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Call It Facebook for the Dead: Latter-day Saints’ FamilySearch.org Helps Build Online Tree of Family Connections

SALT LAKE CITY, March 22, 2013 – When I was younger, family history was for old folks. Now that I am older, family history is for kids adept at using computers and mobile devices.

What accounts for this change? Personal computing and broadband. Nowhere is this remarkable change — from the province of the old to a playground for the young — more visible than at the RootsTech conference that kicked off here on Thursday.

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SALT LAKE CITY, March 22, 2013 – When I was younger, family history was for old folks. Now that I am older, family history is for kids adept at using computers and mobile devices.

What accounts for this change? Personal computing and broadband. Nowhere is this remarkable change — from the province of the old to a playground for the young — more visible than at the RootsTech conference that kicked off here on Thursday.

RootsTech 2013 is the third annual conference hosted by FamilySearch.org, the non-profit family history organization that describes its purpose as “connecting families across generations.” FamilySearch.org is funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is also based here.

This conference is all about the convergence of genealogy and technology, and the ecosystem supported by an internet-connected web of familial relationships.

Family history used to be about names, dates and places: a solitarily researcher looking at microfiched records in a dimly-lit family history library. Finding one ancestor did not guarantee that you’d find another. Whether entered on a pen-and-paper record, or in desktop family tree software, this was a painful and tedious process.

But today, family history is about making connections online. It’s about sharing those connections through an internet-based common family tree. And the everyday user may be surprised to find out how many of their ancestors are already populated in “the tree.”

In preparation for this year’s RootsTech, this month FamilySearch.org made access to “the tree” available to everyone, whether members of the LDS Church or not. Any users can simply go to FamilySearch.org, create a free log-in and password, and begin entering their family data.

By entering just a few generations of ancestors (parents’ and grandparents’ birth dates, locations, and death dates, if applicable), many users find that their “tree” suddenly populates with the details about hundreds or thousands of ancestors.

FamilySearch officials say that there are between 800 million and 1 billion names accessible within “the tree.”

Here’s an example of what FamilySearch.org’s tree looks like, with the blue letter for male ancestors, and the pink lettering for female ancestors, as the generations go back in time

“We are trying to create a universal family tree where family communities work to create the best tree,” said Paul Nauta, senior marketing manager for FamilySearch.org.

FamilySearch.org and its predecessor organization, the Utah Genealogical Society, has been collecting these records for Church members for 109 years. The organization rebranded itself as FamilySearch.org in 1999, when the church began to catalog its growing volume of data into computer databases.

But in its original version, FamilySearch.org didn’t link individuals’ family trees into “the tree.” Instead, individual church members would conduct their own family histories. Then they would submit them to the church as individual computer files. In addition to learning about their ancestors, LDS church members are interested in family history research to perform religious ordinances, such as baptism, on behalf of ancestors who have already died.

But over this past decade, FamilySearch.org and the church “became how painfully aware how much duplication of effort has going on around the world,” said Nauta.

In part to remedy the situation, FamilySearch.org began to allow users to see other relatives’ genealogies online. In fact, as more Mormons began to have access to broadband internet services, and logged on to conduct online family history, they began to share the results of their research with other, distant relatives.

Over the past year, the process has accelerated. FamilySearch.org updated its interface and launched “Family Tree,” a new way to quickly and easily visualize generations of ancestors. The next natural step was to open up the nearly one billion person database to any FamilySearch.org user. “We realize that the turning of hearts of the fathers to the children is not indigenous to our faith,” said Nauta.

At RootsTech, FamilySearch.org announced that it had launched two new features on “the tree”: photos and stories for each person in the database. Just as a multitude of users have been sharing names, dates and locations about deceased family members, relatives will now be able to share archival photos and personal memories with others.

Unlike some commercial internet services, all of FamilySearch.org’s services are offered free of charge.

Calling it Facebook for the dead may not be too far of a stretch.

In fact, one key facet of RootsTech this year is Saturday’s youth family history event. Young people have already begun helping embracing the family-history task known as “indexing,” or translating information from census records into archival materials that help verify names and dates in “the tree.”

Now, the addition of the Facebook-like tools has already begun to accelerate teenagers’ engagement in family history. “A lot of the youth are bringing their grandparents down to our family history centers,” said Nauta. “It is almost skipping the parent generation.”

And now, the addition of new features will enable teenagers to engage with and tell the stories of their grandparents, interviewing them, writing stories, cleaning out the proverbial shoebox of photos and posting them online and in “the tree.”

There may be an additional, tangible benefit for the living. As grandparents educate their grandkids on their own life struggles and stories, grandkids help their own seniors see and understand the benefits that are available by getting online.

An example of FamilySearch.org’s new photos feature, which enables multiple family members to upload, tag and share photos of their deceased relatives.

Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club, the premier Washington forum advancing the conversation around broadband technology and internet policy. You can find him on Google+ and Twitter

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Broadband and Democratization

Stamping out Election Falsehoods Like Playing Whack-a-Mole, Says Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger

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Photo of Brad Raffensperger from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

February 5, 2021 – With election misinformation and conspiracy theories rampant in Election 2020, secretaries of state representing pivotal states swapped stories on Thursday about the howlers they faced – and what they did to try to maintain public trust in upholding election integrity.

Perhaps no one faced more pressure to act to overturn the results of his state’s presidential vote tally than Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Among the many false accusations he faced was that a Ron Raffensperger, allegedly a brother of his, works for a Chinese technology firm. While there is such a person, and that person does in fact work for the Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei, that Ron Raffensperger is not Brad Raffensperger’s brother.

At Thursday’s meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State, Raffensperger said again that he does not have a brother named Ron. He also expressed condolences for the real Ron Raffensperger out there.

Stamping out falsehoods is like playing a game of ‘rumor-whack-a-mole,’ said Brad Raffensperger. Once you eradicate one rumor, another just pops up. It’s as if the truth has 30,000 Twitter followers while falsehood has 80 million followers, he added.

Screenshot of the NASS webinar

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs addressed the “Sharpiegate” scandal, another fake claim concocted by Republicans. Sharpiegate was the wrong notion pushed by some that Sharpie pens distributed at polling places were handed out for voting.

But the felt-tip pen’s ink bled through the ballot, making it unreadable by a machine and thus keeping the Sharpie victim’s vote from being counted. The twist in this particular story is that only the Sharpie-marked ballots cast by Republican candidates were thrown out, somehow.

While recognizing the seriousness of this misinformation campaign, exacerbated by Eric Trump’s tweets about it, souvenir Sharpies were ordered bearing “Sharpiegate 2020” printed on them – just as a joke, said Hobbs.

Michigan had a plan in place for months on how to collect, process, and release voting results, said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. However, because its processes were so efficient, Michigan caught its critics off guard. This exposed Michigan to accusations of allegedly counting its ballots too fast in an effort to try to “fix” the election. Robocalls targeted minority majority communities, including in Detroit.

Ohio also anticipated a barrage of misinformation. As a preemptive measure, the state rolled out numerous tools and resources to inform citizens of voting processes.

Secretaries of state need to help voters build confidence knowing their voice will be heard in a fair and honest contest, and not to tear it down, said Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State. He praised Ohio’s election integrity and said it had a record low in ballot rejection, and a record high in ballot workers.

The state also tried to stop spreaders of misinformation by warning of felony charges for spreading lies.

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Broadband and Democratization

At New America Foundation Event on India, Panelists Talk of ‘Digital Colonization’ by U.S. and China

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Screenshot from the webinar

October 1, 2020 – When it comes to social media, India is currently in a “two-house race” between the United States and China, explained India expert Madhulika Srikumar at New America on Wednesday.

Tiktok and Facebook have been big players in this race, each attracted to India’s large audience base.

Srikumar, an attorney formerly with the Cyber Initiative at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, cited two statistics. First, one-third of TikTok’s users were Indian, before the app was banned in June by the Indian government. Second, if India’s Facebook audience were a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world.

She explained the recent trend of Chinese and U.S. companies each investing in Indian companies.

New American CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter said in response, “When I hear you Madhu, all I can think of is digital colonization.”

Slaughter stressed that it was vital we don’t have a world where states lock down their internet and asserted that the world would be a better place if there was more competition and if companies had to be more open with their policies

“Our institutions for holding power accountable are still from the analog age,” Said Rebecca MacKinnon, founding director of New America’s Ranking Digital Rights project, adding that there’s nothing in our law that could prevent Tiktok from becoming a vehicle for hate speech.

Slaughter blamed the platforms, claiming that platforms were publishers wielding great political power who were responsible for polarization and declining trust.

She pointed to a future Biden-Harris administration, and projected that if elected, it would provide a new vision for internet policy by working with a number of other countries, including Europe, to adopt global standards for a free internet. This consortium would insist that companies abide by such rules.

When asked whether the UN could play a role, Slaughter said that it could, but it would need to have strong member support since “the current U.S. government has distain for non-US institutions.” The United Nations would have difficulty putting regulations in place with one of it’s biggest members not being supportive.

MacKinnon agreed that UN involvement would be complicated. For the past decade, there’s been a fight brewing over who sets standards for the tech community and for global technologies.

Srikumar, in turn, appealed for greater resources to flesh out what exactly an open internet means, as well as a move to divorce content from gatekeepers.

Joshua Keating, senior editor of Slate moderated the webinar.

See also “The Privacy Negotiators: The Need for U.S. Tech Companies to Mediate Agreements on Government Access to Data in India,” by Madhulika Srikumar on New America

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Broadband and Democratization

Mobile Technology Aided the Growth of Black Lives Matter, But Will Hashtag Outrage Lead to Change?

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Screenshot of panelists on the Brookings Institution webinar

September 21, 2020 — In the United States, widespread public use of mobile phone cameras and social media has thrust the longstanding issue of police brutality against Black Americans into the national spotlight like never before.

Delving deeply into the subject of how digital tools have contributed to the goals of anti-brutality activists, panelists at a Brookings Institution event on September 14 detailed the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and whether the explosive growth of the hashtag #BLM might result in any institutional change.

In the summer of 2014, videos, images, and text narratives of violent encounters between police officers and unarmed Black people circulated widely through news and social media, spurring public outrage.

“A large digital archive of Tweets started in 2014, when Michael Brown was killed,” said Rashawn Ray, professor of sociology and executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland.

Media activism fueled by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner gave rise to Black Lives Matter, or #BLM, a loosely-coordinated, nationwide movement dedicated to ending police brutality, which uses online media extensively.

The panelists referenced the “Beyond the Hashtag” report authored by Meredith Clark, assistant professor at the University of Virginia, analyzes the movement’s rise on Twitter.

“Mobile technology became an agent of change,” said Mignon Clyburn, former commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, referring to the 2007 introduction of the iPhone as a turning point in the way individuals utilize devices. “Devices became smaller, less expensive, and more ubiquitous,” said Clyburn, “we are now seeing a global, mobile revolution.”

Increased accessibility to mobile devices and social media cracked open doors previously kept tightly shut by pro-corporate, pro-government gatekeepers of the media, which spread anti-Black ideologies. Mobile devices initiated a leveling of the media playing field, allowing for marginalized groups to intervene in dialogues.

“Black Americans have the opportunity to share distinctively what is happening to us,” said Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow in governance studies and the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institute.

“These videos show our humanity, and how it is destroyed and undermined,” added Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

While videos taken to report instances of police brutality are critical resources, they come with significant consequences for those filming and viewing them.

In order to record an instance of police, an individual has to be courageous, as many citizen journalists attempting to capture an act of police brutality, end up a subject of cruelty.

“You have the right to record protected under First Amendment,” Clarke informed, urging that officers be trained on respecting citizens First Amendment rights to film.

While recording instances of police brutality is distressing in itself, sharing the video online, although necessary, amplifies the video’s power to traumatize indefinitely. “There will no doubt be a generation of children that will be traumatized,” by repeatedly seeing images of Black Americans brutalized by the police, said Lee.

Clarke urged individuals who decide to share content, to do so with a trigger warning.

While digital tools have enabled video evidence of brutality to be caught, amass widespread attention, and cause public outrage, as of yet, it has not translated into real-life justice for Black individuals. Difficulty to bring prosecution against excessively violent officers remains.

Clarke noted that police union contracts are barriers to reform. “The terms of collective bargaining agreements allow officers to see video evidence before reporting on how the events transpired,” detailed Clarke.

Ray called for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, H.R. 7120, introduced by Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, which he said was currently ‘collecting dust’ in the Senate.

The bill would establish new requirements for law enforcement officers and agencies, necessitating them to report data on use-of-force incidents, obtain training on implicit bias and racial profiling, and wear body cameras.

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