Diana Wynyard as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion in 1937. Photo: Getty Images
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The ultimate weapon against GamerGate time-wasters: a 1960s chat bot that wastes their time

In a kind of digital version of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, tenaciously dull videogame truthers have met their match in an inexhaustibly interested chat program coded 50 years ago.

The GamerGate "scandal" continues to rumble onwards, with furious video game players continuing to protest that their misogynistic, abusive, death threat-generating consumer protest movement is actually about "ethics in video game journalism". Kevin Wagner at Deadspin, in his story about the latest woman to be driven from her home over death threats, is correct to note that this is a kind of rebirth of America's post-Reagan Culture Wars - a reactionary cultural group, threatened by the suggestion that maybe the things it self-defines with shouldn't be centred entirely on meeting only its needs and meeting its demands, is lashing out with conspiracy theories and hate.

For those who write about GamerGate - be it on a website or on social media - it's clear that among this small, loud group of (almost entirely white and male) people, there are sub-groups which approach the issue with different tactics. There are those who make up the dark, cold star at the centre of this mess, inventing lies and generating the abuse; and then there are those orbiting on the icy edge of this system, who often sincerely believe that they are part of a consumer boycott movement, and who see no contradiction in condemning the hatred they see while putting forward the false arguments that are used to justify the abuse in the first place. Some might call them useful idiots. (And sometimes, it's possible to feel sorry for them. Rarely, but it is.)

Tweet anything critical of the larger movement with the hashtag "#GamerGate" and, very quickly, a user will find themselves hit with a torrent of defenders arguing their case, armed with myriad videos and screenshots as evidence. Trying to engage with any of this group is infuriating - cede the silence and debate one point by demonstrating that their position is based on either misunderstanding or ignorance, and they switch to a different issue. Challenge that one, they move to another, and then another, and then they might even switch back to the first point, phrased slightly differently. It's tedious and tiring, and wastes so much time.

The natural human instinct, when faced with something that's a massive time waster, is to automate it. Thanks to a chatbot called Eliza, that's what happened yesterday:


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Eliza (named for the character from Pygmalion) is an example of a Twitter bot, a very primitive form of artificial intelligence plugged into a social network, and programmed to do certain things. Mostly, these bots are run by spammers - they'll constantly be searching for tweets that mention certain words or phrases, or which use certain hashtags, and then they'll tweet a reply out of nowhere with a link and something to tempt a user to click it. Some are jokey, though, like @RedScareBot, whose avatar is a picture of Senator Joe McCarthy, and it tweets anti-communist condemnation of users whose tweets include words like "socialism".

While most bots are relatively easy to code and rely on little more than search-and-respond for instructions, Eliza's a bit more complex. It (or she?) was first written by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum in 1964, and it deliberately models psychotherapy sessions - Eliza will ask the user what's wrong, and will interpret and respond to what they say by comparing answers to a set of scripts in a database. You can try it out for yourself. Eliza is the grandmother of every customer service online help box with a robot on the other end, and, now, the perfect foil for the robotic repetition of GamerGate talking points by its activist army, finding those using the #GamerGate hashtag and asking for them for more information:


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More than a day later, this is still going on - wasting their time, and giving those who have had to constantly defend themselves some breathing space. It's wonderful.

Alan Turing proposed that an artificial intelligence qualified as a capable of thought if a human subject, in conversation with it and another human, cannot tell them apart; the strange thing about the Eliza Twitter bot is it doesn't come across as any more like a machine than those who keep repeating their points over and over and over, ad nauseum. It's difficult to decide who's failed the Turing test here.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage