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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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.