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A free-speech social network disappears from the internet

It was an awful weekend of hate-fueled violence, ugly rhetoric, and worrisome retreats from our democ
October 29 · Issue #236 · View online
The Interface
It was an awful weekend of hate-fueled violence, ugly rhetoric, and worrisome retreats from our democratic ideals. Today I’m focused on two ways of framing what we’re seeing, from the United States to Brazil. While neither offers any comfort, they do give helpful names to phenomena I expect will be with us for a long while.
The first is stochastic terrorism: “The use of mass, public communication, usually against a particular individual or group, which incites or inspires acts of terrorism which are statistically probable but happen seemingly at random.” I encountered the idea in a Friday thread from data scientist Emily Gorcenski, who used it to tie together four recent attacks.
In her thread, Gorcenski argues that various right-wing conspiracy theories and frauds, amplified both through mainstream and social media, have resulted in a growing number of cases where men snap and commit violence. “Right-wing media is a gradient pushing rightwards, toward violence and oppression,” she wrote. “One of the symptoms of this is that you are basically guaranteed to generate random terrorists. Like popcorn kernels popping.”
On Saturday, another kernel popped. Robert A. Bowers, the suspect in a shooting at a synagogue that left 11 people dead, was steeped in online conspiracy culture. He posted frequently to Gab, a Twitter clone that emphasizes free speech and has become a favored social network among white nationalists. Julie Turkewitz and Kevin Roose described his hateful views in the New York Times:
After opening an account on it in January, he had shared a stream of anti-Jewish slurs and conspiracy theories. It was on Gab where he found a like-minded community, reposting messages from Nazi supporters.
“Jews are the children of Satan,” read Mr. Bowers’s biography.
Bowers is in custody — his life was saved by Jewish doctors and nurses — and presumably will never go free again. Gab’s life, however, may be imperiled. Two payment processors, PayPal and Stripe, de-platformed the site, as did its cloud host, Joyent. The site went down on Monday after its hosting provider GoDaddy, told it to find another one. Its founder posted defiant messages on Twitter and elsewhere promising it would survive.
Gab hosts a variety of deeply upsetting content, and to its supporters, that’s the point. Free speech is a right, their reasoning goes, and it ought to be exercised. Certainly it seems wrong to suggest that Gab or any other single platform “caused” Bowers to act. Hatred, after all, is an ecosystem. But his action came amid a concerted effort to focus attention on a caravan of migrants coming to the United States in seek of refugee.
Mainstream conservative media, most notably Fox News, has advanced the idea that the caravan is linked to Jewish billionaire (and Holocaust survivor) George Soros. An actual Congressman, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, suggested the caravan was funded by Soros. Bowers enthusiastically pushed these conspiracy theories on social media.
In his final post on Gab, Bowers wrote: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
The individual act was random. But it had become statistically probable thanks to the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric across all manner of media. And I fear we will see far more of it before the current fever breaks.
The second concept I’m thinking about today is democratic recession. The idea, which is roughly a decade old, is that democracy is in retreat around the globe. The Economist covered it in January:
The tenth edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index suggests that this unwelcome trend remains firmly in place. The index, which comprises 60 indicators across five broad categories—electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties—concludes that less than 5% of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy”. Nearly a third live under authoritarian rule, with a large share of those in China. Overall, 89 of the 167 countries assessed in 2017 received lower scores than they had the year before.
In January, The Economist considered Brazil a "flawed democracy.” But after this weekend, the country may undergo a precipitous decline in democratic freedoms. As expected, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who speaks approvingly of the country’s previous military dictatorship, handily won election over his leftist rival.
In the best piece I read today, BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick — who was in Brazil for the election — puts Bolsonaro’s election into the context of the internet and social platform. Broderick focuses on the symbiosis between internet media, which excels at promoting a sense of perpetual crisis and outrage, and far-right leaders who promise a return to normalcy.
Typically, large right-wing news channels or conservative tabloids will then take these stories going viral on Facebook and repackage them for older, mainstream audiences. Depending on your country’s media landscape, the far-right trolls and influencers may try to hijack this social-media-to-newspaper-to-television pipeline. Which then creates more content to screenshot, meme, and share. It’s a feedback loop.
Populist leaders and the legions of influencers riding their wave know they can create filter bubbles inside of platforms like Facebook or YouTube that promise a safer time, one that never existed in the first place, before the protests, the violence, the cascading crises, and endless news cycles. Donald Trump wants to Make American Great Again; Bolsonaro wants to bring back Brazil’s military dictatorship; Shinzo Abe wants to recapture Japan’s imperial past; Germany’s AFD performed the best with older East German voters longing for the days of authoritarianism. All of these leaders promise to close borders, to make things safe. Which will, of course, usually exacerbate the problems they’re promising to disappear. Another feedback loop.
A third feedback loop, of course, is between a social media ecosystem promoting a sense of perpetual crisis and outrage, and the random-but-statistically-probable production of domestic terrorists.
Perhaps the global rise of authoritarians and big tech platforms are merely correlated, and no causation can be proved. But I increasingly wonder whether we would benefit if tech companies assumed that some level of causation was real — and, assuming that it is, what they might do about it.

On Social Media, No Answers for Hate
Attacks on Jewish people rising on Instagram and Twitter, researchers say
Russian disinformation on Facebook targeted Ukraine well before the 2016 U.S. election
Europe’s parliament calls for full audit of Facebook in wake of breach scandal
Facebook, Google May Face Billions in New Taxes Across Asia, Latin America
Facebook's political ad policy comes up against an anti-Ted Cruz meme page
Inside the Government-Run War Room Fighting Indonesian Fake News
Midterms 2018: Cybersecurity and Russian hacking remain a major concern
How Silicon Valley is trying to help Democrats capture Congress in 2018
Cesar Sayoc’s Path on Social Media: From Food Photos to Partisan Fury
Instagram deletes Milo Yiannopoulos bomb post after struggling to enforce its own guidelines
Twitter to remove 'like' tool in a bid to improve the quality of debate
Facebook is Full of Emotional-Support Groups
Snap CEO Named Chief Business Officer, Then Changed His Mind
China’s LinkedIn Honey Traps
A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley
Pixelfed: a decentralized take on Instagram
Twitter Should Kill the Retweet
Should cash-strapped Snapchat sell out? To Netflix?
And finally ...
Twitter says that it ‘made a mistake’ for not removing tweets from Florida bomb suspect
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