Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Masculinity Isn’t a Sickness — Much of modern culture is toxic to the human brain

January 17, 2019

A denial of biology in the American Psychological Association’s new report on men and boys.

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In my practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen an increase of depression in young men who feel emasculated in a society that is hostile to masculinity. New guidelines from the American Psychological Association defining “traditional masculinity” as a pathological state are likely only to make matters worse.

True, over the past half-century ideas about femininity and masculinity have evolved, sometimes for the better. But the APA guidelines demonize masculinity rather than embracing its positive aspects. In a press release, the APA asserts flatly that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” The APA claims that masculinity is to blame for the oppression and abuse of women.

The report encourages clinicians to evaluate masculinity as an evil to be tamed, rather than a force to be integrated. “Although the majority of young men may not identify with explicit sexist beliefs,” it states, “for some men, sexism may become deeply engrained in their construction of masculinity.” The association urges therapists to help men “identify how they have been harmed by discrimination against those who are gender nonconforming”—an ideological claim transformed into a clinical treatment recommendation.

The truth is that masculine traits such as aggression, competitiveness and protective vigilance not only can be positive, but also have a biological basis. Boys and men produce far more testosterone, which is associated biologically and behaviorally with increased aggression and competitiveness. They also produce more vasopressin, a hormone originating in the brain that makes men aggressively protective of their loved ones.

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The same goes for feminine traits such as nurturing and emotional sensitivity. Women produce more oxytocin when they nurture their children than men, and the hormone affects men and women differently. Oxytocin makes women more sensitive and empathic, while men become more playfully, tactually stimulating with their children, encouraging resilience. These differences between men and women complement each other, allowing a couple to nurture and challenge their offspring.

Modern society is also too often derisive toward women who embrace their biological tendencies, labeling them abnormal or unhealthy. Women who choose to stay home with their children can feel harshly judged, contributing to postpartum conflict, anxiety and depression.

What’s unhealthy isn’t masculinity or femininity but the demeaning of masculine men and feminine women. The first of the new APA guidelines urges psychologists “to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms,” as if biology had nothing to do with it. Another guideline explicitly scoffs at “binary notions of gender identity as tied to biology.”

From a mental-health perspective, it can be beneficial for women to embrace masculine traits and for men to express feminine ones. Every person will have some mix of the two. But that doesn’t change the reality that women tend to be feminine and men tend to be masculine. Why can’t the APA acknowledge biology while seeing femininity and masculinity on a spectrum?

To be sure, the cult of manhood can be harmful when taken to extremes. Teaching boys—or girls, for that matter—that they should always be stoic, keep their feelings inside and never allow themselves to be vulnerable is a recipe for mental illness. But so is telling boys that aggression, competitiveness and protectiveness is a sign of sickness. The same is true of telling girls that their desire to nurture children is shameful.

We will probably never return to rigid sex roles, and maybe we shouldn’t. But it’s wrong to devalue the important and positive differences between men and women that have complemented and enriched our relationships for tens of thousands of years.

Ms. Komisar is a psychoanalyst and author of “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters.” She is working on a book about the challenges of raising adolescents in an age of anxiety.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/masculinity-isnt-a-sickness-11547682809

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Compared to other species, including our closest relatives, chimpanzees, the brain takes up much more body weight in human beings. Photo: iStockphoto

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  (December 18, 2018)

See also:

‘It’s about time’: Facebook faces first lawsuit from U.S. regulators after Cambridge Analytica scandal

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/12/19/dc-attorney-general-sues-facebook-over-alleged-privacy-violations-cambridge-analytica-scandal/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0a7f6680eccd

Cambridge Analytica, the political firm, sought to create “psychographic” profiles about social-media users — using their Facebook data — and target them with messages that preyed on their hopes and fears.

Teens insist social media makes them feel better: poll

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“Maybe I did a better job because I’m good with the Twitter”

 

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Young people

The study found widespread apprehension about the future. Seeking intimacy? Or isolation?

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Racist or Islamist — lone-wolf attackers show similar patterns

January 4, 2019

There has been speculation as to what led a man to drive into a group of foreigners in Germany’s Ruhr region. Criminologist Britta Bannenberg says terrorists and those who run amok are similar, whatever their ideology.

    
Police officers behind cordon tape (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kusch)

A 50-year-old German man, Andreas N., deliberately drove his car into groups of foreign-looking people on New Year’s Eve – first in Bottrop and then in Essen – before police could apprehend him. He injured eight people during the rampage. Currently, he is in police custody. Authorities assume his actions were racially motivated. Moreover, the welfare recipient and Essen resident is said to be mentally ill.

Deutsche Welle: Seemingly racially-motivated car attacks recently carried out by a 50-year-old German man in Bottrop and Essen have captured the attention of authorities and citizens alike. What might have driven the perpetrator to carry out his New Year’s Eve attacks?

Britta Bannenberg: We will have to wait before we can say with certainty. But initial indications point to a typical behavioral pattern. Young perpetrators are different from older ones, for instance. And there are a number of distinctive features among older perpetrators.

Such as?

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Most perpetrators are not well psychologically. They commit similar serious crimes, such as grievous homicide, but their psychological problems are quite varied.

Nevertheless, we have discovered that more than one-third of grown perpetrators between the ages of 24 and 70 showed serious signs of severe psychological illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia. As a rule, the targets of their attacks – which often claim the lives of several individuals – are foreigners. The people who carry out such attacks are often filled with resentment, hatred and hostility toward society.

Britta Bannenberg (B. Bannenberg)

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Bannenberg: ‘One-third of adult perpetrators suffer from psychological illnesses’

They tend to project their hate onto specific groups of people, whether foreigners, women, colleagues or society in general. Psychological disorders like schizophrenia are madness-inducing diseases that bind elements of psychological illness with that renunciatory hatred.

That is what makes such people so dangerous when they decide to take revenge on society by injuring or killing other human beings.

Are there ways to recognize such dangers early on, perhaps even preventing such attacks before they can be carried out?

Yes, of course. Empirical research has shown that quite clearly. Although it isn’t possible in every case, it is in most. It is also important to add: One-third of adult perpetrators, as I said before, suffer from psychological illnesses such as schizophrenia – a serious psychological disease very different from other personality disorders.

Still, people with personality disorders are dangerous in other ways. They are likely more cognizant of what they are doing, they may even be able to control their actions. Nevertheless, they often become just as obsessed with the idea of carrying out a spectacular murderous attack, hoping to kill as many people as possible. Those are the two variations that we have found among lone perpetrators and those who run amok.

It is certainly possible that people with direct contact, such as neighbors or work colleagues, might notice such disorders and notify police early on. It increases the chances that these people can be found before they can commit a crime. Schizophrenia, for instance, can be treated medicinally. Left untreated, the threat of violent behavior is seven to eight times higher than normal, and when alcohol or drugs are added to the mix the risk jumps some 14 times. But if those with such illnesses receive medical treatment the risk is once again reduced to normal levels.

