Phone Books and MegaphonesThink back to 1986. Imagine if somebody told you: "In 30 years, a public directory that's more accessible and ubiquitous than the phone book is now will be available to almost everybody at all times. This directory won't just contain your contact information, but also, a page anyone can write on, like a middle-school slam book but meaner. Whenever anybody writes on it, everybody else will be able to see what they wrote." I don't thin you would have believed it, or if you found it plausible, you probably wouldn't have found this state of affairs acceptable. Yet in 2016, that's how things are. Search engine results have an enormous effect on what people believe to be true, and anybody with enough time on their hands can manipulate search results.
Antisocial Network EffectsWhen you search for my name on your favorite search engine, you'll find some results that I wish weren't closely linked to my name. People who I'd prefer not to think about have written blog posts mentioning my name, and those articles are among the results that most search engines will retrieve if you're looking for texts that mention me. But that pales in comparison with the experiences of many women A few years ago, Skud wrote:
"Have you ever had to show your male colleagues a webpage that calls you a fat dyke slut? I don’t recommend it."
Imagine going a step further: have you ever had to apply for jobs knowing that if your potential manager searches for your name online, one of the first hits will be a page calling you a fat dyke slut? In 2016, it's pretty easy for anybody who wants to to make that happen to somebody else, as long as the target isn't unusually wealthy or connected. Not every potential manager is going to judge someone negatively just because someone called that person a fat dyke slut on the Internet, and in fact, some might judge them positively. But that's not the point -- the point is if you end up in the sights of a distributed harassment campaign, then one of the first things your potential employers will know about you, possibly for the rest of your life, might be that somebody called you a fat dyke slut. I think most of us, if we had the choice, wouldn't choose that outcome.
Suppose the accusation isn't merely a string of generic insults, but something more tangible: suppose someone decides to accuse you of having achieved your professional position through "sleeping your way to the top," rather than merit. This is a very effective attack on a woman's credibility and competence, because patriarchy primes us to be suspicious of women's achievements anyway. It doesn't take much to tip people, even those who don't consciously hold biases against women, into believing these attacks, because we hold unconscious biases against women that are much stronger than anyone's conscious bias. It doesn't matter if the accusation is demonstrably false -- so long as somebody is able to say it enough times, the combination of network effects and unconscious bias will do the rest of the work and will give the rumor a life of its own.
Not every reputation system has to work the way that search engines do. On eBay, you can only leave feedback for somebody else if you've sold them something or bought something from them. In the 17 years since I started using eBay, that system has been very effective. Once somebody accumulates social capital in the form of positive feedback, they generally don't squander that capital. The system works because having a good reputation on eBay has value, in the financial sense. If you lose your reputation (by ripping somebody off), it takes time to regain it.
On the broader Internet, you can use a disposable identity to generate content. Unlike on eBay, there is no particular reason to use a consistent identity in order to build up a good track record as a seller. If your goal is to build a #personal #brand, then you certainly have a reason to use the same name everywhere, but if your goal is to destroy someone else's, you don't need to do that. The ready availability of disposable identities ("sockpuppets") means that defaming somebody is a low-risk activity even if your accusations can be demonstrated false, because by the time somebody figures out you made your shit up, you've moved on to using a new name that isn't sullied by a track record of dishonesty. So there's an asymmetry here: you can create as many identities as you want, for no cost, to destroy someone else's good name, but having a job and functioning in the world makes it difficult to change identities constantly.
The MegaphoneFor most of the 20th century, mass media consisted of newspapers, then radio and then TV. Anybody could start a newspaper, but radio and TV used the broadcast spectrum, which is a public and scarce resource and thus is regulated by governmental agencies. Because the number of radio and TV channels was limited, telecommunications policy was founded on the assumption that some amount of regulation of these channels' use was necessary and did not pose an intrinsic threat to free speech. The right to use various parts of the broadcast spectrum was auctioned off to various private companies, but this was a limited-scope right that could be revoked if those companies acted in a way that blatantly contravened the public interest. A consistent pattern of deception would have been one thing that went against the public interest. As far as I know, no radio or TV broadcaster ever embarked upon a deliberate campaign of defaming multiple people, because the rewards of such an activity wouldn't offset the financial losses that would be inevitably incurred when the lies were exposed.
(I'll use "the megaphone" as a shorthand for media that are capable of reaching a lot of people: formerly, radio and broadcast TV; then cable TV; and currently, the Internet. Not just "the Internet", though, but rather: Internet credibility. Access to the credible Internet (the content that search engine relevance algorithms determine should be centered in responses to queries) is gatekept by algorithms; access to old media was gatekept by people.)
At least until the advent of cable TV, then, the broader the reach of a given communication channel, the more closely access to that channel was monitored and regulated. It's not that this system always worked perfectly, because it didn't, just that there was more or less consensus that it was correct for the public to have oversight with respect to who could be entrusted with access to the megaphone.
Now that access to the Internet is widespread, the megaphone is no longer a scarce resource. In a lot of ways, that's a good thing. It has allowed people to speak truth to power and made it easier for people in marginalized groups to find each other. But it also means that it's easy to start a hate campaign based on falsehoods without incurring any personal risk.
I'm not arguing against anonymity here. Clearly, at least some people have total freedom to act in bad faith while using the names they're usually known by: Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew Breitbart are obvious examples. If use of real names deters harassment, why are they two of the best-known names in harassment?
Algorithm as ExcuseZoë Quinn pointed out on Twitter that she can no longer share content with her friends, even if she limits access to it, because her name is irrevocably linked to the harassment campaign that her ex-boyfriend started in order to defame her in 2014, otherwise known as GamerGate. If she uses YouTube to share videos, its recommendation engine will suggest to her friends that they watch "related" videos that -- at best -- attack her for her gender and participation in the game development community. There is no individual who works for Google (YouTube's parent company) who made an explicit decision to link Quinn's name with these attacks. Nonetheless, a pattern in YouTube's recommendations emerged because of a concerted effort by a small group of dedicated individuals to pollute the noosphere in order to harm Quinn. If you find this outcome unacceptable, and I do, we have to consider the chain of events that led to it and ask which links in the chain could be changed so this doesn't happen to someone else in the future.
There is a common line of response to this kind of problem: "You can't get mad at algorithms. They're objective and unbiased." Often, the implication is that the person complaining about the problem is expecting computers to be able to behave sentiently. But that's not the point. When we critique an algorithm's outcome, we're asking the people who design and maintain the algorithms to do better, whether the outcome is that it uses too much memory or that it causes a woman to be re-victimized every time someone queries a search engine for her name. Everything an algorithm does is because of a design choice that one or several humans made. And software exists to serve humans, not the other way around: when it doesn't do what we want, we can demand change, rather than changing ourselves so that software developers don't have to do their jobs. By saying "it's just an algorithm", we can avoid taking responsibility for our values as long as we encode those values as a set of rules executable by machine. We can automate disavowal.
How did we get here -- to a place where anyone can grab the megaphone, anyone can scribble in the phone book, and people who benefit from the dissemination of this false information are immune from any of the risks? I'll try to answer that in part 3.
To be continued.
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