “sticky,” i.e., how hard it is to correct misinformation once it becomes rooted.

According to the report, disinformation in the U.S. healthcare debate peaked in 2009 when Sarah Palin used the phrase “death panels” on her Facebook page. “Within five weeks,” the report continues, “86% of Americans had heard the claim and half either believed it or were unsure about its veracity.”

Mainstream news media and fact-checkers reported that Palin’s characterization of provisions in the proposed law was false. But even today, four years later, a Google search for the term yields 35,800,000 results (in 0.16 seconds)! A scan of the first 20 pages of posts in the Google search revealed:

  • A few were dedicated to exposing “the myth” of death panels, including (to be fair), the very first post in Wikipedia.
  • Most posts conflicted with each other, i.e., a large number claimed the law would create “death panels” and a large number claimed it would not.
  • A large percentage was posted within the last few months, indicating that many people are trying to resurrect the term or keep the debate going, and that the authors of the paper are correct – misinformation is sticky.

Existing Beliefs Influence Belief in New Information

Determining the validity of information requires hard work and an open mind. The problem, say the authors of the Misinformation report, is that most people don’t seek information that contradicts their view of the world. Said another way, they tend to like information that supports their view.

Even when directly confronted with retractions and conflicting facts, many people cling to their original beliefs by saying something like, “Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions.” In fact, say the authors, conflicting information often serves to strengthen belief in  erroneous information.

How The Search for Truth is Getting More Difficult

Think of the Internet as a giant information archive. When topics such as healthcare become politicized, social networks, blogs and circular references turn the Internet into an echo chamber. Millions of references can accumulate in days as people report on reports of other reports, filtering information and putting their own spin on things along the way.

While search engines dutifully record the location of information, they can’t help us determine the truth of it. The sheer volume of conflicting information that they present makes the search for truth like looking for diamonds in a garbage dump.


[1] Click here to learn more about the Authors of Misinformation Report.

Using Social Media to Detect Poor Quality Health Care

In an era when a growing number of patients are using social media to describe their patient experiences, some health care professionals are suggesting that mining the “cloud of patient experience” could be an interesting way to help professionals improve that experience.

The idea is proposed in a “viewpoint” article entitled “Harnessing the cloud of patient experience: using social media to detect poor quality healthcare” published online by BMJ Quality and Safety in January 2013. The authors, F. Greaves, D Ramirez-Cano, C Millett, A Darzi and L Donaldson, of the Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, say that:

“We believe the increasing availability of patients’ accounts of their care on blogs, social networks, Twitter and hospital review sites presents an intriguing opportunity to advance the patient-centred care agenda and provide novel  quality of care data.”

DataCenterHand

They outline how collecting and aggregating patients’ descriptions of their experiences on the internet could be used to detect both poor and high quality clinical care. The process involves “natural language processing and sentiment analysis to transform unstructured descriptions of patient experience on the internet into usable measures of healthcare performance.” The authors conclude by discussing whether these new techniques could detect poor performance before conventional measures of healthcare quality could.

My Take

Many industries use data mining to gather business intelligence and detect trends in markets. The financial industry uses it to develop credit scores. Actuaries use it to assess risk for insurance companies. Other applications include quality assurance, cross-selling, fraud detection, stock market prediction, direct marketing and customer retention, to name just a few.

In all of these examples, people use computers to turn large amounts of unstructured data into usable knowledge that can help predict outcomes and improve performance.

If you’ve had a hospital stay recently, you probably received a questionnaire asking you to rate your experience. The purpose of these questionnaires is to gather feedback that leads to improved performance. A local hospital administrator told me recently that these ratings affect hospitals’ compensation by several percent – a powerful motive to improve.

But people are often reluctant to offer negative feedback – especially to people that their health depends on. They don’t want to be “problem patients” that providers shun; they have a natural tendency to want to say positive things TO the people they deal with. However, under the veil of anonymity that the Internet provides, they frequently show no restraint in saying negative things ABOUT their experiences with people, companies and institutions. I call this the Venting Effect. When you have a negative experience, just getting all those boiling feelings out of your head helps manage the pain.

Professionals can improve healthcare by capturing and analyzing this information. The hospital administrator mentioned above told me a poignant story about how his staff reduced lung infections after surgery from nearly 50 percent to virtually zero within five years. They used “best practices” determined from mining CDC data. Broadening the scope to include data mined from social networks may yield equally beneficial results.

How a Mouse Click Can Affect Future Employability

My parents drummed into me the importance of “Buyer beware.” Today’s parents need to teach kids a variation on that phrase, “Browser beware.”

One of my younger employees once told me that he preferred digital media to mass media such as television because he didn’t have to suffer through commercials not targeted to him. However, the technology used to target digital ads can harm people who may not be aware of what’s going on (and he certainly didn’t fall into that group).

In 2011, The Journal of the American Association of Pediatrics published a study called Clinical Report—The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families. The report by Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, Kathleen Clarke-Pearson and the Council on Communications and Media cataloged both the negative and positive influences that social media can have. The report makes a powerful case for media literacy education.

The authors define social media as any Web site that allows social interaction
These include social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter; gaming sites and virtual worlds such as Second Life; video sites such as YouTube; and blogs.

JobInterviewThe authors point out that many social sites gather information on the person using a site and use that information to give advertisers the ability to target “behavioral” ads directly to an individual’s profile. They also discuss how this information can come back to haunt kids later in life:

“When Internet users visit various Web sites, they can leave behind evidence of which sites they have visited. This collective, ongoing record of one’s Web activity is called the “digital footprint.” One of the biggest threats to young people on social media sites is to their digital footprint and future reputations. Preadolescents and adolescents who lack an awareness of privacy issues often post inappropriate messages, pictures, and videos without understanding that “what goes online stays online.” As a result, future jobs and college acceptance may be put into jeopardy by inexperienced and rash clicks of the mouse.”

Browser beware!

Generational Preferences Affecting News Consumption

The decline of printed newspapers during the last decade has been well chronicled. An earlier post called The Future of Digital Media referred readers to a slide deck compiled by Business Intelligence. BI indicates that print-newspaper advertising revenue has declined more than 60 percent in the last decade as people got more and more of their news over the Internet and from mobile devices.

A 2012 survey by the Pew Foundation called Trends in News Consumption confirms this trend. It also indicates that television news may be vulnerable now, too. The reason: a growing tendency among young people to consume news online.

Pew found that “Perhaps the most dramatic change in the news environment has been the rise of social networking sites. The percentage of Americans saying they saw news or news headlines on a social networking site yesterday has doubled – from 9% to 19% – since 2010. Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form.”

As younger people move online, they leave television news with an increasingly older audience.

NastyFall

My take: In a personal essay elsewhere on this site, I discuss generational conflicts in media preferences. Changing demographics of the evening network news shows have changed their advertiser base. Long gone are the BMW commercials. Viagra, Cialis and other drug commercials aimed at seniors have replaced them.

Prescription drug advertising has become so prevalent, one wonders whether it is a reflection or a cause of the shows’ aging demographics. Personally speaking, I feel a little self-conscious when – with my family – Cialis commercials come on. It makes me wonder whether the younger people in the room are thinking, “Does he or doesn’t he?”  Hey, when they start advertising adult diapers on the evening news, I’m out of there. You’ll find me getting all my news online, too!

Ramifications of Internet Anonymity

One of the signature characteristics of the Internet is anonymity. The widespread use of screen names and the difficulty of verifying the identities behind them makes the Internet a playground for frauds, cheats, and predators.