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.
I’ve been running an experiment with my last few longer-form pieces of crossposting them to Medium. I’ve done it on the occasional, ad-hoc basis when I write something that I feel needs to reach an audience outside of my circle. This includes the expanded, and revised version of “A View From Inside the Welfare System”, which went viral. I’ve also written at least one piece, explicitly for Medium, “Geek Culture and its Discontents”. So far, it’s not had much of an impact, but it might also be too early to tell.
So, instead of trying to branch out into other media—because that worked out so well last time—cross-posting seems to be the best of the options. No matter what happens to medium, my writing will remain at this URL until EMPs wipe out all technology. Yet, I also exist on the largest platform for long-form writing. My name, profile, photo, are all out there, hopefully to be discovered. Maybe they’ll follow the links back to the source and start clicking around. Plus, Medium makes it a lot easier to share things. I’m not willing to install tracking scripts for Facebook and Twitter just for the sake of a few clicks—though I am willing to set up a Facebook page for my writing.
The goal of crossposting to Medium is to, I suppose, re-capture the lightning in a bottle moment of the most successful independent writing I’ve ever done: the aforementioned “A View From Inside the Welfare System.” It was not only a Medium Editor’s Pick, but made it to the front page of MetaFilter, which made me super-happy. The only thing I didn’t like is that nothing long-term came of it. I had nothing else to say about my time working for the Welfare Office, and it was off my usual—for lack of a better word—beat, anyway.
I just wish Medium’s WordPress plugin was more effective. It seems that scheduled posts and anything published through the WordPress API doesn’t get sent to Medium. This sucks, as I like to line stuff up ahead of time for publishing. At least tagging posts works, though I’ve never used the post tagging feature in WordPress since I relaunched the current version of Sanspoint six years ago. Perhaps the Medium folks will see this and fix it. Or, perhaps I’ll give up on this experiment after a few more weeks, and then I stop worrying about it. In the meantime, like and share, I suppose.
In the wake of the election, I took some time to read a few pieces of conservative commentary, and came across an interesting essay by Rod Dreher in The American Conservativecomparing modern America to Weimar Germany. I’m don’t agree with all of Dreher’s points, especially as a queer atheist Liberal socialist, but a part of it caught my attention, and it makes the essay worth your time. Namely, Dreher links to a piece in The New Yorker on a podcast called “Chapo Trap House” that describes a phenomenon the podcast hosts call “failsons.”
The Chapo Trap House hosts describe a failson as “twenty-six,” in Community College, and more interested “gaming and masturbating” than spending time with their family at Thanksgiving. Or, more compassionately as “nonessential human beings who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers… Some of them turn into Nazis… Others become aware of the consequences of capitalism.” [Emphasis mine.]
Reading this frightened me, because it rings true. As an example, Dreher identifies Dylann Roof, who committed a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston in 2015, as a failson and notes that:
“Sooner or later, somebody is going to find a way to radicalize those failsons. Some of the middle class failsons will gravitate to the Weimar Brooklyn worldview of the Chapo Trap House. Many other middle class white failsons, I suspect, will gravitate to the intellectualized neo-Nazism of Richard Spencer, highly educated and articulate son of Dallas’s posh Park Cities. The point is: watch the failson.”
What Dreher misses is that the failsons are already being radicalized. What are the meme squads and troll armies of the alt-right but failsons turned into radicalized digital shock troops for a modern fascist regime?
If you haven’t closed this essay already, let me explain by linking to a great Twitter thread by Siyanda Mohutsiwa. She draws a direct link between the racist alt-right, and men’s self-help spaces online. Jules Evans at Philosophy for Life goes into more detail on the same links. In particular, Evans notes how alt-right figureheads Mike Cernovich, Jack Donovan, and Roosh V wrote self-help books and pick-up artist guides before moving towards promoting the racist and sexist ideology that underpins the alt-right. Anyone who came to these men looking for a way to improve their lot likely ended up suckered into their hateful message.
It’s not all failsons in the alt-right, of course. There’s people with STEM degrees, and jobs who wouldn’t fit the failson stereotype, but they’re not usually the ones spending their days harassing people on social media or running disinformation campaigns. They’re more likely to operate like Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, away from the digital front lines. It’s also worth noting here that of all groups more likely to join terrorist groups, engineers are the most likely to become extremists. You can’t blame radicalization on being stupid.
But when you have a mass of under-employed and unemployed, poorly educated, white men who can’t get laid, they’re going to be very susceptible to anything that makes them forget their position—anything that gives them a target for their anger. Women, minorities, the LGBTQ community, and the progressives who promote their issues are the easy and obvious targets. And so the demagogues mobilize the failsons, point them to the target, and stand back as the horror unfolds. Because they never gave a direct order, they can keep their hands clean, whether it’s Milo Yiannopoulos using his Twitter followers to harass Leslie Jones, or Donald Trump saying he “disavows” the white supremacists using his election victory as an excuse for public hate.
All you need to do to see this phenomenon first-hand is take a peek into some of the various 4chan boards where it happens. Boards like /adv/, /r9k/, and /soc/, have built a support structure for young men who describe themselves as “NEETs”—“Not in Education, Employment or Training”. These are the failsons the Chapo Trap House hosts refer to. So much of the process occurs in public, from the initial steps into seeking a community of support, advice on love and life, and the slow redirection into alt-right radicalism. And it works. ISIS recruitment propaganda follows the same basic process. The only difference is that the alt-right is radicalizing white men, not Muslims.
This is a personal concern, not just because the people I love are at risk from what the radicalized failsons can do, but because it wasn’t that long ago when I too could have become a failson. Not long after I graduated college in 2008, I was unemployed, and struggling with my personal life and self-worth. I was lucky in that I had both a positive support network of family and friends, both online and off, that saved me from potential radicalization. I was also lucky in that this was before the toxic spaces of the internet like 4chan had fully mutated into their current form. But I know quite well the misery I was in, and how I longed for easy answers.
So, yes, I am watching the failsons. You should be too, because they’re going to play a major role in the next four years. They’re not the only cause or symptom of the new political climate, but they are motivated, they are inspired, and they are dangerous. Whether you are a Liberal or a Conservative, a new fascist movement is a danger to all of us. Even if the footsoldiers are hiding behind keyboards and seven proxies, what happens on the internet can and does bleed over into “real life.” We’ve seen it happen, before and it’ll happen again. It’s too late to stop the damage, but with luck and work, perhaps we can keep it contained.
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.