Saturday, February 03, 2018

the day I had to re-educate my youtube profile

I was reminded by various things in the news recently (I'm still trying to parse that last link, seriously, Google is responding to what by doing what?) of the time last autumn when, for job-related reasons I briefly needed to reference some news stories about Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) on Youtube for a training presentation.  I also needed at the same time to  access some video promotions for CSA perpetrator programmes, access some internet safety and grooming public information films by CEOP (UK Police) and some new (and old) films from the NSPCC. All job-related, fully factual content.

I noticed the problem when I then embedded an (unrelated) video in a blog post and watched the content through. Among the usual run of cat videos, 80s electronica and garden walk-throughs there was a single really odd-looking recommendation. I clicked it to check it (as one does) and discovered a truly deeply horrific fake news paedophilia/celebrity conspiracy "news" video. I made an abortive moment towards reporting the content, and then froze, remembering the not guilty verdict on the Girls Aloud torture porn trial. There was a good chance this bilge counted as free speech, fiction, comedy, entertainment or all of the above.

So I clicked away again and instead went to disable the related videos on the embed link, reminded once more that with the variability of content on Youtube nowadays you really kind of need to do this on personal content as well as professional, or you'll end up exposing people to who knows what. But the worst was yet to come.

I got back to Youtube and discovered that my "up next" videos had, to put it mildly, changed. My recommendations were now very one note indeed, and all variations on the same sort of video. Some  politicians, some celebrities, but all of it was CSA-related, all clearly fake, all news/expose/revealed shock-jock style ranting, and all uniformly the sort of horrible fake news crap that I was disappointed existed, and certainly didn't want to have spontaneously served into my browser.

I started to google for fixes.  I found the methodology quite quickly, but the process itself was slow.

The fix, fact-fans, is to go and adjust your recommended videos manually, i.e. for every single video click on "Not interested". This will remove the video, and eventually, all videos like it. This takes a strong stomach, and a lot of clicking, but in the end I fully resealed my bubble against the fake-news sewage tide. Which is great for my blood pressure, but this terrible, horrible, afactual... no, counterfactual content still exists, hovering, ready to jump in the moment someone shows a change in their viewing preferences. And while I did it as part of a research run, in a well-balanced and rational state of mind, how might it different if I'd triggered something similar inadvertently in a moment of doubt, confusion, unhappiness or vulnerability? What might be the long-term effects if I lacked the wherewithal to hack back the tide of misinformation?

After all, as I discovered, it doesn't have to be a big change at all. Just a few clicks, and it comes rushing in, a foul tide of information pollution; as damaging to mental health as the real thing is to physical health.

Friday, January 26, 2018

don't deny them their data points

So I was at some training again yesterday and there was the usual chat about how much people online know abut you, and how bad it is that, that the government and the private companies all know where you are and what you're doing and I was back suddenly to five years ago and writing a paper about how a culture shift was needed, because so many people felt they were protecting people by not recording things about them. The fear their details would be stored up and used against them later, the desire to protect them from the judgement of others was overwhelming.

The urge comes from a good place, but I feel it is fundamentally misguided.

Recording people's information accurately, respectfully and securely is an act of true respect for that individual. Every time you squirrel, omit or conceal a person's data points you are denying them recorded reality. You are making yourself adjudicator, gatekeeper. You are asserting privilege, and denying others their rights.

Each data point changes the world. Those of us lucky enough to be purchasing, paying, buying, reproducing, shaping, constructing and changing are constantly creating data-casts around us. Those whose data gets squirrelled and forgotten are often the damaged, disenfranchised and disengaged.

Don't deny them their data points.

Friday, January 19, 2018

a blur of infotainment

I'm playing Candy Crush Saga. With the serious, slightly pained focus that is only available when you are almost incapacitated by procrastination. To be fair, this is only happening when my mind begins to blur out of academic focus and start to flicker off into exciting vistas of other topics of interest, when the mind is dulling against the taptaptap of another chapter.

I'm not just playing Candycrush either, whoever only does that? Right now I'm also watching television (Dinosaur documentary), skimming through fashion shows on, fitfully conversing on Facebook and also, naturally, playing three other games (Words with Friends, Disco Zoo and Kleptocats) because that's the way to play if you don't pay. There's some stuff I'm looking up in a tab or two. A book, a magazine, today's paper.

I am thoroughly immersed in the blur of infotainment. And I'm not coming up again until I'm fit to study once more. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

My Christmas fighting the prnbot menace

It was the week before the week before Christmas and my social media apprentice was buzzing: "We got followed by [redacted]!!!!" in the same proud tones used when a healthy eating tweet gets retweeted by someone off of Masterchef. The name (unfamiliar to me) was rapidly annotated with a brief bio; something BBC related, youth-orientated, popular. Good for us, and duly I congratulated her and gave her the go ahead to follow back. I checked out the celeb later that day. Her stream was healthy, wholesome and positive. She looked good. All good, carry on, carry on.

Two days later, the first of them arrived. Love your tweet! You have a new follower! The apprentice was on leave, settling into her new-new-build. So I let the first few go by. When I came back after lunch, there were 17 of them. And many of the profile pictures looked disturbingly... similarly... undressed.

Cleaning the Stream

We need to keep the stream clean as (in common with many professional users of Twitter) we are catering to the 13+ age-group. Kids and parents, professionals and teachers. Family friendly is the order of the day. It's pretty normal (if a bit annoying) to get a daily spatter of speculative marketing profile engagements - t-shirt sellers, lifestyle coaches, SEO-jockeys and the like. It's part of the Twitterverse.

This, though, this was something new, at least to me. As the song goes, new, and a bit alarming.

These accounts were not in the slightest bit family friendly. Each one was an identikit assemblage of quease-inducing porn clip-art, unsubtle 100 character come-ons, and links signalled clearly (using the same six or so unmistakable and nasty euphemisms) as leading to live-stream, hard-core pornography. They were all using the same phrases, the same images, and I had little doubt that their carefully scrambled link addresses (See LINK in BIO!!!!!??!!) were taking you to the same set of porn websites.

Weirdly, they all also seemed to be following a set of rules about what they were saying and showing. I was instantly reminded of the the ridiculous things people used to do to "get around" the Obscene Publications Act, missing the point that obscenity was intrinsic in what they were selling.

Sisyphus on the block and ban

Every new like or follow now has to be checked. The process, once I stopped clicking around like an idiot looking for the right report route, smoothed down to six quick clicks: check > options > report > categorise > subcategorise > block. Then I have to click again to get off the page.

By five in the afternoon, having spent most of it blocking and reporting identikit profiles, the flow seemed to be dying down. I assumed that given that the profiles were pretty obviously generated by an algorithm, it had stripped my Twitters off their follow list and moved onto less active accounts.

I also had my first set of progress reports back from Twitter - and in case anyone is in any doubt about this, selling pornography on Twitter breaks its Ts & Cs. Every account I reported was closed down promptly.

As will surprise absolutely nobody who has ever been in this situation, the following morning, the accounts were back again, and since then, despite the accounts having been closed down and down and down by Twitter, they have returned again, and again. Generating at a less panic-inducing two to four every day per profile, they are now just another editor job. Retweet, post, favourite, post again ---- and block and report the prnbots.

After every block and ban, there is a small notification from Twitter: thank you for making Twitter safer for everyone.

Drowning in a sea of slime

I'm fond of Twitter, possibly for fuzzy historical reasons that have no place in our current, chiller world. So my first impulse is to worry about Twitter, particularly since my googling and talking to people made it clear that I'm hardly an isolated case. The bulk inactive account hacks and malicious profile generation has been going on since at least 2015. That means Twitter has a had a while to come up with a coordinated response, akin to the algorithmic system Facebook uses to delete spam posts as they happen. This hasn't happened, and I can only think of a few reasons why this would be, and none of them are good for Twitter.

Possibility one: something about Twitter's data architecture makes it impossible to create dynamic identification of accounts or tweets mass generated from a short list of clearly malicious phrases and images. Not good news for Twitter - does it really want to be relying on human report? Most users never bother to report anything.

Possibility two: the account generation is coming in at such a scale and level of technical complexity and adaptivity that it is flooding Twitter's defences and commercial users (and their customers) are seeing a little bit of  the overflow of a much, much bigger problem. Again, not a good situation, given that Twitter has too little UI to just turn bits of itself off (as happened to Flickr's notes function, for example) until a suitable resolution is established.

Possibility three: Twitter is tolerating, allowing or even accepting their bots, the ones selling adult content included. It's maybe an indicator of how much of an image problem Twitter has that most people I spoke to assumed that they simply didn't care, or treated these accounts as a form of "free speech". I don't think that, but I think it's possible that they might see it as an environmental emanation of the medium, like flyposters on a hoarding or postcards in a phone booth. 

I can't really, though, so. Report, report, report. 

Monday, October 02, 2017

Jeremy, What's a boosted post?

I just got an email from the Facebook advertising team.

I get these because I was admin for a Facebook page while I was involved in a (successful) Kickstarter-funded comics project. I could take myself off the admin list but to de-admin yourself (as with so many things about Facebook Pages) you have to do a emotionally awkward things. Let me say right away that the other admin won't mind me having access. I'm 100% trustworthy. I may be involved again in the future. I'm an extra pair of expert eyes. My options are:

  1. Re-open contact with the other admin and negotiate my removal. Rejecting, awkward, and emotionally challenging for us both! 
  2. Remove myself as an admin.  Rejecting, awkward, and emotionally challenging for me now, and for the other admin when she notices later -  and probably quite hurtful, too.
So, you see the difficulty. I'll stay as admin, and take the emails and the bugging to promote posts (which, like so many things, isn't working as well as it used to) and we'll all be fine, probably....

But to get back to the email. The subject line was Jeremy, What's a boosted post? FFS, Facebook Ad Team, if you don't know, then we're all in trouble. I'm hoping you know!

Also, stop pretending to be my apprentice.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

eternal downscroll and the downpage lacuna

I pull down the page, and pause. Pull down the page and pause.
While the content loads.
While the content loads,
while the page finds yet more page
below itself.

The tendons that link my finger to my wrist
slide through my carpal like elastic in a hood
puppet string my radius and ulna
to the very elbow

The muscles that balance my arm in quiet tension
Bunched over the bicep, taut across the tricep
Engaged, as my yoga teacher would say
to my ragged shoulder

All of these are begging me to stop,
and the neck too.

I pull down the page.
The scroll-bar catches, and lets go
There is more beyond the more
And more after.

My resource investigator brain
My hunter gatherer excitement

The blank page

Information transmits
spaced by whitepage lacunae

A tap, a click
a pause in the information flow
and then the delicious down-arrow saccade flutter
of information, arriving.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

the spam filter falls out of sync with online registration requirements

Today's message is brought to you by the colour grey and the letters f, m and s,

Dear [Redacted]

I'm assuming what I am responding to is an automated marketing email that gets sent when someone has started the process of looking at a report but not registered. So I'm not especially expecting a response. However, I do in this circumstance have a thing to say, so I'm going to say it, even though I might be howling into the empty void of a shared inbox in an abandoned marketing department (though the individual name was a nice touch, [Redacted]).

Straightforwardly, I AM interested in looking at your reports. I was slightly disappointed to discover that I have to register my details to do so, but understand that information is often transactional; and be reassured that, though my password lists now run to eight pages, like most adults working in the sector I've grown hardened to this. So here I am, trying to register on your website right now, but it's not going well. Not because I'm unwilling to register (although I am, a little - if's cheeky to call something free when the cost is actually registration and consent to be marketed to) but because though I've certainly started the registration process, I really can't complete it.

The problem occurring is that your verification code emails aren't getting through our spam filters. Yes, yes, yes. I know. Check my spam folder. But in common with many large organisations nowadays, we don't have "spam folders" as such to check (well, I do, but let's leave that aside for now, your verification email won't be in it). Instead, emails considered to be potentially spam are quarantined at server and sent on at midnight for me to review and release if non-suspicious the following morning. It stops about half my spam and quarantines about the same amount of legitimate mail, which is annoying enough that I've put in a service call about it, but tolerable enough that when I was told there was nothing that could be done I accepted it, shrugged and carried on.

But it's just starting to quarantine verification emails, sometimes, now. You're the second site it's done it for. I did a thing for the last site, but for you, I've just let it sit for now. I'll come back to the problem tomorrow. 

If your verification links don't expire, I can just click it tomorrow morning. That would be pretty poor security practice though, and I would expect better of you, [Redacted], even though this bit of your service is barely more than an email-harvest to allow access to faully anonymised content. There's no help available, either specific to registration and log-on, or generally on the site, so any solution would need to be mine, and mine alone. I did, as you always do, that quick time cost vs. information benefit calculation and decided to shelve fixing it until tomorrow and then decide if I wanted to activate a workaround.

Then your email plopped into my inbox, offering to help me realise how many reports you had and how valuable they were, and how I really should register. Trying to win my heart, this with superlatives and oily with salestalk. I only say this, [Redacted] because you are a Marketing Manager, and salestalk is what you do. I mean no criticim. But you see, the trouble is, this spam thing I'm using, it's not something odd or boutique. It's one of the major, major solutions in use in big organisations. What I'm saying, [Redacted], is that it won't just be me. It's going to be lots of people, and this mail is going to go to all those people.

So please, check your stats. Revisit your registration story. And for heaven's sake, rein in or differentiate the follow-up emails. The user isn't always saying f*** this. Sometimes they are saying this is f***ed.


[insert standard sig here]