Social Media Blog

Thoughts and rants on social networking.

Twitter Censorship: Incompetence or Malice?

I am glad I made the decision several years back to continue maintaining this blog rather than abandoning blogging in favour of social media as many others did. I own this domain, and in the unlikely event of the current hosting company going bad on me, I can move to another host.

Recent events in Twitter point to a disturbing trend, and show the perils of relying on a company you have no control over for the entirety of your online presence.

Now I know Twitter has a harassment and bullying problem, and the company has been unacceptably slow in dealing with it. I’ve said before the best solution is far better blocking and muting functionality rather than centralised moderation. But that doesn’t seem to be the way they’re going.

The suspension of Whores of Yore (now reinstated), and the shadowbanning of St.Rev point yet again to a moderation policy that’s entirely arbitrarily and lacks any kind of transparency. While I know any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice, you can’t help feeling that Twitter’s rules are deliberately vague and selectively enforced for a reason. Under Jack Dorsey’s leadership Twitter has taken an increasingly left-authoritarian turn and abandoned previous commitments to free expression.

Are they deliberately trying to make Twitter a more hostile place for people who do not share the right politics, either to force them to self-censor or to abandon Twitter in favour of smaller free-speech ghettos?

Now, Whores of Yore does post some rather rude images, but those are explicitly permitted on Twitter provided they’re appropriately labelled as for adults only. And St Rev is a robust libertarian who doesn’t have much time for the left. But I’ve seen no evidence that either of them are guilty of violations of Twitter’s terms of service. Certainly no signs of targeted harassment of individuals. What is going on?

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Fixing Twitter

According to JestersCourt, Twitter can fix Twitter with just a few lines of code

I don’t have inside knowledge of Twitter’s architecture, and so can’t really comment on whether a “few lines of code” is accurate, but the essence is this: When someone blocks you for whatever reason, you can’t @mention them in a Tweet. Whether you get an error, or it’s just silently deleted, the Tweet will go nowhere and won’t be seen by your followers.

That fixes the biggest single aspect of Twitter’s harassment problem, when someone with a large bully pulpit sets their followers on someone who’s incurred their wrath.

Unless there’s a flaw in the solution I haven’t see, it’s hard to see why Twitter doesn’t just go ahead in implement something along these lines. You’re forced to suspect that Jack Dorsey is less interested in solving Twitter’s actual problems than he is currying favour with particular activist cliques.  In other words, virtual signalling trumps positive action.

The problem with Jester’s Court’s solution is it’s politically neutral. The same mechanism that would stop racist and sexist trolls would also damp down the witch hunts popular in social-justice circles. And because that would cramp the style of the people Jack Dorsey wants to curry favour with, it’s a non-starter; they have a weird “punching up/punching down” dynamic where it’s only defined as harassment if it’s a member of their outgroup targetting a member of their ingroup.

So instead Twitter seem to be going down the route of top-down content politicng and filtering by keywords known to be popular with outgroups. What could possibly go wrong?

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Twitter hashtag activism is completely useless.

Hashtags are great fun for quick-fire humour, like the running joke hashtags that always seem to take off on Friday afternoons when people are bored at work. That’s the sort of thing that shows Twitter at its best. But when it comes to dealing with sensitive and nuanced topics, the 140 character limit is worse than useless.

There’s little point singling out any one hasttag in particular, because every single one plays out the same way, and you get that sinking feeling the moment one appears and the usual suspects start using it. They start out with what usually comes over as self-righteous in-group signalling. Then comes the inevitable angry backlash from those who distrust the agenda of whoever it was that started the tag. It spirals down in an all-too-predictable fashion of insults and name-calling, splitting communities along existing faultlines and making everyone bar the hardcore culture warriors miserable. It’s Twitter at it’s very worst. If we’re really unlucky it ends with risible hack-written clickbait hitpieces on sites like Salon, Breitbart and The Guardian.

Since these hashtags achieve nothing other than sowing discord, the only sensible response is to shoot them on sight using a client that lets you mute hashtags.

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The TV Evangelist Social Media Model

One consequence of the growth of social media is that the most successful way of building a big online following goes something like this:

  • Find a partisan audience and tell them what they want to hear.
  • Adopt a confrontational or preachy manner that’s guaranteed to get up the nose of your chosen audience’s outgroup.
  • Use the inevitable backlash from that outgroup to boost your own signal.

We’ve seen it from people all over the ideological spectrum from right-libertarianism to leftist social justice activism. It’s the tried-and-tested method of the tub-thumping TV evangelist. It works, but it comes with a social cost. “Othering” entire demographics never ends well no matter who’s doing it, even if some criticism of that demographic’s stereotypical behaviour is justified. It makes us forget our common humanity when we divide ourselves up into ingroups and outgroups. Not only does inject a form of party politics into places where it doesn’t belong, such as workplaces and social spaces, but it makes it far easier for those with insufficient empathy to justify doing horrible things to people.

Then we see Donald Trump doing the same thing. And the size of his platform makes him genuinely dangerous.

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The March of Technology

Goot post by Stephen Tall on why he has given up on Channel 4’s ‘Spin’. It’s because it seems to ignore the existence of the internet and social media, and that absence breaks suspension of disbelief in what is supposed to be a present-day drama.

* News breaks of French presidential hopeful Anne Visage’s affair with the recently blown-up former President. Her campaign manager is issued with the urgent warning… “this story will hit the news-stands in just a few hours’ time!”. Because, obviously, we’re all ignorant of what the newspapers are saying til we walk past les kiosques in the morning and Twitter stops at the white cliffs of Dover.

* A key witness — the one person who can testify to the motives of the President’s assassin — is being hunted by the French authorities desperate to ensure their state-sanctioned lie of terrorism isn’t challenged. Tensely, he hunkers down for a couple of days until a journalist with a TV camera can arrive and film his evidence. On tape. Seriously. No suggestion is made that he might tell his story using the smart-phone he’s carrying and post it to the Internet. Or even tweet his testimony.

If somebody had written that twenty years ago, not a word of it would have made any sense. We are indeed living in a science-fiction future, just not quite the science-fiction future we were promised.

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First they came for the right-wing bellends

Following on from the shadowbanning nonsense, Twitter have now suspended the account of an aggressively anti-feminist right-winger with 90000 followers, with no hint of exactly what it was he said that crossed the line.

I am not going to defend this man’s speech or opinions, he’s an unpleasant and misogynist bigot. But again the lack of transparency suggests Twitter has adopted a policy of suspending high-profile accounts “pour encourager les autres” in a largely ad-hoc manner. And that does raise all sorts of concerns over the direction in which Twitter is heading.

This comment on Popehat sums up the concerns quite well.

Twitter’s getting too Orwellian for my tastes. No fun. I’ll be damned if I stick around if they’re going to let the likes of Arthur Chu and Anita Sarkeesian decide who gets voted off the island.

It’s probably going to be a while before the speech of liberals is threatened. Precedents in other spaces suggest that if they succeed in driving off the wingnuts the next targets are more likely to be those on the wrong side of sectarian disputes within feminism.

But the mention of Arthur Chu is a reminder that my card is already marked. I’m on his shared block list along with 30000 other people because months ago I criticised something he said. While it would be monumentally stupid for Twitter to decide one morning to suspend every single account on that blocklist, their recent behaviour means that can’t be trusted not to be that idiotic.

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Is Twitter Circling the Drain?

plugholeIs Twitter circling the drain? The omens do not look good; a user base that’s actually shrunk for the first time, a plummeting share price, and a management that has lost the trust of the user base to such an extent that every announcement about new features leads to everyone fearing the very worst.

Twitter the product has a big enough user base that it’s going to be around for a while, even if Twitter the company does not survive. But current trends suggest a long-term decline unless something drastic changes.

Perhaps the only way Twitter can be saved from its own clueless management with their destructive Facebook status envy would be for Twitter to be bought out by Facebook itself. Because it would be against Zuckerberg & co’s interests to turn Twitter into a low-budget imitation of their own core product rather than focus on the things that make it distinctively different.

Twitter’s latest move is the establishment of a “Trust and Safety Council” comprising forty outside organisations, prompting free-speech advocates to raise concerns over the pro-censorship agenda of at least some of those organisations. Hopefully Twitter will focus on developing better block and mute tools rather than go down the road of agenda-driven centralised moderation, but yet again the lack of trust is telling. You don’t need to be a free-speech absolutist to be concerned about some of those names.

