How To Track Elon Musk’s Roadster On Its Journey Towards Mars

The successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy earlier this month was a landmark technical achievement, but it has quickly come to be symbolized by something a bit sillier — the image of a red Tesla Roadster floating through space, with a dummy in a spacesuit behind the wheel.

The car and its passenger — known as Starman — were the test payload for the Falcon Heavy, and they’re now on a long journey out into the solar system. If you’re curious what that path looks like, an aerospace engineer and SpaceX admirer has put together a website that uses NASA data to track the Roadster’s course. It’s called Where Is Roadster?, and it’s fascinating, with both live data on the Roadster’s location and an interactive tool that shows its future course.

It’s often mentioned that the Roadster is “on its way to Mars,” which can give the impression that it’s making a beeline for the Red Planet. But the Roadster, like all things in the galaxy, is subject to the tug of gravity, so instead of a straight path, it’s tracing a long arc away from Earth and the sun.

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And the distances involved are truly vast. Right now, the Roadster is still much closer to Earth — 2.25 million miles away — than to Mars, 137.5 million miles away. Meanwhile, Mars is moving too, so when the Roadster first intersects its orbit this July, the planet itself will already be millions of miles away. After that, the Roadster will actually return to something close to Earth’s orbit, though again, Earth itself won’t be anywhere close.

According to the site’s data, which is taken from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Roadster won’t actually be close to Mars until early October of 2020. And as far as we know, it doesn’t have any landing equipment or thrusters that would make it possible to actually get the car down to the surface.

Unless, of course, Elon Musk has another big secret up his sleeve.

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What Trump Still Gets Wrong About How Russia Played Facebook

Special Counsel Robert Mueller released a bombshell indictment Friday, implicating 13 Russian nationals and detailing a multi-year, costly, and widespread effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. At the center of that effort were Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, which the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) used to recruit American followers, plan real-life rallies, and spread propaganda about issues like religion, immigration, and eventually Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Facebook and Instagram were mentioned in the indictment far more times—41—than other online platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and PayPal, which were each mentioned less than 12 times. Still, Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of advertising, tweeted Friday that Russia’s ultimate goal “very definitively” was not to influence the election, but to “divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media.”

On one hand, Goldman is correct: Russia certainly aimed to deepen partisan divides and stir up chaos. But he is incorrect to assert that the Russians were not interested in influencing the election. That idea is at odds with both what we know about Russia’s use of social-media platforms and with Mueller’s indictment itself. For example, Goldman overlooked the massive impact Russians had with ordinary posts, as opposed to paid ads. Most important, he also appears to misunderstand what the Russians really used the ads for.

Saturday, President Trump seized on Goldman’s tweets to argue that Russia didn’t influence the election. The president implied that media organizations were falsely reporting that it had.

Goldman maintains that the Russians were not trying to influence the election, in part, because they organized protests on “both sides,” which is true. Some of the Russians’ propaganda efforts were designed simply to cause confusion, distrust, and sow division. However that doesn’t mean they weren’t also attempting to do everything in their power to ensure Clinton wasn’t elected. The IRA had dozens of full-time employees and spent over $1 million a month on its efforts, according to the indictment.

Mueller’s indictment clearly indicates Russia’s operatives were aiming to influence the 2016 election against Clinton, and in favor of Trump and Bernie Sanders, a task they began working on as early as 2014. Russian operatives were instructed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them),” according to the indictment. The operatives behind the Facebook group “Secured Borders” were even criticized for not having enough posts dedicated to disparaging Clinton.

Most troubling, the Russians encouraged minority groups like African Americans to stay away from the polls. In October 2016, an Instagram account called “Woke Blacks” published a messaging saying that voting for Hillary was “the lesser of the two devils…we’d surely be better of without voting AT ALL,” according to the indictment.

“It’s far more concerning that they were taking and targeting groups to remove them from the process of voting,” says Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who has been tracking Russia’s propaganda efforts since before the election. “It underscores the fact that you don’t know whether people are inauthentic or real.”