Are there clear conclusions that German officials should draw from attacks in which perpetrators suffer from schizophrenia or other personality disorders?

Societal awareness, not only for people who may be ill or psychologically conspicuous but also for those who utter threats or voice violent intentions, must be cultivated. Those who show great interest in carrying out violent attacks or are overly interested in violent crimes or acts of terror usually display their hate months before committing any crimes.

Read moreChallenge extremists instead of staying silent

Most people are afraid to contact authorities because they don’t have any hard information. But that is exactly the way to stop perpetrators – before they enter the planning phase and become a threat to others.

How similar are such perpetrators to lone-wolf terrorists or those from groups like Islamic State (IS)?

Although it has yet to be fully proven empirically, my theory is that individual terrorists and those who run amok are very similar. That is not, however, the case when it comes to perpetrators from terror groups. Most of these are criminals who already have police records. Most have a history of violence or drug abuse and thus have a long list of previous convictions.

Individual perpetrators are different – regardless of whether they are motivated by far-right or Islamic extremism, or a general hostility toward society as a whole. That all has to do with personality or psychological disorders.

Should we fear copycat attacks like those spoken of when it comes to Islamic terror?

We already have them. We have seen an increase in such violent acts since the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, even here in Germany. They garner different degrees of attention, nevertheless, the discussion that comes out of them is always the same.

But less when it comes to far-right extremism.

And that is exactly the problem! People think in categories. If I tell you that perpetrators are at times interchangeable in terms of their ideology because their motivation has more to do with their own personality than anything else, that means we have far-right attacks at one time and Islamic attacks at another. But there are also those who run amok by driving a truck into a group of people for no clear ideological reason.

Read moreNetherlands, German police thwart Dutch terror plot

Such people are simply ill and full of hate toward others. They want to attain negative fame with such acts and some are even willing to die to achieve it. We have been facing a growing threat for years.

What role do social media play? Can the so-called echo chamber effect in which a person’s views are amplified by other like-minded users trigger or at least facilitate such attacks?

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Yes. Most often, individual perpetrators are people with few or no social contacts. So what do they do? They go online and seek out those forums that reinforce their hate and rejection of others or other groups.

We have seen that to an extreme degree among young perpetrators because these often dive into fan scenes that glorify those who carry out mass shootings and the like. We also see it when it comes to IS, where people move among certain Islamist groups in order to further sow hate.

Britta Bannenberg is a professor of criminology at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. She has researched individuals who run amok or threaten to do so for years. 

Gratitude, Holiday Feasts, Charity and Our Brains

December 24, 2018

‘Tis the season when the conversation shifts to what you’re thankful for. Gathered with family and friends around a holiday feast, for instance, people may recount some of the biggies — such as their health or their children — or smaller things that enhance everyday life — such as happening upon a great movie while channel surfing or enjoying a favorite seasonal food.

Psychology researchers recognize that taking time to be thankful has benefits for well-being. Gratitude not only goes along with more optimism, less anxiety and depression and greater goal attainment, but also is associated with fewer symptoms of illness and other physical benefits.

In recent years, researchers have been making connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism. How does being thankful about things in your own life relate to any selfless concern you may have about the well-being of others?

By Christina Karns
The Washington Post

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As a neuroscientist, I’m particularly interested in the brain regions and connections that support gratitude and altruism. I’ve been exploring how changes in one might lead to changes in the other.

To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, my colleagues and I first asked volunteers questions meant to tease out how frequently they feel thankful and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. Then we used statistics to determine the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism. As others have found, the more grateful people in this group tended to be more altruistic.

The next step was to explore more about how these tendencies are reflected in the brain. Our study participants performed a giving activity in the MRI scanner. They watched as the computer transferred real money to their own account or to the account of a local food bank. Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, outside their control. We especially wanted to compare what happened in the brain when a participant received money as opposed to seeing money given to the charity instead.

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It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively.

A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is key to supporting both. Anatomically, this region is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances. It holds abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, one’s representation of oneself and even social processing.

Beyond identifying the place in the brain that was especially active during these tasks, we also saw differences in just how active this region was in various individuals.

We calculated what we termed a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity-gain” vs. “self-gain” situations. The participants I’d identified as more grateful and more altruistic via the questionnaire had a higher “pure altruism” scores — that is, a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.

In other studies, some of my colleagues had zeroed in on this same brain region. They found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were mirrored by participants’ brains’ responses to charitable donations, including in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

So is this brain reward region the key to kindness? Well, it’s complicated.

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The human brain is amazingly flexible. The absence of hearing in someone who’s born deaf opens up brain real estate that would have processed sound to instead deal with other sensory information, such as touch. Neuroscientists call this plasticity.

In recent years I’ve been testing the idea that the plasticity of the mature brain can be used to enhance the experience of well-being. Could practice change how emotions that support social relationships — such as gratitude, empathy and altruism — are typically programmed into the brain? Through practicing gratitude, could people become more generous?

My colleagues and I decided to test whether, by changing the amount of gratitude people felt, we could alter the way the ventromedial prefrontal cortex responds to giving and receiving. I randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of the things they were thankful for. Over the same period, the other group wrote about engaging topics from their lives that weren’t specific to gratitude.

Gratitude journaling seemed to work. Just keeping a written account about gratitude led people to report experiencing more of the emotion. Other recent work also indicates that gratitude practice makes people more supportive of others and improves relationships.

Importantly, the participants in our study also exhibited a change in how their brains responded to giving. In the MRI scanner, the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased their “pure altruism” measure in the reward regions of the brain. Their responses to charity-gain increased more than those to self-gain.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is connected to other brain systems that help you experience reward. These high-level systems in your frontal lobes are constantly assessing the value of your decisions. This part of the brain helps you place various things in a hierarchy of how rewarding you find them to be. It may help you determine which decisions, goals and relationships to prioritize.

Here’s an analogy: When I was 13, my aunt gave me an amazing opportunity to travel with her to Britain. When I started saving up my babysitting money, it cost $1.65 to buy 1 British pound sterling. But by the time of the trip, it cost nearly $2 to buy one British pound. A £ British souvenir price at 1 pound that would have cost $16 a few months ago would now cost me $20. In other words, the value of each dollar bill fluctuated with the exchange rate.

I imagine the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is like the office where you exchange dollars to pounds or vice versa. For the people with more grateful and altruistic tendencies, it seems the ventromedial prefrontal cortex assigns more value to charitable donations than to receiving money for themselves.

Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity became more valuable than receiving money yourself. After the brain calculates the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.

So in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really can be true that giving is better than receiving. As you sail through the holidays — opening that pile of Christmas presents and toasting family and friends at the New Year — taking time to practice gratitude can help make giving the most rewarding of activity of all.

