Back in September, I remember reading this Guardian post detailing the shenanigans of Palmer Luckey, The Oculus Rift founder who had been funding users of social network site Reddit to post pro-trump images and text. What struck me most about the article, was just how little information was actually in it, the gist was ‘young tech guy funds hate and he doesn’t care that his technology might not be used for good.’
The pro-Trump and anti-Hilary images were posted on Reddit, which is a ‘forum of forums’ and has a wide range of users with different opinions. What I find really interesting about forums and sites such 4chan and Reddit is that while the communications on there are very complex, they generate a simple narrative that explains what the forum represents, but by the time that narrative reaches a wider audience it is part of an in-joke that the users of the technology play up to. I don’t visit 4chan, but I get the narrative, they wear Guy Fawkes masks because they are anti-establishment – but the idea originated in an ‘epic fail guy meme,’ the image of the mask itself is copyright held by Time-Warner, and the masks are made in Chinese factors. They are saying ‘we are the anti-establishment, protector of the people – but a bit shit.’ More recently the narrative has shifted to identifying with social awkwardness, proudly calling themselves NEET, sharing videos on YouTube of them shouting ‘normies get out’ from their basement to their Mum. Still, as I try to explain the narrative know I am getting it wrong somewhere. How much truth is there and, which part of this is just a joke?. A few years ago Fox News released the now famous ‘hackers on steroids’ video. Depicting the users of 4chan as terrorists blowing up stadiums and forcing the elderly to buy dogs. It became a part of the in-joke. The Guardian post and its description of a ‘shit post’ as the thing Palmer’s minions are achieving, rather than what it is, does that same thing. A description of what might be going on that simplifies it too much and misses the mark. The described community then wear as a badge of pride. I’m well aware that my attempt at describing 4chan was no better than the Guardian’s description of Reddit shitposting. I don’t think it is lazy journalism; I don’t think we have the right tools, both on a technical and social level to work out what is happening in these fast moving communication channels.
There are a lot of articles in the news about hate on the Internet, a lot of the time we point back to the problem in technology, and each of these technologies apparently has a group of users with a narrative, it is the pre-teens on YouTube comments, the socially awkward protesters of 4chan, the ‘we used to be left wing, but now we are right wing’ Reddit posters, or your either being Louise mensch or Owen Jones on Twitter.
The speed of technological change and the sheer volume of traffic make it impossible to get a grip on what is going on, what the general opinion is, what is and is not a joke. These narratives make it easier to comprehend but don’t tell us anything. There was a mention of GamerGate in the Guardian rattle, and it is common for the paper to keep running these articles about hate online that briefly cross mention each other, but the Guardian lack the ability to say how or why. The BBC frontpage had three articles related to hate online yesterday. How to stop cyberbullying, celeb quits Twitter, and fake articles being removed from Facebook. Quicker than the guardian to try and verbalise what is going on, the BBC pick up there is something connected here, they think much of this supports far right views and labels much of the chatter from these communication channels as ‘alt-right.’ Are the BBC getting close to the core of the issue, or are they just creating another label the communities will live up to?
I don’t think the Guardian article is lazy; I think the fact that the speed of change obfuscates what is being said makes it hard to make work out what is going on. I do think, however, that this obfuscation gives us a get out clause to pick and choose what we defend. The stop funding hate campaign recently celebrated the fact Lego was not going to rerun the £700 advertisement in the Daily Mail again. The Spectator responded (in an outrageous piece I will not be linking to) that this was simply the left not liking what the right had to say about three judges, completely ignoring the homophobic (and anti ex-Olympic fencers) comments on the front page of a newspaper you could buy in 2016. At what point did it become acceptable to gloss over such things. Does those spouting hate speeches find it easier claim the titles and fit that narrative of an ‘alt-right’ than those trying to work out what is going on? Who wants to be a lefty luvvie or social justice warrior? South Park points to the hijacking of memories .’ ‘member Start Wars, ‘member Tatooine, ‘member the 70s, do you ‘member a time before the Mexicans took our jobs’ and that this becomes part of a communities narrative. What about when it wasn’t acceptable to call the first lady an ape?
What tools or frameworks do we need to work out what is going on in online communications?