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From ironic Nazis to 280 characters: the New Statesman year in tech

New Statesman writers on the science and tech stories of 2017. 

When is progress not progress? This question might have occurred to the internet-watcher when Donald Trump began conducting nuclear war negotiations over Twitter, or when conspiracy theorists decided to attack the victims of a botched terrorist attack. 

Here is the year in science and technology, as captured by New Statesman writers:

President Internet

Barack Obama might have been an articulate, thoughtful, handsome, charismatic progressive, but Donald Trump was truly the President the internet deserved. In fact, it had been encouraging him since 2013. It was then that Russell Steinberg tweeted the star of The Apprentice: “If you hate America so much, you should run for President and fix things.” Four years on, Amelia Tait asked him whether he regretted it

A pack of lone wolves

In January, a man entered a mosque in Quebec City, and shot six people dead. A government minister described the attacker as “a lone wolf”. Amelia Tait questioned why online far right radicalisation was not taken as seriously as recruitment by Islamist extremists: “Thanks to internet radicalisation, lone wolves have found a pack.” 

The Furred Reich

As the world tried to digest US president Donald Trump, its attention turned to the growth of the alt right – an online far right culture that revelled in saying the unsayable. Amelia Tait examined the subculture of “ironic Nazis”: people online who flaunt the iconography of National Socialism whilst denying they hold any Nazi views. Stranger still are the Nazi furries – people who dress up as animals while sporting Nazi symbols. 

Unleash the children

Video calls were intertwined with the fabric of daily life in 2017 – too much so, as one BBC news pundit found out. Read the New Statesman’s resident Media Mole’s blow-by-blow account of how a North Korea expert’s important TV interview was ruined after his children barged in. Plus the Media Mole’s killjoy feminist aunt on why the North Korea expert should be helping out more with the kids in the first place.

To tweet or not to tweet

After a car ploughed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and Parliament went into lockdown, social media was abuzz with images of the attack. Yet many were fake, or real but shockingly graphic. Amelia Tait tracked down the maker of one fake image, shared more than 100,000 times, who told her why he did it. 

You’ve been fyred

Social influencers – social media celebrities who promote products to their followers – have quietly thrived in the online world, bar the odd article warning about the illusions of Instagram. But in April, it all went drastically wrong. The organisers of a new music festival in the Bahamas managed to entice celebrities like Bella Hadid to post heavenly images of their trip to the site. Unfortunately, when ticketholders turned up for the real festival, they found a somewhat different experience waiting. Amelia Tait told the story of Fyre Festival

The political dark arts

During the 2015 general election, interest in the political power of social media was mainly limited to its ability to transform Ed Miliband from a dweeb to a stud. By 2017, everyone took it seriously – and until election night most expected it to benefit the Tories more than Labour. Days before the election, Jasper Jackson wrote about how the Tories were funding attack ads in marginal constituencies, designed to be seen only by the intended recipients. He explored the question more detail in October, after it emerged that Facebook posts created by Russia-linked accounts reached more than a million Americans during and after the presidential election.

Escaping the heat

A hot summer was made toastier still by the war of words flying between said internet president Donald Trump and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, both of whom now have nuclear buttons. While the bulk of the world had a meltdown, the doom-mongers of the 1 per cent invested in luxury nuclear bunkers, as Sanjana Varghese reported in September

Angry white women

In August, far right groups including neo-Nazis gathered in the town of Charlottesville, US, where they were met by a group of counter protestors. During the confrontation, one counter protestor was killed. In the aftermath, Amelia Tait reported on a trend obscured by the images of shouting men – the online radicalisation of white women. 

Marxism 2.0

Labour’s surge in the 2017 general election shone a spotlight on the new, online media outlets of the left, including Novara Media, The Canary and Skwawkbox. Anoosh Chakelian met the people who have mastered the art of making the radical left go viral

App-lying the rules

In September, London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan made headlines after he refused to renew Uber’s licence, effectively banishing it from the city. Khan was praised by those concerned about passenger safety, and the relentless march of the gig economy. But Uber drivers took a different view. “Uber’s runaway growth has coincided with a spectacular fall in driver earnings,” James Farrar, a former Uber driver, wrote in the New Statesman. “Many drivers work up to 90 hours per week and earn little more than £5 an hour after costs.”

Parsons Green truthers

In September, a botched tube bombing occurred at Parsons Green, London, leaving many passengers with minor injuries. The attack was widely reported by mainstream news outlets, yet some on the internet were not convinced. Amelia Tait spoke to a passenger on the tube that day who has since had to contend with Parsons Green “truthers” claiming she was an actor. 

The Ig Nobellest of them all

The Ig Nobel is a satirical awards ceremony for science. This year’s winners included a paper which discovered which part of the brain creates repulsion to cheese. Sanjana Varghese dug out the best of the winners over the years, such as the mathematician who calculated the exact odds of whether Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, is the Antichrist.

Vice without virtue

The internet killed newspapers, but Buzzfeed and Vice rose from the ashes. At least that was the story until a series of profit warnings in late autumn. Jasper Jackson diagnosed what went wrong for the new online media companies, while Helen Lewis examined the giant they all relied on: Facebook.

Short and sweet

In November, Twitter did what it had long threatened, and doubled the character limit per tweet to 280 characters. Was this the end for witty, clipped comments? Amelia Tait chronicled some of the peculiarities of the 140 characters regime, from ironic hashtags to ghost stories. 

Emojination

This was the year of The Emoji Movie, which the Guardian called “a force of insidious evil”. Meanwhile, emojis summed up the year’s zeitgeist with the addition of a bearded hipster, a breastfeeding mother, a woman in hijab, and a dumpling. But who gets to decide in the first place? In the New Statesman, Sophie McBain explored how a communication tool employed by 90 per cent of social media users is controlled by a  small number of representatives from tech firms. 

Stolen childhoods

While the employment of child stars in film and TV is carefully policed, there is no such meticulous enforcement on online video platforms. On 10 November, Amelia Tait was one of the first to investigate the potential abuses on YouTube, a story later picked up by The Times and Buzzfeed. On 22 November, YouTube announced it would remove content that risked endangering a child, and that it had terminated over 50 channels on that basis. 

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.