Shatner v Reddit: racists group there to "incite and spread their hatred"

Captain Kirk takes on the hive-mind.

William Shatner has had it up to here with reddit and he's letting them know about it.

The former Captain Kirk, who has been an active user of the site for a couple of weeks now, made a suggestion on the ideasfortheadmins subreddit to allow for private messages to be turned off. (He is understandably annoyed that his mailbox filling up with fanmail obscures more important functions of the site.) That suggestion, which was relatively well received, bubbled up into Shatner expressing his dismay at the less-salubrious aspects of the site, writing that:

Reddit has been the first 'mainstream' site that I have been to that actually appears to allow racists and other hate mongers to group, congregate, incite and spread their hatred. There's entire subreddits that allow it.

When reddit's free-speech brigade — the same wing of the site which is so dedicated to "free-speech" that the Gawker network remains banned from posting links to a lot of subreddits over Adrian Chen's unmasking of shock-poster Violentacrez — took Shatner to task over this, arguing that banning for racism would be against the site's rules, he pointed out the site has other rules too, which are never enforced:

  • Remember the human. When you communicate online, all you see is a computer screen. When talking to someone you might want to ask yourself "Would I say it to the person's face?" or "Would I get jumped if I said this to a buddy?"
  • Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life.

The general reddit view of the right to anonymous free speech trumping all other rights has got the site in trouble before. Subreddits focused around creepshots (sexualised pictures of women taken without their consent), jailbait (sexualised pictures of under-18 year olds) and beating women have all hit the news in the last few months. Bizarrely, this has happened at the same time as the site has become a standard fixture on the PR trail for celebrities in all walks of life. The "Ask Me Anything" format reached its apotheosis when Barack Obama turned up shortly before the election, and a growing number of visitors stick around afterwards.

The problem is that reddit runs itself like a social network while presenting itself like a monolithic site. Few blame Twitter or Facebook for the content they host, because the sites are so clearly run by the users. The question for reddit is whether, as its mainstream acceptance butts heads with its putrid underside, that decentralised nature will become common knowledge. If it doesn't — if the site and its admins continue to appear responsible for everything they allow — there could be trouble ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.


Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.


Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

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