Karns is research assistant professor at the Center on Brain Injury Research and Training at the University of Oregon and director of the Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project. This report was originally published on theconversation.com.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/new-thoughts-about-gratitude-charity-and-our-brains/2018/12/21/238986e6-f808-11e8-8d64-4e79db33382f_story.html?utm_term=.5a562107de4f

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Peace and Freedom comment; Everyone encounters physical and mental changes as they age. It is part of life. Human beings always have choices and today, there is always medical care. We don’t judge anybody. But we reject the ideas that some problems are too tough for humans to encounter and we reject the idea that suicide is a solution.
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 (Those words, spoken to an advocate of sex, drugs and rock and role, changed everything)

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 (We can’t hear God when we are angry and upset)
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Service to Others — Art: The Good Samaritan by Walter Rane

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Self-centered or God-centered?

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See also:

Seven deadly sins

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins

Colleges were better when they were more ‘Paper Chase’ than origami

December 22, 2018

After a couple of years of being ridiculed for demanding “safe spaces” from speakers whose ideas “trigger” them, today’s college students might be expected to stop leaving themselves open to ridicule. But no.

Courtesy of The College Fix comes yet another story of epic campus mollycoddling across the country. Apparently, there’s a nationwide epidemic of students finding final exams so stressful that they need sugar-plum fairies to get them through.

By Quin Hillyer
Opinion
Washington Examiner

Students’ perceived need to “ de-stress” is so acute that some need coloring books, others want to pet miniature horses, others want Legos, and a few were into sessions of “cloud gazing.” Many of these exercises in ultra-de-stressification were officially sponsored or encouraged not just by friendly volunteer outfits but by the metastasizingly large administrative staffs of the colleges themselves.

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Duke University brought in ponies to help student de-stress

About the best that can be said about this story is that at least it doesn’t mention Brown University’s earlier resort to Play-Doh and blankies. Do these administrators understand the harm they do by infantilizing their students? Do the students know how pathetic it demand they be infantilized?

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Sure, exams can be stressful. And if, as a way to break the tension, a student wants to dig out his old coloring books for a few minutes and laugh, well, more power to him. But do students really need others to organize them into pre-school-like situations, pat them on the heads, and tell them everything is really really truly going to be hunky dory?

When my age cohort was in college, we didn’t have professors who forced us to do Indian fire walks or wear hair shirts to the exams. But we also didn’t ask the Student Affairs Office to show us videos of cute widdle puppies, either. About the farthest we went in self-indulgence during exams would be to go a week without shaving, or maybe pretend we liked it when a roommate thought it was stress-relieving to play Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” 50 times in a row at high decibels.

 

How Fortnite Triggered an Unwinnable War Between Parents and Their Boys

December 21, 2018

The last-man-standing videogame has grabbed onto American boyhood, pushing aside other pastimes and hobbies and transforming family dynamics

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Three Boys Explain Why They Play Fortnite Every Chance They Get

Three Boys Explain Why They Play Fortnite Every Chance They Get
Some boys are opting to play Fortnite for such long hours that it has become the primary component of their social life. We talked to three friends in San Francisco who obsess over the online game and their parents, who are wrestling with its impact.
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SAN FRANCISCO—Toby Ghassemieh is an inquisitive 12-year-old boy with a pet gecko named Coco and the makings of an ant colony in a bedroom cupboard. He built a forge in his backyard with plaster of Paris to melt aluminum into ingots. He wants to be a physicist when he grows up.

All that is on hold, though. What he cares about most is the videogame Fortnite. Same for his buddies Matthew Seiden, Max Howe, Jaren Erville and Reed Leidlein, who all live in or near the city’s Richmond neighborhood.

These seventh-grade pals used to spend their after-school hours together, either at somebody’s house or nearby Rochambeau Park. Now, they spend most of their free time apart, sequestered in their respective homes playing Fortnite and chatting through headsets instead of in person.

Not long ago, boys this age would be agitating for a trip to the movies or the skate park, someplace to hang out together. Not now.

“We see each other eight hours a day at school,” Toby said. Going to the park, Matthew said, is boring compared with Fortnite.

In less than 18 months, “Fortnite: Battle Royale,” a last-man-standing shooting contest, has grabbed onto American boyhood, joining, or pushing aside, soccer, baseball, even a share of mischief. Girls find it far less appealing.

It may be only a fad, but it is a particularly popular and time-consuming one. Fortnite has 200 million registered players, 60% more than it had in June, publisher Epic Games Inc. said last month.

The value of Fortnite’s maker, North Carolina-based Epic, has swelled to nearly $15 billion from less than $1 billion in less than six years, The Wall Street Journal reported in October.

Fortnite is not only reshaping how boys spend their time, but how they communicate—it acts essentially like an open phone line. The videogame is free and can be played almost everywhere on game consoles, desktop computers, laptops or smartphones.

It can also tear at family relationships in a way that few, if any, videogames have done before.

Three Boys Explain Why They Play Fortnite Every Chance They Get
Some boys are opting to play Fortnite for such long hours that it has become the primary component of their social life. We talked to three friends in San Francisco who obsess over the online game and their parents, who are wrestling with its impact.

Jaren’s mother, Victoria Erville, said her son “is hooked.” Matthew’s mother, Dionne Woods said, “I hate Fortnite. I just hate it.”

Prying a boy from the game is itself a battle. “It’s the bane of every parent I know,” said Michelle Steigerwald, Reed’s mother, a family law attorney.

Toby’s mother, Shannon Wolfe, posted a plea on the neighborhood network Nextdoor: “Help!!! Does anyone know of a support group for parents struggling with Fortnite?”

The responses reflected the sharp divide between those who believe Fortnite threatens to stunt healthy physical, social and emotional development—and those who think it is fine, even beneficial.

“Seriously?”

“LOL, such a good game.”

Others were like, So what’s new? Parents have always been scared by new crazes.

“Just the latest fad. What was it when you were growing up that parents thought was destroying youth? Comic books? Walkmen?”

One fan suggested Ms. Wolfe watch her son play: “You might be surprised the amount of quick mental calculations he’s doing in his head. It’s like chess times 10.”

For many parents, the problem isn’t just Fortnite. It is the fear that technology, from smartphones to videogames, has gotten too skilled at seizing their children’s brains.

Like with many videogames, the more people play Fortnite, the more data is generated about what captivates players the most and what drives players to quit. The constant stream of information boosts the ability of game designers to use machine learning to amplify player engagement.

As games get smarter, parents feel outmatched. “It’s not a fair fight,” said Dr. Richard Freed, child and adolescent psychologist and author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.”

Fortnite feels to some like an uninvited visitor, one that refuses to leave.

Howls, shrieks

Toby lives in a cheery household that juggles two soccer schedules, his and nine-year-old sister Serena’s. They have a dog named Louis. His father, Kayvaan Ghassemieh, is a product management director at Salesforce.com. His mother is a recruiter who likes to read and knit.

Their townhome is bright blue, tucked into a neighborhood of young families. Inside, a wall is filled with books. Their backyard has a trampoline.

Toby Ghassemieh engaged in a game of Fortnite.
Toby Ghassemieh engaged in a game of Fortnite. PHOTO: JUSTIN MAXON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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Toby is allowed Fortnite only on weekends. On Saturdays and Sundays, the yard is quiet. The howls and shrieks come from the basement where Toby wields a submachine gun to kill off rivals.

For Ms. Wolfe, the sounds from the basement remind her of all the other ways—her instinct screams, better ways—her son could be spending his time. The list in her head is long: experiments, books, jumping on the trampoline or exploring the internet, which is where he learned about ants.

Her own childhood in Seattle, raised by a bookseller father and an engineer-artist mother, fostered a curiosity about the world she hopes to instill in her children. “That’s what’s so disappointing” about Fortnite’s arrival, she said.

Parents have long used favorite childhood activities to help teach moderation and self-restraint: Be home by dark; no TV until your homework is done. The struggle at Toby’s house illustrates the deficiency of those methods.

Toby Ghassemieh is “typically a nice kid,” his mother said.
Toby Ghassemieh is “typically a nice kid,” his mother said. PHOTO: JUSTIN MAXON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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Toby is “typically a nice kid,” his mother said. He is sweet, articulate, creative, precocious and headstrong—the kind of child who can be a handful but whose passion and curiosity could well drive him to greatness.

Turn off Fortnite, and he can scream, yell and call his parents names. Toby gets so angry that his parents impose “cooling off” periods of as long as two weeks. His mother said he becomes less aggressive during those times. The calming effect wears off after Fortnite returns.

Toby’s mother has tried to reason with him. She has also threatened boarding school. “We’re not emotionally equipped to live like this,” she tells him. “This is too intense for the other people living here.”

Mr. Ghassemieh, Toby’s father, is a former gamer who works in the tech industry. He believes a game like Fortnite can help children learn analytical skills. Yet, he is bothered by how all the stimulation affects Toby.

“Join the family for dinner? ‘What? I was just in a gunfight and you want me to sit down and have a nice meal?’” Mr. Ghassemieh said.

Toby has a different point of view: Everybody else’s families can handle Fortnite, he said. Why can’t his?

The Town School for Boys, an independent school not far from where Toby and his friends live, hosted a recent presentation on Fortnite. About 200 parents showed up for the event that featured Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates for safe media use by children.

“Some kids could use this as a pipeline to college,” said Jeff Haynes, of Common Sense Media. He explained that talented videogamers can win scholarships, and virtuosos can win million-dollar prizes.

The message wasn’t what many parents had come to hear. One woman drew applause when she raised her hand to interject: “This has been almost a celebration of Fortnite. I’m waiting for the part that would be useful to us.”

As people filed out early, one parent asked, “What advice do you have for us families who want less Fortnite in their life?”

Human experiment

The attractive magic of Fortnite is an artful mix of game design with a persuasive technology designed to shape the behavior of users. It has, in effect, cracked the code of mass-market gaming.

Reed Leidlein playing Fortnite at home in Mill Valley, Calif.
Reed Leidlein playing Fortnite at home in Mill Valley, Calif. PHOTO: JUSTIN MAXON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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Players experience random and unpredictable rewards, similar to the anticipation that keeps players at slot machines chasing winning combinations. These variable, intermittent rewards are what behaviorist B.F. Skinner found more effective in shaping the habit-forming behavior of pigeons than a predictable pattern of rewards.

“When you follow a reward system that’s not fixed, it messes up our brains eventually,” said Ofir Turel an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton, who researches the effects of social media and gaming.

With games like Fortnite, Dr. Turel said, “We’re all pigeons in a big human experiment.”

Fortnite has been the most watched game on Amazon.com ’s Twitch network since March, according to research firm Newzoo BV. In November, people spent more than 108.9 million hours watching other people play Fortnite, the firm said. Toby and his friends are among those who regularly watch via YouTube and Twitch.

*Total does not equal 100% due to rounding. 0.5% of players are 55 years or older. †Full-time employed defined as 35+ hours/week, part-time as under 35 hours/week.

Source: SuperData Research

Fortnite makes money by selling to players, everything from costumes called “skins,” dances, called “emotes,” for their avatars to perform and other virtual embellishments priced at $2 to $20 each. Players buy them with virtual currency called V-Bucks, which are sold in packages from $9.99 to $99.99.

Since its launch in July 2017, Fortnite has made more than $2 billion from sales of virtual goods, according to an estimate by industry tracker SuperData.

“Epic doesn’t comment much on the design of Fortnite these days,” the company said in an email.

The game began as a bleak apocalyptic “work together or die alone” concept seven years ago, said Epic designer Peter Ellis, during a talk to game designers at a conference in March.

But Epic wanted a game that “people would engage with for hundreds of hours if not years,” he said. So Mr. Ellis’s team ramped up the color and brightness of Fortnite to make it look more like a Pixar movie. Pixar’s parent, Walt Disney Co. , owns a stake in Epic.

They were aiming for a T rating, approved for teenagers, so they removed dismembered body parts, Mr. Ellis said. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, a nonprofit established in 1994, issues ratings for games and apps that range from E for everyone to A for adults only.

The resulting version is an animated killing game that manages to be hair-raising without visible blood spilled.

Dr. Freed, the psychologist, said the study of addictive technologies has identified some 200 persuasive design tricks. Fortnite has so many of those elements combined, he said, that it is the talk among his peers. “Something is really different about it,” he said.

He said its intentional design helps explain why parents have such trouble fighting the game’s pull on their children. As parents try to teach moderation and limits, Fortnite seeks a player’s full engagement for as long as possible.

Cut off

Until mid-September, Max Howe’s game console was the first place he went when he got home from school. He wasn’t allowed to play Fortnite on weeknights, but he could use the console to see if any friends were online, he said, “if I felt like talking or needed help with homework.”

Max Howe found workarounds after his parents took away his game console.
Max Howe found workarounds after his parents took away his game console. PHOTO: JUSTIN MAXON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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On weekends, Elizabeth Howe, Max’s mother, began finding him on the game early in the morning. She had to prod him to do homework. He isn’t as excited by academics as his older brother, a star student now at New York University. Max wants to grow up to be a game designer.

When a teacher called in September to warn his parents that his straight-A grades were slipping. his father, an internist, took away his game console and banished Fortnite until his grades improved. “Yes, there was shock and upset,” his mother said. “But Max knows there’s nothing to say.”

Ms. Howe, who manages her family’s real estate, didn’t realize how profound a change was in store. Over time, she noticed that Max was becoming cut off from his friends.

He found workarounds for the loss of his game console, playing Fortnite on a personal computer instead. On the PC, though, his friends using consoles couldn’t hear him. That meant he couldn’t team up, share weapons or chat with them.

Max couldn’t call or text either, since none of his friends communicate on their smartphones that way anymore. “It was like a grounding,” his mother said, “but of course, he’s not physically grounded.”

