Jeremy Johnson

Free speech & white supremacy: boo(t)ing Nazis on the web

Free speech & white supremacy: boo(t)ing Nazis on the web

Many of my friends and contacts have been celebrating the decisions of companies to fire people identified at the Charlottesville white supremacy rally. Of course, that’s been happening based on intelligence gathered from social pools on the internet–and, like normal, that social intelligence has sometimes been wrong. Kyle Quinn, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, was misidentified as a protester at Charlottesville and harassed on Twitter. Doxing, as is typical, has brought muddy ethical waters in the wake of Charlottesville.

Emma Ellis of WIRED recently called doxing “a perilous form of justice” because, according to Jared Colton of Utah State University, it “often hurts many beyond the intended target,” including their families, people with similar appearances, or people with the same name. I can only imagine a different Jeremy Johnson being doxed, only for me to be harassed because, apparently, Jeremy Johnsons are everywhere. While the left typically employs doxing to shame and exact social justice, the right more often employs troll tactics, looking to harass people either out of disdain or just “for the lulz.”

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, neo-Nazis have been identified, shamed, and in a few instances fired from their jobs. Moreover, white supremacist websites have been booted from web hosting services and have had their domains rescinded (in the Daily Stormer’s case, even in Russia). Most discussion I’ve seen has cheered on these hosts, but a few people have questioned the free speech implications of booting Nazis from certain parts of the internet. One persuasive argument is that the first amendment is only about government restriction; when it comes to corporations and private individuals, there’s no obligation to give Nazis a platform. Fair enough. But there’s a bit more to it than that, I’d say.

If Twitter and Facebook want to ban white supremacists, that seems to be within their rights. But, strangely, I want to bring up antitrust laws for a second. Part of the argument I’m seeing is predicated on something like a free market ideology: companies get to treat consumers as they wish, as long as they’re not violating laws. So, the argument goes, if you boot the Nazis, they’ll be able to find another home, because it’s a marketplace of ideas. But what happens when the main connections you have are severed? Fine, ignore that Facebook is pretty central to most people’s social lives. What if Comcast decides they don’t want to serve white supremacists?

The internet is so crucial for modern life that–you’d think–access to it should be a basic expectation at this point. If you’re a white supremacist, should a company be able to decide that you simply shouldn’t have access to a central part of modern living? “Ah, but they could go get internet elsewhere!” Well, if we’re talking about their home internet connection, that might not be true. Or they might be forced to use dial-up (cringe). Sure, they’re awful people in a lot of ways, but the furthest end of this “corporations can restrict free speech, but the government can’t” argument is pretty scary. What if Comcast decides it’s not just white supremacists they want to ban, but also far-left progressives?

We may need to closely scrutinize what we’re celebrating when white supremacists get outed, shamed, and disconnected. It might seem like justice–and it is in a lot of ways–but it could exceed the bounds of reasonable response. And while some of us might be happy to not have to share digital spaces with Nazis, radical social ostracizing can lead to even more radical and extreme behavior. I’m not saying we should change our behaviors based on the possibility of white supremacists getting upset, but we should know there are real, tangible ramifications of doing so.

As always, doxing is ethically problematic. It can and does bring justice, but the flip side is harassment and possibly more radicalization. I’ll cautiously celebrate the outing of white supremacists in Charlottesville, but it’s hard to know where we’ll go next.

Posted by Jeremy Johnson in About
Cross-post: Anti-vaccine attitudes & motivated reasoning

Cross-post: Anti-vaccine attitudes & motivated reasoning

See original post here

Many people believe that climate change is fake, that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that vaccines cause autism. Scientists, intellectuals, and politically liberal people find that more than odd. In conversations with scientists, I’ve seen immense frustration about “science denial,” which is often treated as absurd or ridiculous. I’ve also been part of many conversations in which scientists and academics ask how to “educate” the broader public to remedy the ills of science denial. But it seems that education in the traditional sense will fail to sway the public. Why? Because there is growing resistance to education as elitist.

What’s more, many persuasive strategies do more than fail: they reinforce prior attitudes against science. According to Sara Pluviano, Caroline Watt, and Sergio Della Sala, attempting to persuade opponents of vaccination can create “backfire effects.” Their manuscript, entitled, “Misinformation lingers in memory: Failure of three pro-vaccination strategies,” demonstrates that rather than changing their minds in the face of evidence, people tend to double down on beliefs that vaccines are harmful. The promotion of “facts” has failed, leaving scientists wondering how they can convince people to receive vaccines or to support policies that would mitigate climate change.

