A blog about social media — by Mark Rogers

July 16, 2014

Email scams are obvious for a reason

Those Nigerian email scammers must think we’re really stupid, right? For years, they’ve been trying to trick us into handing over our bank accounts with amazing tales of untold riches to be unlocked.

The truth, it turns out, is that they know that less than one per cent of us are that stupid. But that’s all they need. They know few people will believe their story of a deposed prince who needs a way to get his money out of the country. But from their point of view, that’s a good thing.

The last thing scammers want to do is waste time trying to lure people who are too sensible to fall for their schemes. It’s much better to concentrate their efforts on the truly gullible.

This topic came up recently at Quora, a website devoted to giving intelligent answers to people’s questions.

One person asked why it is that email scams are typically written in broken English. Are they crafted by people with a poor command of the language or by idiots who simply can’t spell?

It turns out that these emails are often deliberately written this way. The 99 per cent of people who know better will put them straight into the trash. The remaining one per cent — the credulous and the easily deceived — will be reeled in.

Microsoft researchers have published a paper on this method called Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria? Here’s an excerpt:

An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine and follow up on the auto-complete suggestions. It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or friends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers’ ideal targets.

Another reason for using broken English may be to get past spam filters. There seems to be a whole industry based on ways of presenting the word “Viagra” without using the actual letters used to spell it.

Also, part of the scheme may be to portray the scammer as the one who is gullible. Greedy victims might be lured in thinking they can get the best of the deal.

So now you know — they don’t think you’re stupid after all. It’s that other guy they’re aiming for.

Image credit: Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria?

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July 12, 2014

Use lists to get around Twitter's follow limit of 2,000

Today I learned that not only does Twitter have a limit on how many accounts you can follow — it’s 2,000 — but also that Steve Buttry considers this to be an annoying limitation on the ability of journalists to do their jobs.

And it’s not just him. A post he wrote on the subject a year ago continues to receive dozens of readers a day:

That post is now my second most-read post, with more than 19,000 views. Day after day, nearly a hundred people come to my post, invariably from Google, looking for help with Twitter’s follower limit (97 came on Thursday, 83 on Friday).

I’ve come across people on Twitter who follow over a thousand other accounts, and have marvelled at their ability to do so. How do they keep up? Is it even possible?

Buttry’s solution — curated lists — is one I’ve used myself. You create lists based on various subjects and add Twitter accounts to them. It helps get you organized and reduces the number of accounts you need to keep on top of. Some lists will be more worthy of your attention than others. In fact, you might even want to organize them in terms of priority.

You don’t really need to follow someone unless you hope they will follow you back so you can establish a relationship with them. While it’s useful to create dialogue with community leaders via Twitter, it’s incomprehensible that you could keep track of thousands of them.

In fact, by using lists, you could drastically cut the number of accounts you follow to colleagues and regular sources. Why would you need to follow, say, a columnist, when all you really want are updates on what he’s writing?

I’ve got a public list called Media. Feel free to check it out for inspiration and maybe subscribe. And here are instructions on how to create your own Twitter list.

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July 10, 2014

Free images are plentiful if you know where to look

Every list of social media tips includes a point on the importance of pictures for retweets, likes and sharing, but where do you get them and how do you make sure you can use them?

It’s tempting to jump into Google and do a search on images, but that route is fraught with peril. Many of those pictures are copyrighted, and you can get into trouble if you use the wrong one.

For that reason, I usually wind up at Free Images. Everything there is indeed free. The only catch is that you are sometimes required to let the owner know you are using the picture. All that entails is firing off an email.

Still, there is no reason to limit yourself to a couple of sources. Bing, for example, is the only search engine that allows you to filter down to public domain images only. You can do what you please with pictures you find this way.

A directory of free image sources at The Edublogger has this and many other great tips. It’s aimed at teachers needing pictures for their students’ projects, but can easily be adapted to anyone needing images.

Another fantastic source is Getty Images — the quality is stunning. The catch here is that you link to their pictures rather than placing them on your own server. If the link is ever broken, there is not much you can do about it.

Image credit: Ragdoll cat with cropped ear from Photos Public Domain. Why a cat? The Internet loves cats.

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July 9, 2014

Telling the other side of the story doesn't mean interviewing cranks

From The Telegraph:

BBC journalists are being sent on courses to stop them inviting so many cranks onto programmes to air “marginal views.”