Whatever their agenda is, I hope the Trust and Safety Council is paying attention to the ongoing car-crash around NYMag writer Jesse Singal, which displays many of Twitter’s problems including hate-retweeting and misuse of “.@” to pour petrol on flames. Here is someone who willingly participated in Twitter witch-hunts until one day he crossed the wrong line and part of Twitter decided he was the witch. Perhaps the lesson ought to be that if you run with the outrage drama warriors it’s only a matter of time before they will turn on you, because it’s the nature of that sort of subculture to eat their own. Twitter’s problem is it enables and amplifies this sort of thing.

Perhaps one aspect of Twitter’s harassment problem is way the nature of the network tries and fails to make different groups who won’t play nice with each other share the same playground. And when they fight, innocents always get caught in the crossfire. It goes beyond Twitter itself; a lot of the worst things on Twitter are flame wars that spill over from toxic and abusive communities on Tumblr or 4chan. Perhaps what Twitter should attempt is to keep those groups in their own corners of the playground rather than trying to force the least popular group out of the playground altogether?

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#RIP Twitter?

Fail WhaleSo Twitter is apparently planning to replace the current reverse-chronological timeline with a new “algorithmic feed” which will prioritise the things the writers of the algorithm think you most what to see. The chorus of raspberries from Twitter users is such that the hashtag #RIPTwitter is trending, and was #1 at one point.

Yes, it’s a bad idea, and on the surface it looks like yet another attempt to turn Twitter into a low-rent copy of its bigger rival Facebook, oblivious to the fact that many of us prefer Twitter because we don’t care for the Facebook experience. The chorus that the sky is falling may be overstated, but the way everyone is immediately assuming the worst is indicative of the way Twitter’s user base no longer trusts the company.

It may be that Twitters strategy is for the basic Twitter apps, especially the web version, to be dumbed-down products aimed at new users, with the power users responsible for much of Twitter’s content steered towards Tweetdeck and third-party apps. We shall have to wait and see.

I know I’m not the only person who uses Twitter for real-time conversations, as a kind of personally-curated chatroom. Algorithmic feeds risk breaking that use-case. There are also justified concern that algorithmic feeds will reinforce existing power hierarchies, with even the most inane posts from celebrities prioritised over the speech of ordinary people. There’s another darker fear that it’s a trojan horse for filtering feeds in the interests of corporate and political agendas, weakening the ability to speak truth to power. Finally we should also not underestimate the way Facebook’s notorious Edgerank algorithm contributed towards poisoning the rest of the web by encouraging the worst kind of clickbait.

Many people are rightly complaining that Twitter devotes more time and energy to new features nobody asked for while doing too little about Twitter’s known problems with harassment. That’s a whole ‘nother issue I’ve covered elsewhere. But in passing I do wonder how many of those who advocate loudly for centralised moderation would change their tune the moment one of their own got permabanned for leading one witch-hunt too many.

But in the end perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether we should invest so much of our online presence and social connections in corporate platforms we do not own and do not control. Maybe it’s time to stick a fork in social media and go back to blogs and RSS aggregators. Not as a retro attempt to recreate the web of a decade ago, warts and all, but something that learns the lessons from what social media does well. Something that combines the ease-of-use of Facebook and Twitter but without a central hub controlled by a single untrustworthy company that could pivot and any time.

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The Future of Twitter

The media has been awash of late with suggestions that Twitter is dying, because its user base has stopped growing and the share price has fallen. It’s true that it’s nowhere near the size of Facebook. But people were predicting the imminent death of Facebook years ago, but it doesn’t seem to gone away. Twitter’s problem is unrealistic expectations; it’s failed to displace Facebook as the world’s number one social network. But it’s still become something substantial in its own right.

Twitter has probably plateaued now, but has enough of user base to ensure that it’s going to be around for a long time yet. Though not as big as Facebook it’s got a big enough network multiplier effect that people are going to use it in preference to smaller competitors who will struggle to break out of their niches.