In 2013, Dan Kahan outlined what he called “motivated reasoning”–reasoning driven by prior attitudes. Essentially, Kahan’s analysis shows that people tend to interpret facts based on their ideology, rather than generating positions based on facts. Ideology, I would argue, is formed early, and it is increasingly reinforced by social media echo chambers and “filter bubbles.” It’s easy to be cynical if Kahan’s motivated reasoning really is a driving force in society. But there is hope if we broaden our thinking beyond evidence-based reasoning.

Pluviano et al. found that folks who saw frightening images attributed to vaccine side effects were especially likely to oppose vaccination. The images they viewed reinforced their beliefs, but they also point to something we’ve known for quite some time: that images are powerful, and that narratives using images are especially potent. Scientists should recognize that power and use it to generate counter narratives–if, of course, education efforts continue to falter. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth provided strong evidence with striking visuals. While it is difficult to say with certainty how many people were persuaded by the film, it was a step toward creating counter-narratives. Still, in its insistence on data and facts, An Inconvenient Truth may have generated backfire effects in people with what I would call “science fatigue.”

For those who have little interest in digging into data and facts, traditional argumentative strategies–those based on evidence leading to claims–are unlikely to be persuasive. Rather, focusing on scientific narratives might work. We might draw on Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in their versions of Cosmos to see how dramatizing and narrating science is effective for lay audiences. Scientists can focus on important discoveries that make our everyday lives possible, down to microwaves and cell phones, to strengthen adherence to science in general. Scientists still have a duty to be ethical and to avoid the trappings of propaganda, but we can’t rely on well-reasoned arguments to sway the broader public.

As for vaccines? Show them what polio looked like. Let them see how smallpox ravaged people around the world. Recognize that we have to engage with these attitudes–don’t write them off as stupid, even if you believe anti-vax attitudes are dangerous. Take their concerns seriously, show them the dangers of diseases we’ve eradicated, and hear out their concerns. Such counter-narratives aren’t guaranteed to work, but they stand the chance of reversing someone’s motivated reasoning.

Posted by Jeremy Johnson in About

Thinking about Reddit

I spend a lot of time on Reddit lately.  If you aren’t familiar with the site, you really should poke around for a few minutes.  It’s a web forum where people can post images, videos, articles, etc. and others can respond to them.  Their comment threading system is pretty magnificent, as is their system of upvoting and downvoting to see what content the community finds popular.  It’s really an awesome site.

Over the past few years I’ve slowly migrated from other sites (cough, one with a four-leaf clover) because I thought the community on Reddit was better.  To some extent, I still think that.  Yet, there are a couple really disconcerting problems I’ve noticed, and I’m beginning to side with the folks who are calling for a new community to be born.  It’s weird not to post this on Reddit, but I’m going to take a stab at three major issues I see as issues in the community.

First, I don’t want to be too nostalgic here, but Reddit has really become mainstreamed.  My friends on Facebook link from it all the time.  I’m guilty of doing it on some occasions as well.  What used to be a kind of nerdy hub has turned into a place where everyone can gather.  Okay, I guess, but it has lost some of the magic touch I thought it once had.  When my bro-ish or jock-ish friends are frequenting the site, I feel like I need to bury myself further away in another place.

I’m also concerned about poor moderation.  Some people have even blamed this on moderators being paid off.  What happens when a moderator (perhaps paid off, or just with a vendetta) acts as a gatekeeper of content on what is supposed to be an open community?  The current issues in r/technology are worrisome: any mention of Tesla motors is being auto-deleted through a filter.  If one messes with the spelling (say, Teslas or Telsa), it’ll pass through the filter.  Why would that subreddit filter out all discussion of Tesla motors?  As has been clear from lobbying efforts across the US, motor companies are afraid.  Could they be paying off Reddit moderators to shut down the discussion?  Maybe so.  It seems as though some media outlets have been unnecessarily slanted against Tesla, such as Top Gear, which produced an episode slamming their cars, which turned out to be completely false.  That video now has a warning that reads, “LEGAL NOTICE: This programme is now the subject of legal proceedings for defamation and malicious falsehood brought by Tesla Motors Ltd and Tesla Motors Inc against the BBC.”

Finally, on a very related note, I’m concerned about astroturfing.  Astroturfing refers to fake grassroots efforts, often paid for by companies.  Companies like Electronic Arts have been suspected of astroturfing, even on Reddit, where supposedly they will pay posters to comment favorably toward the company.  There’s no proof of course, but in some cases I’m really confused as to what would make someone support so fervently a company that is so anti-consumer (EA is the perfect example of this, but companies like Comcast aren’t far behind).  The idea that false discourse might be spreading through what is supposed to be a grassroots community is not something I cherish.  It’s downright frightening.  Corporate America has gotten remarkably good at using social media to its advantage.  Reddit might be the newest collateral in that fight.

These problems are problems that could overtake any community, but especially one growing to a large size.  With such a prominent website having what I perceive as serious problems, I question whether future sites will follow a similar model to Reddit or will deviate.  Undoubtedly, a competitor will crop up.  The question is whether that competitor is poised to avoid these problems.  For now, I’ll keep using Reddit, but I’ll do so skeptically.

Posted by Jeremy Johnson in Blog posts

Cosmos and Communicating Science

Tonight I had the pleasure to watch the new Cosmos featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson, all the while playing Scrabble (with my friend who decided to play “Qis” as a word, even though it’s basically an invented word for board games–but I’m not bitter at all, Jeff).  I wasn’t especially surprised by the content, given that I’ve spent countless hours watching scientific shows on television and reading about science on the web.  Still, I was seriously impressed by the way the producers created the show to engage audiences on various levels.  In short, the new Cosmos is a shining example of what can happen when science focuses on communicating with the public.

First of all, the choice to have Neil DeGrasse Tyson host was a fantastic decision.  On many of those science shows I watched in my teenage years, I waited for Tyson to come on, because I was captivated by his energy and his presence (not to mention his smarts when it comes to complex science, such as string theory).  He’s brilliant and passionate–what more could producers want?  Oh yeah, he’s actually fantastically charismatic.  His presence is the foundation for what could be an incredible series.

The show’s graphics also lured me in.  All of the images were sharp, crisp, and beautiful.  The CGI was surprisingly well-done, bringing the cosmos to life.  Aesthetically, it’s one of the most pleasing science shows I’ve ever watched.  For audience members maybe not captivated initially by the content, the show frankly gives them something shiny to look at.  In the process, they just might learn something.

I also thought the show’s breakdown of content was particularly easy to hang on to.  Granted, I could hold on to much more complex explanations given my previous experiences with learning about astronomy and physics, but the analogies were excellent in particular.  I’m surprised I’ve never seen a calendar metaphor to explain the age of the cosmos and Earth, but this was the first time.  The show compared the age of the universe to 365 days, with the end of dinosaurs coming in late December (the 28th) and humans coming just before 10:00 pm on New Year’s Eve.  Kind of breathtaking to think about the age of the universe in that way.

Rhetorically, the show suggests something vital: science is worth studying.  Understanding the universe, even beyond the confines of Earth, is important.  The host’s excitement and the show’s high production value give audiences reason to pause and consider the role of science in modern society.  What’s more, FOX felt free to place it in the 9:00 pm slot on Sunday, the slot normally reserved for the end of animation domination (Family Guy and American Dad, usually).  The simplicity, while sometimes leveling important nuances, creates the vision that science is something everyone can participate in.  And, to some extent, I think that’s a noble thought.

The show leaves on a powerful note, with DeGrasse Tyson recounting his experiences with Carl Sagan.  I’ll close this blog in a similar way, though I have no personal experiences with meeting him, as Tyson did in 1974.  My favorite novel and its film version come from Sagan’s brilliant mind.  I am captivated by Contact.  It explores the philosophical, moral, and personal elements of discovering life outside the Earth, gracefully threading deep thinking into science fiction.  Contact, as does much science fiction, inspires me.  While I’m not going to be a scientist exploring the cosmos, I will continue to hold an interest.  Is there life outside the Earth?  Well, I suppose I don’t know–but, as Dr. Arroway’s father remarks in the story, it would be a mighty big waste of space if not.  Perhaps someday in my lifetime we will know the answer to that question.  In the mean time, Cosmos should keep us wondering about the universe around us.



Posted by Jeremy Johnson in Blog posts

Waxing theoretical: rhizomes, networks, and hives

How is it that a meme on Facebook (say, posted by George Takei) exhibits rhetorical dynamics?  It’s a fascinating scenario, particularly given how awful most memes that get posted on Facebook are.

