Saturday, March 26, 2011

Those who do not remember Usenet are condemned to retweet it.

I'm going a little off the "lodging" topic of this blog here, but the UK protests against public service cuts are partly about housing. So --

This comment comes from eight years I spent in an unmoderated Usenet discussion group that was wrecked by hard-right trolls. It's about the fairly obvious point that since anyone can join an unmoderated discussion, enough energetic disruptive voices can ruin it.

I'm thinking about an important use of Twitter noted in the UK Guardian's live blog of London demonstrations today. Demonstrators occupied Fortnum and Mason's. As you'll see in the entry at 6:46 pm (and, arguably, in a few more items farther down the column), the city police issued an announcement to the demonstrators, on Twitter, that would ordinarily be (and probably also was) shouted through a bullhorn. They posted it using the hashtag of the organization that called the demonstration, so people following that hashtag would read it.

There has been some organized talking back to activists using their own hashtags before this, beyond your garden-variety trolling and spamming by private individuals. I think, but can't quickly confirm, that Governor Walker of Wisconsin posted responses to his critics using their hashtag. (Which is fine, actually -- Twitter is a public forum and the man surely has a right to use it to state his positions, no matter how despicable they may be.) Likewise critics of Walker on the left publicized a right-wing discussion hashtag. [Update: The first anti-troll advice post linked below mentions a dramatic case of lefty hashtag disruption: "The story of #dontgo".] Also, news analysts have at least speculated about anti-democratic officials spreading disinformation on Twitter in more frightening places like Iran and Egypt.

But today's example of turning the channel around aggressively on demonstrators, using it as an official megaphone to give them warnings and orders -- well, that's new. And yet it's predictable.

Usenet has been around since the 1980s. There are trolls who have spent a whole generation on Usenet learning how to wreck an open discussion. When both trolls and unfriendly authorities figure out that following a Twitter hashtag is the same as subscribing to a Usenet newsgroup, they'll realize they can create enough noise to drown out or chill or fragment controversially political open organizing discussions.

To deal with the noise, either participants in hashtag-based threads will have to set up their own filters (equivalent to the old Usenet killfiling), or leaders will have to provide moderated or selected streams of comments. But DIY filtering is only really useful to politically and technically sophisticated people. And imposing moderation on a heated discussion means endless judgment calls, endless rounds of whack-a-mole, endless side arguments about censorship, and, inevitably, exclusion of unfamiliar new contributors who have constructive things to say but perhaps don't phrase them as expected. Also it doesn't seem like it would be always possible or safe for activists who are risking arrest in places like Egypt to take on the public leadership roles of moderators.

Either way it seems just terribly, sadly easy to disrupt an online hashtag-based discussion where everyone who wants to contribute can be heard equally.

That's sad. That's all.

[P.S. This anti-troll advice seems like it could help a lot incrementally, but I can't see that it solves the problems.][P.P.S. More here and here. But still.]

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