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Stop retweeting racist “parody” accounts that steal pictures of the elderly and vulnerable

Since a parody Brexiteer profile went viral in November 2017, copycats have tried to capitalise on its fame. The victims? The old, vulnerable, and digitally confused.

Anne Sutcliffe loves her kids, and Yorkshire, and her husband Terry, and the queen. She’s pro-Brexit and hates Europeans. She may look sweet, with a wide smile and bright, kind eyes behind her plastic glasses, but she uses words like “spastics”, “benders”, and “foreners”.

This week, she went viral for arguing with her local shopkeeper, who she claimed overcharged her for sweets.

Except, of course, Anne Sutcliffe doesn’t exist. The Twitter account using this name and spouting these words is a parody attempting to mock Brexiteers as backwards, racist, and heartless. Perhaps that would be okay – that’s a bit funny, isn’t it? Bit of a laugh? – if it wasn’t for Anne’s profile picture.

“Anne’s” picture belongs to a real woman whose anonymity I will protect by calling Angela. Far from being a pro-Brexit bigot, she is an American woman from Indiana who once wrote an emotional blogpost outraged that her state was attempting to outlaw gay marriage. She has diabetes. She originally uploaded pictures of herself to her blog because someone called her pretty.

“I was taken aback by this comment,” she writes on her blog. “Nobody has called me pretty for 30 years.”

Thankfully, no Twitter users have yet attacked Anne/Angela’s appearance when arguing with her offensive tweets. The same can’t be said for the man whose pictures have been stolen for the viral and infamous “Barry Stanton” Twitter account.

In November 2017, “Barry” achieved viral fame with a tweet that read: “just picked my lad up from school. he tells me he was forced to read the korma in religion class. bloody outrage”.

Pictures of “Barry” are actually pictures of an elderly British man who I will call Albert, who had his appearance mocked online because his face was associated with the vile tweets. Albert is distressed by the fact his pictures have been stolen, and when I first reached out to him, he didn’t comprehend what was going on.

As I wrote at the time, the Stanton tweet was popular because it confirmed our own prejudices about Brexiteers. Psychological biases are at play when we read and retweet such tweets, which are “too good to be true” in that they confirm everything we want to imagine about people whose politics differ from our own.

Yet these biases are no longer an excuse for sharing and retweeting these accounts. Many people claimed they “knew” Anne was a parody after sharing the viral tweet about her – this only makes it worse.

Since Barry achieved viral fame, an abundance of accounts have sprung up attempting to imitate him. With “GB” or years like “1984” in their Twitter handles, they steal images they think perfectly sum up the “face” of Brexit. Some of these images are memes – such as a grandpa taking an accidental selfie – and some are real (but still stolen) pictures of actual English Defence League (EDL) members. One is a picture of a police officer who saved the life of rapper Lil Wayne. Most are images stolen from the personal social media accounts of ordinary, innocent people.

These pictures – of innocent people’s faces – are then associated with some of the most vile and offensive statements imaginable. An elderly woman with a shock of white hair now has her face permanently associated with the words: “I’ll fuckin force my cat to claw your eyes out”, while a confused grandfather’s face is associated with slurs such as “muzzi”.

Parody accounts may not be real – but the vulnerable and elderly people having their pictures stolen are. 

It is objectively wrong to steal the photographs and likeness of a vulnerable, elderly person. This doesn’t change if someone does this for a joke, and it doesn’t make a difference if this joke makes you laugh.

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

Image: Getty
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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.