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.

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Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad