All posts by Hana Zumout

CommunicationPoliticsPsychology

First Presidential Debate: Even Experts Say It Was “Painful to Watch”

To say 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year would be an understatement. After enduring a global pandemic, the arrival of murder hornets, Australian and West Coast wildfires, and so on, it appears the world can’t catch a break. For the United States in particular, politics has added fuel to the fire. The seemingly exhausting nature of the country’s current political environment is one that cannot be ignored, as the election in November is quickly approaching. The future Commander in Chief of the nation is in the hands of voters from two extremely divided political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. However, the outcome of the recent presidential debate lacked the information needed for voters to make an important decision: who they want to take the Oval Office.  

On September 29th, the first presidential debate for the 2020 election took place at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion in Clevland, Ohio. Assuming the election will be a close race, this has certainly been the most anticipated debate in American history. Republican nominee and current President of the United States, Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee and former Vice President under the Obama Administration, Joe Biden, battled it out face-to-face on the debate stage with Fox News Sunday anchor, Chris Wallace, as the moderator. Although the set topics included the coronavirus pandemic, economy, systemic racism, and healthcare, anything but those subjects were addressed. This may not have given voters much to work with, however, linguistspsychologists, and body language experts had a field day analyzing the candidates’ performances. Let’s discuss the verbal and nonverbal cues that made this debate, in the words of body language expert, Patti Woods, “painful to watch.”  

The policies Trump and Biden represent are not the only factors that distinguish these candidates. Both nominees exemplified different behavioral approaches regarding how they answered Wallace’s questions and responded to their opponent. Some experts believe Trump’s strategy was based on anger. Woods told The Independent, “Anger is the strongest persuasive emotion… His choice to be on the attack, nonverbally he did that very specifically by looking at Biden when he was interrupting and talking over him and turning his upper body toward him.” She also claimed the painful aspect of the debate was Trump’s bully-like behavior, which is not typically seen during debates of such stature as those held for elected officials. Trump’s interjections are also an example of Face-Threatening Action. Brian Larson, an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, told Inverse, “It’s (Face-Threatening Action) a specific type of interruption intended to diminish social power.” The purpose of these interruptions is to not only accelerate the pace of the debate, but to cause Biden to retract, clarify, and correct statements. Other experts believed Trump’s demeanor made him look like a strong leader. Lillian Glass, a body language expert, told Boston Globe, “His body movements matched his emotions and what he had to say… there was not a lot of levity.” 

Biden, on the other hand, had a much more welcoming and laid-back approach according to experts. Woods stated that Biden’s decision to look at the camera and address the audience with a smile could be seen as self-control. Other experts, like Chris Ulrich, a behavioral body language expert, believed his direct statements toward the camera was his attempt to make a connection to voters and establish a “transference of power” (Boston Globe). Larson noticed Biden’s language was casual. For instance, when the debate started, Biden greeted President Trump by saying, “How you doing, man?” This happened again when Trump interrupted Chris Wallace and Biden exclaimed, “Will you shut up, man?” According to Larson, Biden’s informal language helped abate the perceived power dynamics that were present due to Trump’s interjections and his role as President. Glass thought Biden’s decision to directly speak to the viewers was inappropriate. She believes debaters should be looking at their opponent or the moderator. Based on this notion, Biden’s actions could have displeased many viewers.  

First Trump-Biden debate ends with many insults, little substance | WITF

So, based on body language alone, which presidential candidate won the first debate? Well, every expert has their own opinion and interpretation of what occurred. According to Glass, Trump won the debate. Trump’s disposition was in sync with his body language. In moments when he needed to be serious, his physical stance and gestures correlated with his verbal statements. Although it reads as aggressive and obnoxious, Trump was unwavering in his decisions to argue, interrupt, and defend. Glass felt Biden failed to present himself as a leader because his gestures were more rehearsed. In moments when Trump refuted him, for instance, when the Green New Deal was discussed, Biden would smile during confrontation and used coached motions like pinching his thumb and finger to demonstrate a point. However, Woods suggests that Biden won the debate. Unlike Trump, Biden established a connection with voters by making direct eye contact with the camera. He explained his policies and plans to the American people, the 328 million citizens responsible for electing the 46th President of the United States of America. Because Trump was constantly interrupting Biden, along with his lack of rapport with viewers, he was perceived as a bully.  

