Despite the daunting aspects of COVID-19, the pandemic provided millions of people around the world with an escape from reality: streaming service subscriptions. Netflix, Disney+, and others alike are dominating the entertainment industry. Within the first year after its inception, Disney+ accumulated 86.8 million users and predicts a trajectory of 260 million by 2024 (Variety). In 2020 alone, nearly 37 million people bought Netflix subscriptions, bringing the total number of subscribers to more than 200 million (BBC). On January 20th, 2021, its shares increased by 15% in its fourth quarter earnings (Business Insider).
What is the catalyst for the success of these two streaming services? Insight from one of our very own Members at Experts.com will help answer these questions. Before delving into these insights, however, it is important to acknowledge the differences between the two streaming services.
Disney+ is significantly cheaper than its rivals due to its slim library of around 600 movies and shows. However, the type of content it acquires is the gravitational element for its growing audience. Disney+ is the leading content provider for fans of Disney Original Movies, Marvel, Pixar, and “Star Wars” franchises.
Netflix is known for its high-quality original shows and movies such as “Bridgerton,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and “Marriage Story.” Its international content, like “Lupin” and “La Casa De Papel,” has increasingly appealed to audiences. Unlike Disney+, Netflix also allows consumers to stream movies with family and friends for free with Teleparty. This service may be more expensive, but its library of nearly 4,000 shows is worth the subscription. With these crucial differences in mind, let’s delve into our Experts’ contributions.
Dr. Brent Coker is an Online Consumer Psychologist with a PhD in Electronic Commerce. He is also a Digital Marketing and Digital Business Models professor at the University of Melbourne. Based on his extensive knowledge on consumer behavior, Dr. Coker believes the rise in streaming entertainment services is indirectly correlated to COVID-19 for a couple of reasons:
The first is the unexpected lifestyle imposed onto the world by the pandemic. National emergency calls made by various world leaders have induced policies including stay-at-home orders, remote learning and work, as well as limited in-person interaction. This new reality forced consumers to alter purchasing habits from before the virus, like spending more on internet bandwidth for work (which varies by country as some lack unlimited speed plans) rather than tickets for movies or other live performances. “Consumers ‘rationalise’ the extra cost out of necessity (they convince themselves the extra cost is needed not just wanted),” a direct quote from Dr. Coker. This high quality and faster internet further justifies subscribing to streaming services. Disney+ and Netflix’s stellar financial performances are due to the millions of people adjusting to more confined circumstances.
The second reason is the lack of entertainment options. Because of the new social-distancing guidelines, in-person music festivals, sporting events, and dining at restaurants without restrictions are limited. Coker states, “People divide their entertainment options according to gratification – live performances, stage shows, cinema, and TV.” He then explains the absence of in-person events leads people to search for substitutes. It appears Netflix and Disney+ were the perfect replacement for millions of people this past year.
Dr. Coker also alluded to a slight change in advertising and endorsements. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are a few of many social media platforms people use to stay informed and connected. It is also the arena in which influencers use their online presence to promote trends and brands. Dr. Coker mentions Tiger King, one of the first Netflix Original shows to be released just before COVID-19, as a prime example of endorsement through social media. The documentary, especially its eccentric and bizarre main subject, Joe Exotic, became a meme used to draw more attention to audiences around the globe. Memes are “amusing or interesting items (such as captioned picture or video) or genre of items that are spread widely online especially through social media,” (Merriam-Webster). Dr. Coker finalizes his thoughts on social media connectedness by stating, “This is essential endorsement and word-of-mouth thus herding effects as people jump on board to experience what they perceive is the new norm.”
The requirements of greater internet bandwidth for work, the loss of outdoor entertainment, and the implementation of stay-at-home policies have kindled the need for home entertainment. In 2020 alone, both companies have accrued millions of subscribers. Thanks to our Experts.com Member, Dr. Brent Coker, his insight on Consumer Behavior and Digital Marketing shed light on how the unanticipated lifestyle engendered by COVID-19 indirectly played a role in the purchasing decisions of people around the world and shapes how citizens perceive this new reality through social media. It remains to be seen whether Netflix and Disney+ will perform as well post-pandemic.
After a tumultuous year full of uncertainty and angst, the start of the new year, unfortunately, followed suit. Due to last week’s raid of the Capitol Building, resulting in Donald Trump’s removal from various social media apps, the debate over the understanding of free speech is in full swing. Some critics say Trump incited violence and rightfully deserved to be permanently banned on Twitter. Others defend the President’s speech and are calling to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This week’s post will define Section 230 and its role in the free speech debate.