There’s something really interesting at play in the rhetorical circulation of a Facebook meme.  Deleuze and Guattari might describe some of this dispersion as rhizomatic (I’ll return in a moment to this, so don’t worry), but I’m not sure I see it quite that way.

I’ve been doing plenty of thinking lately about the structures of information dissemination and rhetoric on the web.  I’m particularly inspired after hearing a recent talk by a Penn State grad student in English, who is looking at inventional processes in the information age.  I’m still just digging into some of this stuff, so take my analysis with a grain of salt.

Rhizomes are structures or shapes in which every point (let’s call them nodes for a moment) can connect to every other node.  It’s kind of a chaotic, every-which-way model of communication or movement.  It’d be akin to saying there’s no single center of something–say, a tree without a trunk, just branching off in every which way from its root system.  Not sure if the visual-type metaphors are working here, but I’ll keep rolling.

Networks seemingly work as rhizomes.  Everybody can connect to everybody.  So, on Facebook, memes spread from person to person in seemingly random(ish) order.  But what happens when you get a central figure like a George Takei?  Suddenly, there’s a tree trunk again.  Maybe everything around it is rhizomatic, or maybe everything is still rhizomatic but the central node (Takei) is just hyper-connected.

I’ve been thinking a bit about hives, though.  Bees swarm, sure, but they’re somewhat organized in their little hives.  Outside the hive–outside the dominant structures of digital discourse–they’re just plain chaotic.  But in those hives, in particular networks, they’re more organized, maybe not in exactly a honeycomb, but they’re much more bounded at the very least.

What I’m thinking is that particular sets of networks shape the spread of discourse on the web.  Everything does not move simultaneously to everything else.  The Tor network, for example, is outside of many Internet structures and hierarchies.  The power, then, of a search engine or social networking site is in its centrality to the network.  When people, ideas, and rhetoric cross those networks, there’s an intersection, often through very specific nodes (say, the clear structure of a Google search results page allows a group of liberal bloggers to network and interact with conservative news sites when they search for particular terms).

I’m still developing these ideas, but it seems to me that the rhizome doesn’t fully characterize the situation.  There is more structure to the web than many would give it credit for.  And information is certainly bounded, constrained, and circulated through those structures.  Welcome to the web (or is it really the hive?)

Posted by Jeremy Johnson in Blog posts

Starting off the blog — Twitch plays Pokemon: democratic chaos

I’ve been paying close attention to what’s turning out to be a fascinating social experiment: Twitch plays Pokemon.  Basically, they’ve rigged up a game of Pokemon Red to run in a web browser, streaming so people can watch it on Twitch.  Not all that interesting yet, I know.  But the chat box next to the game is a live chat box–that means that when a user inputs something the game will understand (say, for example, “right”), the game will respond to the user’s message.  Now, imagine that there are somewhere between 20,000 and 90,000 people typing into that chat box.  Utter chaos.

When it was just 20,000 people playing Pokemon, they were sort of progressing through the game.  They beat the first four gyms of the game (the first four big battles) and seemed well on their way to completing the game at some point.  But then more people started joining.  By the time it jumped up to 50,000 players, the game stopped progressing nearly as quickly.  A bunch of trolls came in and started trying to throw off the game.  That’s when it got really interesting: the game’s creators decided to enable two modes, democracy and anarchy.  By typing democracy or anarchy, players could choose one of the following.  In anarchy mode, the chat inputs would all work, creating chaos.  In democracy mode, a certain number of like commands had to be made in order to do something.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting.  In democracy mode, the trolls started to be more successful than the people typing normal commands.  Trolls would open up the start menu, pausing the game over and over, or open up the Pokedex, for no real reason except to be irritating.  Democracy mode requires consensus, but consensus is hard to achieve because players could type “right 1” to tell the player to move right one space, or “right 9” to tell the player to move right nine spaces.  People simply typing in “start” maintained an advantage because it’s easier to get consensus on that single command.  So, in essence, democracy mode yielded less progress than anarchy mode.

The game is still going, 11 days in.  As I type, there are 55,000 people on the channel, with a large number of them typing into the chat box.  It’s in anarchy mode, as the slider indicates in the image below.  I’m going to continue pondering whether this social experiment is at all reflective of actual political operation.  Certainly, sometimes, democracy gets choked up as people with similar minds come up with slightly different solutions and fight to the bitter end.  In that case, the real life trolls very well might win.  Anyway, Twitch plays Pokemon is something to keep an eye on.



Posted by Jeremy Johnson in Blog posts