Now that America’s disappointment in the first presidential debate is common knowledge, and considering all divisive information has arisen in the meantime, it will be interesting to see how effective Trump and Biden’s communication skills will be during the final debate this Thursday, October 22nd, 2020. 

FraudSecurities

Nikola: The Next Tesla, Or A Fraud?

Nikola founder, Trevor Milton, recently resigned from his position as Executive Chairman of the Board after facing accusations of fraud. Before delving into the fraud allegations, it is important to understand the genesis of the company, which adds to the gravity of the situation. You may recall, last week we delved into the upcoming fraud trial for former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. We wanted to continue covering this topic of high profile fraud.

Milton built Nikola in 2014 hoping to reform the transportation sector. His plan in accomplishing this goal was to create mainstream battery-electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles from state-of-the-art zero-emissions technology. Establishing a company based on the same inventor and mission as another company, Tesla to be specific, is not the only suspicious act Milton has committed.

According to Business Insider, on September 10th, 2020, a report published by the Hindenburg Research investment firm contains evidence of Milton providing false statements about his products. More specifically, the report accuses Milton of exaggerating the viability of his products and thus misinforming investors, partners, and consumers. An example of these fraudulent statements is based on a video demo advertising Nikola’s debut semi-truck, the allegedly hydrogen-powered “Nikola One.” The report revealed an exchange of text messages from a Nikola employee developing a plan to roll the vehicle down a hill to manipulate the “high-speed” aspect of the truck. Nikola diverted from the issue by stating the prototype was discarded and therefore irrelevant. To add, they thought the Hindenburg report was released as sabotage considering Nikola’s partnership with General Motors was finalized two days prior. It should be noted, Hindenburg is a short-seller, so they were interested in seeing Nikola’s stock price decline. (Photo Source: Twitter @HindenburgRes).

The company started trading on June 4th, after a reverse merger with VectoIQ. VectoIQ is a publicly-traded special purpose acquisition organization led by Stephen Girsky, the former Vice Chairman of General Motors. Before the Hindenburg report, Nikola was performing well in the stock market. A CNBC article stated that shares of Nikola Corporation increased by 20% at the end of the month. According to the closing price, Nikola was valued at almost $28.8 billion, making the corporation more valuable than Ford. However, Nikola’s stock market surge stemmed from Milton’s announcement of the company’s new battery-electric fuel-cell truck, the Badger. He followed his announcement confirming the company’s partnership with General Motors, a necessary move to get the new truck to market. Nikola did not anticipate to generate income until 2021, but investors were willing to provide a hefty sum for promising vehicles.

Despite the incident that led to his resignation, analysts think Milton’s exodus is a positive and necessary step for the progression of both Nikola and General Motors. Whether the motive for resigning was personal or strictly business, with Milton absent there will be less negative publicity.

What does this mean for Trevor Milton? Along with his resignation, he agreed to relinquish $166 million of equity and a two-year $20 million consulting contract. However, Milton gets to possess $3.1 billion in stock due to a recently finalized separation agreement. He agreed to assist the corporation as an unpaid consultant, but his role in company operations and decision-making are paused for at least three years. In the aftermath of Milton’s resignation, Nikola’s shares decreased significantly in premarket trading, opening Monday, September 21st, at $24.97, the lowest opening price since the company went public in June. It ended the day, closing down 19% at $27.58. As he continues to defend himself against the Hindenburg Research report, Milton’s legal expenses are paid for by Nikola as long as they receive copies of evidence.