To note, the purpose of creating the Communications Decency Act was to enact provisions to free speech online. Because Internet users opposed these restrictions, Section 230 was enacted in 1996 (Electronic Frontier Foundation). According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “Section 230 provides websites, including social media companies, that host or moderate content generated by others with immunity from liability.” In other words, these companies do not bear the responsibility for its consumers’ speech. Section 230 is inapplicable to Federal Criminal Law and Intellectual Property Claims. Since Twitter is a private company, this legally legitimizes its decision to permanently suspend the President’s account, as he allegedly spread misinformation about the election according to its Terms & Conditions. However, this turn of events has left moderates, conservatives, and republicans feeling silenced.
Trump’s Twitter ban was the catalyst for the removal of Parler (a social media platform which garnered a primarily conservative following) from Apple and Amazon app stores. Its eradication stems from its anti-censorship brand, meaning it does not monitor its users posts. Unlike Twitter, who uses Section 230 to monitor speech, Parler has the right as a private company to exercise the opposite. It begs the question, is Section 230 relevant to free speech?
The First Amendment “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition,” (Cornell Law School). Congress is prohibited from making laws which limit an individual’s First Amendment right, whether it is exercised in public physical space or on the internet. From the looks of Trump’s removal from Twitter, it is understandable why conservatives would be upset. The concept of a social media corporation eradicating the leader of the free world’s personal account is shocking, and shows just how much power these social media apps have over what their viewers are allowed to see. For many, these actions by Twitter and Facebook add even more salt to the wounds of the political divide created this past year. At face value, it makes sense why moderate and right-leaning voters would want to repeal Section 230. However, revoking Section 230 is much more threatening to the First Amendment than one might think (USA Today).
If Section 230 was abrogated, online businesses would monitor speech on a more frequent basis. Websites would become liable for every individual social media post, photo, blog, comment, and video a person publishes. Accommodating user-created content would be a precarious endeavor because these companies could be sued for every contentious post, which is unrealistic considering these websites have accumulated millions of users worldwide. If social media companies and those alike embodied an editorial role towards user-created content, it would end real-time communication, limit expression, tarnish social media providers’ reputations, and even cause them to shut down due to endless litigation. In the event Section 230 is repealed and edited, Congress must be cautious of its constitutional duty to not implement laws that limit the freedoms of American citizens and, unintentionally, chill protected speech.
Section 230 may protect a business’ right to negate liability for its users’ posts, but it does not protect a company from antitrust lawsuits. Parler sued Amazon in response to its removal from Amazon Web Services, an auxiliary provider of on-demand APIs and cloud-computing platforms (Reuters). Amazon claims Parler’s failure to monitor speech had a large role in planning the siege of the Capitol Building. Although it removed most of the troublesome posts, Parler responded to this by accusing Amazon of breaching its contract by forcing the social media app to shut down. Parler was warned about Amazon’s intolerance to offensive speech, yet Parler argued that any of its users’ posts, that do not engender premeditated action, are protected under the First Amendment. As this is an ongoing case, the outcome of the lawsuit will not be decided for a long time to come.
Ultimately, Section 230 is arguably the most integral component of the free speech debate considering the recent events of Trump’s Twitter ban and Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon. Free speech within the realm of the internet is a very different arena compared to speech in public physical spaces. As unfortunate as the Capitol Building raid was, it brought to light important nuances of the First Amendment as it relates to the internet.
The news of Bitcoin’s recent and successful market performance is spreading like wildfire. In the eleven years since its inception, it has surpassed the market value of companies such as Visa, Mastercard, and Walmart (CNN Business). As of the date of this publication, one Bitcoin is being traded for $34,306.17. This incredible feat has made Bitcoin quite popular for investors and people interested in financial markets. However, some critics have raised concerns about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general. Defining Bitcoin, explaining its functions, and addressing the advantages and disadvantages to cryptocurrency will be the subject of this week’s blog post.
Although the algorithms for the modern-day cryptocurrency have existed since the 1980s, the emergence of Bitcoin has changed the future of financial transactions. Bitcoin’s founding in 2009 is shrouded in mystery. The housing market crash of the same year was the catalyst for its emergence. By whom is the enigma. The founder of Bitcoin is known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The true identity of the person or persons is still unknown.
Bitcoin is a form of decentralized cryptocurrency. Because its design is public, all transactions are managed by “peer-to-peer” technology instead of banks. Cryptocurrencies are often compared to an online version of dollar bills and can be used to buy and sell services and products. To obtain Bitcoins, people can buy it using “real” money, have people pay for a product using Bitcoin, or “computer-mining,” like searching for gold. Because Bitcoin is essentially a computer file, consumers can store them on a digital wallet, accessed by any smartphone or computer, and even send them to other people. Now that Bitcoin has been defined, it is important to know how it works.
When a beginner uses Bitcoin, it generates a Bitcoin address. You can create more than one address and share the addresses with friends and family so transactions can ensue. These addresses can only be used once. Bitcoin has three main functions (Bitcoin):
Function 1:Blockchain – a shared public ledger which all consumers within the Bitcoin network depend on. It includes and verifies all transactions and spendable balances to ensure both are owned by the spender.
Function 2: Transaction – an exchange of value between Bitcoin wallets. Although transactions are included in the blockchain, Bitcoin wallets keep a “private key.” Private keys prove the owners of the transaction. Bitcoin also uses “signatures” to ensure the lack of alterations to the transactions.
Function 3: Mining – a process which confirms and places the transactions in the blockchain in chronological order. It also bears the responsibility of protecting the neutrality of the Bitcoin network. Transactions are only confirmed when they are compiled in a “block” which includes rigid cryptographic rules approved by the Bitcoin network so previous blocks are not modified. Mining also prohibits individuals from controlling, replacing, or adding blocks and parts of the block chain. In other words, it prohibits theft.
After defining and explaining Bitcoin’s functions, and as the number of people investing in Bitcoin increases, addressing the benefits and drawbacks of this cryptocurrency are crucial.
There are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to investing in Bitcoin (Money Crashers). Let’s first discuss its benefits. As previously mentioned, Bitcoin is not controlled by any political or financial institution. These parties can only confiscate or suspend cryptocurrency either for retribution for political acts or for a criminal investigation.
Bitcoin also has greater liquidity compared to its competitors like Ethereum, IOTA, and Dogecoin. This permits users to keep much of its value when switching to fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar bill. Essentially, out of all the cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin is most like a fiat currency.
Bitcoin has become widely recognized as a payment method, partially because of their built-in privacy protections. It allows users to distance the account itself from the public persona. Unlike using cash or PayPal transactions where protections are scarce, Bitcoin tracks transactions between users but it is difficult to discover who the users are. Individuals or groups who want to mitigate the use of fiat currency should invest in cryptocurrency, since a plethora of sellers accept Bitcoin payments (Microsoft, Overstock, Etsy, AT&T, Shopify). Even though Bitcoin has inexpensive transaction fees, it also eases the process of international transactions because, like credit card payments and ATM cash withdrawals, it does not require international transaction fees.
Finally, Bitcoin’s built-in scarcity component inculcates the currency with inherent value like gold and other metals. This supports its lasting value against fiat currencies and non-scarce cryptocurrencies.
A major inconvenience to using Bitcoin is the lack of policy regarding refunds and chargebacks. Because of its decentralized design, it is extremely difficult for users to dispute transactions. Even though miners are responsible for recording the transactions, it cannot prove the legitimacy of those transactions.
Bitcoin’s reputation as the world’s most popular cryptocurrency precedes itself, so much so that it becomes vulnerable to fraud cases. Examples include the small-scale Ponzi scheme with Bitcoin Savings & Trust to grand-scale hacks such as the infiltrations of Sheep Marketplace and Mt. Gox, which were bilked of hundreds of thousands of Bitcoins. To add, Bitcoin attracts groups and individuals involved with the black market due to its inherent anonymity protections. Ultimately, Bitcoin’s competitors do not acquire nearly the number of users to engender maliciously profitable activity for criminals. If fiat currency were used, such crimes would be prosecuted by law enforcement (see Member Dr. Stephen Castell’s recent article on the subject).
There is the exception of people who are converting to newer cryptocurrencies. Depending on the type of cryptocurrency, these services either eliminate third-party involvement in transactions or use “smart contracts.” These contracts hold the cryptocurrency providers liable for their offerings. If the number of people leaving Bitcoin for another service increases, then its value would certainly decrease.
As previously mentioned, an advantage to Bitcoin is its liquidity and ability to be easily exchanged. However, it becomes susceptible to unpredictable price swings within small time intervals. For instance, after the FBI announced the legitimacy of Bitcoin as a financial service, its value skyrocketed in late 2017 and yet halved at the start of 2018 due to the Mt. Gox hack. These decimated billions of dollars of the market value instantly.
Lastly, Bitcoin mining weakens the environment because it exhausts large quantities of electricity. The source of power for Bitcoin stems from coal plants. When mining occurs, the amount of electricity used directly correlates to the vast amounts of air pollutants released into the atmosphere, creating difficulty for surrounding citizens to breathe.
As the world transitions into a virtual age, and the value of fiat currency remains in flux, people face the crucial decision to either invest in cryptocurrency or continue with their current monetary choices. For those looking to invest in Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, hopefully this blog post provides general insight and clarity for future financial endeavors.
Due to advancements in DNA technology, a 33-year-long murder mystery has finally been solved. The most infamous serial killing case in South Korea, otherwise known as the Hwaseong murders (1986-1991), resulted in the death of 10 women and girls. The true killer, Lee Chun-jae (pictured below), admitted to 30 rapes and 14 murders, 9 of which were part of the Hwaseong murder cases.
