How YouTube perverts politics and spreads fear and rage

This, the result of a months-long investigation by the New York Times, is terrifying: How YouTube radicalised Brazil.

A New York Times investigation in Brazil found that, time and again, videos promoted by the site have upended central elements of daily life.

Teachers describe classrooms made unruly by students who quote from YouTube conspiracy videos or who, encouraged by right-wing YouTube stars, secretly record their instructors.

Some parents look to “Dr. YouTube” for health advice but get dangerous misinformation instead, hampering the nation’s efforts to fight diseases like Zika. Viral videos have incited death threats against public health advocates.

And in politics, a wave of right-wing YouTube stars ran for office alongside Mr. Bolsonaro, some winning by historic margins. Most still use the platform, governing the world’s fourth-largest democracy through internet-honed trolling and provocation.

YouTube continues to deny what’s obvious to everyone: its algorithms prioritise conspiracy theories, right-wing bullshit and any other content that purports to tell you the truth that others are trying to conceal. And that has horrific real-world consequences – to the point where we need to warn parents of the signs that their boys are being radicalised by YouTube gaming commentators.

YouTube’s recommendation of awful content isn’t a bug. It’s feature. The entire system is built to prioritise attention, and what gets the most attention is the most inflammatory, fear-mongering, hateful content.

When even the far right are crediting YouTube with their political successes, it’s clear that YouTube’s protestations mean nothing. Whether it’s spreading anti-vaccine fear or right-wing conspiracies, YouTube has become a cancer at the very heart of modern life.

Playing video games

In the Mass Effect series, players can customise Jane (or John) Shepard (left). The version here is from the launch trailer; my Jane looked very different.

Writing in Metro, Owl Stefania writes about the importance of video games in her coming out process: “Growing up, video games were my escape, providing an avenue where I could explore who I was.”

I’ve written about this too, and a version of the following article was originally published in 404 Ink magazine in late 2017.

Video games have a special appeal for trans people. In addition to the usual escapism from the everyday, some of them enable you to play as the gender you feel you should be, not the one you’ve been assigned.

For many trans people the first such games were MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Many of those games enabled you to play as all kinds of characters from humans to hobbits and space aliens). As many trans people discovered, when you communicate with other players in an MMORPG they’re quite happy to stay in character, so if your character is female you’ll be addressed as such. That isn’t always a good thing — there’s plenty of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia online, and online games aren’t immune to that — but as trans gamer Rissa Trent writes on MMOGames.com, being able to present as a female character is incredibly powerful. “To some people, it might just be pixels, but to those of us who want to break free from everyday life, and our own skins, it’s everything.”

I never really got into MMORPGs, but I fell hard for a sci-fi series called Mass Effect. In the first three Mass Effect games you play Commander Shepard, and that commander can be John or Jane. Not only is Jane Shepard better company — she’s voiced by the wonderful Jennifer Hale, who makes even the daftest dialogue breathe — but you can completely customise the character’s appearance in the game. Hair colour, facial structure, eye shape, jawline, hair, makeup… given enough time, and believe me I gave myself enough time, you could create a Jane Shepard who was an idealised version of your feminine self. 

To then have the game offer romantic options beyond the usual straight man/woman binary — something that caused controversy at the time, because while gamers had no problem with interspecies alliances (the same man-with-sexy-space-chick trope that goes back to Star Trek), same-sex attraction couldn’t possibly be a thing in the far future — was the cherry on top. Sadly the game wouldn’t let my character have a relationship with the character I really liked, the gorgeous, kick-ass soldier Miranda Lawson, and I clearly wasn’t the only one disappointed: the internet is packed with fan fiction where Jane and Miranda are an item.

Mass Effect and MMORPGs (and other games where you can be a girl, such as Dishonored 2 or Destiny) are very different games, but they both offer trans people something really important: the opportunity to inhabit your preferred gender, if only for a while. And as games get more realistic and immersive, that’s going to become even more powerful. 

It’s not video games. It’s Nazis

In the aftermath of the latest US gun massacres, there have been lots of attempts to pin the blame on things. Despite at least one shooter leaving yet another manifesto that says “I did it because I’m a huge Nazi”, US Republicans and right-wing types generally have been quick to apportion the blame for gun massacres to pretty much anything else. Some Republicans claim it’s because of the gays, others because of the trans folks, and quite a few have pointed the finger at video games.

Here’s an interesting graph.