With Milton out of the picture, Stephen Girsky has been appointed chairman of the board. General Motors’ main priority is to plan production of the battery-powered Badger truck starting late 2021 or early 2022, ultimately continuing the partnership with Nikola. Although General Motors bears the responsibility for its creation, Nikola will remain in charge of marketing and selling the product upon its release. Because Nikola lacks the cushion of intellectual property and revenue, they heavily rely on the investor’s contribution through the stock market. Nikola’s tarnished reputation requires damage control in order to maintain enough revenue until the Badger is released.

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Computer SecurityComputersInformation & Communication TechnologySocial Media

TikTok: Is It The Next Cyber-Security Threat?

TikTok has been the most downloaded app globally in 2020. Although it has existed since 2018, TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads back in April, during the apex of the new socially-distanced reality engendered by the pandemic. The ability to share and create content such as comedy skits, dance challenges, and lip-syncing clips, has appealed to various age groups around the world, especially teenagers. However, TikTok has been at the center of controversy for raising cyber security concerns not just here in the United States, but around the world. 

The problem with TikTok is twofold. The first issue is the app is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. Because ByteDance is not American-based, it does not follow U.S. federal and state consumer privacy laws. TikTok announced the data collected by American users is backed-up in Singapore, which is not subject to Chinese law. Though true, it is possible the Chinese government could pressure ByteDance to relinquish its user information. 

Second, TikTok has a large accumulation of data related to the types of videos Americans watch and post. Because it has turned into an important platform for political activism, people are worried the Chinese government could influence public opinion and control speech. For instance, according to both The Guardian and The Intercept, last year, TikTok company officials told their employees to censor content considered sensitive to Beijing. TikTok claimed their policies were outdated when the reports were released. As a result of this incident, they established a “transparency center” so security and technology experts from around the world can observe their policies. 

Despite TikTok’s official statement, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order in August declaring the prohibition of all business with ByteDance. Unless ByteDance announces a plan to sell TikTok, the app will be banned on September 29th, 2020. Several American agencies and companies, such as the U.S. Army and Wells Fargo, have been proactive, requiring servicemen and employees to uninstall the app in response to these security concerns. Other countries, like India, have followed suit, banning the app altogether. 

Many people, including computer security experts, believe banning the app in the United States would be an extreme course of action. Not only would it invite questions about censorship in a free country right before an election, but it would affect various companies here in the U.S. who use the platform for marketing purposes. A solution technology experts have mentioned is to implement policies for protecting consumer privacy and measures to minimize data misuse from companies around the world. Currently, with the exception of a few state laws, the responsibility of American privacy and data sharing belongs to companies such as TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter. 

On September 14th, 2020, ByteDance accepted Oracle’s proposal to be their new technology provider. This means Oracle would be held accountable for protecting all user information collected through TikTok. Although this deal is pending approval by the U.S. government, this would keep businesses invested in TikTok afloat and allow up to 100 million users to continue posting creative content. Tresury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, told CNBC that the government will be reviewing the proposal this week, as their top priority is to keep American user data from the Chinese Communist Party.   

Four days later, the U.S. government announced the removal of TikTok and fellow Chinese app, WeChat, from American app stores supplied by Apple and Google. Distribution, updates, and maintenance will be expelled for purchase unless the Trump administration, TikTok, and Oracle can close a deal by September 20th. Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, told Bloomberg WeChat would be shut down for practical purposes, but Americans could still use the app for payments in China and talk to loved ones overseas. He added TikTok’s official shut down is scheduled after November 12th if the deal with Oracle falls through.  

On Monday, September 21st, 2020, President Trump announced his approval of the deal between Oracle and TikTok. As a result of the ongoing proposal, Oracle and Walmart will share a 20% stake in TikTok Global, a new company headquartered in the United States. ByteDance will own 80% of TikTok Global and allow Oracle to review its source code. Ceding algorithms and other technologies was not included in the deal. Allowing Oracle to review the source code is still not fool-proof as ByteDance could easily instruct the code to send data back to China in secret. Trump’s approval has postponed the ban for now, but the removal of TikTok through American app stores is still in effect. As relations between the United States and China remain tumultuous, the final outcome of the TikTok debate remains to be seen.