On Friday afternoon, President Obama responded for the first time to the revelations of various National Security Agency data gathering programs—from recording all call records in and outside of the United States, to the PRISM program, which reportedly taps into the data streams of some of the largest data hosting companies in the country.
Here’s the gist: Although you, the citizens, have not heard of this, we have substantial oversight on these programs involving every branch of government. Legislators have been briefed (in regards to the telephone data, he said all members knew), and “if anybody in government wanted to go further than that top-line data … they would have to go back to a federal judge,” Obama said.
Basically, if you trust the system, you should trust us.
“In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok,” the president said. “But if you look at the details … I think we have struck a nice balance.”
The president also reassured that “no one is listening to your telephone calls” and that although he came into office with “a healthy skepticism about these programs,” he is reassured that they don’t overreach. “The modest encroachments on privacy that are involved … it was worth us doing,” he said.
In the cold calculus of presidential politics, here’s how things are supposed to work. You spend hours of travel time going from campaign rally to campaign rally, where if you’re lucky and your staff has found a big enough venue, a few thousand people will watch you give the same old stump speech. You hope it’ll get picked up in the news, even though the last thing you’ll be doing is breaking news (unless it’s for an unplanned gaffe).
If you answer questions, it’s in a controlled Town Hall format, not a cacophonous free-for-all. You trumpet your appearances in advance for maximum exposure. And you certainly don’t try for anything major during your opponents’ convention.
President Obama broke all those rules Wednesday afternoon, when he became the first candidate of either party to do an AMA (“ask me anything”) on Reddit. The appearance was a complete surprise, even for veteran Redditors (who immediately demanded Obama post a picture to prove it was him; he complied).
The president also broke news, floating the idea of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (which gave rise to Super PACs) for the first time.
The Value of a Connected Audience
Though the AMA was unannounced, word quickly spread on Twitter, and Reddit’s servers were overwhelmed. The site said more than 200,000 people were trying to view Obama’s Q&A at any one time. More than 1.8 million people subscribed to the thread.
Ask any politician if they would like to speak directly to 1.8 million people for an hour — or even 200,000 — and they’ll probably start weeping with joy at the thought. For comparison, Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in 2008 — held in the open air at Mile-high stadium in Denver — had a capacity crowd of 84,000.
So let’s recap. Obama sat at a laptop for one hour, typed out answers to all of ten questions (leaving hundreds unanswered), ending with a quick in-joke referencing a popular meme (the “not bad” Obama rage face). In return he won the attention and interest of nearly 2 million people on Reddit, and many more without. (On the Internet, Reddit has a coolness factor that goes far beyond its borders.)
Creating New Rules
Regardless of your affiliation, that kind of return on investment has to change the political calculation. Don’t be surprised, in 2016, if candidates from both parties spend a lot of time doing online AMAs — official ones on Reddit, and otherwise.
Is that a good thing? There are reasons to think not. The AMA format does allow candidates to cherry-pick which questions they’re going to respond to. It’s “ask me anything,” not “I’ll answer everything.”
Then again, it would be hard for politicians to ignore questions that get a lot of upvotes, making the format superior to, say, a Twitter Town Hall. And giving the candidate time to type out answers is something of a win-win: the candidates gets to double-check their answer for gaffes (though Obama did accidentally refer to “a asteroid” in response to a NASA question), while the questioner gets a more measured, longer response.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the AMA may be the worst form of political Q&A — except for all the others that have been tried.
Coulter was trying to comment on the overall civil behavior of the two candidates during Monday’s debate when compared with the interruptions and arguing of the second debate. However, the term is widely considered offensive and derogatory. There’s even a movement, R-Word, asking people to pledge not to use the word.
Coulter’s tweet immediately sparked a harsh reaction from many Twitter users that continues Tuesday morning:
@anncoulter Did you really use that word? You have to be kidding me!
President Barack Obama’s campaign is taking aim at Mitt Romney on Republican National Convention turf. Today, visitors to the Tampa Bay Times website will see a large expandable ad mocking Romney as a fat cat who outsources jobs away from the U.S. and avoids taxes by hiding his money in offshore accounts.
“Click to see Mitt Romney’s qualifications,” states the ad, which when expanded, mimics a desk cluttered with reminder notes. One suggests that Romney has a meeting with the Koch Brothers, and he should “Book trip to Caymans” to “visit money.”
The Koch Brothers are wealthy industrialists who have been vilified by the left in part for their behind-the-scenes support of groups backing conservatives and Republicans including Romney.
The ads, which appear to be delivered outside of Florida and possibly nationwide, were paid for by the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee with the Democratic National Committee.
The ad buy is reminiscent of many the Obama camp ran during the early GOP presidential primary races when splashy Obama ads ran on news sites in states including Iowa and New Hampshire, and could be seen by people across the country rather than just in those particular states.