Clearly if video games caused gun deaths, you’d expect to see many more shootings in China and South Korea, where video games are even more popular than in the US. And you can’t say “ah, but they don’t play violent games like US gamers do”, because we do in the UK and we don’t have regular school shootings either.

Access to guns is a huge part of it, but let’s not turn away from video game just yet. Here’s author Christopher Keelty on Twitter.

Video games do not make murderers. If they did, China (which has almost as many gamers as the US has humans) would have constant domestic attacks.

HOWEVER.

Gaming-related media in America is filled with Nazi trolls working hard to recruit children.

If you’re not of a generation that plays games, this may well be news to you. However, it’s been well known in tech and tech journalism for years.

Sites like 4chan and 8chan [the site connected to the last five gun massacres] were built on gaming, by gamers for gamers. Reddit and YouTube have MASSIVE gaming communities. All are infested with white supremacist terrorists, working to get your kids killing for them.

It’s often not the content itself that’s dangerous, it’s the comments. Virtually any Google search for ANY game will turn up at least one page with Nazi talking points in the comments. Try it and see.

He’s right. People all over the world play video games, but people all over the world don’t have the same incredibly toxic online media that the US does.

Games don’t cause murders and people who play video games aren’t Nazis. But gamers in the US in particular have proven to be a very fertile recruiting ground for some of the worst people in the world.

If only we’d known, say the people who knew

Writing on Twitter, co-founder Ev Williams (@ev) talks about the problem of abuse and harassment on the platform.

*And*, yes, we (Twitter) should have invested more heavily in abuse before. I think we did more in the early days than we often get credit for (and they are doing way more today). *And* I personally underestimated the looming problem during my brief tenure as CEO.

Had I been more aware of how people not like me were being treated and/or had I had a more diverse leadership team or board, we may have made it a priority sooner.

This is something you see from all the social media heads: if only we knew people were being bad on our services! But they did know. High profile publications were highlighting the problem of abuse more than ten years ago.

Here’s just one example, from the high profile news site C|Net. It describes Twitter’s “wishy-washy” approach to online abuse and compares it unfavourably to other social sites.

Either way, what Waldman calls “community management” is something that Twitter has to sort out–fast. As Twitter breaks further out of Silicon Valley culture, the service will invariably have to deal with users who cry foul over far tamer situations. Much like its famous outages, which the site finally addressed in full this week, abuse and harassment is something that Twitter can’t simply ignore.

The date stamp on the article? May 2008.

Fun with filters

The chat app SnapChat is back in the headlines after its new gender-swapping filter went viral. The filter makes boys look like girls and vice-versa, and as you can see above the results are pretty funny – although I seem to have the dubious honour of being the only person who looks older when the feminising filter is switched on. Boo!

I think it’s just a bit of daft fun, albeit horribly stereotypical in its idea of gendered appearance, but on trans forums I’ve seen a range of reactions from trans people: some like me just want to see what it does and how daft the results are, but others see what they might look like after transition – or more poignantly, what they might have looked like had they transitioned. Not everybody is in a place where they can be themselves.

Like anything else on the internet, some people have concerns about the filter – Time magazine covers the issues here.

While many acknowledged that the filter is fun, for some it’s been jarring to see their social networks manipulating their gender so casually. Others have said that they are concerned that some people are using the filter in problematic ways.

Most sensible concerns aren’t about the filters, but the way they’re being used. Some people – man people, inevitably – are using the filters to make profile pictures for dating apps. The intention is to have a laugh, and some have shared the saddeningly predictable responses they’ve received with hilarious consequences. But some people argue that what these people are doing ties into something that’s a lot darker, which is the concept of trapping.

“Trap” is a word some people use to describe trans people, primarily trans women, who don’t look trans; it’s a trope in some pornography where a man is seduced by a beautiful woman before, surprise! But out in the real world, trap is a slur associated with violence. There have been multiple occasions of very violent and sometimes fatal attacks on trans women, the perpetrators claiming the “trans panic” defence: I took her home, I didn’t realise she was trans, and when I discovered the truth I lost my mind. It’s a variation of the gay panic defence, and sadly it’s still a legal defence in many parts of the world.

As Cáel Keegan points out in the Time piece, playing around with gender is something many trans people don’t have the privilege to do in safety.

“If trans people are accused of trapping, it can be deadly,” said Keegan. “It’s a privilege to be able to play with being a different gender.”

I thought this post – which went viral on social media a few days ago – made a good point:

For trans people, transition is a lot more difficult and a lot more painful than playing with an app on a smartphone.

