The Twitter Mob is Here to Stay

Technology can’t save us from human nature.

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Four men, perhaps farmers, make angry gestures while holding an axe, rifle, pitchfork and stick. They typify the traditional Western concept of an angry rural mob protesting something with the threat of violence. (photo: Robert Couse-Baker)

“Passwords are for treehouses.” — Frank Abagnale

When Frank Abagnale talks about major fraud, cybersecurity, financial crimes and complicated con games, people listen. Well, now they listen. And they’ve been listening since young Frank was finally nabbed by the FBI in 1970 at the age of 22- after a spree of high-stakes fraud, complicated cons and thievery theretofore unknown to criminologists.

Forging credentials, Abagnale became a doctor, a hospital administrator, an airline pilot, and a lawyer over the course of his storied criminal career. He stole millions, took in nearly everyone he met, and led U.S. authorities on a merry chase for years. He even escaped custody- twice.

If you watched the movie “Catch Me if You Can” you’ve heard of Frank Abagnale, even if you don’t remember his name. When Leonardo DiCaprio plays you in a movie opposite Tom Hanks, you’ve made it.

After his arrest and rehabilitation, Abagnale went to work as a consultant for the FBI.

In his decades-long career since on the other side of the fence, so to speak- catching criminals instead of being one- Frank Abagnale has become one of the most trusted, experienced voices in law enforcement as it pertains to fraud, financial crimes and cybersecurity.

Abagnale also wrote a few books. “Catch Me if You Can” followed by “The Art of the Steal” and several others.

So when Frank Abagnale tells us that it is 4000 times easier today for criminals to steal and commit fraud, it makes sense to listen. It sounds counter-intuitive: With technology so much better, how could it possibly be easier to commit financial crimes than ever before?

Easy.

And it is precisely because technology is so advanced that financial fraud and theft has become so much easier.

Technology has improved; so tools for committing fraud have also improved. Now sneak-thieves have more sophisticated methods than ever for hoodwinking the unwary.

Frank Abagnale sums it up perfectly: Fraud is more sophisticated but people are just as careless and gullible as ever.

He points out the fact that most large-scale data breaches, most major incidences of online theft over the last decade have occurred because someone failed to follow a security protocol.

Human error: Some employee used an easily-guessable password; someone broke the rules and removed a secure laptop to an unsecured location.

Personal data breaches often occur the same way; someone follows a link in an official-looking email which directs them to enter personal login and password information on a website that only looks like their bank’s.

“Only two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity and I’m not sure about the universe.” — Albert Einstein

Frank Abagnale’s point, that we can’t count on technology- however sophisticated we think it is- to protect us and we must vigilantly protect ourselves grows more relevant the more dependent we become on technology.

Technology can’t save us from human stupidity. It can’t save us from human cupidity, either.

On the contrary: The sun shines on the just and the unjust alike.

Charlatans, cons, frauds and other nefarious persons can use technology to lie, cheat, and steal. Rubberneckers, band-wagon jumpers- not to mention the confused, impressionable and easily misled- can use technology for their own ends, for their own reasons.

Do you know what keeps most of the truly disturbing images and video that exists in the this world off the internet?

People. Human beings. It isn’t an algorithm; no program can be designed to identify and block such images because there are simply too many unpredictably horrible variations for a mere computer to catch.

Any average human mind, on the other hand, can identify a snuff film or unspeakable violence in a heartbeat. Though for the poor souls who must shield the rest of us, that is a heartbeat too long. These brave moderators suffer from long-term PTSD and none of them last long in such a job.

Technology can’t save us. We must protect ourselves.

Technology can’t even predict what you might type into your search engine next; your phone probably tries to do it all the time.

How often is it right?

Based on a past search history, an algorithm might predict future search trends, but no computer program can predict the vast vagaries of even the most average human mind.

No predictive computer algorithm could possibly predict a sudden inexplicable interest in Peruvian despacho ceremonies or George Washington crossing the Delaware.

When “Covid-19 is a lie” began trending on Twitter this week, the human beings of Twitter were counting on technology to save them.

It originally started trending as a condemnation; it was printed on a protest sign and Twitter commentators were mocking it. But other Twitter users, seeing #Covid-19isaLie trending, jumped immediately into action- doing the very thing of which they were accusing Twitter.

Amplifying and spreading misinformation.

Angry Twitter users jumping on the bandwagon to condemn the trend, wound up promoting the very thing that they were condemning. These well-meaning but misguided souls were soon joined by the ambulance-chasers, the attention-seekers, the rabble-rousers.

Twitter stars of dubious credibility retweeted the hot trend in obvious attempts to get their followings up.

Though they are acting in concert- “There they are, let’s get them!”- individuals in the mob have their own sets of motivations. Some participants like the righteous pile-on, some are merely opportunistic or only curious. Some are simply impressionable and get swept away by emotion.

But the collective action is the same.

Twitter users end up complaining that Twitter moderators and technology should save them…from themselves. But there is no easy tech patch for human nature.

Technology is no antidote to the mob. For that, we need rational human thought.

With it, we must save ourselves.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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