The Internet and National Referendums

For nearly 40 years, the Gallup organization has been polling Americans about various political reforms. This morning, Gallup released another poll that showed 68% of Americans favor a national referendum on an issue if enough voters sign a petition to request a vote on it. Three Americans favored this proposal for every one who was against it. (See below.)

Many U.S. states allow voters to decide key issues directly rather than have elected representatives decide all issues. Sadly, the notion has yet to gain traction on a national level even though Internet technology would make national referendums both practical and easy.

I can envision a site called USreferendums.gov that would allow voters to sign petitions. Voter registration boards in each state could issue unique user IDs and passwords for the site to keep zealots from logging on multiple times under different names.

Any petition that got the support of, let’s say, 10% of each state’s registered voters, could be put on the next federal election ballot.

Referendums could reduce the influence of lobbyists.

In this way, we might pass legislation that represents the public’s interest rather than special interests. After several mass murders late last year, bills were introduced to ban assault rifles and high capacity ammo clips. Another proposal called for more thorough background checks on gun purchasers. Both had overwhelming public support. And both went down in flames. A national referendum on these issues would have had a much different outcome.

So here we are, Bubba. We let psychos buy assault rifles to kill children. But we don’t give citizens the right to vote on proposals that could save them. What’s wrong with this picture? Perhaps its time for a national referendum on national referendums.

To be clear, I’m not proposing that we cut legislators out of the loop. Someone still needs to formulate legislation.

The biggest issue I see: How do we determine which petitions get put on USreferendums.gov?

Regarding this last point, I modestly suggest that when public opinion polls differ from legislative outcomes by a wide margin, it’s time for a public referendum. This would keep everybody honest, make government more responsive, and still allow legislators to handle the vast majority of work.

The Internet can now provide the same kind of check-and-balance, watchdog function over government that the professional press does. There’s an opportunity here to make democracy more democratic. We should take it. In my opinion, we should begin a series of national referendums on important issues when Congress fails to represent wishes of the public.

The iPad and Physical Fitness

Any time a new communication technology is introduced, people rapidly discover new uses for it that may go far beyond the inventor’s intentions. I’m reading a Bill Bryson book called At Home. It contains an anecdote about the early days of the telephone. The telephone, according to Bryson, was originally intended to be a means of rapidly distributing weather, emergency and other time-sensitive information. The thought that people would use it to converse with family and friends seemed wild and implausible since you could talk to them in person.

Likewise, I remember back in the early days of personal computing in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, clients having heated debates about why someone would want a personal computer. Some people actually thought housewives would want them to store and organize recipes. Other people thought kids might find them useful for playing educational games. Their potential as a serious business tool was seriously underestimated.

Thirty years later, along comes this thing called the Apple iPad. It’s diminutive form factor made it look like a more portable laptop or an smartphone on steroids. I bought one and quickly became addicted to reading e-books. At first, I rationalized it based saving trees.

Three years after purchasing my first iPad, I now look at it in an entirely new way – as a physical fitness tool.  Last year, I had bypass surgery. If you’ve never had your chest cracked, all I can say is, “Avoid it at all costs.” But I digress. During my recuperation from the surgery, I bought an exercise bike because I had too many accidents on street and mountain bikes. I also reasoned that an exercise bike would remove weather as an excuse to avoid a workout. (Houston has two seasons: summer and August. The heat and humidity here can be daunting at times.)

I quickly found that boredom was my biggest exercise challenge. Riding for an hour a day gets old quickly, but that’s what it takes to get in shape and stay in shape.

iPad to the rescue. Now, when I get on the bike, I flip my iPad case over the console. During my hour-long ride, I can answer emails, catch up with friends on Linked-in, read e-books, or watch a video on Amazon Prime or Netflix. For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching a series of fascinating TED Talks on Netflix.

At the end of an hour, I’ve pedaled between 20 and 25 miles. Dull, repetitive drudgery has turned into fascinating intellectual exploration with some of the brightest minds in the world.

Some people may say, “You could always watch TV on your exercise bike.” That’s true, but it’s not quite the same thing. With the iPad, I can start the video at the start of the ride. I also get a lot more variety. If I don’t feel like TED, I watch a documentary, or catch up on my reading.

Now here’s the best part. I’ve had the bike almost exactly a year. During that time, I’ve pedaled almost 6000 miles! That’s across the country and back again! And I, Robert Rehak, have lost 80 pounds and eight inches from my waistline! I now weigh what I did when I graduated from college and was playing competitive sports. I tell people that I feel forty again. I met a college classmate not long ago and he told me I looked exactly the same as when we went to Northwestern together (except for the gray hair).

The transformation has been remarkable. I didn’t lose the 80 pounds because of exercise or nutrition apps on the iPad. I lost them because the iPad kept me interested in working out.

Curiously, I find another factor at work, too. I find that when I get lost in a good book or video while riding that it diverts my attention. I forget how tired I am and start pedaling faster. Yesterday, I averaged almost 25 MPH while watching a series of TED Talks on the application of mathematics to everyday life.

Hey, 80 pounds is all the math I need. Thank you, Steve Jobs, wherever you are. I doubt this is what he had in mind when he and the good people at Apple conceived the iPad. It’s simply a side effect. An unintended consequence. And I love it.

The Internet and Free Speech

The Internet brought self-publishing to the common man. That may have done more for free speech than the First Amendment. But all that unfettered freedom has a dark side, too. The freedom to lie. The freedom to libel. The freedom to make false allegations. The freedom to bully. The freedom to invade privacy. And the freedom to destroy competitors, ex-lovers, neighbors with yapping dogs, 14-year-old girls having bad-hair days, the cop who gave you a ticket for doing 90 in a school zone, and the overworked waitress who took too long to refill your iced tea.

Having fun yet? Oh, I forgot the freedom to do it all anonymously.

As a writer, I’ve always believed that Free Speech is the most important freedom Americans have. But I’ve also come to believe in recent years that the greatest threat to Free Speech is people who lie and libel with impunity online.

shutterstock_125458373Before the “irresponsibles” spoil it for all of us, we need to draw a line in the sand, Dude. That line is Truth with a capital T. Yes, I know Truth isn’t always black or white. But let’s leave the shades of gray out of this for the moment and consider only one of the extremes. Should anyone have the right to damage you with blatant, outright lies?

Any reasonable person would take a New York nanosecond to shout “NO!” But sadly the answer is “YES” – at least in the free-fire zone called the Internet.

Have you ever been caught in the cross-fire? Sorry, Bucky. You’re collateral damage to a higher cause – Free Speech.

If you want to read a real-life horror story filled with the sad sagas of dozens of victims, read a book called Violated Online: How Online Slander Can Destroy Your Life by Steven Wyer. It should be required reading for anyone with Internet access and a voter registration card. That includes judges and legislators.

Mr. Wyer’s sobering book contains numerous examples of how people’s lives have been ruined by a perfect storm of new, converging laws, technologies and trends, such as:

  • Anti-SLAPP statutes
  • Internet anonymity
  • Social networks that facilitate viral communications
  • Anonymous text bots that relentlessly record the location of every piece of information on the Internet whether it is true or false.
  • Online information archives, such as the Library of Congress, that dutifully store false allegations
  • Search engines that lead people directly to those lies for decades

Want to see how easy it is to damage someone? Just visit any complaint site like RipoffReport.com, AbusiveMen.com, PissedOff.com or DatingPsychos.com. Anyone can start a vicious rumor about someone he or she doesn’t like, such as the poor kid in class who wore mismatching socks, a competitor, or political opponent. The bigger the lie, the faster and farther it spreads. And once it’s gone viral, it’s impossible to stop.

Want to see how long you can keep the fun going? Read the story on Snopes.com about an email circulating since 2005. It lists compensation details of CEOs of major charities. Only one problem: the information is bogus. Who knows how much suffering this email caused by diverting badly needed contributions from those in need!

In Texas, at least one politician has already used the state’s new anti-SLAPP statute as a shield to attack private citizens. Texas courts have upheld the politician’s right to do so. And the Texas governor vetoed an ethics bill last month that contained a provision that would have made it more difficult for politicians to attack private citizens anonymously.

A growing body of research underscores how psychology as well as technology can fuel the persistence of misinformation and “belief echoes.” Most people tend to continue believing misinformation even after it has been proven untrue. Most often, attempts to expose lies actually strengthen belief in the misinformation.

The Internet is like an echo chamber. When social networks pick up the news and the Library of Congress archives all the Tweets about you, you suddenly become a Number One search result on Google, sentenced to a virtual pillory for life without due process.

Your phone stops ringing. Your friends shun you. Even your dog pees on your rug. It’s game over, Bubba. So what if they lied! They got to vent.

Want to clean up this mess? A good start would be to teach kids NEVER to trust people using pseudonyms online. Perhaps someday we could even make the use of online pseudonyms illegal. If people fear they might be held accountable for damaging lies, they might think twice before publishing them to the world.

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.

Reporting Suspicious Activities at iWatchTX.org

Report Suspicious Activity At iWatchTx.orgIn the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) is now encouraging residents to report suspicious behaviors that might indicate criminal or terrorist activity to the department’s iWATCH website at www.iwatchTX.org.

The DPS website collects citizen-sourced information to help thwart illegal endeavors, including terrorist actions.

“DPS works with federal, state and local law enforcement to combat crime and terrorism within Texas and beyond. With the help of the public, we can be even more successful,” said DPS Director Steven McCraw. “Residents can join our crime-fighting efforts – and possibly save lives – by remaining vigilant and promptly reporting any suspicious or criminal activities they might witness.”

Citizens can fill out reports on the website about a particular incident, usually in fewer than five minutes. Once submitted, each report is reviewed by law enforcement analysts.

