Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Stop Hate - Ban Computers

If you’ve been following the tech news you may have heard that British MP Luciana Berger is calling on Twitter to remove all anti-Semitic language. First, her statement presupposes that the hate is only on Twitter and that other hate on Twitter is OK. These statements are problematic at best and horrible distortions at worst.  At the very least she seems to consider Twitter the source and vector for all such things. It is an election year in the UK and singling out Twitter, by Berger and others, appears little more than fashionable politicking.  

The worst part is, of course, that things politicians say receive media coverage. In receiving media coverage these statements gain credibility without consideration for the challenges and problems they represent. 

To stop anti-Semitic, or any hate speech, is an admirable objective. However, to eliminate such things from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or the comment sections of other websites, does not eliminate the hate from the world. Sometimes you need to repeat the hate in order to expose it. How is that supposed to happen when the words and phrases are abolished? The technology does not yet exist that can detect such subtlety of use. Considering the billions of users, it is impossible for the necessary army of moderators to be trained to act consistently.   With all our experience we are still seeing channels, pages and users being banned, deleted and unpublished in error. We don’t have the answer yet. 

Recently we have seen technology make it possible to block content prohibited by local law on a country by country basis.  No matter what governments mandate, if the technology doesn’t exist to comply, the laws are largely unenforceable. The future answers to hate speech online will come from technology. Governments will not be the ones to create it. 

The companies are not the problem; they are the key to the solution. For government representatives to cast industry in an adversarial role is shortsighted and counterproductive. 

There is a problem, without question.  Too often the easy sounding solution turns out to be just sound.  We all deserve a solution to online hate that is intrinsic, real and enduring. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reluctant Partners

The Internet doesn’t belong to anyone, it can’t, it’s too late for that. It is impossible to imagine how it can ever be a utility, corporation or unified power unto itself. It is a contentious, fractious, complicated, dynamic and glorious thing that rivals international politics for complexity and impact. Despite the fantasies of conspiracy theorists, the aspirations of corporations, the dreams of Governments and the doubts of the public; like it or not the internet is a partnership.

As if it weren’t enough that we are dealing with a dynamic technology the likes of which we have never experienced before, we (government, industry, public, academic) are also forced to participate with factions, entities and situations we don’t understand and don’t like very much.
Maybe it’s evolution or God is testing us or maybe it just is and that’s that.

The internet is a blurry doppelganger of our world – part public, part privatized, part politicized, part bureaucratized and completely energized.  If you think of the Internet as a world, it all becomes more comprehensible. In the physical world we discovered d├ętente, for better or worse, but in the younger Internet world the concept seems to elude us. Despite the lessons of history and the intelligence it has taken to foster the internet, each community steadfastly believes their views are unassailably correct – the governments want to regulate and legislate, the companies want to accrue and sell product (information) and the civil society believes everyone is beholding to them. No one wants to openly admit that the truth lies somewhere in the middle or delve into that truth.

So, under-informed politicians push their governments to make well intentioned yet misguided laws, companies make content policies based on their ideals and the company’s bottom line and the public wants to be able to say anything about anyone, anytime – as long as it’s not about them.

Everybody thinks their position is important, best and most valid.  But the companies, the public and the governments all need each other, one way or other, like it or not. So no one gets everything they want and that’s how a good partnership works. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Zombie Apocalypse is Here and You Didn’t Notice

Have brain eating, society crushing, putrefying, corrupted, stalking creatures missed your attention?  If you are looking out your window, yes. But they are all around you on the Internet - and commonly called trolls. Not literally brain eating, but sucking the intelligence out of anything they can and drawing their strength from the meat viciously torn from innocent victims. Trolls are a species, a different species. Zombies are ruined, rotting humans who procreate by contaminating others. Zombies are much more like what we think of when we think of Internet trolls.
Zombie purists probably do not like this line of thinking. They would rather we grapple with a weaponized version of an ancient middle/northern European demon than risk exploring the real meaning behind the current popularity of zombies. 
Certain entertainment subjects have been popular in the past because they are a blurry reflection of what is going on around us at that time. Intended to or not, these images resonate with us in some way.  The Marx Brothers deflating fat cats, expressing the hidden desires of depression weary Americans; The Invasion of the Body Snatchers echoing America’s unease with McCarthyism’s “enemies among us”; the racism reflected in The Day the Earth Stood Still and now the obsession with zombies in this,  the heyday of hate on the Internet.  It is not a coincidence.

