The Social Media Stranglehold

Suspended

Introduction

Twitter suspended my 10-year, 5,000 follower account, apparently for asking Wil Wheaton a rhetorical question.

I haven’t always been the best behaved on Twitter, but have been for some years now as the platform, and my relationship with it have evolved.

To be suspended for such a silly reason, which doesn’t even breach any of their terms of service, is a bit of a shock but I’m not the only one. Twitter is suspending many people from the platform in a ‘purge’ which is barring people from all across the political spectra from having access to it.

In a horrible irony, many of the people who have been calling for more censorship (and who probably helped cause this to happen) have flounced off Twitter this month. They are demanding that the platform censor Alex Jones (of Info Wars fame) because of his conspiracy theory nonsense and the harassment and problems it has led to – even if not directed by Jones himself. They’re demanding even more censorship.

I consider myself aware of the implications and issues of the online space, I was a (relatively) early adopter of various aspects of the Internet, I have been a critic and have offered analyses of Internet culture and technology, and yet I was still blindsided by just how much of an effect this has had.

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Why this is Serious

Stop for a moment and consider how much you use your social media. The odds are that Facebook, Twitter – or perhaps your Google account – describe the primary method by which you interact with the Internet. You use these things to communicate with your friends and family, to serve up exciting content, to follow celebrities, topics and content you like. Moreso even more than you likely use search engines.

Social Media has also become a tool of convenience for logging into third-party sites, games, comment sections and applications of all kinds. Media interactions – participation in culture, art, news – are all driven by social media.

It is also an essential aspect of a business, cheap marketing, providing support, finding people to do contract work, calling for artists, writers and so forth.
It’s a route to fame, notoriety and success – by going viral.

It’s essential for crowd-funding, Kickstarters, raising money for charities or personal emergencies. To many people and businesses, if you’re not on Social Media, then you don’t exist.

The Internet itself was a transformative technology, social media has been a transformative use of that technology, but our culture, laws and social ‘rules’ are lagging far behind that technology, and this lies at the root of most of our problems when it comes to that technology. The public square is in private hands, but we fail to understand this.

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A Little Internet History (Web Portals)

Does anyone remember web portals?

Back in the earlier history of the Internet, this was how the significant sites of the time, like Yahoo or AOL, tried to provide usability to new users and to make the Internet less ‘scary’ by serving up content and links as a ‘front page’ to the Internet.

It didn’t work, it wasn’t personalised, and most people wanted to move well beyond that walled garden of advertising and the stories of the day that they decided you should know. That older way of doing things died off fairly rapidly.

How were people connecting with content? Mostly via email. Friends and family would send you links to something they thought you might find interesting. Unfortunately, this would also, often, include chain-emails and bloated files full of ‘funny’ images that took ages to download on dial-up but even so, your friends formed an informal Internet curation service of trusted links and material.

When social media finally took off, those companies – especially Facebook – found a way to monetise our trusted networks of friends, as well as to personalise advertising and to insert it into that trusted stream, gaining from second-hand trustworthiness via context.
Social Media is now your ‘frontpage to the internet’ with a great many people only really interacting with the internet via a handful of sites, social media topping the bill.

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A Little Internet Futurity

China’s a bit ahead of the curve than the rest of us when it comes to the likely future of social media. China’s government is bringing in a ‘social credit’ system to identify good citizens and more and more China is integrating anything and everything they can with social media. If you’re in China’s cities and don’t have Aliexpress or WeChat Pay you often can’t even buy anything.

China is using this system to throttle people’s Internet, restrict their travel and to enact numerous other modes of social control. With your neighbours and friends enforcing your compliant behaviour because – in part – their reputation in the systems is interdependent with yours.

This system sounds horrific and dystopian – and it is – but it is just a governmentally formalised version of what is already happening here in the west.

Not a day goes by where we don’t hear about someone being fired for a bad joke, perhaps even made years ago. Businesses are now in the habit of checking applicants’ social media before offering them a job. The line between your personal and professional life is eroding, and it often doesn’t matter if what you’ve done or are doing is legal, a company might still fire someone for exercising fundamental human rights that are supposedly guaranteed.

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Single Point of Failure

Different sites have different rules. Some will value free expression, many were founded with that as a fundamental principle (Youtube, Twitter) but have been beaten into submission by commercial interests and threats to their bottom line. When it comes to Social Media sites, it seems that you can have principles, audience and commercial viability – but you can only pick two.

Alternative sites have begun to spring up, but there’s something that they can’t – yet – overcome.

Money.

Whatever a site’s stance, whether it embraces free speech, political liberty, sexuality or not it just cannot sidestep the payment services.

You would think your money would be yours, that you could spend it on anything (legal) you wanted to, without repercussions. This is not how money in the modern age works, however. It’s a service, not something you own. The banks and payment services sit in judgement, and it’s their rules – not the law – that allows them to block payments, deny payments, charge higher fees, lock accounts and even to steal your money if they judge you’re engaged in ‘high risk’ or ‘immoral’ transactions.

People working in adult industries get hit by this all the time, but it has been spreading to the blockading of other content as well. The most recent case being Mastercard threatening to withdraw services from crowdfunding site Patreon if they did not block certain political commentators and sites from being funded via their service.

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Echo Chambers & Prisons Become Camps

A massive problem with the modern Internet, one made worse by social media and its content algorithms, is the phenomenon of the ‘echo chamber’. We surround ourselves with people we like and trust, people who agree with us. This self-insulating behaviour is only natural, nobody likes to be disagreed with or proven wrong, but it’s vital that different ideas mix and battle and at its best, social media has fostered that kind of discussion. Not so much any more, however.

Increased commercial pressure has increased the demand to serve up what we ‘want’ to see, rather than what we need to see. Political polarisation and social polarisation have fed each other, forming a dangerous positive feedback loop. How often have you seen people post on their social media platforms that if you ‘disagree on X’ then you should unfollow them?

There has also been a proliferation of blocking lists. People are even proud of the fact that they cut off tens of thousands of people on the opposite side of even the pettiest of issues. The effect of this is to force even the people who work hard to expose themselves to other points of view, into ‘echo-prisons’.

We’re now seeing the next stage of this process of dangerous division, the audiences which used to mingle and battle on shared social platforms, are now moving onto their ‘
?6yt;[p’own platforms, some for the ‘left’, some for the ‘right’, segregated and policed to one degree or another (or just by their nature) so that interaction and discussions become even less likely.

As bad as things are now, they’re going to get worse if this goes on.

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Solutions

I’m sorry to say that there are no real solutions. My eyes have been open to all these problems for years, and I’ve done what I can to avoid becoming too reliant on any single platform and not to exist in an echo chamber.

I failed, via a combination of sheer convenience and the adverse actions of others.
We can’t force anyone to do anything; we can’t make anyone do anything. All we can do is – in and of ourselves – to try and act how we wish others did. It’s a cultural change that’s needed, and we can’t legislate or bully that into existence, though many continue to try.

If we want this to change we need to make sure that we, as individuals…

  • Respect the right to free expression of people, even those with whom we disagree.
  • Separate personal and professional lives and stop punishing people professionally for what they do personally.
  • Support people, financially and socially, who foster conversations that reach across the fractures in modern society.
  • Seek out ideas, arguments and sources of news and information that disagree with us.
  • Be forgiving.
  • Take personal and individual responsibility for what media we consume and how we react to it. Control our own feeds, block, mute and unfollow, rather than asking for people to be silenced.
  • Spread these ideas, and hold others to these standards.

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Alternative Tech

Many tout so-called ‘Alternative Tech’ (unfortunate name) as a solution to this. They say that people should move to new social platforms that will respect their free expression and which have this as a founding value.

Twitter and Youtube had free expression as founding values. It’s only a matter of time until commercial pressures or a buy out compromise these new players – if they’re a success.

Another problem is that the first settlers of new media are most often those forcibly excluded from other forms of social media. Unfortunately, even if they were banned illegitimately, that does tend to mean that Alternative Media gets colonised by conspiracy theorists, crazy people and political extremists. Something which gets in the way of site growth by creating bad – undeserved – reputations.

Lastly, the monetisation problem often hits Alt-Tech sites hard, forcing them – almost immediately – to bend the knee to the demands of the payment processors or to move to crypto-currency. The problem there is that crypto is not user-friendly and is overrun with scammers, spammers and incompatibility issues.

Of the alternatives that are available, Minds.com appears to be the most viable for social/micro-blogging and Bitchute for video. There’s still a long way to go for there to be any challengers to the primacy of Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, but the only way to change that is to use the alternatives, even while they’re imperfect.

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Conclusion

We let these things get this powerful and this important, and we didn’t work to guarantee our rights and to make these companies live up to their professed values and obligations at the same time. The only way to create change is to do it ourselves, and that’s hard. Even understanding these things as well as I do, being aware of these problems, I was drawn into it and still managed to be shocked when the rug was yanked out from under me.

Social Media might seem trivial; you might well be able to get by without it – for now – but if you work online, rely on the internet in any significant way it is now critical and is only going to get more so as technology relentlessly marches on.

We need to make a concerted effort to update our social contracts and our laws to match this technological reality, and letting companies off the hook because they’re ‘private enterprises’ cannot be a valid excuse.

Still, it all starts with us.

Let’s begin.

The Troll Phenomenon

I want to talk about trolls and I’m going to grab a few examples from the British press and British public figures as I talk about it. I’ll try to grab a few links and examples here and there but I want to talk about the various reasons why trolling is a problem but also why I can’t see a particular solution to the problems that it causes.

There are several points that need to be tackled but I think the most important one of them all is simply this:

Most trolls don’t believe the things they say and their threats and obscenities are not genuine. They do what they do in order to elicit a reaction not because they necessarily genuinely hold the beliefs that they appear to espouse.

From that fact stems my belief that taking the words of a troll too seriously is counter-productive and obfuscates the real problem that lies behind the racism, sexism, insensitivity, homophobia and other tools they use to get a reaction. The real problem is their antisocial behaviour. The content is just a tool to upset someone and that’s what they ‘get off’ on. When you take the comment as genuinely *ist you are feeding into that pay off.

