The fake news got to us. And I suppose the result was obvious.

A wellspring has bubbled up through the blogosphere and is now producing blog articles sounding the alarm: other blogs might be “fake news.” Some of those articles are focused on the left, some on the right. All of them, I’m sure, propose to improve blogging. But as the reality of the Russian hack on our democracy sinks in across the internet, these posts are a symptom of our suspicions, grown louder. Loud enough that bloggers are telling other bloggers not to link to bloggers because credibility.

Wasn’t the great leap forward back in the Web2.0 days the democratization of media? Didn’t RSS, and blogging, and social media, and “sharing,” mean that the analysis, emphasis and direction of news would no longer be dominated by corporate profit motives? Far more importantly, the democratization of media always meant that as bloggers and as news consumers, we asserted credibility in the democratic fashion: collective assent.

That collective assent has been plundered. We as a nation have been had. And as that reality looms larger and larger – as jeers and jabs turn to stunned silence – we’re falling back on the instincts that allow authoritarians to rise to power. Our confidence shrinks and doubt prompts us to “follow the leader.”

So this is how freedom of the press dies: the moment when we decide that certain press is more free than other press. Because it’s safer. Because we have been attacked once. Because the news seems to hit independent media particularly harshly. Because we relent.

Let’s not go quite so gently into that good night. Democracy survives when the good and the wise steel themselves against fear. To that end, I present for you five good ways to protect your democratic franchise in the modern online world and avoid fake news:

5. Understand what happened

The full scope of the Russia’s interference in our elections is still being tallied, at least publicly. But one thing it is important to understand is that much of the hack was on search engines. A user – perhaps you, perhaps someone else – searches Google or Bing for a topic and scans the results. What he finds are links to sources that are intentionally conning him. They arrived in those top few spaces in the search engine’s results because Russian hackers coaxed search engines into paying them undue attention.

All of which is to say that your favourite independent news source didn’t change. Daily Kos didn’t get any more or less credible. Instead, the search engines you use got changed, and as alleged by the Intelligence Community, perhaps your vote as well.

More importantly, the change to search results was targeted. Services like Google use your location to determine the best sources of content. On average, a Rochesterian would probably prefer to read the D&C’s article on Russian hacking than one from the NBC 7 in San Diego. But the hack also took advantage of this fact and, based on the below comments of Senator Mark Warner, may have concentrated their activities on the “firewall states” of Michigan and Pennsylvania. (emphasis mine):

1,000 Paid Russian Trolls Spread Fake News On Hillary Clinton, Senate Intelligence Heads Told || HuffingtonPost.com:

“What really concerns me [are reports] there were upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, … that can generate news down to specific areas,”

In other words: you may never have seen so much as a scrap of fake news, depending on where you live.

4. Verify Your “Fake News”

There is no “exclusive news” anymore and things break quickly. They ricochet across the Internet, getting picked up by a wide variety of sources. Even those of us who spend a significant amount of our time monitoring news and social sometimes find that we’re way behind on a developing story, from time to time.

If the source you’re reading from claims to have content no one else has, chances are better than good that it’s crap. Move on.

There are exceptions to this rule all the time. Momentarily being “exclusive” doesn’t make news “fake news.” But until others verify what your source says it has, there’s no reason to jump to any conclusions. Most of us are not in a position, from moment to moment, to verify someone else’s work as it arrives on the Internet. Rely on the “collective assent” in your network.

Fake news tends to do it’s own ricochet, of course. But it doesn’t last long in reputable sources. See tip #2 for more on that.

3. Ask Yourself: “Are Facts or Opinions In Dispute?”

The great New York State Senator Patrick Moynihan once famously intoned, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” The same holds true for the Internet, and dovetails with tip #4: lots of different news sources and opinion makers differ on the interpretation of facts, but very few legitimate news sources will hold forth “facts” of which they are the exclusive source.

Liberal news sources will interpret news one way, Conservatives the next. Industry insiders or people on the ground will interpret news based on informed, practical knowledge that differs from political takes altogether. And those may still differ from policy makers for whom other priorities are higher. But they all agree on what’s happening.

When a source introduces “facts” for which you can find no other corroborating stories, it might be fake news. If they continue to press ideas for which there is no other evidence, chances are pretty good they’re full of shit. Move on.

2. Be Clear on Your Sources

As wonderful as Google and Bing and other search engines can be, you are always at the mercy of someone else’s algorithms to get your news. Search engines have learned a harsh lesson and will doubtless change as a result of the hack. But they won’t change what they fundamentally are, and what they are is always subject to manipulation.

Learn to recognize your sources. Your favourite websites, Twitter accounts, and journalists. Judge them based on their successes as defined in the last few tips. Do they confirm stories that end up being true? Do they propose ideas you can’t confirm anywhere else? Do they confirm stories with any other sources? And are those sources credible? Are your sources “insiders,” giving you insight you couldn’t have expected anywhere else, or just imaginative frauds, filling your time with “fake news?”

It’s worth having sources you fundamentally disagree with as well. Again: left and right may disagree on the interpretation of facts, but not on the facts. If there’s a difference between your opposing viewpoint sources, is it factual or interpretive?