It’s about time. I’m tired of hearing from climate-change skeptics and creationists as if their views were in any way relevant to a discussion about science.

If news organizations want a diversity of opinion on a subject, there is plenty to be found among scientists who actually know what they are talking about.


July 8, 2014

Today's journalists can no longer ignore the business side of their industry

The hard thing about the news business is that it is indeed a business. So when we talk about the future of journalism, an important part of the conversation has to be about how to pay for it.

I’m convinced that journalism itself it doing great. I read lots of good journalism every day. A lot of it involves good old fashioned research and writing. Much of it involves technological innovation. Either way, many journalists have adapted well to changing times and have proven their worth.

Where we’re floundering is with business models. We used to know how to pay reporters and editors with ad revenue. But that revenue has been plunging lately, especially at newspapers. Radio and TV are also suffering.


We see advertisers flocking to the Internet, but it’s tough to get enough advertising on a news site to support journalism to the same extent as in the past.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no single business model that will work on the Internet in the same straight-forward way it did with old media. So how will journalists earn a living in the digital age? In the short term, at least, they will have to learn more about the business side of things. And for some, it will be painful.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, an assistant professor in the school of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes in a column at MediaShift that journalists have long referred to marketing and sales as the dark side.

This is their way of distancing themselves from the down-and-dirty business side of things and maintaining a sort of purity for their profession.

It was easy to be holier than thy marketer when some news organizations were turning year-over-year profits that would send drool down the chin of an oil and gas executive. Not today.

She argues that journalists and marketers can learn a lot from each other, especially when it comes to reaching audiences.

At a recent journalism conference in England that focused on the topic of making digital journalism pay, several good ideas were bandied about. The consensus was that it is indeed possible to make money but it’s a struggle to make a decent living.

Journalists told stories of how that found several ways of bringing in money, but in the end what they demonstrated was a spirit of entrepreneurialism that reporters and editors of the past might have considered beneath their dignity.

The downside to all this, of course, is that you’re bound to get better journalism when the people who produce content can focus all their efforts on it. The business side of things, while important, is a distraction that it would be nice to do without.

My hope is that one day the digital dimes will turn into digital dollars. Maybe it will be a journalist with business savvy who figures out how to do this.

Image Credit: Popular Mechanics

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July 7, 2014

Washington Post protects sources with security based on Tor browser

The Washington Post is making it easier for whistle blowers, or anyone else with a secret, to spill the beans for the public good.

SecureDrop gives detailed instructions on how to communicate with the Post in a way that avoids detection. It’s all above-board, but uses methods most people would never think of on their own.

It’s based on the Tor browser bundle and makes recommendations such as use of the Tails operating system.

With any luck, more people will come forward and turn the tables on those who use the Internet to spy on us.

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July 6, 2014

Those fun quizzes are actually data miners for marketing

Marketers love to get consumers to fill out surveys, but it’s really tough to get us to do that. I filled one out recently, but only because an iPad mini was being offered as a prize.

So . . . what if instead of surveys, they were clever quizzes. Well, we’re all over that.

I see links to quizzes on Facebook (mostly from Buzzfeed) all the time. They usually start off with a comment from your friend about what the result was for them. “My decade with the ’60s!” “If I were a dog, I’d be a collie!” “I should be living in Holland!”

And if your friend took the quiz, then why not join in the fun and compare notes. “Turns out I’m a collie, too!”

Buzzfeed’s most popular quiz, What State Do You Actually Belong In?, has racked up more than 40 million views. It’s been shared almost four million times on Facebook. In that quiz, people willingly give their favourite fast food chain and their favourite TV show, among other things. Marketers would give their right arm for this kind of data.

Marketplace has an interview with Aram Sinnreich, a media professor at Rutgers University, who has this to say:

It is a tool for advertisers to understand us better masquerading as a tool for us to understand ourselves better. Instead of reluctantly agreeing to give marketers information about ourselves, we are emphatically proclaiming to marketers who we are and then demanding that our friends do the same.

Buzzfeed managing editorial director Summer Anne Burton is quoted as saying that the site is “looking at how to use the things we’ve learned for companies’ benefit.”

An HBO-sponsored quiz about Game of Throne, for example, received a million hits, and provided valuable consumer information such as preferred alcohol and greatest fears.

