Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Worrying About the Online World And Democracy

1.  In May Timothy Snider wrote an opinion piece on the return of fascism in the Washington PostHe argues that the Internet has not spread freedom around the world but rather its opposite:

According to Freedom House, every year since 2005 has seen a retreat in democracy and an advance of authoritarianism. The year 2017, when the Internet reached more than half the world’s population, was marked by Freedom House as particularly disastrous. Young people who came of age with the Internet care less about democracy and are more sympathetic to authoritarianism than any other generation.
As usual, correlation does not prove causality.  But it's certainly true that the serious harms of the Internet have not yet been addressed.

The online world can be a place where the truly disturbed and/or criminally-minded people can get together with others who suffer from the same problems and thereby validate their beliefs as general ones, as fair and reasonable ones.  Incels (the involuntarily celibate misogynists), after conversing with each other online, are more convinced that all women are evil gold-diggers who probably should be caged for life.  White supremacists start believing, online,  that lots of other white people want to see other races at least deported from the Holy White Fatherland, if not killed.

Radical and violent religious tenets are freely disseminated to poorly informed believers.  ISIS has used the online world quite skillfully, to convince some that the divine power doesn't mind if unbelievers are killed or enslaved, but rather encourages such behaviors. 

Paid trolls by governments warp conversations,  spread false information and look for the levers which can be used to tear foreign countries apart across racial, gender and class lines.

I am not denying the enormous benefits the Internet has created, but I do wonder if and when we will be able to tackle its resemblance to the Wild West myth of old movies.

2.  The recent "swatting" of David Hogg, one of the survivors of the Parkland school massacre, is an example of the shadow side of the Internet:

An unknown caller falsely reported on Tuesday that there was someone with a weapon inside the home of David Hogg, a survivor of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who has become a prominent gun-control advocate.

Such hoax calls — known as swatting — are typically intended to force armed officers to converge upon an unsuspecting target’s home, creating a spectacle and, at best, a terrifying inconvenience for all involved.
At worst, they can be deadly.

Media Matters for America reports that there were calls for Hogg's swatting on both 4chan and 8chan the day before the call was placed:

In the 8chan thread, trolls complained that 4chan (which they refer to as “cuckchan”) had deleted the original post, plotted to send “large usps boxes” to the Hoggs’ home address, and schemed about “looking into” a patent under Hogg’s father’s name. After the news broke that Hogg had been swatted, at least one troll on the thread also complained that “unfortunately he survived.”

Once again, correlation does not prove causality.  But those two sites are the nests in which many eggs of later violent events have been hatched.

The commenters there vary from trolls just looking for sadistic orgasms from the pain of others to true believers in racism, misogyny and many other unsavory ideologies.  And now they can all get together and create a cyber-equivalent of the troops Hitler used to keep his political enemies silent.

One consequence of all that is the great rise in the costs of public speech if that speech annoys the denizens of such sites.  Gun-control advocates, journalists, people writing on women's issues,  and all sorts of ordinary people cannot afford to hire 24/7 security guards, after all.  But the need for such security can now be the consequence of public speech.

To return to the swatting incident:  It's not a "prank," except in the minds of children so young that they cannot see what the likely outcome might be.  It's an attempt to get someone seriously inconvenienced, to waste police resources, and to possibly get someone (the target, an innocent bystander, a police officer) killed.

Just for the laughs.  Or lolz/lulz.

3.  Those lulz are because others online can easily feel like cartoon characters, characters in a computer game or imaginary enemies only alive in the cyberspace.  Snider ties this, too, to the rise of fascism:

To be sure, Fascism 2.0 differs from the original. Traditional fascists wanted to conquer both territories and selves; the Internet will settle for your soul. The racist oligarchies that are emerging behind the Internet today want you on the couch, outraged or elated, it doesn’t matter which, so long as you are dissipated at the end of the day. They want society to be polarized, believing in virtual enemies that are inside the gate, rather than actually marching or acting in the physical world. Polarization directs Americans at other Americans, or rather at the Internet caricatures of other Americans, rather than at fundamental problems such as wealth inequality or foreign interference in democratic elections. The Internet creates a sense of “us and them” inside a country, and an experience that feels like politics but involves no actual policy.