As one of Time’s interviewees put it:

At the end of the day, you get to just turn it off and it’s not sort of a reality for you.

Twitter: our rules don’t apply to white guys

As Twitter continues to ignore calls to ban nazis from its platform, a leak provides one explanation: fear of collateral damage. Twitter fears that if it were to ban white supremacist hate speech, that might mean banning some US republican politicians. Politicians such as, er, the President of the United States.

That fear only appears to apply if the collateral damage affects white people. According to Vice, reporting the claims of a disgruntled employee:

When a platform aggressively enforces against ISIS content, for instance, it can also flag innocent accounts as well, such as Arabic language broadcasters. Society, in general, accepts the benefit of banning ISIS for inconveniencing some others, he said.

In other words, it’s okay to have collateral damage if it affects brown people.

Twitter denies it all, of course. But Twitter is awfully slow to act on hate speech when it’s perpetrated by white guys. Founder Jack Dorsey followed a number of alt-right demagogues on the service and won’t even say if he’d have a problem with Trump posting tweets calling for the murder of journalists. Vanity Fair:

Dorsey has typically been evasive when questioned about banning white supremacists, only saying, “we’d certainly talk about it,” when asked point-blank if Trump asking his followers to murder journalists would warrant a ban.

Twitter has become a megaphone for hatred: white supremacy in particular, but bigotry of all kinds. And it does appear to operate a double standard where members of minorities can be abused in horrendous ways and then kicked off the service if they dare to answer back.

Last year, the actor Seth Rogen had a months-long conversation via Twitter direct messages with Dorsey about the problem of nazis and other white supremacists on the service. His conclusion:

I’ve been DMing with @jack about his bizarre need to verify white supremacists on his platform for the last 8 months or so, and after all the exchanges, I’ve reached a conclusion: the dude simply does not seem to give a fuck.

Sell your kids for clicks

There’s a deeply worrying article in The Guardian about the rise of child labour on the internet.

Making videos of your kids might not seem like work, but it is: as one interviewee puts it, “it’s not play if you’re making money”. Child performers are subject to laws designed to protect them from exploitation not just by employers but by their parents. Online, those laws are being evaded or avoided.

Money made online by children, and that money can be significant, goes directly to their parents, because children can’t have social media accounts on the likes of YouTube or Facebook.

We’re easily seduced by technology, and that seduction often blinds us to the distinctly old-fashioned things that technology enables: union-busting, unethical practices and “disruption” not just of industries but of the laws designed to protect individuals from rapacious employers and greedy parents alike. YouTube may be relatively new, but children being exploited by the people behind the cameras is not.

 

Like tears in the rain

MySpace, the leading social network from the pre-Facebook days, has accidentally (?) deleted more than a decade’s worth of music. Every piece of music uploaded to the platform between 2003 and 2015, some 50 million songs from 14 million artists, is gone like tears in the rain.

This is an important lesson: digital does not last forever.

We’ve seen this happen again and again with user-submitted content; some of my own music was trashed back in 2003 when MP3.com was sold and its archive effectively destroyed. Always assume that sooner or later, remotely hosted services will be sold, will shut down or will do something unspeakable to your stuff.

But content you pay for isn’t forever either.

Your Spotify subscription, your Netflix account, your Apple Music: the availability of content on these services is not infinite. Contracts and licenses expire, catalogues are pruned, accidents happen, copyright holders revoke permissions… for myriad reasons, things disappear.

Sometimes things don’t disappear, but they stop working. My PlayStation told me today that some of the games I downloaded last year on the understanding that they were mine forever would lose most of their features later this year: the servers on which these older games depend will be switched off, removing features like online play and multiplayer. The games also depend on my PlayStation Plus subscription remaining current. If I don’t keep paying that, they stop working completely.

If you bought copy-protected music or movies in the early 2000s you may be familiar with a similar problem when authorisation servers are switched off: for example, in 2008 MSN and Yahoo both turned off the copy protection servers for their music services, so any downloads you’d bought could no longer be authorised. If you changed computer, you wouldn’t be able to authorise your legally purchased music to play on it.

There’s not much you can do about subscription services changing their catalogues, but for content you create yourself or that you’ve bought rather than rented it’s a very good idea to ensure that you have a local copy of whatever lives in the cloud. And while you’re at it, make sure that copy is in a format that’s free from copy protection, in a widely supported file format and in the best possible quality.

