Sunday, November 16, 2014

De-Trolling The Internet?

Right now it seems pretty likely that Hillary Clinton will run for president. There is a reasonable chance she will win. What does that mean for Twitter?


A few weeks ago The Omnivore was looking at the future of #GamerGate--a movement that purports to be about ethics in video-game journalism but is marred by people under it's flag (#hashtag) spending a lot of time attacking female game developers and critics. It's mired in misogyny  and The Omnivore wondered if the misogynistic drivers behind it would, you know, diminish by 2016 if we had our first female president.

Doesn't seem likely. About 50% of whites think race-relations have gotten worse under Obama and 30% of blacks do. Comparatively few think things have gotten better. Now, that may be because Obama is especially divisive--but ask yourself this: isn't winning a national election where the numbers are pretty close to 50-50 going to be divisive almost by nature.

You can also ask yourself if the "flames" of misogyny are going to be fanned by, shall we say, both actual misogynists and either 'grievance seeking Social Justice Warriors' (which will have one segment of The Omnivore's readership nodding its heads) or 'people seeking a tactical advantage' (to appeal to another segment--see? Division!)? If none of this makes any sense, just consider that you don't have to go to conspiracy theory to know that Hillary's gender is going to be part of the discussion pretty much no matter what and not everyone is going be well behaved about it.

This brings us to Twitter.

Does Twitter Have Secret Troll-Silencing Technology?
Well? Do they?
Luciana Berger, a member of British Parliament, has been receiving a stream of anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter. It only escalated after a man was jailed for tweeting her a picture with a Star of David superimposed on her forehead and the text "Hitler was Right." But over the last few weeks, the abuse began to disappear. Her harassers hadn’t gone away, and Twitter wasn't removing abusive tweets after the fact, as it sometimes does, or suspending accounts as reports came in. Instead, the abuse was being blocked by what seems to be an entirely new anti-abuse filter.
The key here is this: Trolling, Griefing, and other tactics are probably statistically identifiable. It is not hard to launch an anonymous harassment campaign if you can get a large enough sub-demographic riled up--but leaderless attacks probably tend to fall into certain patterns. Big data can identify and isolate them. The social-media infrastructure can remove them.

If this technology (and while it's probably technically an "arms race" since Social Media owns both the troll-identification technology and the 'microphone' that the trolls use to get their message out, it's really more of a 'technology') becomes mature and dominant something may happen: The Internet may roll back not anonymity necessarily--but voice.

Today the Internet gives voice to millions who, historically, have never had it. The printing press (books) gave it to few. Newspapers? A few more. Mimeographs and copy shops? Pirate radio? Even more. But today you can hear from people on fringes so far removed from the mainstream--and in such volumes--that it's an actual game-changer.

Until it isn't: the fact of the matter is that society is not better served by hearing from Sandy Hook deniers and 9/11 Truthers (oh, sure, The Omnivore will look stupid when that turns out to be true. The Omnivore is taking his chances).

Turns Out: You CAN Kill An Idea
Just Take Away Their Employee Meals
Time magazine had a list of the most-annoying words of the year (which word to retire). 'Feminist' was winning in a land-slide. They apologized and removed it (it was beating 'bossy,' 'disrupt,' 'basic,' and 'bae' ... The Omnivore is old). Recently #GamerGate was dealt a devastating blow (which, in Internet is 'Actually A Good Thing'TM) when Intel returned to adverting on Gamasutra after they had been chased off by an Internet Hate-Machine campaign. It's not clear why or under what conditions they came back--but they probably assessed that there was actual (a) money to be made and (b) that #GamerGate's reputation was now out and siding with them looked pretty bad. In other words, one of #GamerGate's major victories was rolled back.

Part of that victory was driven by a distributed mass-messaging campaign called Operation Disrespectful Nod. This was a fairly-savvy email campaign that used time-of-day and non-tagged ("Don't use #GamerGate") advise to create an out-sized influence. It was successful electronic guerrilla action and it caught Intel off-guard. They've since, apparently, re-assessed. They've probably also gotten wise to the methods.

The response from #GamerGate (judging from the link above) is to send them various outlets polite emails in such volumes that they disrupt day-to-day operations. Good luck with that. The PR department's probably recalibrated their spam filters.

The point here is not that #GamerGate or feminism will actually go away--it's that weaponizing these concepts in the Age of the Internet may have a shelf-life as the market forces that drive social media learn to recognize disruptive patterns and clamp down on them. If anything convinces us as a society to move away from email, it'll be that: we've learned to filter spam pretty well. We'll learn to filter email-activism next or move to TwitterMail or something.

