How Family Separation at the U.S. Border Leaves A Permanent Mark

By: Senior Director Cayenne Isaksen CBP_McAllen_6

There are currently over 2,300 children in this country suffering – suffering because our government intentionally chose to separate them from their parents, detaining them in warehouses and makeshift shelters, apparently sending others thousands of miles away to be placed into foster care.

Some broadcast media outlets have played audio of the children’s aching cries and screams. I have personally found it incredibly hard to read a full article or watch a full news segment on the issue. It’s not that “as a mother, this is too hard,” you don’t have to be a parent for this to affect you, the pain felt by these kids should affect all of us.

These 2,300 children are suffering neglect and abuse at the hands of our own government. It’s appalling. Their families sought asylum in the United States to escape their suffering and plight at home. They sacrificed what little they had to bring their children to what they believed was a better country and a better life.

Every state has a child welfare agency. Their missions vary but always include protecting children from maltreatment, abuse, and neglect. They are also there to strengthen families – this means working to keep children at home with their parents whenever it is possible. Every day, social workers make incredibly difficult, painstaking decisions about the fate of children – the choice to remove a child from their parent’s custody is rarely an easy decision. Social workers make these decisions after careful consideration; many will tell you they lose sleep over these decisions, it’s a responsibility few of us would ever want.

Our government made a decision a long time ago – as early as the 19th Century – that we must take responsibility for children in need to protect them from maltreatment. In the 1970s, the Federal government began playing a more formalized role – not only by helping fund these state agencies but assisting in establishing national policies for child welfare. When state officials and social workers step in, their intention is to protect – or even save – a child from abuse and neglect. What is happening at the border is exactly the opposite. They are contributing to the very acts that our government has historically sought to protect children from.

The United States shut down orphanages long ago because they weren’t good for children and didn’t provide a healthy environment for children to live in. I can’t imagine what research will show for children’s health following forced separation and detainment in makeshift shelters.

Many are in agreement that this unsettling experience is a stain on our country. It will also leave a permanent mark on these children and families. Whether they are infants who won’t have conscious memories or older children who won’t be able to forget, this will change them. It will also change how they view America, how they view authority figures, and maybe how they view their parents whether they are reunited with them or not.

President Trump’s recent Executive Order may end future separations of families, but the entire practice should never have happened in the first place. And the policy reversal offers no plan to reunite the 2,300 children currently suffering alone. Eventual reunification may not be easy – what support services will be in place to help these children and families heal and recover from this trauma? As a nation, we have an obligation to do all that we can to assist that healing.

Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

CEO Thomas P. O’Neill III Speaks at the Annual MassAccess Conference

TPO MassAccess ConferenceOn Friday, May 4, O’Neill and Associates CEO Thomas P. O’Neill III served as the Keynote Speaker at the annual MassAccess Conference.

MassAccess is the nonprofit trade organization representing community media stations throughout Massachusetts. The membership group works to ensure the future vitality of Massachusetts based community media centers. There are over 200 local access cable TV centers in Massachusetts, the highest concentration of media centers in the country.

Community media professionals, local filmmakers, vendors, industry experts, and producers come together each year to learn from the best in television, film, and management. Each year, the conference provides MassAccess members the opportunity to meet, learn, and exchange ideas.

In his keynote address, O’Neill addressed the importance of free speech – particularly in today’s world of 24-hour news cycles, social media, and diminishing newspaper presence. The number of reporters in newsrooms is dwindling and, as a result, less news is being covered. Local Cable Access Centers and PEG stations are of vital importance now more than ever…they serve as one of the last lines of defense of transparent and free speech. “Local television may very well be our last gasp of free speech, we must protect it,” said O’Neill.

Community media centers across the country are being attacked and, in some cases, pushed out of their communities and out of business. But the work being done at these centers is vital. It doesn’t end with cable access. These centers are not only the last hyper-local outlet for citizens, they also provide educational and media literacy training, while serving as community hubs and centers and a training ground for students who want to pursue careers in TV and film.

As part of their ongoing advocacy efforts to ensure the vitality of community centers, MassAccess has been working to advance their Bill, ‘An Act to Support Community Access Television,’ filed by Senator John Keenan and Representative Ruth Balser. The Bill seeks to allow community media stations access to Electronic Programming Guides and channel signal quality that is comparable to local broadcast stations – now and in the future. Passage of the Bill would require cable companies to allow for broadcast of PEG channels in HD format and inclusion of programming in viewers’ electronic guides. These two changes would allow for PEG channels to be on par with most other offerings in cable television, and allow for greater access for viewers.