The message has been reiterated in television spots from the Obama camp and outside groups seen often in key swing states such as here in Florida. While the Obama camp seeks to strengthen support among important voter groups like veterans, young people and LGBT rights supporters, it is also hammering away at Romney’s reputation in the hopes of convincing people that he is disconnected from the middle class.
The TampaBay.com ad links to a page on the official Obama site with video of an ad featuring Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Obama.
Meanwhile, Romney is also running ads on the Tampa site. They’re clearly aimed at his supporters convening here for the RNC. The display ads appear along the bottom of most pages of TampaBay.com and tout, “America’s Comeback Team.” Some encourage supporters to “Get your official gear today,” while some show the #GOP2012 hashtag.
“This house belongs to you, and to every American. For eight years, just a short chapter in the long story of our democracy, my family also had the privilege of calling the White House home.” (Barack Obama)
When President Obama and Mitt Romney take the stage for their first debate in Denver tomorrow night, a far more extensive shadow debate will unfold across social media. Campaigns and supporters will aim to seize the online “conversation” in a vast game of spin unfolding well beyond the telecast and media coverage does.
As a sign of just how pervasive and crucial social media has become, in some states elected officials are only one degree of “friend” separation from nearly every Facebook account holder in that state, says JD Schlough, a Democratic political strategist. And by one analyst firm’s count, Twitter has 140 million U.S. users, more than 30 million of whom joined in 2012 alone.
“All social media is a conversation, but the amount of people having that conversation in 2012 is a lot more than it was in 2008. That conversation is going to happen whether the campaign influences it or not — so they better get their message out there and hold the other side accountable for mistakes,” Schlough says.
On Thursday morning, a growing crop of analytics firms will drill down to see which moments—which gaffes, one-liners, and key messages—resonated the most, and which social media influencers did the best job amplifying them.
It’s likely that more than 50 million people will be watching the action Wednesday at the University of Denver. And whether it was Richard Nixon’s haggard look in 1960 or Ronald Reagan’ dismissive “There you go again” line against Jimmy Carter in 1980, experience shows that a single impression or one-liner can carry or ruin the night for either candidate.
This could be especially evident online. During the Republican presidential debates in Iowa last fall, when Mitt Romney made his infamous $10,000 bet with Rick Perry, playing into the stereotype of him as a clueless plutocrat, this spawned some 3,400 tweets. And the Democratic National Committee poured gas on the fire, creating the hashtag #what10Kbuys, which became a trending topic.
In terms of his online and mobile presence, the president has a strong advantage. According to figures from Nielsen, BarackObama.com had 6.4 million unique visitors in August 2012, reaching 2.9% of Americans who were online that month. MittRomney.com had 3.3 million unique visitors during that time, about 1.5% of the American population online. On mobile, the figures were similar. Obama’s official app and mobile website had 1.8 million unique users during August, from Android and iPhone owners in the United States. MittRomney.com — which includes both mobile apps and web — had only 881,000 unique U.S. users.
On social media platforms highly influential tweeters can make all the difference, and a growing number of firms aim to identify which Twitter members are driving the conversation — ranking people by followers, frequency of tweeting, and frequency with which their tweets are further distributed.
Earlier this year PeopleBrowsr, a San Francisco-based analytics company, analyzed how influencers helped launch public campaign against Chik-Fil-A, the fast-food restaurant whose president drew fire from some quarters for donating to right-wing groups that opposed same-sex marriage.
This influence can spill into mainstream media coverage. On July 17, the Chik-Fil-A topic was mostly remarked upon by noncelebrities and a few gay activist groups. The following day the tweets came from journalist David Carr and bloggers and celebrities like Pink and Rob Delaney. The day after that, the mainstream media, including the Guardian, NBC and AOL, started covering the story.
If marketers and political campaigns can determine which influencers have the biggest sway on different topic and in different geographical areas, they can wage campaigns to deliver messages to different interest groups, says Shawn Roberts, marketing director for PeopleBrowsr, which is not itself doing political campaigns.
“If they can get those influential people talking, those are the folks that will drive opinion,” he says.
Overall the goal is not just to more broadly deliver a message, but to ensure that it is delivered from trusted friends—the holy grail of marketing. After all, you are more likely to see a movie when a friend recommends it, rather than if you’ve seen an advertisement.
That’s why campaigns want to use all means possible to prime social media to distribute talking points in real-time. “If we know that people believe stuff they hear from friends more than politicians, and one of them does something stupid, or smart — or if there is a contrast on an issue — t amplifies the impact of the debate to hear and to react and add your own spin,” Schlough says. “Much like the convention, they will seek to use the social media to capitalize on the good moments and fact-check the hits the other side is throwing.”
Bluefin Labs, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that analyzes social media conversations, has been shepherding a list of 400 to 500 most politically influential people on Twitter, but has not yet done any analytics on them.
That may change after the debates. The company plans to analyze shifts in how people are taking about the race, says William Powers, who directs Bluefin’s The Crowdwire blog. “Are they just looking at it as a political race, as a race between celebrities, or are they looking at it as a contest over positions on the issues? Let’s face it, the bigger questions are: What are these guys going to do when they have power?” The first analytics might be posted Thursday, after the debate, he says.
Having refused to build a moon-sized battle station in space — and worse, invoking the power of the Force without so much as a nod to the Dark Side — the Obama administration should have expected some mockery at the hands of the Galactic Empire.
It got that Tuesday, in the form of an unusual press release on the official Star Wars website. Datelined “Imperial City, Couruscant,” the post crows about the “overwhelming superiority” of Imperial forces over the United States.
The post quotes one Governor Wilhuff Tarkin (not yet promoted to Grand Moff): “Such destructive power can only be wielded to protect and defend by so enlightened a leader as Emperor Palpatine.”
Tarkin wouldn’t confirm rumors that the Imperials themselves are constructing a Death Star of their own, though Admiral Conan Motti (not yet the guy who was force-choked by Darth Vader) warned the Senate not to believe the petition response’s “exaggerated claims” of a weakness in the Death Star design, “should one ever be built.”
Motti also took issue with a claim in the White House petition, based on calculations by economics students at LeHigh University, that the Death Star would cost $852 quadrillion (or 13,000 times global GDP). The estimate was based on the market price of steel.
“The costs of construction they cited were ridiculously overestimated, though I suppose we must keep in mind that this miniscule planet does not have our massive means of production,” wrote Motti.
The White House could not be reached for comment. But there were one or two fans in the comments section of the blog eager to point out that since the movie took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Tarkin and Obama are not actually contemporaries. Thanks for the fact check, guys.
Image credit: Mashable composite. Photos courtesy NASA and Flickr, mentalnoise
This Feb. 22, 2013 file photo shows two heavily damaged homes on the beach in Mantoloking, N.J., from Superstorm Sandy. Sea level rise worsened the flooding from this storm.
Image: Mel Evans/Associated Press
The Obama administration is teaming up with tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Intel to roll out web-based tools for policy makers and the public to better understand likely climate change impacts in their communities. The White House announced its climate data initiative, which is part of the administration’s broader “Climate Action Plan” unveiled in June 2013, on Wednesday morning.
The centerpiece of the initiative is a new climate data portal that launched in a beta phase as part of the data.gov website — climate.data.gov. This portal features climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA, as well as other federal agencies, universities, and nonprofits, in a bid to make “federal data about our climate more open, accessible, and useful to citizens, researchers, entrepreneurs, and innovators.” The first topic to be addressed on climate.data.gov is going to be coastal flooding and sea level rise risks.
According to a White House fact sheet distributed to reporters, the website already includes more than 100 curated datasets, web services, and tools that can help communities plan for climate change impacts.
“Over time, these data and resources will expand to provide information on other climate-relevant threats, such as to human health, energy infrastructure, and our food supply,” the fact sheet said.
The release of climate data comes out of a recognition that the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the U.S., particularly in the form of more frequent and severe heat waves, wildfires, and heavy precipitation events. In addition, sea level rise is an increasing threat to coastal communities, especially in cities like New York, Norfolk, Miami and New Orleans. The Obama administration may also be betting that there will be more support for its actions to reduce the severity of climate change through measures such as EPA regulations of power plants if more data reaches the public’s fingertips.
The climate data initiative will be publicly unveiled at an event in Washington on Wednesday evening. Prior to this effort, climate science data has been buried in bureaucratic stovepipes at more than a dozen federal agencies, ranging from NASA to the Department of Defense. Even within a single agency, multiple sub-departments have maintained different datasets, making it nearly impossible for policy makers and the public to access. For example, NOAA runs the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which is the official repository of U.S. climate data, but NOAA’s climate research is led by a separate division, as is the agency’s short-to-medium range climate forecasting.
The White House framed its climate data push as an integral component of the president’s emphasis on boosting America’s resilience in the face of extreme weather and climate events, which have cost the country record amounts in recent years.
“Even as we work to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and expand renewable energy generation, we need to take steps to make our communities more resilient to the climate change impacts we can’t avoid — some of which are well underway,” said John Podesta, a counselor to the president and one of the top aides working on climate issues in the West Wing, and presidential Science Advisor John P. Holdren, in a White House blog post. “This effort will help give communities across America the information and tools they need to plan for current and future climate impacts,” they said.
The open climate data push includes a NASA and NOAA “innovation challenge” to foster the development of coastal flooding tools.
In addition, the initiative is also involving agencies not normally thought of as having much to do with climate science, such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is part of the Defense Department. That intelligence agency, along with others, is releasing new map data of U.S. infrastructure, including bridges, roads, railroad tunnels, canals, and river gauges.
Foremost among the private sector climate data initiatives highlighted by the White House is Google’s commitment to donate a petabyte, which is equal to 1,000 terabytes, of cloud computing storage to help support the creation of high-resolution maps and data crunching tools that are available to the public.
According to the White House, Google is also announcing partnerships with university scientists to donate as many as 50 million hours of high performance cloud computing on the Google Earth Engine geospatial analysis platform. The company is also committing to helping to develop a new, ultra-high resolution global terrain model that could greatly improve flood risk analysis.
In addition to Google’s work, mapmaker CartoDB is announcing new grants for creating climate data-driven tools that would use CartoDB’s infrastructure. Another mapmaker, Esri, which makes the widely used ArcGIS software used by city planners, is also donating some of its resources to encourage climate science-relation innovation. Esri launched a climate-focused “geo-collaboration portal” on Wednesday, where citizens and professionals can go online to discover, contribute, and share resources critical to confronting the impacts of climate change.
“We felt it was important to establish this collaborative network of individuals and organizations who use GIS to come together to combat the impacts of climate change,” said Esri president Jack Dangermond in a statement.
Also, Microsoft Research is also providing climate scientists and policy makers with free access to some of their cloud computing resources, in the form of grants to 40 awardees. Each grant would provide up to 180,000 hours of free cloud computing time and 20 terabytes of cloud storage. Microsoft is also rolling out a new data resource called “Adaptable FetchClimate,” for accessing past and present climate observations and for climate projection information.
The White House is also partnering with the Intel Corporation, which will host regional hackathons to spur the development of climate resilience tools.
Nonprofit groups are also part of the White House’s climate resilience strategy. Climate Central, a nonprofit climate news and research organization, is planning to release new online tools to assess local sea level rise risks.
“Today Climate Central is committing to launch a next-generation sea level rise and coastal flood risk tool for every state in the U.S. We have already published prototypes for New York, New Jersey, and Florida. We’ll be releasing a major tool upgrade for those states next week, and then releasing tools for all other coastal states over the spring and summer,” Ben Strauss, director of Climate Central’s sea level rise program, told Mashable.
Note: Andrew Freeman was previously a reporter at Climate Central.
Share more of your precious wireless spectrum with private businesses, President Barack Obama told government agencies in a Friday memo.
What’s the deal? All wireless communications require spectrum, a government-regulated finite resource that’s limited to one larger-scale “user” at a time, like a radio station, cellphone provider or even a local wireless router. As the number and variety of wireless devices continue to skyrocket, the government is scrambling to find novel ways to allow private businesses the access they need to thrive economically while preserving access for public agencies such as NASA and law enforcement.
One idea to curb the problem is spectrum sharing, wherein User A would get spectrum while User B isn’t busy with it and vice versa. Example: Say you’re cruising down the highway next to a military base. If that base isn’t using its allocated wireless spectrum at the moment for military base things, your cellphone could use that spectrum so you could tweet a picture of that cool military base you just found (Just don’t get too close).
After years of pushing from advisors and outside commentators, Obama’s gone all-in on spectrum sharing. His wordy and technical order boils down to this: The White House Chief Technology Officer and the Director of the National Economic Council will co-chair a Spectrum Policy Team to work with the Secretary of Commerce, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and a variety of other players to research and then issue policies on federal spectrum sharing.
Importantly, the Spectrum Policy Team will also be charged with coming up with market-based financial incentives for federal agencies to share or relinquish their spectrum, giving them more of a reason to do so. The order also directs the FCC to find spots where private businesses and the government could share spectrum and to find areas where government agencies could move to free up spectrum for commercial uses.
Public Knowledge, a technology advocacy group, praised Obama’s spectrum sharing decision.
“Today’s directive requiring agencies to work on new ways to share our public airwaves more efficiently — with each other and with the private sector — will promote this wireless economy and allow it to continue to thrive,” said Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld.
“The federal grants for next-generation sharing technology will maintain America’s leadership for spectrum sharing technologies in an increasingly competitive global market.”
Obama’s order is a follow-up to his 2010 directive to make 500 MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband in the next 10 years. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees spectrum allocation, has since been reorganizing federal agencies’ access to spectrum and then auctioning off the newly freed blocks. But FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who advocates for spectrum sharing, argues that process “is reaching its limits.”
“That is why since my first days in office I have endorsed building our federal spectrum policy on carrots, not sticks,” Rosenworcel said in statement on Obama’s memo. “I strongly support the initiatives outlined in the Presidential Memorandum, especially using incentives as a catalyst for freeing more federal spectrum for commercial use.”
Is spectrum sharing the right thing to do? Share your thoughts in the comments.