Examples of the behaviors and activities that DPS is interested in include:

  • Strangers asking questions about building security features and procedures.
  • Briefcase, suitcase, backpack or package is left behind.
  • Cars or trucks are left in no-parking zones at important buildings.
  • Chemical smells or fumes that are unusual for the location.
  • People requesting sensitive information, such as blueprints, security plans or VIP travel schedules, without a need to know.
  • Purchasing supplies that could be used to make bombs or weapons, or purchasing uniforms without having the proper credentials.
  • Taking photographs or videos of security features, such as cameras or check points.

Preparations for Terrorist Attacks Often Seen but Seldom Reported

DPS urges residents who see something unusual to simply speak up. Preparations for terrorist attacks are often seen, but rarely reported. When in doubt, report the suspicious activity through iWATCH. For more information on the iWATCH program or to submit a report, visit www.iwatchTX.org.

The iwatchTX.org website is part of the DPS Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division (ICT), which serves as the central clearinghouse for the collection, management, analysis and dissemination of law enforcement and homeland security intelligence in Texas.

Assisting 1500 Law Enforcement Agencies

The intelligence gathered assists more than 1,500 local law enforcement agencies including the Counterterrorism Analysis Program; State Intelligence Assessment Program; Texas 10 Most Wanted Fugitive and Sex Offender programs; Operation Drawbridge border camera program; Missing and Exploited Children Unit; Interdiction for the Protection of Children Program; Gang Analysis Section; and Critical Infrastructure and Key Resource Tracking and Assessment Program; Texas Rangers. The information also assists in   investigations involving cartels, gangs, human trafficking and sex offenders.

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.

Advocacy Advertising and Political Debate

Let’s talk about advocacy advertising today. You’ve all seen television commercials attempting to swing public opinion. They’re designed to sway Congressional votes on important issues, such as gun control, abortion, trade, energy, health care and more.

Both sides of important issues employ research in these epic struggles. Typically, researchers read a series of one-sentence “sales” propositions to respondents. Respondents rate each proposition on a scale. Researchers then rank the propositions based on their average ratings.

For those producing and targeting commercials, these rankings reveal which arguments work best among groups people are for issues, against them or undecided. So far, so good. When we get to the next step in the process, however, a dark consequence of advocacy advertising begins to emerge.

Solving Health Care Reform in 65 Words?

The average 30-second television commercial contains just 65 words. That’s about four to six sentences depending on their length. Now you understand why so much effort was thrown into research designed to identify compelling sound bites.

Addressing Multidimensional Issues with Single-Minded Discussions

The medium of television advertising forces multidimensional issues into single-minded “discussions.” Each side hurls its sound bites at each other without ever truly addressing each others’ arguments. It feels like the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray replays the same bad dreams over and over again in an endless series of looping nightmares. The usual results:

  • Political stalemate
  • Perpetual disagreement

Frustrating Progress

Most advocacy advertising lowers the level of public debate to that of two shrill cockatoos parroting the same soundbites at each other, over and over. We rarely seem to get past the opening volley in the debate.

Progress is the casualty. Frustration is the winner.

Cell Phones and Identity Theft

shutterstock_85529755Identity theft has been called the fastest growing crime in America. And one of the fastest growing means of identity theft is theft of cell phones.

Two thirds of Americans now own cell phones. ABC news ran a story this week about cell phone robberies. According to ABC, one out of every three robberies in America now involve cell phones. Thieves literally rip them out of victim’s hands, steal unprotected data, turn them off so they can’t be tracked, then wipe the data, and resell them.

According to the FCC:

  • More than 40% of all robberies in New York City involve smartphones and other cell phones
  • The situation is getting worse: In Washington, D.C., cell phones were taken in 54% more robberies in 2011 than in 2007, and cell phones are now taken in 38% of all DC robberies.
  • Other major cities have similar statistics, with robberies involving cell phones comprising 30-40% of all robberies.
  • Robberies are, by definition, violent crimes, and there are many instances of robberies targeting cell phones resulting in serious injury or even death.
  • Loss or theft of an unsecured smartphone often results in access to sensitive personal data.

A web site specializing in compiling statistics on identity theft, IdentityTheft.info points out that:

  • 15 million Americans have their identities used fraudulently each year with financial losses exceeding $50 billion.
  • That represents 7% of all adults with an average loss of $3,500.
  • Close to 100 million additional Americans have their personal identifying information placed at risk of identity theft each year when records maintained in government and corporate databases are lost or stolen.

The FCC, police and legislators have launched initiatives to halt the epidemic of cell phone thefts. They include:

  • Creating a global database to prevent use of stolen smartphones.
  • Teaching users to lock their phones with passwords and educating them about lock/locate/wipe applications.
  • Introducing Federal legislation to criminalize tampering with unique hardware IDs on cell phones.

Making it a crime to tamper with the unique hardware identifiers built into cell phones has been a key part of successful foreign initiatives to deter cell phone theft by creating databases of stolen cell phones which carriers could then block.