In addition to legislative advocacy, MassAccess works to develop educational workshops, utilize technology to inform and enhance community media centers, and acts as government liaisons to inform supporters across Massachusetts regarding the current political landscape in regards to media.

“The Three A’s” of Identifying a Twitter Bot

By: Account Executive Brook O’Meara-Sayen

1.jpgIn my last blog piece, I discussed what a Twitter bot is, provided an extremely basic overview of how they’re made, and discussed how Twitter bots can make and change sentiment online. Much of the recent social discourse regarding bots has been negative, mainly due to revelations that Russia utilized a veritable army of bots in 2016 in their attempt to influence the US Presidential Election. Russia used its bots to move online sentiment, creating the impression that hashtags campaigns and other orchestrated social media content were coming from actual voters, and not a shadowy office building in St. Petersburg, Russia. To do this, they relied on the assumption that the everyday American Twitter user wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a bot and person. In many cases, they were right. Russia also had a dedicated team of ‘professional trolls’ working in tandem with the bots, making it hard to discern who was mechanical, and who wasn’t. However, most bots are still relatively easy to find–and ubiquitous. An estimated 9-15 percent of all Twitter accounts are bots.

So, how is one able to identify a bot in your feed? Attempting to weed out bots isn’t foolproof, and the tips I’m about to give will not always work. They will allow you to analyze and think critically about the suspicious accounts you may come across. One of the easiest ways to identify a bot is by looking at post frequency and identity, by using “The Three A’s”, a system coined by the Digital Forensics Research Lab.


  1. ACTIVITY, or how much do you post?

Machines are great because they can perform menial tasks much faster than any human ever could, just ask Henry Ford. This is in part why bots who retweet original content are so pervasive on the web. You can create a ‘retweet bot’ in a matter of minutes. Once it’s on, it won’t turn off unless you tell it to. This leads to a twitter account with an abnormally high number of tweets – the first red flag. The Digital Forensic Research Lab treats any account that tweets more than 40 times a day as suspicious, and anything over 140 as highly suspect.

  1. ANONYMITY, or who are you?

Creating a convincing fake online person can be tedious, so most bots tend towards vague anonymity. They might use generic names, false locations, and minimal or misleading bios that lack personal information. Most human twitter accounts will include at least cursory identifying information, such as a verifiable name and profile picture. They may also tweet identifying characteristics out about themselves unknowingly, such as a picture of their dog, child, car, etc., or a complaint about the weather or commute in a specific location. This is not to say that all anonymous twitter accounts are bots, but used in conjunction with other warning signs, anonymity can be a helpful indicator.

  1. AMPLIFICATION, or what are you saying?

Bots cannot easily create lucid, fully-formed thoughts on a subject. They rarely provide the nuance needed to trick a human user. So, what do they do instead? They cheat. Bots might post content written by real people. They retweet, copy news headlines verbatim, and you hope no one questions why there is no obviously original content on their page.

Using the three A’s when looking at a suspected bot account can give a user a good sense of its authenticity, but it is not foolproof. In addition to the three A’s, users should look for other indicators such as stolen pictures, accounts with very few followers and insanely high engagement rates, and usernames that appear to be randomly generated.

It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fake on the internet. If you’re interested in becoming a full-fledged bot-finder, I would also point you to some of the source material for this blog post, “12 Ways to Spot a Bot” by the Digital Forensics Research Lab.

Legislature Considers Options on Short-Term Rentals


By Vice President Lindsay Toghill

There are many challenges for state government as new technologies become incorporated into everyday life. Last session, the Massachusetts Legislature came to an agreement on regulation of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft after ongoing concerns about public safety.  This session, the issue of Short Term Rentals (STR) like Airbnb has become a significant priority for the Legislature as it considers lost lodging revenue and public health and safety.

The discussion has been complicated by competing interests and proposals. Governor Charlie Baker made it very clear that he is interested in addressing the issue this session by including regulation and taxation in both his Fiscal Year 2018 and 2019 budget proposals. While these inclusions do not have the force of a stand-alone bill, his interest has not gone unnoticed in the Legislature.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in late March that took an expansive view on regulation and taxation of this new industry. The bill creates a tiered taxation structure based upon the number of days and type of lodging offered, as well as requirements for a state registry and enhanced public health and safety measures. It also allows expanded municipal oversight and regulation, as well as enhanced insurance requirements for each rental unit.

The just-released Senate response contains many earlier themes with a significant focus on the potential revenue possible if STR units were taxed in the same manner and rates as conventional hotels. This bill, redrafted by the Senate Ways and Means committee looks at the benefit of expanding taxation on STR transactions as well as various online resellers such as and the conventional realtor industry.  By offering a very lean bill, the Senate allows for expansion of online technology in the tourism industry, while most notably allowing municipalities to regulate short-term rentals according to the specific needs and interests of their community. This bill was considered by the full Senate on Wednesday, April 4th.

It is expected that the two bills will be considered and combined into a final version by a legislative Conference Committee before the de-facto end of the legislative session on July 31. With much at stake in this new industry and in our communities, this issue will likely set the tone for future disruptive technologies in Massachusetts.

Facebook’s Data Breach Raises Concerns in the Digital Media World

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

Last year Facebook measured 240 million monthly active users in the US, each of whom provided the tech giant with a trove personal information scattered through cookies, tracking pixels, status updates, GPS check-ins,  and other widely employed data-harvesting methods. Of that 240 million, few probably stopped to think about where their data was being was being stored, who had access to it, and how it might be used. Now, that lack of transparency is causing major headaches at Facebook HQ.

Facebook was recently confronted with allegations that social media monitoring firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of 50 million of its users. Cambridge Analytica then used the data on behalf of the Trump campaign to create targeted political ads and media campaigns in the 2016 presidential election. Users, largely unaware that this data was being collected, let alone utilized, now contend their privacy was violated.

Facebook responded to the reports and denied a data breach, saying it gave permission to Aleksandr Kogan, a professor at the University of Cambridge, to gain information from users who took his personality test via an app: “thisisyourdigitallife.” Though Kogan was allowed to access the information, sharing it with Cambridge Analytica for commercial purposes crossed a line.

This latest scandal has sparked discussion over whether targeted political ads with a skeptical relationship with the truth have reached the point of interference with the principles of democracy. When Internet users see ads on social media, the ads are unique to their browsing history and tailored to their likes, dislikes, and a myriad of other data points collected by Facebook. The ad content is strategically positioned to persuade users, sometimes including biased political sentiments and misinformation that represents a user or group of users’ world view rather than objective fact. In this way Cambridge Analytica was able to influence users’ voting attitudes with personal data they had acquired.

The news of this data breach has reached lawmakers on a state and federal level. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy recently said her office will conduct an investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Last week, top Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee–Senators John Thune (R-SD), Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Jerry Moran (R-KS)–stated  Mark Zuckerberg needed to testify. Additionally, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner (D-VA),  tried to reinforce their Honest Ads Act legislation, which aims to hold tech companies to the same political ad transparency standards as radio, TV and print outlets.

The investigations, hearings, and legislation that come out of this data breach must be watched closely. Much of the internet is still seen as a digital ‘Wild West’ with few regulations and a lot of digital marketing is still largely misunderstood. As people begin to take a closer look at what goes on behind the newsfeed, the next couple of weeks will be pivotal for determining the future of social media and digital marketing as a whole.

Image provided by Chesnot / Getty Images

CEO Thomas P. O’Neill III on Gun Control


Since Sandy Hook, classroom doors are always supposed to be locked in my school. Since Sandy Hook, students are not supposed to let visitors into the school in case of hidden threats. I was 13 then; I’m 18 now. This was my childhood. But did it have to be? #GunControlNow

9:18 PM – 15 Feb 2018

There were heartbreaking messages from inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, on Valentine’s Day of all days. The tweet above isn’t one of them. It’s from a Boston area high school student lucky enough to have never experienced the need to hide in a closet or under a desk, or to text her friends and family her good byes.

During my school years in the ’50s and early ’60s we practiced drills. Tensions from the Cold War spurred the federal government to launch a nationwide campaign to inform the citizenry of the dangers of nuclear war. Schoolchildren across the United States were taught to “duck and cover” by a cartoon animal named Bert the Turtle who was very alert and hid in his shell as firecrackers exploded above him. To be honest, we became numb to the training. The threat was real, but amorphous, beyond our control. So we ducked, we covered, we paid attention to where the familiar yellow and black Fallout Shelter signs were. The nuclear threat was real, thankfully the missiles never came.
The threat that today’s schoolchildren prepare for is real, and they know it. I can’t imagine what goes through kids’ minds as they train to use desks as bunkers, to hold text books in front of their faces, to stay silent while armed killers roam their familiar hallways.Younger students are told lies so that the reality of the training isn’t so scary. They’re given imaginary explanations for the exercises, so they don’t get scared. I wonder if the student tweeting above was aware at 13 of the stakes of this training-life or death. And I wonder what she thinks at 18, cellphone in hand, the world’s news at her fingertips, the videos from inside Stoneman Douglas live on her Twitter feed.

The threat in the ’50s was from beyond our borders. The geopolitics that followed World War II seemed intractable and beyond our reach. The threat today is from within. We’re training American school kids to protect themselves from their peers. This is the school experience of an entire generation of Americans.

Instead of a national campaign against this threat, too many in Congress have done what we’re training our kids to do – hide under their desks and stay silent. Too many put the demands of the NRA before the safety of our children.

What the federal government has been unable to do, some states are doing. Massachusetts banned assault weapons nearly two decades ago. Following the Las Vegas shooting, the Commonwealth banned bump-stocks. It’s simply common sense. Last week, Massachusetts joined the states of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut as part of a multi-state effort to share information and reduce gun violence. This takes strong leadership. The Massachusetts Legislature, under the indefatigable efforts of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, has boldly moved to strengthen the Commonwealth’s gun laws. In addition, Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey give thoughtful and consistent leadership on the national stage. Still, as important as these efforts are, they cannot be substitutes for a comprehensive federal effort.

In his inaugural address John F. Kennedy spoke of a generation then coming to power that was “disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” This generation of students has been raised and disciplined amidst the bitter reality of mass shootings and government’s inaction in response. This generation of students is coming of age and registering to vote. They are accessing the power of assembly and will hold the March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington, D.C., with sister marches in Boston, New York and dozens of other cities. These students know the answer to the question that began this letter, “Did it have to be?” To paraphrase President Kennedy, let’s do everything in our power to support them to “go forth to lead the land we love.” Godspeed.

What is a Bot? An Inside Look Behind Their Twitter Takeover

Twitter Website Grab

By: Account Coordinator Brook O’Meara-Sayen 

Since the 2016 presidential election, a news cycle barely goes by without at least a cursory mention of ‘bots.’ As Robert Mueller’s Special Council investigation continues to move  forward, it has become increasingly apparent that Russian state agents utilized ‘bots’ to successfully sow dissent during our this past election. These bots are Twitter Bots, Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered Twitter accounts impersonating humans.

Twitter now estimates more than 50,000 such bots crafted in Russia were utilized by the shadowy Internet Research Agency to sow discord in our electoral process. They worked, in large part, because real Twitter users often could not discern these accounts had no human at the keyboard. Orchestrated use of bots led to online ‘movements’ and promoted divisive hashtags.

O’Neill Now is starting a new series on bots on our blog, discussing how and why they can be used, but first we need to understand what a bot is.

At the core, Twitter bots are an extremely simple concept. A bot is a piece of code or a computer program that controls a Twitter account and posts without human supervision. They can be used for a myriad of things, such as auto-creating Venn Diagrams, or sorting the pixels of images to create art. Most of the time Twitter bots are completely harmless and were created to serve a specific function. These accounts are easily identifiable and many even acknowledge their lack of a soul in the bio. They are, in essence, tools with a public facing function–and Twitter gives them the platform they require to serve the people who need their service.

As AI has risen to prominence, it was only a matter of time before someone married the two concepts, either for a legitimate goal–like automating customer service complaints–or an illegitimate one–like, say, promoting a negative hashtag about a competitor. The marriage of AI and Twitter Bots resulted in a child called SocialBots.

SocialBots bots are supposed to act like humans, posting at random times, “sleeping,” talking about mundane behaviors, etc. A SocialBot might even have a database of “human things” which will allow it to tweet about how annoying it is to do laundry, even though it’s just a few lines of code. But their ability to masquerade as a human and influence public sentiment is what makes them controversial.

So, why can a bot move public sentiment on a topic when a real person can’t? A bot can be copied again and again without limits. Together these bots can tweet the same news story and hashtag simultaneously. They can trick a target audience into believing these tweets are 50,000 people and not 50,000 lines of code.

This adds a layer of uncertainty to the social media giant: is that trending topic trending because people care about it, or does one guy with an army of bots care about it? Does my favorite politician/actor/writer/entrepreneur really have that many followers or are half of them bots created to boost their numbers?