The bolds are mine, and I added them as that sentence feels like the correct explanation for my discomfort over many of the online linguistic battles on the left.

Criticizing how others use speech or determining who is allowed to speak in the first place really feel like political acts*, especially for those demographic groups which have not been allowed to define terms in the past.  

But they would utterly pale in comparison to, say, an online movement which actively seeks to raise school spending in poor areas, pay teachers there more and so on.  And they do utterly pale in comparison to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Yet I sense that many see those debates as important political work.

I see the caricature debates all the time, too.  A Republican, say,  attacks a caricature Democrat**, then some Democrat responds with an attack about caricature Republicans and so it goes.

The "evidence" tossed in these debates are like dog turds, even when they are not false, because the targets always duck and avoid being hit by them.  At the end of the debate both sides go away with zero new information, but a strengthened dislike of the "other."

4.  Whitney Philips has written a long report*** on what she calls "the oxygen of amplification," the way mainstream or traditional media have contributed to getting the messages of the white supremacists and fascists out into general conversation, and the way this has served to normalize those messages.

The reasons she lists are many (and others, I think, could be added to her list), but the focal point for me in that report is the mainstream journalists' inability to deal with the online cultures, to understand how writing about those cultures can end up serving the publicity interests of the radical fringe groups.

She also notes the general difficulty of determining what is newsworthy in this odd new world where the borderline between the public sphere and the private sphere no longer exists.

One of her examples concerns something that has irritated me often:  The news stories which consist of a sample of tweets about some event or opinion.  Those stories are popular, because they are very cheap to research and write.

But what do they actually tell us?

Only that some tweeters express certain opinions.  We don't know how many tweeters agree with those opinions.  We don't know if those opinions are based on properly understood facts or nothing.  We don't know how the published tweets were selected:  Are they representative of the actual mix of tweets on this topic on Twitter?  Or were most extreme tweets from, say, both sides of some issue picked?  Or the funniest tweets?  Or tweets made by celebrities?

These articles have extremely limited information value, because they do not prove that "Twitter erupted," as I so often read, and they do not give us any information over the bare fact that the listed number of tweets were actually made.

Philips also points out another danger with such tweets:  To the extent the tweeters were picked randomly, many of them might be private individuals, not important decision-makers.  But the publishing of their tweets exposes them to online vigilantes and the sadistic pleasure-seeking trolls.

5My meandering path through the above four segments leads to one destination, and that is to note how the cyber-world distorts the real world or at least breaks our past tools for coping with the world in several important ways:

 A.  It erases the old dividing line between the private sphere and the public sphere. 

Participating in the social media FEELS like participating in the public sphere (unless we limit the audience to friends and family), because we can toss out trial statements and then see how "the world" answers.

But the world is not reading us.  In most cases the readers are a self-selected group of like-minded individuals, and that feedback distorts our ideas about what most people might believe, what the old "public opinion" might be. 

In some cases a handful of trolls could also be reading, and that handful could start a very nasty and unpleasant harassment project.  Such harassment will feel as if a giant army of trolls was carrying it out, as long as the small handful of actual trolls keep sending truly nasty shit nonstop.

Or perhaps that troll army truly is vast?  And perhaps the world truly is reading your missives?

The social media can also feel as part of the private sphere.  Most of us are writing alone, in our offices, bedrooms, kitchens or studies, and we often send off quite private musings.  But the old idea of the private sphere does not work in the social media.

The world is probably not reading what you write, but if you write something stupid, or nasty or inflammatory (or anything that can be so construed), the world just might be invited to read you, and you just might wake up jobless and friendless, even if you never held any public office, were not a celebrity or a billionaire.

If all that sounds confusing, well, it probably is. We see the cyberspace as the public sphere when it really is not, or at least not the whole public sphere, and we see the cyberspace as the private sphere when it might not be.

The old rules about how to behave in the two spheres no longer work, and the information we gather from Twitter, say, may be only partial or even misinformation, because it is produced both by people who are trained in the relevant field (which in the past would have been part of their public sphere speech) and by people who are amateurs, opining on some topic and picking various arguments to support it (which in the past would have been viewed as part of private sphere debates.)

