Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Twitter Police

For all the power and glory of the Internet – hey, look at me, I’m blogging – there’s an abundance of downside. The dissemination of untruths. The fomenting of hysteria. Anonymous bullying.

Of course, most of this “stuff” existed well before the Internet. Dissemination of untruths: Hmmmmm, Joseph Goebbels? The fomenting of hysteria: Joe McCarthy? Or, more benignly, Orson Welles, with his War of the World’s broadcast. Anonymous bullying: Ku Klux Klan?

At the macro level, there is nothing new under the sun.

What’s new is not the viciousness. It’s the global reach, the speed, the scale. All part of the Internet’s value proposition, by the way. All part of what makes it great. And all part of what makes it such a clear and present danger.

On balance, I do think that what the Internet brings for the good outweighs the bad, but it’s not 99% to 1%. It’s probably more like 80-20. (On that 20 side, I include both the obviously heinous stuff – child sex trafficking – and the stuff that’s probably not all that helpful to humankind, like so many kids no longer being able to make eye contact or small talk, because all they do is text.)

Anyway, Twitter is, of course, a microcosm of all things Internet, bad and good.

On the plus side: instant emergency communication, celebrity “intimacies”, amusing bon mots, the immediate gratification of knowing something – anything – right away.

On the negative end of things: unbridled misogyny, racism, gay-bashing – some of which is regretted the morning after the night before, but a lot of it expressing how people really feel.

Anyway, it’s comforting to know that Twitter has its very own police force, and the chief of police  is one Del Harvey.

Harvey was the 25th employee at Twitter, where her official title is vice president of trust and safety, but she’s more like Silicon Valley’s chief sanitation officer, dealing with the dirtiest stuff on Twitter: spam, harassment, child exploitation, threats of rape and murder. As Facebook and Twitter have become the public squares of the digital age, their censors now “have more power over the future of privacy and free expression than any king or president or Supreme Court justice,” writes constitutional scholar Jeffrey Rosen. Twitter famously prizes free expression, but as a business it needs to ensure its platform doesn’t turn into a toxic-speech zone that scares off users and advertisers. Harvey is the person Twitter trusts to walk that line. With a daily volume of a half-billion tweets, “your one-in-a-million chance of something going horribly wrong happens 500 times a day,” says Harvey. “My job is predicting and designing for catastrophes.” (Source: Forbes)

Harvey – Del Harvey is her nom-de-VP of trust and safety, by the way, not her real name -  has an interesting background. Among other interesting gigs, “she spent a summer as a lifeguard at a state mental institution,” and, more relevantly, volunteered to pose as a kid online, engaging in chats with possible pedophiles. Later, she played a decoy on the show, To Catch a Predator. For that show, assignations between adult men and (in the episodes I watched) early teen girls and boys were set up online and via phone and, when the subject showed up for his “date” with Lolita (or Lolito), he found himself filmed by NBC and arrested. (I saw this show a couple of times, and found it completely odious. I’m no defender of 40 year old men trying to have sex with 13 year olds, but this show came pretty close to entrapment.)

Putting pedophiles away is a good thing. But I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot more active pedophiles out there these days than there used to be. And that’s thanks in part to the Internet.

Yes, the Internet lets us find out we’re not alone. That we’re not the only one-handed vegan knitter who raises labradoodles. That there are other people who live for Mad Men. Who collect tea canisters. Who have scorecards for every major league baseball game played since 1946.

But I suspect that there are also plenty of people who may have harbored evil thoughts, but who might have kept those evil thoughts deep in the recesses of their minds where they belong.

Along comes the Internet, and, all of a sudden, you’re kind of legitimized.

Hey, there are a lot of us out there. I’m not alone.

I’m making this up, talking through my hat, as they say, but my intuition is that more pedophiles (and other bad folks) are acting on their dark impulses because they’ve seen them legitimized exposure to so many who are like-minded.

Which, of course, has nothing to do with Twitter and its top cop.

Policing what gets tweeted is probably on balance a good thing, even if it’s not for altruistic reasons, but to keep the advertisers on board.

No, I don’t want Del Harvey policing every nitwit who says something misogynist, racist, mean-spirited and vile. The really nasty ones seem to get outed on their own. But if we can stop a Sandy Hook massacre, or another 9/11, by following what people are saying in a public forum, then I say go for it.

…Twitter doesn’t allow threats but relies on its community to flag them for removal and report them to the police. While Twitter has automated systems to weed out spam, tweets about direct violence and suicide require manual review. “Context matters,” says Harvey. “‘Hey bitch’ can be a greeting or form of abuse.”

Be careful of that context, Del. I can certainly see plenty of opportunity to call the cops, only to find out that that “hey bitch” was misconstrued, and that sometimes when someone says “I could kill you”, they’re speaking metaphorically.

What a tough and interesting job Harvey has.

Not one I envy, but interesting nonetheless.

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