Saturday, May 19, 2018

My bubble just got invaded - and hard

Not altogether impressed when I did a cursory search for a disappeared website from a small charity. It was the day after IDAHOT. Surely today of all days, it would be OK to be gay?

Apparently not:

Small websites come and go, of course, but this is harsh! You're only seeing the first six results here, but pretty much THE ENTIRE FIRST PAGE OF GOOGLE is results from Christian websites, which are far from clear on whether being gay is OK - even if they're nominally supportive. Several are in the love the sinner camp. Some are firmly telling you it isn't. There are a couple of equivocal news stories. But bar the Being Gay is OK colouring book, the whole thing smacks of bible study groups lead by sweaty celibates desperate to love the sinner, save your soul and bring you back to Sunday school.

Thank Oprah for the one exception. One item had squeaked past the seo-optimised bible-bashing search flooders; vlogger Doug Armstrong with "It's Okay to be gay (song), which is actually quite sweet in a vloggery kinda way, and does also accurately return on the search phrase "being gay is ok".

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

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Distributed publication of the tools in use on your site can sometimes have unexpected results. Therefore I found myself in the annoying/amusing situation this month of the discontinuation of comment spam protection on one of my sites.

The spambots sing a bit of a different song nowadays. Cialis and Viagra have given way to cryptocurrency, gonorrhea treatment, random insults and bears. Sexually lively girls age 25 feature strongly. Episode Ignis and doxycycline and plantar warts.  All clad in a low-quality, unconvincing protective carapace of compliments, guest writer requests and browser compatability complaints, the webmaster's perennial favourite.

Mingled among them I saw something new and slightly piteous - little squeaks for help and understanding;  "I'm not doing this full time" and "I've been reviewing online" and "I been browsing online more" and "I am not sure where you are" - as poor Christen, Vada, Nelson, JamieVek, Jewli and their ilk understand what that amazing opportunity to earn money online actually entails. 

Nowadays, many of them read like a person is writing them, a deeply depressing thought. 

I pre-moderate (of course), so nothing ever went live. But it would be a sadness indeed if none of it ever saw the light of day, especially when I think of the person-hours involved, theirs and mine.

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

21st century sexual abuse

I run a few accounts. It's notable that one gets a lot more likes and follows from the ongoing epidemic of automated porn accounts. I got to thinking, what makes this account different? It's popular, but no more so than others. Then I started to notice a few other accounts in my lists getting these likes and follows. I dug a bit. The forums contain a few more clues. I'm coming to a pretty difficult conclusion, but I think these accounts are trying to target children. Pictures of children, profiles mentioning children, statuses about children.

Why would this be? Is it deliberate, part of a strategy intentionally and persistently squirting sexual imagery at underage consumers, hoping that some will shift focus onto sexual activities in the early teenage years, and, with that single-mindedness only accessible to those who have just left childhood, become the future star consumers? 

It doesn't seem very plausible, but as anyone who observes the economic activities of criminals knows, it doesn't have to work well (or even at all) for people to do it. All it needs is a rumour that you can make money this way and a fairly low opportunity-cost. The toolkit for this is small; some text to copy-and-paste, a folder of clip-art undressed girls, an automated account creation tool, a list of people to follow.

That list was what previously lead me to think this was accidental. My presence on a follow-list is confirmed by the occasional appearance of minor celebrities who have presumably bought in a "social networking expert" to build a profile fast and with scant regard to netiquette.

But now, I'm not so convinced. This has a weirdly targeted feel. Further evidence comes from the content of these profiles; kiddy language, brightly coloured hair, each one a sparkly unicorn into DC comics and cosplay. These is not adult-facing marketing. These are the cloying tones of the candy cigarette merchants. They're after today's fresh innocent faces as tomorrow's clientele. They want to get them young, and keep them for life. To them, the word "children" in a description is a list-includer, not a list excluder.

Of course, I could just be imagining things. After all, I've been subjected to a steady barrage of unwanted and unwelcome online sexual imagery and language for months now. After a bit, you start to want to see some kind of meaning in all those ... bits.

But I think I'm going to set aside an hour or so to do some investigation, and then if I get the faintest hint of confirmation of this theory, do something rather more nuanced than pressing the report button Because if I am right, then I can think of a few other amazing moneymaking ideas that could sit in the same stable, that would very much need to be closed down.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

the tipover point in the online environment

It's another week where I'm not very happy with Twitter. Dear old Twitter, where I post thoughtful things about birds and plants, and sometimes comics, and read a similarly sweethearted scatter from my friends and others. Or where I punchily network through my prosocial professional spaces, linking up our local players, passing on opportunities, maintaining that network. And while I'd always been aware of the boobs and the bots and the bullying that wasn't everything, or even most things, and non-engagement with that whole messed-up scene wasn't hard.

But this year, for the first time, when I talk to teenage kids about Twitter they get the same queasy evasive look on their faces that you get when you ask them about drugs, drinking or sex. Too much of it is a risky environment now. They know about it; but it's not for stuff you'd discuss with adults any more. The natural adolesecent urge is always to run and look and the bad stuff. Now there's just so much of that, they're never going to get to the good stuff any more.

If you want to see how a teen sees Twitter, run a few searches. Use a few likely search terms. If you hit a lively-looking hashtag, give that a click... and you'll see the decay that Downtown Twitter has tipped over into. Ts&Cs are flouted into non-existence. Silk Road, Pornhub and their unmentionable Darkweb siblings have colonised the dialogue; and wave up on wave of bot-generated advertising accounts crawl over everything, like automated obscene graffiti.

I'm normally a solid reporter. I've reliably reported every single account in breach that has interacted . But this was just too much. It was like that moment when the policeman wanders into the drug den in season 3 of the new Amazon series, and it's suddenly CGI vampires as far as the eye can see. You've hit the threshold shift; the tipover point; the place where the gangsters think they're running the show because they've managed to leave their shit everywhere.

I reported one account, then considered my position.

One of the great pleasures of having lived through so many decades is that you fail to really recognise the low roar of panic, and instead just carry on as normal. So with one hand I called the appropriate helpline, and with the other opened another tab to check up on Instagram. The helpline confirmed a few things; Instagram was better in some ways, worse in others - but just as comprehensively colonised.  

There's a thing that's done to public houses - pubs and bars, to you and me - by dealers and chancers and chaotic drinkers. They turn up. They carry on. They refuse to move on. They tell you that you rely on them, and that they're your best customers and that if they weren't there, no-one would be there. They threaten and wheedle and cajole and bully the staff and bring in their friends, and bother your other customers until they join in or leave. It's a make or break moment for the landlord. Will you bar, ban, confront, refuse, yell, shout, dig your heels in, persist and if necessary get people arrested? Or will you fold, fail and start the long walk to demolition in favour a Tesco Metro?

On the way to Tescos, a lot more happpens. The most usual thing is your pub going bankrupt under the should-be-obvious reveal that in your local area, only a tiny percentage of people actually want an environment like this (and even they have mixed feelings about it); and also that these are not the people with reliable disposable income that they'll come in and spend, reliably. They're people who will hide drugs in your toilets, run away from bills and throw up on your bar.  Then there's the trouble you might have, with the police either coming down on you hard or feeling they'll get better results by letting nature take its course and mopping up the pieces later. Orders and notices, damage and trouble; and you can be barred, too, from running a bar. Or maybe things just go quiet, and people stop coming by; the death of unpopularity, of silence.

MySpace Tom still sends me the occassional plaintive email, a salutory message about how the mighty may fall. Too big to fail they were; but they were too slow to put their house in order, and now digital tumbleweeds drift across their digital halls. I wonder how Twitter will respond now they're in that same crossroads? MySpace's executives fronted and blustered but in the end they cut large chunks of their functionality rather than face massive multiple prosecutions and accordingly  were both saved and doomed.

Even more I wonder about Instagram. When their owners, Facebook, were facing a similar issue, they took the route of admitting, addressing and fixing (usual caveats apply) the issue. Why isn't the same thing happening with Instagram?

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.