In an article at the New York Observer, though, a Buzzfeed spokesperson denies collecting or selling individual answers.

“We’re not in the business of selling data. We’re in the business of selling social advertising.”

They say the only data being collected is whether the quiz was completed and an aggregate of the final results.

Buzzfeed may not be selling individual answers now, but how long will it be before they give in to the temptation? I’m guessing not long.

Sinnreich says the popularity of quizzes will eventually fade, but they’ve established a premise that can be used in other ways.

“Expect more tools that make giving information about ourselves seem like a game.”

Credit: The graphic above is from the quiz, What State Do You Actually Belong In, from Buzzfeed.

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July 5, 2014

Trackers keep an eye on your every Internet movement

There really is no such thing as privacy on the Internet. Virtually every website has software that logs your visit and makes a note of it when it spots you at another site that it tracks.

Typically these trackers are trying to get to know you so they can show ads for products you’re likely to buy.

At Pando Daily, Paul Carr installed a browser extension called Ghostery that shows the names of trackers on the sites you visit. He found that it was not unusual for websites to have 20 or 30 trackers.

I’ve spent maybe an hour visiting every possible site I could think of, from personal homepages to the biggest sites on the web and wasn’t able to find a single site that wasn’t tracking me in some way.

He obviously didn’t go to the website for my daughter’s elementary school. It has not a single tracker. Still, once you move on to commercial sites, the numbers quickly climb into the dozens.

Here at newsonaut, by the way, the only tracker is Google Analytics. I haven’t looked at it in ages. Maybe I should.

Browser extensions like Ghostery can also block trackers, preserving privacy and speeding up page loads. An alternative that does much the same thing is called Disconnect.


July 4, 2014

News sites should be frightened by the power Google has over them

Google has restored links to stories on the Guardian’s website, but not the BBC’s, as it struggles with implementation of Europe’s “right to be forgotten” law.

Is this good news or bad? It’s hard to say because Google hasn’t given the reasoning behind its decisions.

From the story by Reuters:

“Their current approach appears to be an overly broad interpretation,” a spokeswoman for the Guardian said. “If the purpose of the judgment is not to enable censorship of publishers by the back door, then we’d encourage Google to be transparent about the criteria it is using to make these decisions, and how publishers can challenge them.”

I have a feeling that if Google were to be transparent, they’d be admitting to a process that resembles throwing darts while blindfolded. They’re just as confused as the rest of us.

It really is a tragedy that the news industry is so dependent on Google. Without links, without good search-engine ranking, news sites have little hope of surviving.

The way things have worked out on the Internet, the search function is owned almost entirely by one company. Here’s a point to ponder: why is search not simply a built-in protocol for the web? Email and file-transfers aren’t owned by anyone, so why is search?

Ironically, the only way to research a question like that is by doing a Google search — and even so you’ll find precious few answers.

Could news organizations get together and create a search engine of their own to compete with Google? Could we make a news-oriented search engine that would actually be better than Google?

I’d better watch out. Such musings could result in links to this post being forgotten . . .

Credit: Graphic showing global search engine market share from Relentless Technology.

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July 3, 2014

Google walks the fine line between 'forgetting' and censorship

New “right to forget” legislation in the European Union is quickly turning into a muddle.

The law gives citizens the right to request that Google remove links to information about them considered “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”

On the face of it, that seems like a good idea.

But with Google controlling 90 per cent of the search market in Europe, the removal of a link to a story is akin to deleting it.

The Guardian, BBC and Mail Online are among news organizations that have had posts on their websites forgotten.

“It is the equivalent of going into libraries and burning books you don’t like,” Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke said in an AP story.

The Guardian called it a “challenge to press freedom.”

BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston said Wednesday the removal of his 2007 blog post, which was critical of Merrill Lynch’s then-CEO Stan O’Neal, means “to all intents and purposes the article has been removed from the public record, given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people.”

To its credit, Google is being cautious as it feels its way through this minefield.

“This is a new and evolving process for us,” Google spokesman Al Verney said Thursday. “We’ll continue to listen to feedback and will also work with data protection authorities and others as we comply with the ruling.”

When the law was first proposed, I thought it would be a good way of moving past unflattering photos or references to youthful hijinks. There’s no need to have things like that haunt you for the rest of your life.

But, as usual, when government intrudes on our freedoms, the result is unintended consequences — and a mess that will have to be cleaned up.

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