In later installments we’ll discuss how to spot a bot, how to make one, and specific instances when bots made a difference online.

Update on the Massachusetts Cannabis Regulatory Scene



By Vice President Christopher Niles

After a week of debate and compromise, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) is poised to vote to adopt final regulations this week that will govern the recreational cannabis market in the Commonwealth. While the CCC approved parameters for a robust industry, they did vote to delay controversial provisions included by the CCC in earlier versions of the regulations that would have allowed delivery services and “social consumption” businesses that would also sell cannabis (e.g. cafes, movie theatres and yoga studios). As part of the compromise CCC committed to revisiting these issues in October and to provide those licenses to populations disproportionately impacted by the “war on drugs.”

Access to the substantial capital needed to operate a cannabis business and the ability to complete many financial transactions remain a significant problem. The rescission of the Cole memorandum that provided some safe harbor for state initiatives by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, coupled by comments by US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, have limited the ability of cannabis businesses to bank and in some cases complete debit card transactions. The banking pinch is concerning enough that CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman recently floated the idea of a state supported bank for cannabis businesses. While likely not an immediate option for consideration, it speaks to the limitations that these companies will have to work around in the near term.

More on the recent CCC actions can be found here.

The CCC has navigated a complex set of issues and the licensing process appears on track to meet the July 1stdeadline, establishing a competitive market that some estimates believe to reach $1 billion by 2020. However, significant operational challenges remain for businesses to be up and running by July 1st, and the potential conversion of the 22 existing medical marijuana dispensaries to also offer recreational sales on July 1st will put a strain on supply. To that end, the CCC mandated that medical cannabis dispensaries must retain 30% of their supply for medical patients.

With clear guidelines from the CCC nearly in place, attention will begin to shift to the local level as businesses work to locate in municipalities across the Commonwealth, moratoriums, zoning and host community agreements will have to be addressed and overcome as the cannabis industry attempts to integrate into our social and economic landscape.

O’Neill and Associates has successfully assisted cannabis businesses since the medical cannabis law was approved by voters. For more on our capabilities or questions around this issue please contact us.

Three questions with John Cahill, Vice Chairman, Federal Relations

webres_120403_oneill_johncahill-0108In the State of the Union, President Trump called for “at least 1.5 trillion in investment.” Is there a path forward for his plan?

The framework of an infrastructure plan was shared in the media a few weeks ago and the reaction to it was quite reserved on both sides of the aisle. Historically, infrastructure is one area that gets bipartisan support, but that will prove difficult in the current political environment. The framework would leverage $200 billion in direct federal dollars over 10 years with the remainder of the $1 trillion plus investment coming from states, municipalities, and the private sector. In practical terms, most Congressional authorizations don’t extend 10 years. Furthermore, most cities and states don’t have these extra dollars available. Mayors and Governors would have to raise tolls or other fees to find the revenue. Rural states with smaller populations and fewer users of highways or transit systems would be disproportionally affected. The formula doesn’t really make sense in its current form – what governor is going to raise fees in order to get a smaller share of federal infrastructure dollars? We will be monitoring the Committees and Subcommittees as they work to craft actual legislation. With 2018 being an election year and so much partisanship around federal spending already, it’s difficult to see a comprehensive infrastructure package moving forward.

We are quickly approaching the next deadline to fund the government. Will we have another shutdown?

The upcoming deadline to reach a new deal to keep the government open is February 8. There is increasing talk of another stopgap measure that would fund the government for another 30 days – and the possibility that this one-month-at-a-time plan may be what the Republicans continue to do going forward. There’s discord over this within the Republican majority, however. Freedom Caucus members want more on the table to strengthen budget caps and restrict immigration. Another shutdown is possible, but it’s more likely that we will see a short term deal instead. Another factor is the impact of tax reform on the debt ceiling. The revenue shortfall will likely require action to raise the debt ceiling in addition to finding agreement on a Continuing Resolution.

There’s talk of the House of Representatives possibly restoring the practice of earmarks. What’s happening here?

Recently there’s been a flurry of comments and activity on whether it’s time to bring back earmarks or Member-directed spending. The House eliminated earmarks in 2011 following several instances of excesses and political pressure to reduce federal spending. Some believe that the elimination of earmarks contributed greatly to partisan divide as Members were no longer compelled to make deals with one another in order to secure funding for projects in their districts. It’s too soon to tell what will happen, but we expect that the possible return of earmarks will get serious consideration before the November elections. Even so, the outcome is uncertain.