Goldman’s tweets not only contradict the indictment, they also indicate he doesn’t understand the true purpose of the ads. “The ads were just to get the ball rolling on this and to find the right people. It was really just an efficiency thing,” says Albright. “All the ads did and all they were meant to do was to refine targeting. It initiated the process of persuasion over long periods of time, like two years.” In other words, the ads were just designed to get people to like certain Facebook pages or to follow specified Instagram accounts. They themselves weren’t always designed to be the propaganda, but instead meant to lure people in.

The propaganda was often distributed later. For example, one ad innocuously instructed people to follow a Facebook page if they were a follower of Jesus, but the page later spread a meme of Hillary Clinton with devil horns.

The Internet Research Agency’s ads on Facebook also only made up a tiny portion of its overall strategy. Facebook estimates that 10 million people saw paid ads, whereas up to 150 million people saw other content from fake accounts.

But the Russians’ influence was even broader, because of how other Facebook users reacted to their posts. Posts on just six of the IRA’s most popular Facebook pages received 340 million shares and nearly 20 million interactions, including likes, comments, page shares, and emoji reactions, according to Albright’s analysis. The Russians were similarly successful on Instagram: A single Russia-linked account received nearly 10 million interactions from January 2016 to August 2017.

Albright was careful to say the Russians may have gamed Facebook’s algorithms in order to produce such high engagement. It’s also possible that there are cracks in the way that Facebook measures user engagement, according to Albright. “There’s no question that some of these metrics and some of these total numbers of shares are inflated,” he says.

Since it was discovered that the Russians used Facebook to influence the election, the company has hired thousands more people to monitor ads and has also crafted stricter policies for buying political advertisements. “We proactively disclosed the IRA activity and have worked with investigators to give the public a fuller understanding of what occurred,” Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of Global Policy said in an emailed statement He added that Facebook is working closely with federal agencies, including the FBI, “on better ways to protect our country and the people on our platform.”

But at least one of the company’s top executives still seems unable to fully grasp with how Facebook was used to influence the election organically. Facebook did not respond to a follow-up request for comment regarding Goldman’s tweets. His statements only address Russia’s purchase of online ads, which, of course, is the focus of his job. But he fails to mention other ways Russia co-opted Facebook and makes it appear as though there are simple ways to resolve issues about foreign meddling online. In reality, Facebook, Congress, and the US public are still grappling with how Russia weaponized internet platforms to influence an election.

“There’s literally propaganda all over their platform still,” says Albright. “Some of these memes are still getting circulated, they’re very easy to find.”

Russia Revelations

  • It’s now undeniable that Russia attempted to disrupt the 2016 election, following the indictment of 13 Russians.
  • The indictment contained many revealing new details, but its description of the work of the Internet Research Agency was striking for its blandness.
  • The indictment also revealed how Russians appropriated American identities to hide in plain sight.

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Did Russia Affect the 2016 Election? It’s Now Undeniable

For some time, there has been a conflation of issues—the hacking and leaking of illegally obtained information versus propaganda and disinformation; cyber-security issues and the hacking of elections systems versus information operations and information warfare; paid advertising versus coercive messaging or psychological operations—when discussing “Russian meddling” in the 2016 US elections. The refrain has become: “There is no evidence that Russian efforts changed any votes.”

But the bombshell 37-page indictment issued Friday by Robert Mueller against Russia’s Internet Research Agency and its leadership and affiliates provides considerable detail on the Russian information warfare targeting the American public during the elections. And this information makes it increasingly difficult to say that the Kremlin’s effort to impact the American mind did not succeed.

The indictment pulls the curtain back on four big questions that have swirled around the Russian influence operation, which, it turns out, began in 2014: What was the scope of the Russian effort? What kind of content did it rely on? Who or what was it targeting, and what did it aim to achieve? And finally, what impact did it have?

Most of the discussion of this to date has focused on ideas of political advertising and the reach of a handful of ads—and this discussion has been completely missed the point.

So let’s take these questions one at a time.