“I miss the old feel,” Max said. He got his console back sooner than he thought and not because his grades improved. He was assigned a group homework project with students who had decided to collaborate over their game consoles.

His mother realized that Fortnite had become so embedded in the boys’ lives that Max couldn’t even do his homework without it.

‘Headshots’

At Matthew’s house, Fortnite is making life uncomfortable. His father, Jay Seiden, a senior director at real-estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield, doesn’t understand why Matthew isn’t outside playing or exploring the nearby parklands and beaches, said Ms. Woods, Matthew’s mother. As a boy, Mr. Seiden would ride his bike or play in creeks, catching frogs and snakes.

Matthew Seiden during a Fortnite session at home in San Francisco.
Matthew Seiden during a Fortnite session at home in San Francisco. PHOTO: JUSTIN MAXON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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Often, Mr. Seiden forces Matthew off Fornite after 90 minutes and sends him outside. Then, his mom said, she sees him riding up and down California Street on his scooter looking for friends.

She imagines they are all inside playing Fortnite. Matthew’s mother grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and was an avid gamer, staying awake for hours after her parents were asleep playing Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Frogger. She still rode her bike, got homework done and earned a law degree.

That is why she is more lenient than Matthew’s father. Friday nights are Matthew’s favorite time of the week. He gets macaroni and cheese for dinner and Fortnite until bed. Ms. Woods sets time limits, she said, but “I probably let him play too much. I’d rather not fight about it.”

She worries if she ought to be tougher. She doesn’t like the “bratty attitude” that Fortnite brings out in Matthew, normally a sweet, compliant boy.

Research on the impact of videogames is inconclusive. On one hand, it found videogames can boost visual acuity, processing speed and decision making. Studies also link gaming to poor behavior and lower school performance. A recent study of U.S. eighth and 10th-graders found that 30 or more hours a week of videogaming can be a risk factor for increased substance use.

A boy playing Fortnite in Germany this year.
A boy playing Fortnite in Germany this year. PHOTO: FRANK MAY/DPA/ZUMA PRESS
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Gaming affects the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter tied to the brain’s reward system and linked by researchers to addiction. Mental-health experts say the constant rewards that games provide, such as virtual goodies, can lead some players toward compulsive behavior.

More psychologists now believe that persuasive technology embedded in videogames is disrupting traditional ways of diagnosing and treating family conflicts.

When a child acts out, a psychologist usually looks for a problem between parent and child. It could be explosive or inconsistent parenting or not enough time spent together, said Dr. Meghan Owenz, a clinical psychologist. There could be depression or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in the child.

Technology introduces a new variable. “You might have a really great, smart kid, and a really great, attentive parent and there’s really just something wrong with the technology between them,” she said, one designed to take up time and attention.

One way to find out, she said, is to take away the technology for a month and see how the relationships adjust. That is especially true in light of new research linking frequent use of technology by teenagers to ADHD symptoms.

On a recent Saturday, Matthew logged on to Fortnite and a storm was coming, encircling the players and pushing them toward the inevitable fight to the finish. “Oh, my God,” Matthew said, getting worked up.

“This place is usually better,” he said, meaning available supplies of guns, ammunition, bandages or health drinks to wounds. Such supplies usually appear randomly in loot boxes or vending machines.

He didn’t have much time left before a vending machine appeared, raising his hopes. But it yielded nothing to help him in the approaching gunfight.

Guns are critical to survival. His friend Reed is lethal with a bolt-action sniper rifle, Toby said, but “I like a hunting rifle with a scope. It does a little bit more damage.” Shotguns are good at close range, he said, especially for “headshots,” which count for more points.

With 11 fighters left, Matthew barrels ahead. He let off a volley from his assault rifle. “Got him,” he yelled.

Just as he began to gather his victim’s loot, a loud crack sounds and something hits him. “Ahhhh,” he shouted. “I died.”

Almost immediately, he starts a new game.

In and around the Richmond neighborhood of Matthew, Toby, Max and their friends, the mothers are in constant touch. They keep an eye on grades and watch for aggressive behavior or fading interest in non-Fortnite activities. They keep the boys busy in organized sports.

Matthew Seiden gets ready to play basketball at a gym in San Francisco.
Matthew Seiden gets ready to play basketball at a gym in San Francisco. PHOTO: JUSTIN MAXON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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Toby’s parents have a new Fortnite plan. They give Toby two warnings before his time is up—at 30 minutes and 10 minutes. Then they turn off the Wi-Fi and close their bedroom door, ignoring Toby as he stomps upstairs from the basement and slams his door.

As the holidays approached, neighborhood parents were already looking ahead to summer plans, camps and programs that will keep their boys offline.

Corrections & Amplifications 
YouTube users this year spent 6.2 billion hours through Dec. 19 on Apple IOS and Android apps. An earlier version of a graphic incorrectly showed 6.2 million. (December 21, 2018)

Write to Betsy Morris at betsy.morris@wsj.com

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Compared to other species, including our closest relatives, chimpanzees, the brain takes up much more body weight in human beings. Photo: iStockphoto

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  (December 18, 2018)

See also:

‘It’s about time’: Facebook faces first lawsuit from U.S. regulators after Cambridge Analytica scandal

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/12/19/dc-attorney-general-sues-facebook-over-alleged-privacy-violations-cambridge-analytica-scandal/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0a7f6680eccd

Cambridge Analytica, the political firm, sought to create “psychographic” profiles about social-media users — using their Facebook data — and target them with messages that preyed on their hopes and fears.

Teens insist social media makes them feel better: poll

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Image result for trump, google, photos

“Maybe I did a better job because I’m good with the Twitter”

 

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Young people

The study found widespread apprehension about the future. Seeking intimacy? Or isolation?

Facebook Criticized For Betraying Users’ Data — “Facebook’s conduct is ongoing, uncontained, toxic”

December 20, 2018

Facebook and some of the other largest technology firms in the world faced sharp criticism on Wednesday for failing to disclose the extent of its data-sharing deals, many of which went back to the social network’s early years.

Details of the deals, revealed in a New York Times report on Tuesday, set in motion a fresh round of rebukes from legislators who had singled out Facebook’s sharing practices in the recent past. And they came at a moment when the Trump administration, Congress and even some Silicon Valley executives are calling for stricter privacy laws that would govern Facebook and other businesses that trade in huge amounts of personal information.

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Lawmakers in the United States and Britain on Wednesday called for greater oversight of Facebook, the world’s dominant social media platform. But critics also focused on statements that Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, had made in recent months while defending the company.

Senator Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican, said the revelations made him question Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision making. “I know he’s smart, but sometimes I think he’s got no sense,” Mr. Blunt told Fox News, adding that the disclosures were cause to consider stricter privacy laws. “Congress is going to have to regulate them and stop this, and I hate to do it, but by God I will if they can’t clean up their act.”

