All the King’s Tweets

The other night I made a comment that I wished Bill Gates would spend $10 billion to acquire Twitter and shut it down. IMHO, that would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. The latest reason for this involves their changes to Verified accounts.

For years, exactly how someone got their Twitter account verified was a mystery. Usually if someone was famous, the theory was they would either call a friend at Twitter or show up to the office and verify they owned their twitter account, somehow. I remember a big news story about this when the president of Russia at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, visited San Francisco, visited Twitter, and his account was verified. Other times someone not as famous would bear the blue mark.

This is somewhat personal to me because during the 2011 Nymwars fiasco, when I personally stood up and said the Google Plus “real” names policy was bad and should be reformed, one of the most common pushbacks I got was along the lines of: why not add a flag of some sort to someone’s account to denote they are using a “pseudonym”? Some of my response to that included a distaste for promoting government issued names as somehow better than other names, as well as the idea that names that sound familiar (or are name-shaped) are real and funny sounding ones or not, but you can read my older posts or watch talks to learn more about that.

Case in point, when you have a community, online or offline, and you add a marker of some sort, it changes the dynamic of social relations and creates an element of reputation. For example, why do people who support causes wear ribbons on their shirts, or a colored bracelet? I remember being at a concert in Virginia shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre and seeing many people with buttons that effectively said they supported the victoms.

And now for something I’m going to make public for the first time: in 2014, I was on a RightsCon panel related to the topic of online identify and pseudonymity. One of the other panelists (who sort of lead it) was Colin Crowell, who was at the time the VP of Public Policy at Twitter (he is still at Twitter). We had a meeting at Twitter HQ before the panel to discuss what we’d cover in the panel, and at this meeting I asked him point blank what the verification status on tweets was about. He gave me a look like someone who’d heard this question a million times, and said (I paraphrase) that the sole purpose of the verification status was to prevent impersonation, nothing else; the status was generally added when an issue arose, the fraud team investigated, and decided it was an appropriate counter-measure to prevent further issues. He also added that nobody at Twitter had a verified status. Thus, for years, when this question has come up, I have generally defended Twitter, because I trusted what he told me.

However, then I saw this article on The Verge: http://www.theverge.com/2016/7/19/12227490/twitter-opening-verified-account-user-form. I was stunned because while I’d heard and seen rumors about something like this happening, they were just rumors. When I saw this, I sent an email to Crowell asking for clarification: maybe I misunderstood the article, or maybe the article was wrong. Unsurprisingly, he never replied to my email, and since then things have changed a lot. At first the verified status was a tool used to counter fraud, then it turned into a mechanism for Twitter to collect government issued IDs, and as of a couple days ago it has turned into a tool for Twitter to virtue signal and silence people they don’t like. Let me explain.

I saw this piece from the Guardian about Twitter revoking the verified status of Richard Spencer and this piece from the Verge about changes to how Twitter handles verification status. Both of these are problematic.

First, assuming that Richard Spencer actually believes the hateful things he says, it doesn’t change the fact that he is Richard Spencer. There are lot of news outlets who use Twitter as a source for stories, and they rely on the verification status to demonstrate a person is who they say they are. For example, if Hillary Clinton lost her verification status, someone else with a twitter account called Hilary Clinton (notice the one ‘l’) or other variations could start saying some hateful things, and other than context clues like number of followers, there might be no way to tell that it’s not really her. In fact, many news outlets are not allowed to cite tweets from accounts that are not verified, precisely because of the modicum of truth this status provides, therefore if Richard Spencer does do something that is noteworthy, it makes life more difficult for journalists.

Second, here are the specific issues I have with Twitter’s new guidelines. First, in their morality clause, in addition to citing all the things they don’t want you to do, they also say that supporting organizations or individuals that promote those things will also cause you problems. I’m not sure what this means. Does this mean that if you retweet a hateful thing Donald Trump says, you can be unverified?

Next, and more terrifying, the phrase “on and off Twitter” in their opening statement. Does this mean that if you are an employee of a company like Home Depot that comes under fire for something in the news, that Twitter can decide actions should be taken against you? What if there’s video of you in the stands at an NFL game and the NFL gets embroiled in controversy? Finally, what the hell does any of this have to do with demonstrating that you are who you say you are? If they are violating your policies, why not just suspend their accounts (and send them the reasons why so they can appeal if they want)?

Twitter seems to have conflated morality with verification, something that is very, very dangerous. Further, what constitutes their moral code seems to change based on the wind, and how they arbitrate it seems to change based on some combination of public opinion and the biases of twitter employees. It seems like the outrageous actions of Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince overriding his own company’s policy and banning Daily Stormer from their service because he “woke up this morning in a bad mood.” Which is especially noteworthy given that just two years earlier he defended his inaction against ISIS customers of his service.

I’m really not sure what has gotten into Twitter. I know from talking to people from several free speech groups who used to have direct channels to resolve issues that Twitter has basically stonewalled everything. Their actions are haphazard at best, and the only appeals process seems to be getting lots of negative PR, even though that is also clearly hit or miss. I still believe what Crowell told me a few years ago, which suggests that darker more nefarious forces are at work within Twitter. I know they have been struggling to make enough money, maybe this is part of their efforts to reform their business policy, like their recent shift to 280 characters (which was a disaster)?