1. What was the scope of the Russian effort?

The Mueller indictment permanently demolishes the idea that the scale of the Russian campaign was not significant enough to have any impact on the American public. We are no longer talking about approximately $100,000 (paid in rubles, no less) of advertising grudgingly disclosed by Facebook, but tens of millions of dollars spent over several years to build a broad, sophisticated system that can influence American opinion.

The Russian efforts described in the indictment focused on establishing deep, authenticated, long-term identities for individuals and groups within specific communities. This was underlaid by the establishment of servers and VPNs based in the US to mask the location of the individuals involved. US-based email accounts linked to fake or stolen US identity documents (driver licenses, social security numbers, and more) were used to back the online identities. These identities were also used to launder payments through PayPal and cryptocurrency accounts. All of this deception was designed to make it appear that these activities were being carried out by Americans.

Additionally, the indictment mentions that the IRA had a department whose job was gaming algorithms. This is important because information warfare—the term used in the indictment itself—is not about “fake news” and “bots.” It is about creating an information environment and a narrative—specific storytelling vehicles used to achieve goals of subversion and activation, amplified and promoted through a variety of means.

2. What kind of content did it rely on?

As the indictment lays out in thorough detail, the content pumped out by the Russians was not paid or promoted ads; it was so-called native content—including video, visual, memetic, and text elements designed to push narrative themes, conspiracies, and character attacks. All of it was designed to look like it was coming from authentic American voices and interest groups. And the IRA wasn’t just guessing about what worked. They used data-driven targeting and analysis to assess how the content was received, and they used that information to refine their messages and make them more effective.

3. Who or what was the operation targeting, and what did it aim to achieve?

The indictment mentions that the Russian accounts were meant to embed with and emulate “radical” groups. The content was not designed to persuade people to change their views, but to harden those views. Confirmation bias is powerful and commonly employed in these kinds of psychological operations (a related Soviet concept is “reflexive control”—applying pressure in ways to elicit a specific, known response). The intention of these campaigns was to activate—or suppress—target groups. Not to change their views, but to change their behavior.

4. What impact did it have?

We’re only at the beginning of having an answer to this question because we’ve only just begun to ask some of the right questions. But Mueller’s indictment shows that Russian accounts and agents accomplished more than just stoking divisions and tensions with sloppy propaganda memes. The messaging was more sophisticated, and some Americans took action. For example, the indictment recounts a number of instances where events and demonstrations were organized by Russians posing as Americans on social media. These accounts aimed to get people to do specific things. And it turns out—some people did.

Changing or activating behavior in this way is difficult; it’s easier to create awareness of a narrative. Consistent exposure over a period of time has a complex impact on a person’s cognitive environment. If groups were activated, then certainly the narrative being pushed by the IRA penetrated people’s minds. And sure enough, The themes identified in the indictment were topics frequently raised during the election, and they were frequently echoed and promoted across social media and by conservative outlets. A key goal of these campaigns was “mainstreaming” an idea—moving it from the fringe to the mainstream and thus making it appear to be a more widely held than it actually is.

This points to another impact that can be extracted from the indictment: It is now much more difficult to separate what is “Russian” or “American” information architecture in the US information environment. This will make it far harder to assess where stories and narratives are coming from, whether they are real or propaganda, whether they represent the views of our neighbors or not.

This corrosive effect is real and significant. Which part of the fear of “sharia law in America” came from Russian accounts versus readers of InfoWars? How much did the Russian campaigns targeting black voters impact the low turnout, versus the character attacks run against Clinton by the Trump campaign itself? For now, all we can know is that there is shared narrative, and shared responsibility. But if, as the indictment says, Russian information warriors were instructed to support “Sanders and Trump,” and those two campaigns appeared to have the most aggressive and effective online outreach, what piece of that is us, and what is them?

Persuasion and influence via social media cannot be estimated in linear terms; it requires looking at network effects. It is about the impact of a complex media environment with many layers, inputs, voices, amplifiers, and personalities. All of these elements change over time and interact with each other.

So anyone trying to tell you there was little impact on political views from the tools the Russians used doesn’t know. Because none of us knows. No one has looked. Social media companies don’t want us to know, and they obfuscate and drag their feet rather than disclosing information. The analytical tools to quantify the impact don’t readily exist. But we know what we see, and what we heard—and the narratives pushed by the Russian information operation made it to all of our ears and eyes.

The groups and narratives identified in the indictment were integral parts of the frenzied election circus that built momentum, shaped perceptions, and activated a core base of support for now-President Trump—just as they helped disgust and dismay other groups, making them less likely to vote (or to vote for marginal candidates in protest).

In the indictment, Trump campaign officials are referred to as “unwitting” participants in Russian information warfare. This gives the White House an out—and a chance to finally act against what the Kremlin did. But the evidence presented in the indictment makes it increasingly hard to say Russian efforts to influence the American mind were a failure.


Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew) is an expert on information warfare and the narrative architect at New Media Frontier. She advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government from 2009 to 2013 and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-15.

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Toyota Design Chief Says the Future of Cars Is Custom Speedsters and Rolling Boxes

The man with the final word on design at one of the world’s biggest automakers sees a future dominated by self-driving boxes-on-wheels and souped-up sports cars.

For Simon Humphries, who as of this year oversees design globally across Toyota Motor’s namesake and luxury Lexus brands, mobility will follow two divergent paths. One is the e-Palette, a customizable robo-van he designed that’s capable of transporting anything from people to pizza. The other is the uncompromising car-of-your-dreams that you’ll be able to buy precisely because the modular vehicle takes care of your more mundane mobility needs.

Hired by the Japanese automaker as a designer in 1994, the 50-year-old Briton also did a brief stint at Sony, a company he remembers fondly, if nostalgically. He spoke with reporters at Toyota’s Nagoya office on Thursday after an annual round table event to introduce new executives.

How do you see cars, and car design, evolving?

Simon Humphries: Design has a responsibility to go beyond just styling, and present a viable story for the future. Toyota said it’s going to be a mobility provider, and that doesn’t necessarily mean four wheels. The boundaries between car makers, train makers, bicycle makers and whatever else are going to change. You need to go into it with an open mind. To suddenly think we might be moving into a future where we’re delivering cargo and mass transit at the same time, that’s a big mindset change for everybody.

Read: Toyota Is Finally Adding Apple CarPlay

Does that raise the danger that mobility becomes commoditized?

When the majority of your transport needs are fulfilled by something like e-Palette, then the other side of it is you can buy a sports car that really is a sports car. A lot of the people who really like cars are worried about the future, but I see it the other way round. At the moment, the way we conceptualize cars is all based around an average. In other words, we buy a car that can do everything. If we end up with some kind of optimized transportation system, the cars that people purchase for themselves are going to be much more specific. There will be an emotional solution and a practical solution. So maybe the story is that the middle ground is increasingly going to disappear.

What happens to mass-market mainstays like the Camry?

What is the essence of a Camry? It’s the ultimate family car. The concept of the family is changing. In the future the iteration of the family car could be something quite different. We have to start thinking about that now. At the moment, everything in a car from a design point of view is based on a 100-year-old package — engine in the front, and a driver holding a steering wheel behind. When you don’t have to hold a steering wheel, the world is your oyster. You can change.

Read: That Giant New Toyota-Mazda Car Plant in Alabama Could End Up Even Bigger Than Expected

When will this vision of the future arrive?

I honestly don’t know, but what I will say is everything is starting to happen more quickly than people expected two or three years ago. When the tipping point seems to have occurred, it really starts to speed things up. I would say we’ve passed the tipping point. And now it’s a race.

Who are your role models in terms of design?

The type of design I always admired was Sony in the late eighties and early nineties. I think they had fantastic design in those days. They were completely focused on what they thought was best. The other one is Apple. They appear to have this unreachable goal that they’re always going to chase. When you have a company like that, you have to admire their work and their commitment. I’m not going to quote cars, because I’ll put my foot in it.

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