Twitter’s biggest problem is that it’s still terrible at dealing with harassment, especially the pile-on attacks you get when someone with a substantial bully pulpit sets their followers on some poor nobody who’s got in their way.

Twitter does need to address this, but there are differing opinions as to exactly how they need to do it.

David Auerbach has called for a radical rethink on how Twitter handles conversations. Meanwhile Kasimir Urbanski suggests that the sky is falling, the authoritarians are taking over and it’s time to create a free speech alternative.

Twitter really has three options

  • Do nothing on the grounds that any solution will cause more problems that it will solve.
  • Publish much stricter terms of service, and throw a sufficiently large number of human moderators at the problem.
  • Do what David Auerbach suggests and devolve moderation to the user level.

The first of those is almost certainly not an option. Despite the protestations of noisy libertarians, Twitter does have a real harassment problem, and it can’t all be dismissed as the whining of bullies who dish it out but can’t take it. It’s true that some activists have a very subjective and highly politicised definition of harassment. It’s true that not all victims are women and not all perpetrators are men. But there is enough evidence to suggest that women pay a far higher price in terms of harassment for expressing remotely controversial opinions. If you still think that’s not a problem, I refer you to the word “privilege” (I dislike the term and it’s often misused, but there are times when it’s still appropriate. This is one of them). And no, third-party block lists are not the solution, they have too high a cost in false positives.

Twitter seems to be going for the second option, and it’s the one place I agree with Kasimir Urbanski, it’s not going to work. Human moderation can work very well for community sites, but only where there is a level of trust between the moderators and the community. Twitter is not a single community but many, many overlapping ones, most of which have few shared values in common. The failure modes of a mass human moderation approach are easy to imagine, and we’re already seeing worrying signs of this. We’ll see high-profile figures perma-banned “pour encourager les autres” because they’ve offended some other high-profile person or group with whom Twitter wants to curry favour. There will be no transparency, and who does and doesn’t get banned for near-identical behaviour will depend on who has the right friends or the right politics. Trust will evaporate.

Which leaves the third option, as proposed by David Auerbach. It’s not actually as radical a change as he suggests it is. It’s just a matter of applying some kind of reputation ranking on who can appear in your notifications, based on who the people you follow have either followed or blocked. They could have some kind of “traffic light” system; Green people are those who plenty of your friends follow and none have blocked. Red people are those many of your friends have blocked, or have accumulated many blocks relative to their tweet and follower counts. Amber people either those for whom not enough information is available, or your friends are divided over whether they follow or block them.

It’s not necessarily perfect, and there is a danger of echo chambers, which have their own problems. Whatever algorithms they use need to be designed to short-circuit anyone who tries to game the system by mass-blocking people they don’t like for reasons other than harassment, and that’s probably easier said than done.

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Twitter: Private Business or Public Square?

Fail WhaleTwitter has again been the centre of controversy following their removal of verified status from a prominent but notorious right-libertarian journalist with a reputation for setting packs of followers on people who have incurred his displeasure. Arguments rage over whether this is appropriate punishment for a serial bully, or whether it signals Twitter is publicly taking sides in the increasingly ugly culture war.

As I’ve said before, Twitter needs to get a handle on the mobbing and abuse that’s blighted the network for a long time. But when Twitter has taken on the role of a public square, it’s dangerous for them to impose top-down speech policing in the service of anyone’s political agenda, and they are currently sending out very mixed messages on the subject.

If Twitter is to impose any kind of rules, which they need to, they do need transparency in how they’re enforced. With the best will in the world it’s difficult to know precisely where to draw the line between harassment and speaking truth to power, so much is subjective and dependent on context. It would not be a good thing if every long-established Twitter user risks a permanent ban for crossing some invisible line at the same time as a relatively junior moderator is having a bad day. If you can’t imagine that even happening to you because you’re one of the good people, I refer you to the famous words of Pastor Niemöller.

Despite some of the wilder claims, it doesn’t look as if the sky is falling on freedom of speech, at least not yet. But there is a danger of ceding so much of our virtual public square to one private business. It’s a single point of failure, and there is always the danger it may pivot and allow powerful political or corporate interests to suppress conversations they don’t like for reasons which are not in the wider public interest.

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