Many of us are highly skilled, have a lifetime of experience, but are lacking a purpose and a means to put them to use. To truly SuperAge, one has to have a why, a what, and a how. The intersection of the answers to those questions can power one into a very long and fulling life. Gary is a big-tech veteran with the sort of skill set that sets off hungry alarm bells with headhunter agencies. He has also been around big media and seen what can happen when media is amplified by big tech, with results that can be deeply troubling.
As a society, there are certain base facts we need to agree on if we are going to have discourse. We can and should disagree on the actions we take, but without the ability for us to discern what is real and what is not, the capacity for citizens of a democracy to have a sense of agency in the world goes away. The attempts to create alternate realities is not new, nor is limited to public sphere — there is a whole lot of snake oil out there in the commercial world as well.
Gary decided to do something about this. When he could be working for another mammoth tech company, he instead has helped found an initiative that was about educating people, helping them decide for themselves what is true and what is not. The DisInfo Academy was born, and Gary had his triumvirate of the what, the why, and the how. His purpose and passion were found.
What is your age?
57 … but I see myself as 25 when I look in the mirror. Doesn’t everyone?
What is Disinfo Academy?
Disinfo Academy is a non-profit with the mission to teach the world self-defense from disinformation and propaganda. We aim to provide humanity with a practical understanding and appreciation of disinformation techniques, along with the ability to recognize when these approaches are being used to manipulate. With this knowledge, society will become savvy consumers of information enabling everyone to make good decisions in their own best interests.
How can we see it, join it, contribute in some way?
Disinfo Academy is primarily on YouTube today but also active on LinkedIn and Twitter. The best way to experience our content is to visit https://youtube.com/disinfoacademy. The best way you can support our mission is to subscribe to the channel and share the content within your own network.
Why are you doing this? With your background, you could be working most anywhere. Was there something personal that affected your decision to help start DA?
After 30 years in technology, and the last few in the media industry, I felt it was now time to give back. I led a research project at Al Jazeera to study trust in news and became fascinated by the challenge and the opportunity. So, I decided to leave and set up a company to tackle the challenge from outside the media industry.
“Disinfo Academy…endeavoring to teach humanity self-defense”
We are swamped with a deluge of disinformation every day. With a problem this large and with so much invested in it, how will you make an impact?
That is the heart of the challenge. There are many entities whose business model or reason-for-being is dependent on disinformation and propaganda. They do this primarily because it is more intriguing, and intrigue draws attention, and attention makes them money.
Disinfo Academy is not focused on the source of the disinformation. Instead, we’re endeavoring to teach humanity self-defense. If millions of people learn to recognize the techniques being used to manipulate them and ask simple questions such as, “What does person or entity X have to gain by getting me to believe what’s being presented to me?” we can go a long way toward ending the manipulation.
Deep fake videos are astounding. Once one understands this sort of thing is possible, how do they ever trust anything they ever see again? If none of us trust anything, that is a pretty scary place to be.
Deep fakes are scary but not really new. Pictures and audio have been manipulated for many years and we’ve survived as a species. Video is just the next frontier of this form of manipulation.
Fortunately, there are technology solutions in the works to help stem the problem. Initiatives such as the Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI) will help ensure videos (and photos) can be tracked from origination to dissemination, making clear if any editing has occurred since the original capture. In addition, just as AI technology is used to create deep fakes, AI technology can also be trained to detect them.
“Just as AI technology is used to create deep fakes, AI technology can also be trained to detect them”
This is your first non-profit; how is the product launch process different from the profit world?
It’s really not very different. Whether it’s for-profit or non-profit, you still must plan, build, and market your product, and ensure you find product/market fit. And that’s true regardless of the type of product – technology, media, physical goods, or services. The major difference is in the funding and the expectations of the funders. In the for-profit world, all they care about is ROI. Non-profit funders don’t expecting any financial ROI. They want impact. So that gives us a bit more flexibility to bring products to market and gain product/market fit.
Who else is involved in the process?
There are three founding partners in Disinfo Academy. In addition to me, we have Rand Waltzman and Keith Montgomery.
Rand is our resident disinformation subject-matter expert and we’re super fortunate to have him on the team. He originated the term “cognitive security” and is a specialist on artificial intelligence and the weaponization of information. He has spoken on strategies against Russian information operations before Congress and at major conferences around the world. At the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he created, planned, and managed major R&D programs on the application of massive scale data analytics and artificial intelligence in the areas of insider threat detection, social media, and computer vision.
Keith was the original force behind Disinfo Academy so we wouldn’t be here were it not for his unwavering enthusiasm to tackle this challenge. He is the co-founder of several technology companies focused on Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Cloud, Cyber Security, and Enterprise Transformation.
You are one of the few people we know of to have worked for both Apple and Microsoft. How do those cultures differ?
Apple and Microsoft cultures are enormously different – at least they were when I made the move from Apple to Microsoft back in 1996.
In a nutshell, Apple was focused on building great products that customers love. And it was a bit of cult – not of personality but of “Macintosh.” That gave everyone a common purpose and made Apple a really fun, rewarding place to work.
Microsoft was very different – all business and almost zero personality. Sure, there were some outsized personalities at the company – notably Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. But everyone there was focused solely on shipping products and improving the bottom line. I adapted in the end and became a better businessperson from the experience and learned a ton about customers, products, finance, and what it takes to ship software at extremely large scale.
Apple, Microsoft, and Al Jazeera
You also worked for a big news organization, Al Jazeera. What have you learned from these big companies that you want to bring or avoid bringing to DA?
The first thing I learned is that the DNA of a news organization is very different from a technology company. I worked in technology at Al Jazeera – our group built the websites, mobile apps, etc. Technology in a media company is just context; the news is the core product. News gets the big budgets and the attention of management and the public.
Al Jazeera was really interesting in that it’s a huge non-profit, beholden to a clear and singular mission: be the voice for the voiceless. That enabled the network to focus its efforts on people rather than entities and developing nations rather than wealthy, established ones. This is the learning I plan to bring to Disinfo Academy – focus. The disinformation space is vast, but where we can have the most impact is by focusing on the people who are exposed to the disinformation.
Starting something new like DA involves some risk vs working with a large corporation. How do you personally manage it?
The key to managing risk is to properly set expectations upfront and take a measured approach to planning and execution. We could easily pour a ton of our own money into building the content and Disinfo Academy brand. Instead, we’re growing organically, leveraging our expertise and our networks to scale up with more content and go out with more reach every single week.
I must imagine that the resources available to DA are not of the same scale as with some of your past gigs, but then there may be more freedom. How have you adjusted your day-to-day working life?
Since I left Al Jazeera, I’ve been working harder than ever. I’m involved in many projects in addition to Disinfo Academy. This was my hope when I left full-time employment and it’s worked out better than I could have imagined. And I should point out, I’m not making a penny right now and am happier than ever. I’m fortunate that I’ve saved and invested well over the years, so I can afford to “volunteer” my time for causes and projects that are important to me. Even with all this varied activity, my attention and energy is being consumed by Disinfo Academy more and more every day.
Staying Fit vs Faking It
You were a pretty impressive miler in high school, and now you have become a spin-class devotee. What does spin do for you?
Running as a youngster taught my body and my mind to thrive on the pain of physical exertion. What has changed for me, however, is my body (fortunately, not my mind). I sustained a back injury in my mid-20s playing lacrosse and wound up having a disc removed. I was back playing lacrosse 6 weeks later, but I might have rushed it a bit. My surgeon had recently performed the same procedure on Joe Montana, and he was back quarterbacking the 49ers in 6 weeks, so I had to prove I was as capable as Joe.
After that surgery, running went from a joy to a chore and I never regained the lightness in my legs. Everything else stayed the same – the drive to work out and the feeling I get during and after. So now I spin and I hike (typically 4000’ vertical day hikes). Both give me a high-intensity workout without any heaviness or pain in my legs. So, spin is really just a replacement for my original love for running.
One of the things I like about athletics is that, so far, anyway, excepting things like doping, it is hard to fake it. Do you see that changing?
Have you tried strapping your FitBit to your dog and sending her out to play fetch? Easy way to get to 10K steps without even breaking a sweat! And with social media, it’s very easy to promote your results. This is all pretty harmless if it’s just you vs your friends. But what if a fake stat qualifies you for a race you have no business being in? Or results in a sponsorship you don’t deserve?
Where do you get your news and information?
I consume news from a wide variety of sources. I subscribe to a few publications, such as The New York Times and The Bulwark. These days I tend to use aggregators such as Google News and Apple News as they bring me a variety of sources (and points of view) into a single feed. I also get quite a bit of news on Twitter – not from the tweets themselves but from amplification of important articles from mainstream news organizations.
Checking Disinformation in the News
How do you personally discern what is real, what is perhaps total fabrication and what is just some entity’s positive spin?
When it comes to news from mainstream sources, I believe in “trust but verify.” If the New York Times or BBC (or any other large news organization) is reporting something, it’s likely mostly true and worthy of my trust. But they could still get it partially, and very rarely entirely, wrong. So, if it’s a big story with wide-ranging implications, I will check other news organizations to verified the story. If they have their own confirming sources, then the trust factor goes up. That said, these organizations can be deceived.
The other end of the spectrum is sensational stories from people or news organizations I’ve never heard of. I default to assuming they’re peddling bullshit 100% of the time. Doesn’t matter if they’re from the right or the left. They have something to gain from me believing what they’re saying, and that’s where I start. Occasionally it is verifiable, but most of the time it turns out to be some form of disinformation (intentional) or misinformation (accidental) that should be stopped in its tracks.
TV and Books
You gave me some excellent TV streaming suggestions months ago. What are you enjoying now?
I have two buckets of shows that I watch – one bucket I watch by myself which usually involves technology, crime, violence, and/or sci-fi (ideally all four!) and one I watch with my wife which usually involves history, romance, and (fortunately) some crime and violence (she’s cool that way!).
In my first bucket, I’m just wrapping up StartUp which has been loads of fun (crypto meets Haitian gangs meets Russian mobsters) and Halt and Catch Fire which is an amazing nostalgic romp through the early PC industry – well before I joined Apple and Microsoft. My wife and I are deep into Outlander and A French Village.
Are you reading any fiction?
That’s a loaded question since we’ve already established that at least half of what I read on news sites and social media is fiction. 🙂 But, yes, I try to end my day with true fiction to counteract the information overload I experience during the day. My guilty pleasure lately has been historical fiction. I’m captivated by Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series.
Where do you see yourself and DA in 10 years?
Ten years? I’m still trying to figure out what next year will look like. But if I do look out well into the future, I hope two things are true:
1) I’m still working but it feels like a hobby every day as it does now.
2) DisInfo Academy has made a dent in the universe and we’ve helped dig society out of the disinformation and propaganda black hole we’re in now.
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