It was an assault rifle being fired in a pizzeria that signaled the severity of Facebook’s fake news problem. Call it Pizzagate – a right-wing conspiracy theory based on a baseless lie by 4chan. The rifle being fired was far from the only danger to employees and the owner of Comet Ping Pong – they’ve faced death threats and violations of their private lives for weeks. The harassment and threats have now spilled over to affect neighboring businesses and the people who own and work in them.
The same tactics used against women in gaming, fueled by a vague, nonsensical internet conspiracy, are being used to fuel political violence. Just as Gamergate was fueled by a non-existent review of a video game, Pizzagate uses equally false information to drive a violent harassment campaign. Now, it has spilled into real-world gun violence, and shows no signs of stopping.
If you think what happens in digital spaces has no bearing in the “real world” this is your wake-up call. Answer it.
At The Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr has noticed something disturbing about Google search suggestions:
Neither Google or Facebook make their algorithms public. Why did my Google search return nine out of 10 search results that claim Jews are evil? We don’t know and we have no way of knowing. Their systems are what Frank Pasquale describes as “black boxes”. He calls Google and Facebook “a terrifying duopoly of power” and has been leading a growing movement of academics who are calling for “algorithmic accountability”. “We need to have regular audits of these systems,” he says. “We need people in these companies to be accountable. In the US, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, every company has to have a spokesman you can reach. And this is what needs to happen. They need to respond to complaints about hate speech, about bias.”
This is disturbing and terrifying. We know search algorithms can be gamed, but white nationalists and racists have taken it to a whole new level. That Google seems to not even think it’s a problem is even worse. It is Google’s responsibility to ensure its results are accurate, and linking to Daily Stormer and other hateful organizations when asking about the Holocaust, or stats on black crime is abdicating that responsibility. There is no neutrality when a system can be twisted to promote one group’s horrifying ideology.
It’s hard to think about the human consequences of technology as a founder of a startup racing to prove itself or as a chief executive who is worried about achieving the incessant growth that keeps investors happy. Against the immediate numerical pressures of increasing users and sales, and the corporate pressures of hiring the right (but not too expensive) employees to execute your vision, the displacement of people you don’t know can get lost.
However, when you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you can’t really wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society. We are not just talking about the ability to influence voters with fake news. If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travellers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.
In the political, sociological, and economic mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, we can’t ignore the role the tech industry plays in it. Facebook can’t court advertisers with one hand and act like its algorithms don’t influence behavior on the other. Tech as an industry is not, and cannot, pretend it is neutral. It can’t pretend that jobs will magically reappear for those it has unemployed. But as long as the impetus is short term growth to satisfy investors first, Valley companies can blind themselves to their impact.
Today’s American fascist youth is neither the strapping Aryan jock-patriot nor the skinheaded, jackbooted punk: The fascist millennial is a pasty nerd watching shitty meme videos on YouTube, listening to EDM, and harassing black women on Twitter. Self-styled “nerds” are the core youth vanguard of crypto-populist fascist movements. And they are the ones most likely to seize the opportunities presented by the Trump presidency.
This hurts to read, but it rings true. I was a bullied nerd—fat, unathletic, and into sci-fi and computers—but that was before the Internet, social media, and 4chan. I had no one to blame but myself for my torment, but took solace in some of the same nerd oppression narratives Osterweil discusses. God knows what would have come of me if I had access to 4chan as a teenager. Nothing good, I expect.
A somewhat cautionary tale for ordinary Twitter using schmoes who could have this happen to them with the right—or wrong—tweet. It’s also a scathing indictment about Twitter’s incredible lack of tools to manage the response when an ordinary user goes viral. Virality comes with risks, particularly after this recent election, but even before. Ask any vaguely prominent woman on Twitter what her mentions look like.