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De-verified: Twitter’s crackdown just shows how broken trust is online

Stripping perceived endorsement of far-right figures is great, but highlights a bigger problem with tech platforms. 

On Wednesday evening, Twitter began stripping the verified badges from a set of mostly far-right users such as the English Defence League’s former leader Tommy Robinson and US alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer.

The de-verification was part of a "review" of verfied accounts to exclude those that Twitter believes have broken a new set of guidelines against behaviour such as “promoting hate and/or violence”, supporting hate groups and “inciting or engaging in harassment of others”.

Those who suddenly found themselves without that little white-on-blue tick – which is meant to signify someone is who they say they are – cried censorship. Of course, they did so on the platform they claimed was censoring them.

Under more normal circumstances the sight of proto-fascist commentators adapting the “first they came for” poem written in response to Nazi persecution would be funny. In a world where neo-Nazis regularly march through the streets of the US, it’s not quite so much of a laugh.

Twitter’s decision to take away what is seen as a mark of approval from people who use the platform to stir up hatred is on one level a very good thing. Many of those targeted regularly use Twitter to stir up hatred, and very often spread disinformation with malign intentions. The scale of the move also seems promising after the failure of Twitter’s mostly ad hoc approach to tackling abuse on its platform.

And yet, both the company’s ability to simply take away the authority it has bestowed, and the fact it had the power to bestow it the first place, underline the way big tech platforms have radically changed the way trust and authority work online.

The verification system was of course designed to help solve the problem of people being dishonest online about their identities – the fact that “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

Coincidentally a reminder of the pitfalls of online anonymity had played out only hours earlier during the first stages of the coup in Zimbabwe. The BBC, in both articles and Radio 4’s Today programme, quoted an account purporting to be the official mouthpiece of now-deposed despot Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF. The fact it wasn’t verified should have at least given pause for thought, enough time perhaps to search through the account’s tweeting history and see a range of posts indicating it was almost certainly a parody account

But even if verification has proved a useful way of indicating that someone is probably who they are, it’s impossible to disentangle from the assumed endorsement that any kind of exclusive mark provides, and the highly sought after status boost it provides. Something Twitter itself acknowledged: 

As so often with the modern world, web comic XCD gets to the heart of the problem.

Twitter of course means well. It’s trying to clean up the noise and disinformation on the system it built. But the problem isn’t the intention, it’s the concentration of power in the hands of just one organisation, with one set of goals and one culture.

It’s not unique to Twitter – it hits almost all dominant online platforms and is perhaps most acute with Facebook, which only this morning began trialing its own “trust indicators” on news articles.

The point about these platforms is that they, and only they, control the environment in which we are all competing for trust.

It wasn’t always like this – even online. Both in the early days of the web, and before it, the intangible assets of trustworthiness and authority were derived from a more complex environment. Yes, being on a TV channel or writing in a newspaper provided a base level of authority, but there was competition between those sources and between the individuals using them. It was messy and imperfect, but at least a heterogeneous combination of people and organisations were deciding who and what should be trusted.

But on Facebook and Twitter ultimate control has passed to single opaque organisations that set all the rules themselves, and can change the game with the flick of a switch. It’s great that Twitter is trying to ensure it isn’t accidentally giving some of its worst users a stamp of approval – but it would a lot better if it wasn’t in charge of handing them out in the first place.  

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesman's digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.

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.