B.  Judging between information and misinformation thus becomes increasingly difficult.  

Wikipedia, to give one example,  is not necessarily a reliable source on any hot-button topics.  Many sites which pretend to present unbiased information do not do so, and by the time a lie has entered the social media it has not only run around the world but bred millions of other lies which have joined it in that race.

And truth, all alone,  is still trying to get its boots laced.

Some call this era post-factual.  I understand this concept as the way Donald Trump operates: Something is a fact if it makes him feel good, and something is a lie if it makes him feel bad.  This is just the most extreme version of the common phenomenon of working backward from the desired conclusion to those information sources which agree with it, while totally ignoring other information.

The arrangements of the past were not optimal, of course, because powerful interest groups could influence what information was available and how it was interpreted.  History, they say, was always written by the victors.

This is true.  But at least most information produced in the earlier system had a few safeguards in place:  Peer reviews, multiple gatekeepers before it was published, and the very fact that the producers of information and misinformation were relatively few.

C. As a consequence of part B, we, the readers and consumers of information, no longer visit the same sources for news and other information. 

The right-wing lives in its own narrow ideological bubble, where not only values are shared, but even the news to be discussed are only the ones that comply with those values.  Hence the fact that the crooked Hillary Clinton, now a private person, is still a focus of much argument among the conservatives.

The left-wing is slowly beginning to resemble that arrangement, though it's still true that the political left tends to read more widely than the political right.   But few on the left know what the right is currently foaming about.  Not to have that knowledge is ultimately dangerous for both sides and extremely dangerous for democracy.

It's also of great concern that the proper evaluation of much online information now requires the skill-set colleges tend to teach only in the graduate courses.  This is the situation while — as Snyder notes in his WaPo opinion piece — half of all humans on this earth now have access to the Internet, including its many disinformation and hate sites.

D.  For many, the other human beings communicating in the cyber-world do not look like actual human beings.  

They look like characters in a game: If killed they do not bleed, if disagreed with they are enemies, and if enemies, they deserve to be demonized.  In short, they are not real, but caricatures. 

And neither do the anonymous trolls, say, play their games in their own identity.  It feels like a game, at least to some,  and so it's easy to think of the people one harasses as mere paper dolls.

Because the harmful consequences of treating others online as caricatures do not fall upon those playing that game, the incentives to stop gaming are almost nonexistent.  Laws have not kept up with these developments and neither has the law enforcement.

This might also explain why many commenting sites without moderation ultimately end up being taken over by the trolls, robots and other atypical-but-extremist individuals.  Few places in meat-space allow such behavior without social punishments, but the wonderful cyber-world does.


Now that is a long and rambling post.  As Mark Twain noted, it takes a lot of time and effort to write short, sweet and succinct, and I haven't had the time.

Or even enough experience.  Indeed, none of us have had that experience, because the Internet is still very new and our ability to govern it has lagged.

When I feel optimistic I think that this era will in the future be mythologized as the Wild West of the cyber-world, a time when solitary heroes and heroines saddled their horses, loaded their guns and took on vast hordes of trolls and robots and won!****

When I feel discouraged, I think that Timothy Snider's piece about online fascism shows us the most likely future.

What gives me hope, though, is that it's possible to fight back against that trend, and that we have not even properly begun doing so.


*  Which they are when the information about what various speech terms can mean is new to the intended audience.  But not after that.

**  A communist who never had a job, who never paid taxes and who wants nothing more than to kill babies and who hates the United States.

***  Well worth reading, though it's not based on quantitative evidence, i.e., how often something happens.  The lack of good quantitative evidence on how many individuals actually agree with the various types of radical and often violent online ideologies is a GIANT problem.

Because we don't know the numbers of active white supremacists or the numbers of misogynist incels, we don't really know how to deal with those movements.  Are they inhabited by a relatively small handful of weirdos, or are they growing in numbers?

The correct response depends on that knowledge.

****  That's not what is happening, of course, but then the Wild West wasn't like how it's depicted, either.