Irrelevance of Recent Past: August 2013 Alert closing US Embassies

Today I’m reflecting on the notion that social media such as blogging should be judged on its relevance to current events and issues (breaking news).

It makes sense that current events attract large audiences of page views, followers, or recommendations.   This includes any content to say anything about a current topic such as additional evidence, back-story, expert testimony, or informed opinion.    Quality of that content may scale to high quality contributions having multiple of these traits or may be as slim as an uninformed opinion from someone with a good sized number of followers.   The measure of merit is the content’s ability to draw views to a site.

It seems almost all our attention is on discussing breaking news or breaking developments of recent news.    Our attention jumps ahead to the next big breaking news item for the simple fact that it is breaking news.   Once that happens, recent past topics fade from being worthy of discussion.

When growing up, I valued news magazines because they attempted (or I was fooled into thinking they attempted) to compile information over multiple days following a breaking news story.  In general there was at least a week of information about some topic that was summarized to provide some perspective and depth that wasn’t available in daily newspapers or TV news.

At some point, I began to lose interest in these periodicals when I noticed that most of the content was the daily news of the day before the publication date of the issue.   Even back then, there was a sense that the value of a magazine was to have something to say about what was breaking at the time of publication.

As an aside, I recall in work situations that called for a period summary briefing (say of performance issues of the previous week) had to be prepared to talk about any hot event that occurred in the hours since the briefing was prepared the previous day.   This is a cultural thing not limited to just social media.

We thirst for immediate knowledge of immediate events and we are satisfied with whatever can be gathered no matter how messy, contradictory, unsupported, or biased.   When enough time has elapsed to construct a solid accounting of the events, it is no longer relevant.   We have moved on.   We aren’t interested.

I guess I’m odd in that I’m much more interested in the “rest of the story” than I am in breaking news with the flood of say anything in order to say something.

A good example was last summers (August 2013) major concern of an imminent terror attack that prompted the closure of several US embassies and consulates.

I remember at the time being very concerned that something was about to happen.  I heard of confidence that came from reports of an unusual escalation of intelligence indicators that something was about to happen.    I also heard at the time we had no specificity as to who was going to carry it out, what exactly they had planned to carry out, where it would happen, and how it would unfold.   It was like being told to brace yourself for a surprise — something was going to surprise you but it will still be a surprise.

I recall that the explanation of the closing of embassies and consulates was not based on any specific information but instead was a prudent precaution.  I recall even this was controversial because it interrupted important business at these locations so the list was whittled down to the fewest possible.

Nothing happened.  At least nothing that I recall. I might have missed it.

But a search for information about the event shows a lot of content being generated with time-stamps of the same day as the official announcements.   On the same day or days immediately following, there were lots of commentary about what it could mean, who might be behind it, what their motives were, what tricks they had available, and so on.    Lots and lots of relevant material, if you were reading the news at the time.

And there it sits preserved in amber of the Internet.   By today’s standards, completely relevant material for publication in mid August 2013 and yet irrelevant 8 months later.

What happened to this story?   What exactly was the information that justified raising a panic?   What was the wisdom of shutting down embassies if we lacked any specific intelligence saying they were targeted?

Overall did everything work as it was supposed to, or were there mistakes made?

It seems we will not know because it is no longer relevant.   Only a blogger who delights in irrelevant musings would even bring it up.

Besides being part of the general audience interested in such news at it happens, I have an interest in the details that’ll probably be forever outside my grasp.   I’m interested in what led to the alarm and what prompted the specific actions chosen.

From what the information I have seen in popular press accounts, this has all the features I associate with big data analysis conclusions.  I call such conclusions discovered hypotheses because they are worthy of future testing.

The evidence we heard about of an unusual increase in message traffic of certain content exchanged within and between groups having certain common properties.   This describes aggregates of categorized data that either stood out from their normal levels or matched previously recorded profiles that preceded historical events.  I have no idea what these are but that’s typically how I discover things in big data analysis.   The pattern was sufficiently unusual to grab the analyst’s attention and conclude this is important even if he can’t articulate why.

In my work using strictly historical data, this would be my prompt to explore historical data at a somewhat leisurely pace to find an explanation that can be backed up by evidence.    Often such investigation would go unnoticed until I had a evidenced-based explanation for the unusual results of summarized categorized data.

In contrast, this particular incident came from a different discipline of using similar data but for real-time purposes to protect against attacks.  The proper action of finding something notably unusual is to raise an alarm so that actions can be taken to protect people and assets.

While I have a great deal of admiration for the people in these positions, I have doubts that the tools are useful for such alarms.

I realize that I’m not qualified to learn the precise details of what triggered the alarm and frankly I don’t really want to know.  What I want to know is whether there was ever a thorough review of their processes in terms of what actually eventually happened or didn’t happen.

There are relevant questions we can be asking today 8 months after the fact.   Was an investigation performed to find the root cause of the noteworthy patterns of aggregated data?   Did things work out the way we intended or did we over-react?  If we over-reacted, was there any refinement of procedures to fine tune the algorithms and procedures to handle similar noteworthy data events in a better way?   Did we learn anything from this event?

I’d also ask about the reactions taken in response to the warning.   Was it appropriate to alarm the population with such unspecific information?

I’m especially curious about the choice to make such a public display about closing embassies and then debating which ones to close.   Was there sufficiently good reason to do this?  I can think of a possible downside in that we’ve possibly exposed our private concerns about security postures of certain locations.   Was there sufficiently good reason to do this?

This is really not a post about security, national intelligence, or of administration competence.   The point of this post is that this old story (and many like it) should remain relevant for current-day discussions.

Too much of our collective reporting resources are being devoted to have everyone add or restate content about breaking news, most of that is redundant and unreliable.   Too little effort is devoted for digging into yesterday’s stories.

It is one thing for casual commentators to speak their minds on the latest controversies.   If they want an audience they need to dive into those controversies as they play out.   But it is another when all of our professional news sources are competing against casual commentators for attention doing the same thing (leveraging their advantage of higher authority).

To me, yesterday’s news is far more important.   It is essential to assure that the right lessons are learned and the right corrections are implemented.

The word relevance is evolving to become a synonym for entertainment.   The goal of entertainment is to maximize page views and followers, for instance.

I’d prefer its older intention of informing us of actionable lessons either that reassure us that everything went perfectly as planned or that we learned from our mistakes and are better prepared for the future.   We should value relevance to informed democratic governance.

Addendum: I certainly over simplified the available information at the time and there was probably more specific information than the broad information I suggested.  It still has some questions that are worthy of continued interest, in my opinion.

Addendum 2: This post highlighted by Instapundit also describes the phenomena of relevance defined as immediately breaking news.

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