What instigated the confession was a recent discovery in DNA restoration technology. This new forensic advancement has allowed police and other government agencies to identify DNA that either could not be identified at the time it was processed or even after long periods of time, as in this case. The South Korean Police conducted a comparison between samples of DNA from a victim’s underwear with the DNA database of prisoners at the penitentiary. The outcome identified Lee as the culprit, who was already facing a life sentence for the last 2 decades for his sister-in-law’s rape and murder. He told the court that he “was surprised he wasn’t caught earlier,” (CNN). Lee also told reporters that he did not try to hide his crimes. Though detectives asked him questions, they were always about other people. The DNA results also confirmed the innocence of the man arrested for Lee’s crimes.
In 2008, a person named Yoon, whose full name cannot be released for legal reasons, was freed after spending 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, a murder victim from the Hwaseong cases. Last year, the DNA evidence was released, thus confirming Yoon’s innocence. Yoon was granted a retrial, and his lawyers are currently in the process of overturning his conviction. He told CNN, “I want to clear my false accusation, and I want my honor back.”
Suffice it to say, at the time of the murders, there were some discrepancies in the investigation. The Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency Chief, Bae Yong-ju, admitted to ABC News that Yoon was mistreated by the police to the point where he made a false confession under coercion. The police involved in the case have issued a public apology to Lee Chun-jae’s victims, their families, and Yoon, a victim of the failed police investigation. Yoon, outraged from being subjected to years of injustice, aspires to continue his life as a free and innocent man.
So, what happens next? Lee Chun-jae will not be facing prosecution for the Hwaseong murders. The statute of limitations on the case has expired. However, he will continue to live out the rest of his life in prison for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. Thanks to advances in DNA technology, grave mistakes, like those found in this case, will hopefully be reduced.
As we endure almost ten months of living through a pandemic, we can all agree COVID-19 has brought about various changes and challenges. The pandemic has affected every aspect of daily life. Worrying when items will be restocked in local grocery stores, wondering when the next stimulus check will arrive in the mail, and keeping ourselves and families safe from the virus have been at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Although millions of jobs have been lost this year, people who are lucky enough to either have found or kept his/her job now deal with working-from-home. Because the workforce is now conducting a 180 towards online practices, the future of offices in a post-pandemic world is pending.
According to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford Economist, “we’re in the middle of a structural, seismic shift,” in the workplace. Working-from-home is not a new concept, there are jobs that are designed specifically for remote locations and travel. The problem is millions of people are now forced to adapt to new working conditions in order to slow the spread of the virus, putting the world’s technological advancements to the test. To ensure productivity through a tumultuous time, businesses are instantly tasked with reimagining the role of work and creating a positive environment for their employees. Both individuals and organizations face benefits and drawbacks from this uncontrollable shift.
Some employees love the working-from-home lifestyle. For busy individuals or employees who have families, working-from-home creates flexibility in his/her work schedule, allowing time to complete daily errands and appointments. A surprising “36% (of employees) would choose it (remote work) over a pay raise,” a statistic from Global Workplace Analytics. Working-from-home also allows people to save money on clothes, gas, and food costs that they would otherwise need for the workplace. Lastly, working remotely does not necessarily mean people are tethered to their homes. Computers and smartphones allow people to work from any location, including coffee shops, parks, and even planes. Having the choice of when and where you work is the appealing aspect of working remotely.
While working from home has been successful for some people, it has caused great strife for others. Merging the personal and professional components of life is not an easy feat. This sudden disruption of daily routines adds physical, mental, and emotional anxiety. For those with families, balancing the work load may be difficult with children under foot. To add, the lack of in-person communication creates a sense of isolation and loneliness, which could decrease productivity. To combat these hardships, employees and employers who work-from-home must dedicate some time to maintain his/her health and wellness by exercising, connecting with family and friends, and finding activities that bring happiness to the day.
Although companies who adopt the work-from-home method implement different policies, the general pros and cons seem to be consistent for most businesses. According to Global Workplace Analytics, “A number of states, including Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon offer financial incentives for businesses to adopt telework.” The benefits are not limited to financial incentives. States such as Arizona and Connecticut offer free training to businesses willing to convert to remote work. Also, working from home is environmentally friendly. The rate of office equipment energy consumption is twice that of energy consumption from a person’s home. Businesses save money by participating in the work-from-home method and improving the conditions of the planet one step at a time. Finally, remote work is slowly increasing the hiring pool because it provides geographic diversity that would not have been possible pre-pandemic.
For CEOs, managers, and other team leaders within an organization, being unable to convene at an office can be difficult. The absence of a physical space forces people on all levels of the organizational hierarchy to interact through digital means. Face-to-face communication has been limited to video conferences on sites such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts. Projects, presentations, sales pitches, settlements, and other types of meetings are conducted through a computer or phone, which increases the chance of miscommunication and technological difficulties. This quick transition to telework also increases management mistrust. As many as “75% of managers say they trust their employee, but a third say they’d like to be able to see them, just to be sure,” stated by Global Workplace Analytics. Working from home provides a flexible schedule for employees, but it is also their responsibility to accomplish the required tasks and not abuse the time allotted to do so. Companies must make strides to embrace remote work as part of the new norm by setting and measuring goals for employees.
Ultimately, there are advantages and disadvantages to working from home and the office. Many companies adopt the hybrid model where employees do both, and this is most likely what the future holds in store for the modern-day workforce. For both businesses and employees, the balance between work and personal life has become a priority during the height of the pandemic. The work-from-home model not only relieves some of the stress imposed by the pandemic but allows people who work in non-online industries, such as healthcare and construction, to safely tend to their job. Whether businesses go back to the office or not, it has been reassuring to know that many industries and individuals have the technological capability and resources to work from home during a global pandemic.
On October 20th, 2020, The United States government, along with several states (AR, FL, GA, IN, KY, LA, MS, MO, MT SC, and TX), filed an antitrust lawsuit against technology company, Google LLC, for illicitly continuing monopolies in general search services, general search text advertising, and search advertising. Google has been accused of maintaining control of these markets through exclusionary practices, which prohibits the expansion of competition throughout the internet technology industry. The basis for this accusation is Google’s alleged violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2, which bans monopolies in trade and commerce. Along with previous antitrust cases, it is important to review the nature of the lawsuit. Since Google is being accused of antitrust in several areas, the case’s foundation will be broken up into two sections.
1. General Search Services: Within the last twenty years, Google has transitioned from a new start-up to one of the richest companies on Earth, making as much as $160 billion a year. Because search engines are dispersed throughout a variety of devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, user search queries in the United States have surged in the last decade. Search engines are the most effective when they are set as the default. For example, if a consumer uses a Dell, they are more likely to have Bing as the default search engine, unless the user changes it to Google, Firefox, etc., which rarely occurs. In addition, Google pays billions to a plethora of distributors spanning from device manufacturers, wireless carriers, and browser developers to set their search engine services as the default. Because Google pays companies like Apple, Motorola, Mozilla, AT&T, and UCWeb to secure their search engine as the default, along with the lack of users changing their default engine themselves, the lawsuit alleges the deals made by Google were intended to eliminate competition among other search engine providers. In fact, 90% of all generated-search engine queries have been searched through Google. It does not cost anything to search online. So, it begs the question: how were they able to make billions of dollars?
2. Search Advertising/General Search Text Advertising: Google utilizes consumer information and search queries to sell advertising. Since Google is the default search engine for various devices, they receive almost $40 billion from advertisers to place ads on their search engine results pages (SERP). Because Google receives 90% of search engine traffic (that’s billions of eyeballs on tailored ads), these deals create difficulty for smaller rival search businesses to compete and incentivizes advertisers to stay with Google rather than switching to another company that cannot perform on such a grand scale. The services Google provides require intricate algorithms which collect vast amounts of data used to tailor content based on a user’s search query. For example, if you search holiday discounts for a Keurig coffee maker, you might see an ad for the exact search entry two days later, which is what advertisers want. These deals ultimately engender a continuous cycle of anticompetitive behavior from Google and thwart potential competition, giving the United States government and various states another reason to issue an antitrust lawsuit.
With the nature of the case in mind, Google’s ever-growing power is concerning. Is Big Tech too influential in the economic and advertising sectors? Shouldn’t consumers be aware of Google’s seemingly anticompetitive tactics? As the world continues to enter a digital age, how will this case change the ways in which internet companies conduct business ventures? Stay tuned as our Experts.com Members give their input on the subject in Part 2: coming soon.
Mental health professionals are being targeted by a failure to appear scam. The first scam we’ve seen targeting expert witnesses.
This is the first blog post I’ve written that falls directly into the “public service announcement” category. Yesterday morning, I saw an article by the Washington Post where the author describes a telephone-based scam, where perpetrators pretend to be police officers.
The story grabbed my attention because the suspects have a little deeper knowledge about prospective victims. They know enough to know you are likely to act as an expert witness.
The caller, impersonating a police officer, claims the victim failed to appear at a court hearing in which they were subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness. The criminal claims to be an officer and provides the real name of an an officer employed at the local law enforcement agency, which can be confirmed online. The victim is told they have a civil option to pay a fine and avoid jail time.