Unexpected item in the fast lane area

I’m very cynical about driverless cars. To an extent I think they’re a solution to the wrong question: now that humans are largely a city-dwelling species (and one facing devastating climate change), the smart thing to do would be to make public transport better and more efficient. For example, I live in Glasgow: our buses pollute, and our subway system is tiny and shuts down completely every Sunday evening at 6pm.

Expanding the Subway, as in this proposal, would transform public transport in my city and make thousands, maybe millions, of car journeys unnecessary. Unfortunately doing so would also cost £5 billion, at a time when some of our city’s treasures are under threat because of maintenance costs. I’m not optimistic.

There are other ways to improve cities. Electric bikes take up considerably less room than cars do and require considerably fewer resources to make and to power: because they don’t have to hurl one and a half tons of metal around, they use a fraction of the energy electric cars do. You don’t need enormous parking spaces, or wide streets, or any of the other things we need to cater for enormous vehicles that typically contain just one person.

But underground trains and bikes aren’t sexy, and driverless cars are.

My concern isn’t just the environmental impact. It’s the tech. We can’t get wireless printers to work. We think the tech industry can make driverless cars safe?

This Twitter thread by Michael T Spooky (everybody on Twitter changes their name for October; I’m currently Carrie, Like In The Film Carrie) articulates it very well by comparing self-driving cars to the self-checkouts you find in shops.

I agree with him on this bit:

…making an automated system that’s 95% as good as a human is relatively easy and one that’s 100% as good as a human is very hard. I think it’s becoming clear that autonomous vehicles are going to turn out like this

Self-checkouts aren’t fully automated. They’re semi-automated. The tech isn’t good enough to ensure that, say, eight people can checkout simultaneously without any of the tills going in a strop. I used one yesterday that in best Trump style refused to accept the existence of biscuits.

So what happens instead is you get things mostly automated, with a human overseer. That’s fine for checkouts. It’s not so good for cars.

A driverless system that needs human supervision isn’t driverless.

Tech is invaluable in cars. From ABS to airbags, traction control to parking sensors, it makes cars safer. But I think it’s best suited to driver assistance, not driver replacement. Driverless vehicles work fine on rails – the aforementioned Subway is getting driverless trains in 2020 – or in the air (fans of driverless cars like to talk about the success of autopilot, which is of course a great technology. However, show me the autopilot that can handle Glasgow’s West End during the school run). But on the roads the challenge is almost infinitely complex and the stakes are incredibly high.

As Mr Spooky concludes:

…when you hear the “World of Tomorrow” tales about driverless cabs whisking us on couches everywhere at 120mph, please also realize that the UNKNOWN ITEM IN BAGGING AREA dystopia is a just-as-likely path.

Calling time on my Apple Watch

I’ve had all three generations of Apple Watch, but it’s time to call time on it. It is an incredibly clever device and it felt very futuristic when it first came out. But it does absolutely nothing to make my life better.

That’s not to say it can’t be useful. It can. But it’s not useful for me. The longer I have it the more things I turn off, and the more annoying I find things that didn’t used to bug me quite so much. For example, the lack of an always-on display has become intensely irritating, especially when the display doesn’t always come on when I want it to. Of all the things I want a watch to do, showing me the time straightaway is the most important thing for me. And it still doesn’t do that properly.

Siri voice control still doesn’t work reliably, and dictation is still incredibly patchy. I don’t run or swim so its fitness tracking is irrelevant. I don’t need a remote control when I’m listening to music on my iPhone. The Hue complication doesn’t do what I want it to do. I keep notifications turned off because I don’t want to be interrupted when I’m doing something else, which is most of the time. I don’t use the weather app complications any more because more often than not, they don’t update. I don’t use Apple Pay on it because paying with your wrist is stupid and it means having to tap in a PIN code every time you want to unlock the watch. It wakes me up when I’m trying to have a nap. When I travel it means Yet Another Bloody Charger, and when I go to gigs it’s Another Bloody Thing To Put Into Airplane Mode.

Also, it’s ugly. I’ve experimented with endless colours and strap colours and fabrics, but it’s still a small computer screen rather than a piece of jewellery.

I like to point out that often, technology answers a question people aren’t asking. That’s definitely the case for me and the Apple Watch. For me, it doesn’t answer the only question I have about it, which is: why am I persisting with a device I don’t particularly like any more?

Time for a Timex instead. All it does is tells the time. That’s all I want a watch to do.