A laptop computer screen displaying the Netflix homepage. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

A laptop computer screen displaying the Netflix homepage. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The outcry came in response to The Times’s findings that Facebook had granted business partners, including Microsoft, Amazon and Spotify, more intrusive access to user data than it had divulged — allowing some partners access without users’ permission. Last June, The Times uncovered a subset of Facebook’s partners, all of them device makers, that pulled user data onto smartphones and tablets.

Facebook officials said the deals did not violate user privacy — or a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission that barred it from sharing data without permission — because the companies were acting on Facebook’s behalf.

Image result for apple store, logo, photos

In a post published on Facebook on Tuesday, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, the company’s director of developer platforms and programs, defended the partnerships, saying the company entered into the agreements to let users interact with Facebook friends across devices and popular websites.

“None of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission,” Mr. Papamiltiadis wrote, asserting that most partners did not have to seek consent before obtaining users’ data because they were serving as extensions of Facebook.

But he also acknowledged that Facebook had made mistakes in managing some of the deals. “We recognize that we’ve needed tighter management over how partners and developers can access information,” he wrote.

Facebook was already dealing with fallout from reports that a political consulting company, Cambridge Analytica, obtained the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users. Cambridge used the information to build tools later deployed in President Trump’s election campaign. The F.T.C. launched an inquiry into Facebook’s practices after the data leak became public, and the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are also investigating the social network.

News of the deals on Wednesday further roiled the technology industry as policymakers and privacy advocates directed anger at Facebook’s leaders and its partners.

Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, attacked Mr. Zuckerberg for not disclosing the full scope of the agreements during a Senate hearing in the spring, when Mr. Zuckerberg assured officials that users had complete control of their data.

“Mark Zuckerberg had a lot of chutzpah telling Congress that Americans could control their data, when seemingly every other week Facebook faces a new privacy scandal for abusing our personal information,” Mr. Wyden said.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, called for the F.T.C. to police the company more aggressively. “Facebook’s seemingly unrestrained sharing of user data is the privacy equivalent of the BP oil spill,” Mr. Blumenthal wrote on Twitter. “Ongoing, uncontained & toxic. We will be paying the price for decades.”

Damian Collins, a British lawmaker whose parliamentary committee is investigating online disinformation, said Facebook officials should answer for why they had not been more forthcoming. “I feel that we have been given misleading responses by the company when we have asked these questions during previous evidence sessions.”

And Barbara Underwood, the New York attorney general, said her office would examine the deals as part of a continuing investigation into Facebook. “The news that Facebook struck data-sharing partnerships with other corporations reflects the many unanswered questions to which New Yorkers deserve clear answers,” said Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Ms. Underwood’s office.

Image result for Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, picture, tech crunch
Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director of developer platforms and programs, defended the partnerships but said it was necessary to exercise “tighter management” over data access. Credit Tech Crunch

Facebook has sought to contain the damage in part by winding down many of its data-sharing partnerships. Facebook said on Wednesday that it had brought more than 60 of its agreements to a close.

But deals with two giants of the technology world — Amazon and Apple — remain in place. Facebook officials said the deals must continue because of contracts the social network signed with the companies.

Records obtained by The Times showed that the social network granted Apple devices broad access to people’s personal data, even when users had disabled sharing. Facebook gave Amazon access users’ email addresses without permission, among other things, the records revealed.

An Amazon spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. An Apple spokesman said that the company stopped integrating Facebook into its operating systems earlier this year, but that the access continued to accommodate users of older systems.

In addition to those partnerships, Facebook will continue allowing special access for Tobii Technology, a company that makes devices allowing people with neuromuscular diseases to use the social network, a Facebook spokeswoman said.

Image result for Apple store in the SoHo, photos
Apple Store in So Ho

Facebook also had a deal to share the data of users’ friends with Microsoft, and agreements that gave Spotify and Netflix full access to users’ private messages. Users were especially incensed at the Spotify and Netflix deals, which appeared to go far beyond what the companies required for their integrations.

Spotify’s Facebook feature, still active, allowed users to share music with friends; Netflix’s integration, discontinued in 2015, let users share movie and TV recommendations. A Netflix spokesman on Wednesday said the company did not view personal messages for any other reason.

“This story exposes the myth of control,” Kate Crawford, a founder of the A.I. Now Institute at New York University, wrote in a tweet referring to Facebook’s partnerships with Spotify, Netflix and other companies.

“The total lack of respect for user wishes is the infinitely repeating scandal of 2018,” she added.

Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting.

The New York Times

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Facebook Criticized For Betraying Users’ Data
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  (December 18, 2018)

Image result for human brain, photos

See also:

‘It’s about time’: Facebook faces first lawsuit from U.S. regulators after Cambridge Analytica scandal

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/12/19/dc-attorney-general-sues-facebook-over-alleged-privacy-violations-cambridge-analytica-scandal/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0a7f6680eccd

Cambridge Analytica, the political firm, sought to create “psychographic” profiles about social-media users — using their Facebook data — and target them with messages that preyed on their hopes and fears.

Teens insist social media makes them feel better: poll

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Image result for trump, google, photos

“Maybe I did a better job because I’m good with the Twitter”

 

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Young people

The study found widespread apprehension about the future. Seeking intimacy? Or isolation?

Attorney general of Washington, DC, sues Facebook in Cambridge Analytica caper

December 20, 2018

The attorney general of Washington, DC, sued Facebook for sharing users’ data with Cambridge Analytica. It is the first legal case against Facebook over the privacy scandal.

  

The attorney general of Washington, DC, filed a suit against Facebook on Wednesday for allowing Cambridge Analytica to access the personal data of residents in the US capital.

Facebook earlier this year admitted that a third-party personality quiz app collected the personal information of users’ friends and the information was sold to the London-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Some 87 million users worldwide were affected.

Image result for facebook, zuckerberg, photos

Read more: Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal: What you need to know 

In Washington, more than 340,000 residents were impacted but only 860 took the quiz, DC Attorney General Karl Racine said.

The lawsuit alleges Facebook knew in 2014 that the app was collecting information on users’ friends but failed “to monitor or audit the app.”

Image result for Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, photos
Civil rights groups asked Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg to step down from his role as board chairman. It also requested that Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg leave the board entirely.

“We’re seeking to hold Facebook accountable for jeopardizing and exposing the personal information of tens of millions of its users,” Racine said. “We hope this lawsuit will ensure Facebook takes better care with its data.”

Read more: Facebook ‘sorry’ after new bug exposes millions of photos 

Infografik Facebook Cambridge Analytica ENG

In response to the lawsuit, Facebook said in a statement, “We’re reviewing the complaint and look forward to continuing our discussions with attorneys general in DC and elsewhere.”

The legal action, the first attempt to punish the social media giant over privacy violations, could lead to civil fines against Facebook of up to $1.7 billion (€1.5 billion).

