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Fake news, even fake fact-checkers, found in run-up to U.S. midterms

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When the results of today’s U.S. midterm elections are tallied, people will have a clearer sense of how the American people really feel about the current administration. Or at least, how they feel based on the information they’ve read leading up to the election — not all of which was factual.

Alas, it’s not just the temperature of the U.S. political climate that will be gauged; so too will the impact and reach of online misinformation.

All the major social networks have made attempts to clamp down on fake news, but the trickery has only grown more insidious and pervasive, with new derivatives of fake news, such as fake fact-checkers.

Indeed, it would appear that just as we outsmarted fake news, those pushing misinformation have outsmarted our outsmarting.

Jane Lytvynenko tracks fake news and viral hoaxes at Buzzfeed. She says misinformation travels far on social media “and if the headlines are politicized, they also tend to be divisive.”

People packed a Houston sports arena on Oct. 22 for a Ted Cruz rally featuring an appearance by President Donald Trump. The Texas midterm race between Cruz and Beto O’Rourke has become focused on getting the vote out. (Jason Burles/CBC)

As an example, one recent conspiracy theory accusing mail bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc of being a “false flag” operative has almost 80,000 shares on Facebook. For comparison’s sake, the most shared article from the New York Times during the same period received 50,000 shares.

And it’s not just fabricated headlines that readers need to be wary of.

Lytvynenko explains that the majority of misinformation we see online is not strictly speaking fake news, which is defined as a piece of content that is completely fabricated and financially motivated. “Instead what we see is hyperpartisanship — websites and blogs spinning real facts past the point of recognition.”

Further complicating things are new, harder to identify, breeds of misinformation-spreaders.

According to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a growing number of fake fact-checkers are making it harder than ever for consumers to differentiate what is real from what is bogus.

Poynter cites the example of the pseudo-news site The California Republican, run by the campaign committee to re-elect U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, whichpublished what they called a “fact-check” of an opinion article opposing Nunes. In other words, they didn’t like what had been written about him, so they wrote their own rebuttal, framing it as a fact-check.

And fake fact-checkers are just one example of the proliferation of fake news derivatives; now, even legit fact-checking efforts might be giving fuel to the false narratives.

Media manipulators

According to danah boyd (who spells her name lower case), the founder and president of the research institute Data & Society, the media are being played by those wishing to spread false news.

She states that media manipulators have developed a predictable — but successful —  strategy in which, first, they create spectacle, using social media to get news media coverage, which in turn drives new audiences to the story.

Case in point, according to a recent study by Media Matters for America, over the past three weeks, leading newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, have produced more than a hundred news stories referring to the migrant caravan, which the report refers to as President Trump’s “phony crisis,” claiming he is “using his bully pulpit to move it to the top of the media agenda.”

So what are we to do?

According to Lytvynenko, “one key thing reporters have to do is think about what they amplify and what words they use to do it.”

A commuter walks past an advertisement last April discouraging the dissemination of fake news, at a train station in Kuala Lumpur. (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)

For the audience, she recommends following legitimate news outlets and being careful about what you share. As well, she cautions, getting news from social media is not ideal.

“If a headline is meant to create outrage, look into it further before blasting it out to your friends on social.”

To that end, it would seem, the best thing any of us can do is slow down, instead of always racing to keep up with the pace of our constantly updating feeds. After all, research has shown that six out of 10 of us will share an article just based on its title, which means in all of those cases, we’re prone to fall for a hoax, because we’re not reading closely enough … if at all.

And yes, we’re just as prone to this hasty headline-sharing here in Canada.

As Radio Canada’s Jeff Yates reported, a fake news article accusing NDP leader Jagmeet Singh of being wanted for terrorism in 15 countries was shared more than 5,500 times, despite the fact that if you were to click on the article, there was nothing in the text to support the claim in the headline.

Alas, the most troubling — and complicated — part about fake news in all of its forms is that it has repercussions on the real world. In the lead-up to the congressional vote south of the border, it has seemed that any version of the “truth” can be found online. But despite the proliferation of misinformation online, those being voted in are real candidates with real views.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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