In any case, I’ve given up on them– anyone who looks at my Twitter profile knows this– but I do think they are another canary in the coal mine, and based on what I’ve seen, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Living in Germany, I’ve talked to friends who lived during the DDR days under the Staatssicherheitsdienst (aka the Stasi) and they generally describe the climate of the English speaking world as similar. Of course that was government run, and Twitter is a private company, but they do seem to have a grip on the social landscape, whereas the US government seems gridlocked. The one thing I know for sure is that this is horrible, it can’t last forever, and I hope to god it ends soon.

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The dry-heaving, deflated state of the Internet

As I’ve mentioned before, I basically no longer use what is called “social” media, and I have the western propaganda machine blocked in as many places as possible. It’s clear there is a culture war going on, and while there is as of yet no loss of life, it is ruining a lot of things which were once beautiful.

Within computer science, there exists what is called the discovery problem. Both Yahoo and Google started as attempts to solve it. You have a set of things with which people might want to engage, and you want to make sure they can with the most minimal friction possible. It’s not a new idea. If you think about it, newspapers, libraries, even roads operate like this to some extent.

This creates a gateway (or portal) of sorts, and whoever controls it has a lot of power. They control what is served in what order, based on what search criteria, and how frequently.

They are a technology which serves some sort of purpose. In theory, the gatekeeper is a neutral party who serves this higher purpose. A librarian acts to help someone find a book or information they seek. A journalist (a real one) tries to uncover the truth and report it. So a question to ask, when you are looking for something, is who is guiding the answer: is it the purpose of the technology, or the agenda of the gatekeeper?

Realistically every gatekeeper has an agenda, and traditionally this is why we’ve had multiple newspapers, radio stations, and so on. However, this seems to be dying away, and I’m not sure why. Google is one of the worst at this. I would say Facebook as well, but I don’t have firsthand experience. I first started noticing it with the Google Plus names drama, when they pushed the “Search Plus Your World”, trying to map searches to what fits you. And there is a dance between subjective and objective quality. Ever notice that when you search for someone’s name, you get their Wikipedia entry? Which of course makes assumptions about how reliable wikipedia is. After all, if I search for “Lyndon Johnson”, what should I get first, the Wikipedia page, or a website about Robert Caro, who is probably his most famous biographer?

I’ve been noticing lately that Youtube has been doing a lot of this. Let’s say I search for a kind of video, maybe about a current event. I click on a video that seems relevant… maybe it has a lot of views, maybe it has a description that fits what I’m looking for. Let’s say it’s a CNN story about the current event. I watch part of it, and then go back to the main youtube screen. Suddenly I’m getting recommended a ton of videos about that event (matching the keyword), and other videos about CNN.

That’s innocent enough. But for me, this cycle has iterated enough times that I pretty much know exactly what youtube is going to show me. The best analogy I can make is that it’s like knowing what time your favorite TV show is going to appear. It is literally the same, more of the same, and so on. Although lately the videos are fighting for attention, so I’ll get a lot of buzzwords in the titles, as well as things I didn’t ask for that youtube is clearly promoting, maybe because they were paid? Unsure on that.

One of the thrills for me of going into a traditional store is the surprise element. Take a used book store. Let’s say you go there to see if they have a book you’re interested in. You find it, and look at it for a moment. And then you see other books by the same author right next to it. This is somewhat close to the “also on CNN” videos. But then, on the next shelf over, you see books on a totally different topic. Or there’s a display created by the owner of the shop about a book you didn’t even know existed. These last two elements are what make the traditional bookstores (and other stores) special. And Youtube has totally destroyed any ability for them to exist on youtube.

Let’s approach this from another angle. Say you discover a new food at a nearby restaurant, and you like it so much you order it every day. After the tenth day, I’ll bet you no longer want to even see a picture of that food. The novelty dies off, and maybe you don’t go back for a month. It’s similar to stories I’ve heard from former pizza delivery drivers who tell me they never want to have pizza ever again. Or like the staff who works in retail during a promotion where they play the same song over and over again.

To me, the selections that Youtube offers resembles that food after the tenth day. The novelty has died, and I’m so numbed that it’s even difficult to imagine new keywords to search that will result in that “different topic” shelf that a bookstore would have. And yet, for some reason, I keep going there.

I almost wonder if this has placated the whole internet. In a sense, the websites of the 90s and early 2000s were a bit like the family owned shops in small town America before Walmart moved in. As I used to say, I can think of many people who would travel the US going to different small towns and seeing the little shops, but I can’t think of anyone who would travel the US going to all the Walmarts.

But the issue creating this distaste isn’t exactly a diversity issue (to use the hotbutton term of the day), I argue it’s more control. There’s a sort of feeling of disempowerment, similar when you argue with the staff at a large corporation and get fed the “there’s nothing I can do” line. The joy in those little family owned shops wasn’t exactly diversity, but that they were self-owned. If family with a toddler walked into the shop, the owner had the agency to suddenly tell them that “today candy bars are free for little boys named Billy.” There’s probably a community element to it too, something also absent from Youtube and Walmart.

To end the ramble, it seems like today’s Internet has become a homogenized, sterlized shell of what it was even ten years ago. I’m still not sure why, but I think this has something to do with it.