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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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.