Hate on the Internet is one of the most destructive forces in our society today (1st Amendment? that’s for a later blog post) and it is ugly, vile, contagious, indiscriminant and corrosive.   Zombies are vile, thoughtless, degenerate, dehumanized, creatures preying on the minds (brains) and hearts (flesh) of innocent vulnerable people who are then forced to hide in order to survive. Sounds like internet hate, sounds like trolls. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Haters Pride

No one is proud to be a troll, at least not publically proud. The trolls I have managed to engage quickly shift to righteous indignation – I troll because I can, I’m allowed, I’m entitled. There are many things in life that we can do but shouldn’t; drinking cleaning products and eating those moisture absorbing silica packets that come in the box with electronic products come to mind. Just because we can do something does not mean we should or must. That is the hallmark of civilized behavior. Trolls know this.

It is a rare troll that uses their real name. It is not a Snowden or Assange-esque fear of big brother but a fear of being the subject of the kind of abuse they are heaping on others that keeps them from using a real identity.

The interviews with umasked trolls such as @sweepyface (Brenda Leyland) and Violentacrez (Michael Brutsch) speak volumes. Leyland was unmasked by a UK  news agency as one of the primary trolls of the McCann family, whose daughter disappeared on holiday in Portugal in 2007. Brutsch, outed by Gawker, was one of Reddit’s most intentionally offensive and high profile denizens. Leyland’s last public words in her own defense were, “I’m entitled.” She was immediately the subject of a fusillade of online hate. Soon after, Leyland was found dead in a nearby hotel – cause still unknown.  Brutsch told Gawker that, “I just like riling people up in my spare time,” and asked repeatedly what he could do to stop Gawker from outing him.

Leyland and Brutsch both wanted sympathy, but offered none for anyone they may have impacted.

It is not just common sense that trolls don’t like to be confronted or have to defend their usually unprovoked and unsubstantiated attacks, it is a studied phenomenon. Facebook has been experimenting with a facet of their complaint mechanism which allows users to contact other users who have posted inappropriate material and ask that it be removed. Whether or not you agree with the idea of contacting your attackers, the program has had a measure of success.

Whatever you call them – trolls, snipers, haters – they all share the same characteristics. There are legions of people who serve-up criticism honestly, genuinely, responsibly and without anonymity. It is easy to come up with any number of reasons for not using a real name online, but hiding your identity to dish-out abuse, and avoid it in return, is the weakest of them all.   

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Real Problem with Nicki Minaj’s Video

There is nothing new about Nazi imagery in music, games, movies and video or on the Internet in general.  What is new and wrong is the loss of context. This is especially a true when the use of the images is casual and the audience is young.  This is the real problem with Nicki Minaj’s latest video “Only.”  In no way does this video attempt to illuminate the problems with Nazis, totalitarian governments or the glorification of their symbols and images - exactly the opposite.  This is even more shocking because, if you think about, had there been a significant black community in Hitler's Europe, they certainly would been on the extermination list too.

Regardless of what apologies or justifications have been offered,  the true sentiment of Minaj'a camp is hard to miss - a bunch of older whites are upset about our video and we really don't care,  they're not our audience. 

I could be wrong, but if Minaj was really upset about offending people, she would have pulled the video and ordered it be re-edited.  At the very least, add a statement at the end about how the Nazis were evil destructive,  anti-American, anti-democratic and should not be emulated or glorified.  But perhaps doing the right thing just takes too much effort.

Monday, November 10, 2014

English – The New Language of Hate

The blooming of the information age and the commercial Internet in the U.S. has made English the default language of the medium. In addition to all of the other businesses that have emerged, website hosting companies and services in the U.S. are the primary home for websites from around the world. Because of the US commitment to free speech, hate filled websites from around the world, websites seeking to evade hate speech laws in their own country, often seek out and find willing hosting services in the U.S.

Between hate speech generated by home-grown sources and hate sites from around the world English is now the international language of hate.

Not all hate is in English, far from it. But many haters love and use English. It is the mother tongue of the new media. It is also the native language of free-speech and the U.S., where their most vicious rhetoric has a place to be heard. In conferences, at hearings, meetings and court proceeding around the world, when the issue of hate online comes up, the U.S. is cited as the welcoming home for hate. Criticism of the United States and the First amendment often follows.

International hate mongers will post their vitriol in their own language when speaking to their home audience. When racists, extremists, anti-Semites and fear-mongers want to reach an international audience, their content appears in English.

 This is not a bad thing. It is fitting and possibly even good that English has come to be associated with hate in this way. In addition to being the language of hate, English is also the language of free speech, freedom and equality. The U.S. cultural ethos of free-speech is not about to change, so English is going to remain the language of hate. On one hand, hate speech will not be going away – on the other hand its persistence means that freedom of speech is alive and well. English, in addition to being a platform for hate, is uniquely positioned to be the most powerful tool against hate speech. Just as the concept of free speech protects people’s right to spew hate, it also protects the right of people to identify and criticize hate speech. Speaking out against hate speech does not compromise free speech; it is perhaps the highest form of free speech. It is counter speech. It is the start of debate, dispute and dialogue that is us at our best, hate and all.