Conspiracist thinking and social media

This morning’s Observer column:

The prevalence of conspiracy theories online explains why they tend to crop up whenever we track the cognitive path of someone who, like the alleged Pittsburgh killer, commits or attempts to commit an atrocity. A case in point is Dylann Roof, a South Carolina teenager who one day came across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia, entered that phrase into Google and wound up at a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a “reality” that he had never considered, from which it was but a short step into a vortex of conspiracy theories portraying white people as victims. On 17 June 2015, Roof joined a group of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire on them, killing nine.

We find a similar sequence in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending mail bombs to prominent Democrats. Until 2016, his Facebook postings looked innocuous: decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games – what the New York Times described as “the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity”.

But then something changed. He opened a Twitter account posting links to fabricated rightwing stories and attacking Hillary Clinton. And his Facebook posts began to overflow with pro-Trump images, news stories about Muslims and Isis, ludicrous conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News…

Read on

How Facebook’s advertising machine enables ‘custom audiences’ that include anti-semites and white supremacists

This is beginning to get routine. I’ve said for some time that if you really want to understand Facebook, then you have to go in as an advertiser (i.e. the real customer) rather than as a mere user. When you do that, you come face-to-face with the company’s amazingly helpful, automated system for helping you to choose the ‘custom audiences’ that you want to — or should be — targeting. A while back, Politico did a memorable experiment on these lines. Now The Intercept has done the same:

Earlier this week, The Intercept was able to select “white genocide conspiracy theory” as a pre-defined “detailed targeting” criterion on the social network to promote two articles to an interest group that Facebook pegged at 168,000 users large and defined as “people who have expressed an interest or like pages related to White genocide conspiracy theory.” The paid promotion was approved by Facebook’s advertising wing. After we contacted the company for comment, Facebook promptly deleted the targeting category, apologized, and said it should have never existed in the first place.

Our reporting technique was the same as one used by the investigative news outlet ProPublica to report, just over one year ago, that in addition to soccer dads and Ariana Grande fans, “the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of ‘Jew hater,’ ‘How to burn jews,’ or, ‘History of “why jews ruin the world.”’”

Quitting Twitter

Ian Betteridge has had enough:

Why should I make an investment both in time and emotion in a service that actually cares so little about its users — and, in fact, about the health of the society it now influences? The excuse that Twitter holds up a mirror to wider society is hogwash: it has consistently and with an outstanding level of ill-judgement given a platform to and cultivated people with utterly reprehensible views.

If you’re an out and out vile individual, like Alex Jones, Twitter gives you a free pass. If you’re a conspiracy theorist who wants to get traction for your lies, Twitter is your friend. If you’re a racist, Twitter will defend your “free speech rights”.

But if you’re a woman getting vile, violent and consistent abuse, Twitter will do precisely nothing to stop it.

Without Twitter, the insanity that is QAnon couldn’t have gained the traction it has. Confined to 4chan, it would have been yet another crackpot piece of tomfoolery. Amplified unchallenged by Twitter, it becomes a series of signs held up at Trump’s rallies, and a truck parked across a highway. It won’t be too long before it becomes a death.

Yep. Sometimes, in recent times, I’ve been wondering which of the networks is the most anti-social. Twitter is now probably the worst. The fact that it’s smaller than Facebook provides some consolation, but not much.