If you’re not letting the news just fly at you randomly, from the search results on Bing or the most recent tweets in your feed, you’re starting to curate a useful information stream. It won’t be 100%, but it’ll be better than leaving yourself prone before an endless barrage of media.

1. Support What’s Right

This part is really important. Remember that the modern social media news landscape requires our collective, informed assent for its authority and credibility. We need each other for any of us to have either of those two things. The unwritten compact of those early days needs to be restored: that bloggers and the audiences they serve can filter and vet information just as well as people with communications degrees.

We need to be referees. We need to call balls and strikes. We need to allow ourselves to be checked by our audiences and by our peers. Most of all, we need to reform the networks we once had. More and more, social media networks feel less like networks and more like point-to-point noise protocols. They feel like unassociated beams of information, no unifying direction and no point of reference, no particular trust and no special loyalty. We need to rebuild that trust and loyalty by being the worthy readers and bloggers we’ve always been.

In the year 2015, its worth questioning documents that come to you electronically.. scanned from their original print version. Today, the Rochester Police Department released documents outlining both RPD policy with and the effective use of TASER Electronic Control Devices (colloquially: shock-the-shit-out-of-you Tasers). The header of the doc (scanned for reading here) shows a publish date of 2015. The documents inside, however, seem to have been produced some time in 2012 and cite 2011 data as current.

View this document on Scribd

In the Executive Summary section, p. 4, pains are taken to demonstrate how little the RPD uses TASERs. It notes that only 8% of all “use of force” situations used the TASER and that less than 0.4% of RPD arrests involved them. Furthermore, it notes, Rochester’s Police Department only issues 18% of it’s total police force TASERs. This puts Rochester on the low end of NYS metropolises using TASER technology, according to p. 8.

Sidenote: what the fuck, Greece?

The problem is that this data is all 4 years old and the TASER program in Rochester is only 13 years old. If there were 0% of officers using TASERs in 2003 and 18% using them in 2011, are we to assume that now 29% of officers with TASERs? Because that seems to be the rate of growth, based on the data. That same page notes (see footnote) that the “current budget” in 2012 would have increased that number to 50%, do we know if that happened?

Every other statistic bulleted in this report or impressed upon the media when they released it is called into question by this fact alone. Sure, small numbers are small. But only if they stay that way. What changes about these numbers when we change – to say nothing of double – the scale?

This report is supposed to quell concerns in the media about the effectiveness of TASER equipment, but it leaves a lot to be desired, even if we overlook the antiquity of the data.

What stands out the most is that the bullet point the RPD wants to stress – that the TASER has been 89% effective in “use of force” situations – seems like the impressive way to say that the TASER has been ineffective another 11% of the time. By what benchmark were the other 11% ineffective? What was the next step in those situations?

Helpfully, the RPD also includes (p. 31) a “Use of Force Matrix,” which appears to be part of a training document showing the desired escalation of force by police officers in the field. As you might expect, the TASER appears near the very top of this matrix. Above that scale, officers are instructed that deadly force, “Impact Instruments” and the illustrative term “Groundcuffing” may be used.

But this just raises the question: if TASERs are only effective 89% of the time, are we given to understand that the ineffective cases graduate to lethal force? The report shows several cases of TASER use, but none of them deemed ineffective, so we don’t know based on the report.

I don’t think I’m looking too deeply into numbers and certainly, these are the sorts of questions that can be reasonably asked in a reasonable press conference and dispelled with reasonable answers. But how much of that will actually happen between now and when the story’s dead?

As we look over the precipice of a new year, it’s always fun to consider what has happened in the previous year, and how that may change in the coming one. It’s a guess, of course, and one which if successful will be shouted from rooftops at this time next year. Because that’s how bloggers roll.

Nevertheless, my predictions list is more about predicting trends than declaring “The next Hitler.” What will I be writing about in 2015, and what will the science community be researching? Here is my totally-not-hedged-upon List of Predictions:

5 Predictions for Science in 2015:

5. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Research

The University of Rochester is part of a constellation of schools currently researching and mapping the glial system of the human brain. This research has lead to the discovery of a complex interdependence between the so-called “grey matter” that processes information and the “white matter” that regulates the brain. This research will continue into the new year, possibly leading to breakthroughs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few.

4. Wearables are Here to Stay

As hard and as unsuccessfully as Google has pushed this year to make Glass the new iPad, you’d be forgiven for thinking that wearable tech in the form of glasses is as dead as Google Glass battery.

But other companies such as Epson and Vuzix have quietly attempted a very different track, one that has served computer technology well in the past. They’re working on making Heads-Up Display a functional technology for business and first responders, rather than an inscrutable technology to drive people at Starbucks nuts. Meanwhile, Recon Jet is moving into providing data for athletes like bicyclists. Once the technology becomes ubiquitous in business and sports, the rest of us will find reasons to need it as well.

