Charlie Brooker: Why Twitter is like Rock Band

"There’s a pressure to have an opinion on every incremental development on everything," he says.

I've interviewed Charlie Brooker for the New Statesman print magazine, but there was a quote of his from the interview that was so righteous, I had to blog it. I asked him whether he was currently using Twitter much less than before because he'd gone off it. 

He said:

I haven’t gone off it entirely. Because I’ve been so busy recently . . . When you don’t use it for a while, your brain calms down. So what I would do is lurk, and see what other people are doing . . . but when your rule is that you won't write anything, it's such a relief, it's like when you really need a piss and you finally have one. It’s like that happens in your brain.

You can see everyone getting very excited about 20 things a day, and you think, “Oh god, I don’t even have to have an opinion about that or even care that it matters”. And you start rather arrogantly looking on and thinking, “Yes, you’re all excited about that, you won't be in three hours' time”. There’s a pressure - if you are actively participating in it - there’s a pressure to have an opinion on every incremental development on everything. And there’s instant scandals and instant laughing stocks or talking points. And I just . . . it started making me feel ill. By which I mean in the head.

You know that feeling you get – you’ll recognise this as a gamer – that feeling when you spend hours playing a game – hours and hours and hours, and then you realise it's really late, it's like 3 or 4 [am] and you’ve got to be up at 8, and . .. you notice daylight breaking and you feel sort of disgusted and hollow, because actually you’ve not really done anything constructive. You’ve saved the world. A world that doesn’t exist.

Yeah, I can feel like I’ve rewired my optic nerve when I finish playing Rock Band.

Yeah, well, Twitter is actually a lot like Rock Band, but instead of coloured bars coming towards you, it's opinions on things. Topics. And there’s a pressure to respond. And then, the minute you stop doing that, you just think "oh, what is that about?" That makes me sound impossibly old. But I am.

Brooker has a new book out, by the way: I Can Make You Hate. It really can, you know. 

Rock Band, like Twitter, makes you press buttons quickly, says Charlie Brooker.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.