As recounted in the Washington Post article, “The problem, the alleged detective stressed, was that because of the coronavirus, people couldn’t come into police headquarters to settle such matters. He said she needed to purchase “MoneyPak” electronic cash transfer cards — at one point transferring the call to his purported supervisor, who also had assumed the name of a real Montgomery officer.”
You need to start asking questions at this time! Have them send you some documentation in the mail. Have them personally serve you the paperwork. Do not get frightened by someone claiming to be an authority figure over the phone. That’s their goal! Get you nervous and acting irrationally.
The option to pay a fine should immediately get your attention. Not to mention this silliness of paying with “electronic cash transfer cards.” There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to pay a fine with a check or credit card.
If you are accused of missing are accused of missing a court hearing. You should know that police officers, detectives, investigators, are not usually those responsible for collecting fines. Generally that’s a different department.
Scam Has Been Taking Place for a While:
Although this fake police officer scam targeting mental health professionals, took place in Maryland. However, in preparing to write this post, I did a little research and found that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had also warned about this type of a scam back in 2019. Here is their press release on the subject. The LAPD specifically mentioned therapists and psychologists as more likely to be targeted:
“It should be noted that many of the victims are current/former employees in the mental health industry. In each of these incidents, the caller claimed that the victim missed an appearance as an expert witness in a court case. Therapists and psychologists should particularly beware of the scam. You can get help determining the authenticity of a call by contacting your local police station.”
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, linguists, psychologists, 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.
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.
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 CNBCarticle 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.
UPDATE: Now that time has passed from Nikola’s public fraud incident, the aftermath has unraveled. As of Monday, November 30th, 2020, General Motors decided to remove themselves from their deal with Nikola, thus relinquishing their $11 million equity stake. Because Nikola failed to live up to their “fast-paced” evolution of electric and hybrid vehicles, General Motors believed it was in their best interest to maintain distance for their future business ventures. Since the manufacture of Nikola’s hydrogen-powered Badger pickup truck relied on a partnership with an automaker, the vehicle’s production has been paused. According to The Verge, the two companies will cooperate to bring, “GM’s Hydrotec fuel-cell technology into Nikola’s Class 7 and Class 8 zero-emission semi-trucks for the medium- and long-haul trucking sectors.” With Nikola partly out of the picture, General Motors can focus on their multi-billion-dollar pursuit for a future involving all-electric vehicles. This requires the automaker to invest $2.2 billion to reconfigure their vehicle assembly plant and create the development process for its modular battery-electric platform, Ultium. They announced last week their $2.2 billion electrification investment will become $27 billion through 2025.
UPDATE – 07/29/2021
We sort of knew it was coming. The grand jury had been convened. Mr. Milton had a lot of very public statements that were likely false or misleading. So, it was no surprise today when the grand jury indicted him on three counts of fraud. Here’s an update on the matter from CNBC.
Before Nikola and the Trevor Milton scandal, there was a prominent blood-testing startup called Theranos. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, currently faces a criminal fraud trial.
If you’ve been tuning into business news recently, the latest scandal with Nikola, a electric-powered truck manufacturer, and its founder, Trevor Milton, is no surprise to you.
For those who have not been following along, a quick summary is as follows: Nikola (NKLA) recently became a publicly traded company alleging they had hydrogen fuel cell (battery) technology that would revolutionize the trucking business. The stock did well after IPO. Nikola then did a multi-billion dollar deal with General Motors. The stock went higher. A few days after the GM deal, a short-seller released a report that accused them of a being an intricately constructed fraud. The founder, Trevor Milton, contested the accusations on social media and asked for time so he could rebut all of the allegations. Within a couple of days he went silent, was removed as executive chairman, and deactivated his social media accounts. It has been widely reported that both the SEC and DOJ are conducting investigations related to his actions and claims as founder and executive chairman.
I share that story because some news agencies have suggested Trevor Milton’s story is similar to that of Theranos founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Ms. Holmes is now facing a criminal fraud trial and she is the focus of our our post today. Stay tuned next week for some further discussion on the issues surrounding Nikola.
Elizabeth Holmes founded a privately held biotechnology company called Theranos. The company intended to revolutionize blood tests, with just a drop of blood. No more needles and vials, just a small drop of blood, and the tests results would be available rapidly. Ultimately, they failed to deliver tangible results and led consumers to believe false promises. After receiving more than $700 million in private investment, the company began falling apart.
In Spring 2018, Holmes was charged with fraud by the SEC, as reported by Bloomberg. This being a civil action, Holmes settled it without admitting any of the allegations. The settlement required her to relinquish her shares to the company and abstain from being an officer or director of a public company for a period of 10 years. There was also a fine, according to Barron’s. To the best of my recollection, Ms. Holme’s settled with the SEC on the same day she was charged.
In the Summer of 2018, the US Attorney’s office filed charges against Holmes’ for conspiracy and wire fraud, as reported by CNN. This criminal indictment is the inspiration for this blog post.
For more than 2 years, we’ve followed the developments in the criminal prosecution of Elizabeth Holmes, wondering if it would lead us to an interesting analysis from an expert witness perspective. In September of 2020, I found this article from the New York Daily News. It seems Ms. Holmes is preparing for the use of a “mental disease or defect” defense.
More specifically, the article from the New York Daily News, indicated the judge had assigned a neuropsychologist and psychiatrist to conduct a two-day, 14 hour evaluation of Ms. Holmes. Additionally, this evaluation is to be recorded. Now, I had never heard of psychological evaluation being this long and I worked in the mental health field for years before joining Experts.com.
To the best of my knowledge, I had not heard about the “mental disease or defect” defense since law school. I remembered it as a mitigating factor to a crime. Something we learned about when we learned about defenses and factors related to defenses.
So, I did what I usually do with these blog posts, and reached out to the experts. This time, I thought it would be good to get insights from a federal public defender and a psychiatrist.
First, let’s see get a view of the legal opinion…
Analysis from Federal Defense Attorney, Diego Alcalá-Laboy:
Diego Alcalá-Laboy is a criminal defense attorney with his own practice Defensoria Legal, LLC, in Puerto Rico, where he represents federal criminal defendants and advises startups. He is also an adjunct professor at the Inter-American University, School of Law and teaches the Federal Evidence and Federal Criminal Procedure courses at the University of Puerto Rico Law School’s Federal Bar Review.
Nick Rishwain: Why would one use a defense of “mental disease” and what impact might it have on the case?
Diego Alcala: A prosecutor must prove that a defendant intended to commit an act (mens rea), and that he committed the act (actus rea). And most crimes require that the defendant acted intelligently, knowingly, or willfully, and on some occasions recklessly or negligently. The type of “mens rea” a crime requires is defined by Congress and the interpretations given by the courts. On some occasions, an offense may not even require a mens rea, such as with strict liability offenses.
Crimes may have different elements, and a prosecutor may have to prove that the defendant had the required mens rea to commit each element of the offense. If the prosecutor cannot prove this, the defendant may be found not guilty.
Congress also recognized that a defendant may show that because of a medical defect he was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of his or her acts because of a severe mental disease or defect. After the John Hinkley trial, Congress amended its statutes and eliminated the affirmative defense of diminished capacity but allowed a defendant the possibility to attack an element of an offense because of a mental condition.
This is a lot harder than it sounds. The Courts are the gatekeepers of the any scientific testimony intended to be presented at trial. Therefore, whenever a defense of mental defect is offered by a defendant, the Court must ensure that the evidence offered is grounded in sufficient scientific support. This scientific evidence then must be scientifically sound and must also show that the medical condition negates mens rea of an element of the offense. So, a defense of mental defect, if grounded on scientific basis, and shows that it negates an element of the charged crime, will clear the defendant from a particular case.
NR: Have you ever seen a “mental disease” defense used in a criminal fraud matter?
DA: I have never seen a mental disease defense presented before. But I did find some cases where the defense tried to introduce this type of evidence but was ruled inadmissible because it did not satisfy the Court that the proffered evidence: a) was based on sound scientific principles, or b) even if it was based on sound principles, it failed to negate mens rea for the element(s) of the offense. In fraud cases, a defendant is accused of committing some type of false representation. It follows that the evidence of mental disease must show that if his/her medical condition can be logically connected to a subjective belief that his/her assertions were not false, baseless, or reckless vis-a-vis the truth. I have not found a fraud case in which the defense has been able to overcome this burden.
NR: If it is established that Elizabeth Holmes is suffering from “mental disease,” can she still be held criminally liable for her actions?
DA: If a defendant presents a successful mental disease defense, the federal law states that she will be found not guilty. But a finding of not guilty does not necessarily mean that she is free to leave. A determination of not guilty by reason of mental defect will then place a defendant in a “suitable facility” and may be release only after showing that she is no longer a threat.
NR: Does a “mental disease” defense have much success in federal criminal trials?
DA: As mentioned, I have not found a successful case, and primarily the difficulty lies in the very narrow type of cases that may meet the discussed admissibility standard. Even if she can get this evidence into trial, it is still up to the jury to accept this defense.
Now that we have some idea of the application of the law for fraud in federal criminal cases, we need to review the science as outlined by Mr. Alcalá.
Analysis from Forensic Psychiatrist and Expert Witness Dr. Sanjay Adhia:
Dr. Sanjay Adhia is triple-Board-Certified in Forensic Psychiatry, Brain Injury Medicine, and Psychiatry. Dr. Adhia serves as a Psychiatrist and Brain Injury Medicine specialist at TIRR Hermann Memorial, a Rehabilitation and Research hospital treating those with brain and spinal cord injuries and psychiatric elements of their injury and recovery. In private forensic practice he conducts Independent Medical Examinations (IMEs), and renders his opinions by report and testimony. Dr. Adhia serves on the faculty of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. You can visit his website at: forensicpsychiatrynow.com.
Nick Rishwain: According to the psychiatric community, what constitutes “mental disease” and “mental defect?”
Sanjay Adhia, MD: These are more legal terms rather than actual formal psychiatric definitions.
According to Merriam-Webster, the legal definition of “mental disease” is “an abnormal mental condition that interferes with mental or emotional processes and internal behavioral control and that is not manifest only in repeated criminal or antisocial conduct”.
Examples would include Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder and Bipolar Disorder which are considered Severe Mental Illness (SMI). These conditions may lead to psychiatric hospitalization. The conditions maybe associated with and loss of touch with reality and a lack of volitional control.
“Mental defect,” on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “an abnormal mental condition (as mental retardation) that may be of a more fixed nature than a mental disease”. “Fixed” disorders would include Intellectual Developmental Disorder (IDD; formerly known as mental retardation), Autism and Brain Injury. According to this definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) would be excluded. ASPD is marked by a tendency to lie, break laws, and act impulsively. It shares some features with psychopathy or sociopathy. A number of states do not permit the use of ASPD in the insanity defense. Allowing ASPD would have unintended repercussions. For example, it could potentially permit a defendant like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer to avoid prison.
NR: In the court order, it limits the evaluation of Ms. Holmes to a 14 hour, 2-day, psychiatric examination. Is this out of the ordinary in a criminal matter?
SA: There is a wide range of exam times in criminal cases. It would depend on a variety of factors including the type of case, the jurisdiction, the funding available and the severity of the charge. Assessment time in a misdemeanor will not be identical to a capital case. Ms. Holmes’ case is not a capital case, but it helps to understand differences in how long the examination might take. The exam time in a Competency to Stand Trial for a misdemeanor trespassing case would likely be under two hours. I have seen some examiners spend 30 minutes for the interview in such cases. The other extreme would be Capital cases which could go over 8 hours or several days; this is especially true if neurocognitive testing is required, which can take an entire day.
Again, in a capital case the threshold and the stakes are very high—especially in death penalty cases that often go to the appeals court.
In misdemeanor cases, you may have a single mental health expert and the findings may be accepted without the need for an opposing expert. In Capital cases, the defense itself may retain several mental health and other medical experts (i.e. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome experts). In the Holmes case, the 14 hours is to be shared between a forensic neuropsychologist and a forensic psychiatrist.
As it is a high-profile case, it is possible that the court may allow additional funds or there maybe a willingness of the expert to work within a budget.
It is my experience that the examination in insanity cases take more time than other types of cases as you have to elicit a detailed account of the crime from the defendant and then determine the mental state at a time in the past and consider malingering (lying for secondary gain—like a lesser sentence). I suspect in the Holmes case, it is likely the charges are not limited to one circumscribed incident so it could take additional time. It is worth noting that time spent reviewing records and preparing a report could exceed twenty hours or more.
NR: What information might you need to establish or rebut an insanity defense?
SA: In addition to interviewing the defendant, it would be helpful to review medical records, legal records along with police records and videos. I often will interview collateral informants as well. In Ms. Holmes’s case there maybe, media accounts, if admissible, as well as financial records and corporate documents. Of course, an expert would review the other expert witness reports. Records in a violent crime could include an autopsy, or blood splatter expert reports, for example. In the Holmes case, there may be a forensic accounting or fraud expert report. Other sources of data could include polygraph testing, school records and employment records.
NR: In the Holmes case, the defense has retained a trauma expert. Is it common to successfully assert an insanity defense in cases of PTSD?
SA: Insanity defenses are more commonly associated with other diagnoses that are considered to be more severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and IDD because they have a different impact on decision-making and regulating behavior. Although many individuals with PTSD do suffer with severe symptoms, they are generally able to maintain awareness of the nature of their acts and appreciate the wrongfulness of such acts. In jurisdictions that allow for the volitional prong, individuals with PTSD are generally considered to be able to behave lawfully. Of course, there are cases where PTSD is successfully asserted as an insanity defense. In cases where the defense attorney realizes the PTSD does not lend itself for an insanity defense, they may successfully utilize it for sentence mitigation.
United States v. Bennett,29 F. Supp. 2d 236 (E.D.Pa. 1997), aff’d 161 F.3d 171, 183 (3d Cir.1998), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 819, 120 S. Ct. 61, 145 L. Ed. 2d 53 (1999)