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U Professor: How Social Media, Socialbots Exploit the Unwary

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University of Utah Assistant Professor of Communication Robert W. Gehl

  A University of Utah communication professor says popular social media platforms are analyzing your internet use in ever more sophisticated ways.  And he thinks there are ways to make that job harder.

Robert W. Gehl says Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media sites collect and analyze information about you every time you click “like,” send a message or search for something.  In his new book,Reverse Engineering Social Media, Gehl says we’re also encountering social bots online – computer programs that interact with us like people and try to manipulate our opinions.

“One place where these programs have popped up is in political contexts such as Russia and Syria," Gehl tells KUER.  "So people who are critical of, say, Putin or the Syrian regime will automatically see these seemingly human Twitter or Facebook accounts pop up and say, ‘I think the regime is great.  I think everything is fine.  I think you’re wrong.’”

Gehl says these new developments, along with revelations about government surveillance, make it much more important to use encrypted e-mail and to find alternatives to the most popular social media platforms -- though he admits that’s a lot more work.

“Yes, explore alternatives," Gehl says, "for example, alternatives to Google that respect your privacy.  There’s several search engines that are just as good.”

Rather than living up to its original promise to give everyone a voice, Gehl says today’s social media are engineered mostly for the benefit of those with enough money to take advantage of the huge amounts of data they collect on each one of us.

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