3. Drones are Headed for a Legal Explosion

When this many different interests all converge on a single technology – virtually without the effort afforded HUD – you know those interests will sooner rather than later collide in a court room. From Constitutional questions about the use of drones for government surveillance and monitoring to legal questions about airspace and private use, expect some serious fireworks this year.

Corporations are already gathering detailed information on private citizens’ movements and personal property, largely without the question of propriety even having been asked. Local governments are gearing up to use drones for traffic monitoring and other law enforcement uses. And with the cost of drones now edging down below $1000 per unit, you can guarantee that enterprising private citizens will come up with whole new ways to violate each others’ privacy.

Drones have the promise of doing amazing things for our species, some too far off to predict. But in the meanwhile, there will definitely be a few legal questions to iron out, starting this coming year.

2. Space Travel Goes Mainstream

There are no less than three separate entities rapidly building towards useable space planes, including the European Union and a company called XCOR. All have plans to release their first practical models in 2015. What will the price of a ticket be? Well, that’s a good question. But they’ll be available by the end of the year.

1. Forensics on the Stand

One big meta story that’s not getting a lot of attention except when high-profile cases hint at it, is the crisis unfolding within the forensics, law enforcement and criminal justice communities. The use of DNA evidence in criminal court cases has been heavily scrutinized, especially locally, where District Attorney Sandra Doorley was recently in hot water over what some regard as fluffing otherwise pretty thin DNA evidence.

Right now, Renee Bailey has just been released from prison and is awaiting a potential new trial on the basis of faulty research on Shaken Baby Syndrome. This boogeyman of parents everywhere may have always been a myth, and cases all over the country are getting overturned.

4.

Kirstin gets the nod, California gets the weed, but not everybody’s happy in today’s DFE News Update:

  • Xerox is the breaking news of the day for Rochester, as it’s earnings report gives some indication why it’s laying off workers: they broke even on earnings this quarter, down from 41 cents per share this time last year. Breaking even is good when you’re a kid paying bills, but it’s bad when you’re a multi-billion dollar, publicly-traded international corporation.
  • A happy switch from eight years of one reality, President Barack Obama (fuckin’ LOVE writing that) affirms a woman’s right to choose as both a woman’s right and a family’s right to privacy on the anniversary of the Roe decision. Protesters on the lawn don’t get their traditional phone call from the president anymore. Shucks, I guess they’ll just have to freeze.
  • Kirstie Gets the Nod!!! Yes, our long statewide nightmare is over, with frickin Patterson finally getting off his ass and picking someone. I’ll probably comment on this more later, with perhaps a roundup of reaction.
  • From the “Obvious But Worth Noting” department, experts predict as much as a 9 percent shrinking of the wireless market in the next year. Duh. It’s a recession.
  • I commented yesterday about Obama’s decision to shut down Gitmo, asserting that a test of that decision would not be long coming. It took one day, actually. A freed Saudi has now become a leader in the al-Qaeda military machine. Joy.
  • Finally, happy news from California: pot crops are abundant this year. As I pointed out in a comment on TPMCafe, Obama could do this country a world of good by just legalizing it, already. Ease our suffering in this time of economic, military and environmental troubles.

Lots of interesting news this morning, so here’s a quick rundown of some stories I’m watching:

  • Of course, Caroline Kennedy has withdrawn her name from appointment to Clinton’s Senate seat. I think this is the right way to go. Here’s to hoping Andrew Cuomo gets the job.
  • Sony has posted it’s first annual loss in 14 years today. The CEO is vowing swift action including executive pay cuts and newer, trendier gadgets in development to deal with the downturn. One wonders how much good snappier products are really going to be. I’m thinking cheaper and more accessible would be a better choice, under the circumstances.
  • Here’s something you don’t see every day: death sentences for milk contamination. China has sentenced three high-ranking executives at a milk company to death. In the many get-rich-quick schemes that predominate Chinese manufacturing, there is an over-abundance of highly-questionable chemical mixes that produce these scandals. Kind of reminds me of early American meat-packing cruft that simply could not be sold abroad for the same reasons. Boom days of young economies are remarkably similar, it seems. China needs to figure out that it must *regulate* these industries, not punish people for its own malfeasance.
  • The bad economy is forcing Google and Microsoft back to their core-competencies and away from some of their more outlandish schemes. Can you imagine that Google wanted to sell print ads? Google, the company most directly responsible for the near death experience of print media, going into the print ad business? WTF?
  • A well-duh announcement from the scientific community: improving air quality substantially improves life expectancy. Sometimes, science needs to provide documentarian proof of shit we already knew. Now the question is, does this move policy on federal, state and local levels?
  • For those of you who can’t get enough, here’s some satellite pictures of the inauguration. It’s worth it just to get a sense of the sprawl of humanity in attendance for this inauguration. And even with all those people, you could barely hear any applause at all for Bush and Cheney when they came out. Hysterical.
  • More on climate change. This time, an interesting discussion of the role NASA can play in leading the fight against global climate change. NASA’s been studying the changes in the Earth’s atmosphere for thirty years, and now with the strangle hold of the Bush Administration gone, they can finally get down to the business of telling us how truly fucked we really are.