Read more: Facebook apologizes after privacy ‘bug’ makes posts of 14 million users public

The Cambridge Analytica data was used by US President Donald Trump’s election campaign and the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

The scandal has raised scrutiny of privacy protection at the world’s largest social media company, which has been hit by multiple data breaches impacting millions of users.

cw/sms (AP, dpa, Reuters)

See also:

‘It’s about time’: Facebook faces first lawsuit from U.S. regulators after Cambridge Analytica scandal

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/12/19/dc-attorney-general-sues-facebook-over-alleged-privacy-violations-cambridge-analytica-scandal/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0a7f6680eccd

Cambridge Analytica, the political firm, sought to create “psychographic” profiles about social-media users — using their Facebook data — and target them with messages that preyed on their hopes and fears.

Image result for human brain, pictures

See also:

Facebook stock plummets following burst of bad news

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/19/facebook-plummets-on-a-booming-day-for-tech.html

 

Russia’s influence campaigns may be more sophisticated than we thought

December 19, 2018

Russian political interference campaigns may work differently than we have previously understood, with new research suggesting they may be both more advanced and more targeted.

Social media influence campaigns, which have been successful in swaying political opinion particularly in the United States, appear to be zeroing in on topics that create a specific political response in their target populations, rather than simply stirring divisions between communities.

By Chris Zappone
Sydney Morning Herald

The aim, according to lawyer and researcher John Fuisz, is to shift the outcomes of political races for or against an incumbent.

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri in October.
Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri in October.CREDIT:AP

So-called “issue-targeting” has been documented in the US mid-term elections and in Britain’s local elections in May, according to Fuisz’s start-up SSR Industries, working in combination with researchers from Virginia-based George Mason University.

Evidence of this type of political interference using social media has also been detected in campaigns aimed at voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin during the 2016 election in the US.

“By starting with issues, rather than demographics, it’s easier to find a group to target for influence,” said Washington DC-based Fuisz.

Those intent on interfering work out the “implicit bias”, defined as pre-existing attitudes or stereotypes that can shape the decision making of a consumer.

Pushing material that taps into the implicit bias can then shift perception. The ability to “issue-target” can help explain both the subtlety and efficacy of the online interference campaigns that political analysts fear is menacing open democracies.

It also sheds light on a little-discussed aspect of Russian information operations: how to decide on what topics to exploit.

Image result for vladimir putin, photos

How it works

The mechanics of online opinion formation in influence operation have been studied in Russia as far back as six years ago.

A 2012 report in the Russian business journal Kommersant detailed a series of contracts let by the Russia intelligence agency seeking people to research the ability to understand how information is spread on social media. Included were the “methods of covert control on the internet”, and the “dissemination of special information on social media platforms”.

“Issue-targeting” appears to be related to this area of research. Those running such a campaign consult publicly available information about political opinions like that found on election forecasting sites, for example, according to Fuisz.

Image result for Russian influence campaign, photos

Those sources can contain hints about the motivations and interests of voters, which are then tested as issues on social media for their ability to catalyse a response online.

For example, using a combination of human analysis and purpose-built software, SSR identified “Korea” as a possible “catalyst issue” that was used to sway opinion in the Senate race in the US state of Missouri.

The subject was perceived as one that could bias voters against incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in favour of a Republican, perhaps because of the Senator’s hawkish statements on Pyongyang, or because of Trump’s perceived “success” of the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un in June.

SSR’s Fuisz has concluded that an adversary to the US began actively testing “Korea” as an idea that would – whether rationally or not – negatively affect perceptions around McCaskill, who was facing a toss-up election.

GRU

FILE – In this Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, walks through a hall in the building of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, also know as Russian military intelligence service in Moscow, Russia. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP, File)

McCaskill had already been targeted by Russian state-backed hackers. Even so, the consensus view in an election futures market in early October was that McCaskill would prevail in what was a close race.

“As Senator McCaskill’s consensus rating increased, which represented her perceived chance of victory, the number of ‘Korea’ tweets coming through the network increased.”

“Senator McCaskill’s consensus [expectation of winning] then dropped indicating the attacks were effective.”

McCaskill lost her Senate seat at the mid-term election after Donald Trump campaigned for her rival. Her loss likely cannot by fully attributed to any influence campaign, as other political factors were in play, but researchers say it may have had an effect.

Local, not national

George Mason University associate professor Trevor Thrall, whose team collaborated on the work with SSR, said the results suggested Russian, or foreign adversaries, could have a greater effect on local, rather than national elections in the US.

“With fewer voices competing to influence the outcomes [of individual elections], Russian interference could play a relatively bigger role in shaping public discourse, attitudes, and voting patterns,” Thrall said.

“I personally am much more worried about Russian efforts to influence local and state elections than I am about their ability to alter outcomes at the national level.”

The risk is hightened by the fact that in the US, movements often only shape national politics after being embraced at the local level first, Thrall said.

Another issue-based campaign to influence British voters was discovered in April, ahead of local British elections. One UK-based blogger’s conspiratorial views that the Skripal poisonings, the Syrian War, NATO and Brexit topics were related was pushed by a network of accounts, some human, some likely not.

A surge in volume of tweets from a mere 14 Twitter accounts, pushed out a content on these issues, all of which were seen as tapping an implicit bias against the conservative government of the UK, led by Theresa May.

In “issues-targeting” the origin of the catalyst doesn’t matter as much as its effect. So real news, alternative news, propaganda can all be equally effective if they shift the behaviour of the target.

While May wasn’t up for vote, Labour saw an 8 per cent swing towards it in local elections, while Conservatives retreated 3 per cent overall.

Such influence campaigns also provide a lever that can be pulled to damage a candidate’s standing.

Given the increasingly polarised nature of political debate on social media, it actually takes less of a push to shift opinions, recent unrelated research from MIT shows.

“[Researchers] found that on polarised networks, a few bots are able to shift a disproportionate number of people over a threshold,” according a summary of a recent paper.

Clearly, the UK attack would not have been the only factor driving PM May’s slumping popularity. Yet the issues outlined tapped the implicit bias of voters, hardening their views against the UK leader.

A backward-looking analysis of key races in the 2016 US election yielded evidence of the term “unemployment” being used as a catalyst to affect perceptions in the state of Pennsylvania on Twitter and Facebook, helping deliver the state to US President Donald Trump.

Another campaign was discovered retrospectively in Wisconsin. It used Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. This campaign even reused an undetected Russian accounts from the infamous Jade Helm exercise of 2015.

In this exercise, a routine US military exercise in Texas became the source of online hysteria over fears that it was actually a plot by the Obama Administration to round up political dissidents. Fears prompted the Texas governor to dispatch observers and reassure the public. This was later seen as a test of Russia’s influence capabilities ahead of the 2016 election.

Like Russian influence operations of the past, the goal is not always straightforward.

In the 1980s, the US State Department concluded Russian influence ops don’t “necessarily seek immediate gains and are not looking for a major impact from every effort.”

Continually damaging Western politicians may be the goal, rather than achieving a specific electoral outcome. Yet the ability of a numerical minority to shape the broader conversation online is supported by findings elsewhere.