Now, despite what the title says, this won't really kill the idea. A hundred years from now, there will be some dude, somewhere, claiming #GamerGate was really about ethics in game journalism--but difference is that by then, no one will hear him.

Trigger Events
Let's get back to Hillary and feminism and the 2016 election. After the 2014 mid-terms, 2016 is the re-match. The GOP is back--they improved with women, Asians, and they won almost unprecedented majorities across the country. The 2016 win is, today, in play. It probably won't be Ben Carson--but the GOP could well pick a firebrand and (today, it seems) have a decent chance.

This is saying the stakes will be high.

Elections are, by their nature divisive and today they divide along fault-lines that already exist. Unless the GOP picks a female candidate (The Omnivore will bet the farm against that) the fault line will be a specific genre of gender war. The specific genre in question will be this: 'Does Hillary deserve to be president more than her record would indicate because she is a woman?'

No one will say this (well, okay, lots and lots of people will say it--and it'll range from straw-men being set up to 'Yes-she-does' discussions of privilege--but the mass media and the official spokespeople for the parties will not say it--or, at the very least, they will not answer it). It will be a key part of the conversation in 2015 and 2016.

This will bring the guys voting down 'feminism' on Time Magazine's poll out in droves. DROVES. And it'll be a problem for everyone:

  • It'll be a problem for the GOP because the War-on-Women charge will still stick to them a little better than the Democrats.
  • It'll be a problem for the media because they have their own history of reporting on Hillary's clothes and won't want to be tarred with the 4chan brush.
  • It'll be a problem for Hillary's people because it risks setting off brush-fires and provoking bad behavior in places they'd rather not.
In short, it'll be incentive for Facebook and Twitter and whatever else is going strong in 2016 to remove people having that conversation.

We might be seeing the emerging weapons in that fight today.


  1. "Twitter is an anti-feminist hive of scum and villainy."

    But this was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, no? Hell, the Mos Eisley Spaceport probably didn't even have WiFi or charging stations back then.

    -- Ω

  2. [veronica here]

    But to be clear, was anyone claiming their tweets were literally *deleted*? Or were there simply *no notifications*? Those are very different ideas. In the first case, yeah, that is blocking a voice. In the second case, that is simply protecting users from abuse.

    Which, look, it is one thing for someone to say "veronica is a gross tranny." It is another to *force me to listen to them*. With Twitter, a great deal happens with notifications. I cannot read every tweet on my feed, nor do I see tweets from those I do not follow, so if someone wants to talk to me, they add @{username}. Then I see. This is good. I like to hear from people.

    However, things change if some army of shit-monkeys decide to ruin my day by coming hard. Then my mentions clog. My phone chirps and chirps again. Little nuggets of hate show up on the screen.

    It *really fucking sucks*.

    I cannot imagine what is like for Anita or Zoe. (I know a woman who was getting like 10 notifications *a second* during the height of GG. Fuck that shit.)

    In any case, Twitter becomes largely unusable at that point. So a learning algorithm that will block this stuff seems a fine thing to me. Captain Jackass can still send his tweet. Anyone so foolish as to read his feed can see it. But his targets can go on perfectly happy in their day-to-day.

    Unless of course they want to go looking for it. But they can do that if want, as much as they want, according to their own schedule.

    1. To my understanding, none of the 'silenced' people have spoken out so we don't know. For the record, I'm not sure that blocking a voice is a bad thing. I realize that for every voice I -want- there are plenty I think it's okay to block--and I'm not sure how to split the atom on that--but I also think that if Twitter actually shuts down feeds that are abusive (by some reasonable standard), I'm good with that even if I like it.

      So I think being able to stop personally targeted "Denial of Sanity" attacks is a good thing. I'm willing to kill voices for that. Trolls can launch their own Twitter.

    2. [veronica]

      Well, in theory Twitter has always been willing to block abusive accounts. The problem was the reporting mechanism, which was clumsy, and the process, which was slow. By the time Twitter acted, the abuser had often had *literally months* to grief people. Blocking helps. In fact, I'm one of the mods on the block bot, which people can sign up to and get blocks automatically added to their accounts. This greatly improves Twitter usability.

      That said, there is some general agreement that Twitter is too slow to act in cases of genuine abuse. On the other hand, the guy doxing Brianna Wu was taken down pretty fast. So that is good. Also it seems Twitter is forming some loose alliances with feminist watchdog groups to help speed the process, which will help women targeted by sexist men, certainly a major problem. However, it will do little to help men who are targeted. And surely "let's just fix this for woman" is not an ideal solution.

      Anyway, Twitter has long needed to take this more seriously. I think they are beginning to.