This isn’t to say that such antisocial behaviour is not damaging. It’s damaging in a lot of ways and harassment, sincere or not, is stressful, hurtful and can really grind people down. We see how this happens in ‘meatspace’ with antisocial youths and problem families. Trolls are the ASBOed of the global village.

Forever relevant

When you post things or when you gain a history or a reputation on various topics, when you address certain topics then you make yourself a target. If you’re a woman, especially if you write about feminist topics, you’ll get misogynistic and hateful comments. If you’re gay you’ll attract homophobic slurs. Simply by expressing yourself you’re going to flag up the things that make you a good target and the trolls will hit at that whatever they personally believe.

Really not that scary.

Why do I suggest that we shouldn’t take their threats and slurs seriously? Well, look at this guy:

This is Frank Zimmerman who sent a huge amount of threats to UK MP Louise Mensch. As a public figure, a member of Parliament and a frequently outspoken feminist, of a sort, Mensch was an obvious target. On the other side of the political spectrum, journalist Laurie Penny gets similar treatment.

Mr Zimmerman, however, is a 60 year old shut in with agoraphobia. For all the nastiness of the things he said, his threats were not remotely credible and so it goes for most internet trolls. Their arena is one of anonymity and hurt from the safety of the internet. When they’re brought to light, they’re like this guy almost all the time.

If you watched the video I appended at the top another troll was tracked down and exposed to be… well, nobody really. Just another seemingly unemployed spod getting his jollies online. In that case he was particularly noteworthy for defacing memorial pages on Facebook with horrible things said about the deceased. He didn’t know them and, of course, he didn’t care.

OK, point, hopefully made that while hurtful and nasty the content of the trolling messages is not genuine and we should not be that afraid of it. What then are the genuine problems when it comes to trolling?

1. People use troll behaviour to support positions that aren’t necessarily true.

If you write a blog about how racist contemporary culture is and you get a ton of comments/emails calling you a racial epithet then your position may appear to be supported. Trolls who may or may not be racist – or whatever else – end up creating an environment that seems to support a contention that may – or may not – be true.

2. Trolls hide behind freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

At least in the UK hate speech is not protected speech. I am not sure of the intricacies in other countries but I’d appreciate comments telling me how it works in other nations. Free expression is a hugely important principle but when trolls dress themselves up in it they devalue it and weaken its importance when it comes to real issues.

3. Trolls destroy useful communication on issues.

If you’re discussing something important that needs to be debated between two points of view a massive amount of trolling disrupts that and makes conversation impossible. Needless to say this is counter-productive. Genuine comments, observations and criticisms often get swept up amongst the trolling as well. It’s too easy to paint any opposition as trolling. Inarticulate and bad arguments, genuinely held, are almost indistinguishable from insincere trolling.

4. Genuine nutters can hide amongst trolls.

It is extremely rare but some genuinely damaged individuals can be nearly indistinguishable from trolls. I personally interacted with the Discovery Channel shooter on several occasions and in the febrile atmosphere of political fora, often rife with hundreds and thousands of trolls, he didn’t stand out. A genuine, damaged, troubled, fanatical individual was lost in a forest of pretend-extremists.

5. Trolls present a threat to internet freedoms.

The presence and existence of trolls, the offence and so on that they cause creates more and more people who are willing to accept less online privacy and the tightening of laws on what used to be a very free, very open forum without the problems of governmental and legal censure. That’s a risk to a global communication medium that has already shown its genuine worth – and the worth of anonymity – in the Arab Spring.

Solutions

I don’t think there is any real solution to this problem or, at least, no ‘magic bullet’ that can put an end to it. There are a few steps that online society can – possibly – take to mitigate the problem but ultimately so long as the internet is a free area there will be trolls. I consider that to be a price worth paying given all the good that free communication and free expression brings to the world.

Nonetheless, I want this to end on a positive note so I’m going to make a few practical suggestions:

a) Remember that they don’t mean it.

Odds are very good that the hateful things that are said are not genuinely held opinions. The troll is trying to get a rise out of you. If you treat their comment as serious, take it seriously, rise to it, you’re giving them what they want.

b) Starve them of attention.

Don’t react. Just block. They want attention. They want people stirred up. They want people upset. Don’t give it to them, deny them access to your comment areas, your blogs, your chatrooms and your fora. Just be sure they are a troll. Maybe people can share info, emails, IP addresses, that sort of thing. We already have spam filters, can we not develop troll filters? They wouldn’t be perfect, but that might help some.

c) If we must react, do it appropriately.

Treat it as what it is. Antisocial behaviour. Pursue it – if you can – offline rather than online.  In both Zimmerman’s picture and the video posted at the top you can see how uncomfortable and worried these people are about being confronted in ‘meatspace’. Of course, anyone with a lick of sense can hide their identity or make up fake email addresses to hide behind and anonymity is an important aspect of net freedom, so this needs to be carefully judged and worked on.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at on these issues and I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Keep in mind, this post is a likely troll target. You have to love irony. 🙂