Looking at the debate around the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Twitter, Alexei Abrahams at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto found that just 485 human-controlled accounts drove 80 per cent of traffic out of 400,000 unique accounts from October and November.

Rather than relying on motivating masses with bogus memes and false political propaganda, “issue-targeting” can focuses on a specific human bias. (Fuisz’s past work involves understanding customer motivation.)

Deep research

How views are shaped online, and what can change them, are topics Russia has researched at least since 2012.

In that year, Moscow-based business journal Kommersant reported a trio of contracts, worth 30 million rubles (then the equivalent of $A900,000), tendered by intelligence service SVR for firms to develop “new methods of monitoring the blogosphere”.

The contracts aims were “the massive expansion of information sources on social media platforms with the goal of shaping popular opinion.”

The first project described in the Kommersant article, called “Dispute” would “monitor the blogosphere, undertaking ‘research into processes of the shaping of internet social groups that spread information on social media platforms’ and ‘delineation of factors that influence the popularity and spread of information”.

That information would be analysed by another system called “Monitor-3” whose purpose was “the development of methods of organisation and control of virtual internet societies of designated experts”.

A third system, called “Sturm-12”, was designed to be a complex “for the automated dissemination” of information and the development of “mechanisms to initiate scripted scenarios for mass audiences on social media platforms”.

The article said the SVR systems could be used for internal as well as external audiences, beginning in Eastern Europe.

The timing of the US announcement, followed by the Russian one may suggest that the Russian state was reacting to what it believed was aggression aimed at it.

In 2011, the Pentagon awarded a $US2.7 million contract to a company for a system that would allow it to manipulate social media sites in conflict zones. The US government is prohibited from promoting propaganda to its own citizens.

While there is no confirmation the systems discussed in Kommersant are being used for “issue-targeting”, the report showed a Russian awareness of the concepts in the realm of social media.

The issue may not be how to divide the masses, using banks of human trolls and armies of bots, but how to find the nexus of an online debate, and then how to inflame and manipulate it from afar.

It could help explain how the controversy of certain issues can be amplified without an appreciable increase in accounts. It’s only after this initial phase that the masses weigh in – both genuine and automated.

As Fuisz said: “By the time a social media interference campaign is visible to the public, it’s already happening.”

https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/russia-s-influence-campaigns-may-be-more-sophisticated-than-we-thought-20181218-p50mya.html

See also:

Related:

Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions near Emancipation Park (Formerly ''Lee Park'') in downtown Charlottesville, Va.
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions near Emancipation Park (Formerly ”Lee Park”) in downtown Charlottesville, Va. PHOTO: ALBIN LOHR-JONES/ZUMA PRESS
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  (December 18, 2018)

Hillary Clinton to girl who lost class president election: I, too, have felt the bitter sting of defeat

December 18, 2018

Hillary Clinton was featured this weekend in the Washington Post for what I suspect was supposed to be a heartwarming story of encouragement. But the two-time failed presidential candidate comes away from this episode looking embittered and self-centered.

An 8-year-old Maryland girl who lost her race to become class president to a boy was surprised when she received a personal letter of consolation from Clinton, who also lost a race to a boy.

“As I know too well, it’s not easy when you stand up and put yourself in contention for a role that’s only been sought by boys,” reads the letter, which Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told the Post was authentic. It continues:


Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretary of State, speaks during her keynote remarks at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves summit, Friday Nov. 21, 2014 in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

An 8-year-old Maryland girl who lost her race to become class president to a boy was surprised when she received a personal letter of consolation from Hillary Clinton.

Hatred stirred by leaders blamed for rise in journalist murders — China, Turkey called worst jailers

December 18, 2018

Hatred whipped up by “unscrupulous politicians” has contributed to the shocking rise in the number of journalists murdered in 2018, a media watchdog said Tuesday.

Eighty journalists have been killed worldwide so far this year — most notably the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi — with 348 in jail and 60 more held hostage, according to figures from Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“Violence against journalists has reached unprecedented levels this year, and the situation is now critical,” said the organisation’s head, Christophe Deloire.

“The hatred of journalists sometimes very openly proclaimed by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders and businessmen… has been reflected in this disturbing increase,” he said.

RSF did not directly point the finger at US President Donald Trump, who regularly rails against journalists and has branded some “enemies of the people”

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Eighty journalists have been killed worldwide so far this year -- most notably the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi (C) -- with 348 in jail and 60 more held hostage, according to RSF

Eighty journalists have been killed worldwide so far this year — most notably the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi (C) — with 348 in jail and 60 more held hostage, according to RSF Eighty journalists have been killed worldwide so far this year — most notably the Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi (C) — with 348 in jail and 60 more held hostage, according to RSF AFP/File

But Deloire said “expressions of hatred legitimise violence, thereby undermining journalism and democracy itself.”

– US joins blacklist –

The US also became the fifth deadliest country in the world for reporters in 2018 after the shooting of five people at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland in June.

Afghanistan was the most dangerous country for journalists, with 15 killed including AFP’s Shah Marai, followed by Syria with 11 deaths and Mexico with nine.

Deloire said the hate stirred up against journalists is “amplified by social networks, which bear heavy responsibility in this regard.”

“Murders, imprisonment, hostage-taking and enforced disappearances have all increased,” he said, with the death toll of professional journalists up 15 percent after three years of a falling casualty rate.

“Journalists have never before been subjected to as much violence and abusive treatment as in 2018,” Deloire said.

The murders of Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and the young Slovak data journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend “highlighted the lengths to which press freedom’s enemies are prepared to go,” he said.

Khashoggi’s murder in October caused an international outcry and showed the extremes to which “some people will go to silence ‘troublesome’ journalists”, RSF said.

More than half of the journalists killed were deliberately targeted, the other 31 were caught in violence.

The RSF report said the number of non-professionals killed almost doubled from seven in 2017 to 13 this year.

It said citizen journalists now played a key role in helping get news from countries at war or with oppressive regimes, “where it is hard for professional journalists to operate.”

The overall toll does not include 10 deaths of media workers that the RSF said it was still investigating.

– China, Turkey worst jailers –

China continues to be the world’s top jailer of journalists, the report said, with 60 behind bars, 46 of them non-professional bloggers, some of whom are held in “inhuman conditions for nothing more than a post on social networks.”

The report also condemned “Turkey’s despotic regime” for the “Kafkaesque trials in which journalists are accused of terrorism on the basis of a single word or phone contact.”

With 33 journalists behind bars, it has more professional reporters incarcerated than any other country despite a fall in the number in prison.

The sentencing of three journalists aged 65, 68 and 74 to “aggravated life sentences… under the severest form of isolation, with no possibility of a temporary release or a pardon” was inhuman, it added.

Egypt and Iran also made the blacklist of the worst offenders with 38 and 28 reporters and bloggers in prison respectively.

The RSF condemned Egypt for the opaqueness of its military justice system, saying 30 reporters in detention had not been tried and others are still held even after the courts ordered their release.

AFP