BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, This is On The Media. I'm Bob Garfield. And this is the third and final part in our series repairing justice.
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BOB GARFIELD: We begin this hour with a nightmarish parable that happened back in 2015 and it started when a PR woman tweeted a joke.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Justine Sacco is a public relations executive, or she was at the time. And in 2013 she tweeted to her very small number of followers. 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDs. Just kidding. I'm white.'
BOB GARFIELD: Lindsay Blackwell is a PhD student at the University of Michigan School of information studying online harassment.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: In my subjective experience that is super racist and I think a lot of people on the internet also interpreted that as super racist.
BOB GARFIELD: Another interpretation is that it was a sympathetic, self-deprecating comment about white privilege. But either way, tweet begins to spread.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: One of Justine's followers screenshot of that tweet, sent it to Sam Biddle, who at the time was a reporter at Gawker. Sam wrote a story about it, then was picked up in Buzzfeed and later in, you know, more traditional media outlets.
BOB GARFIELD: Woman gets on plane.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: She was in the air obviously without internet access while this media frenzy was building around her tweet and it got to the point where on Twitter the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending number one worldwide. The fervor was sort of so strong, I mean, people were calling for her death by the time her plane landed. They had to have a police presence at the South African airport to protect her.
BOB GARFIELD: Over a tweet. Over, what may or may not have been, a thought crime, but which instantly triggered an internet mob, exacting digital anti-justice. And it's not particularly in isolated case.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Women like Brianna Wu, an independent game developer was even driven out of her home all for simply tweeting her opinion.
BRIANNA WU: They told me they were coming to kill me. They told me specifically they were going to castrate my husband [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: GamerGate in which Wu and other women in and around video gaming called out the industry's culture of misogyny. Out came the trolls, threatening sex crimes, arson and murder. The mob clamored so self righteously and was so motivated by festering grievance that it beca-e the foundation of a political movement–the alt right. And has since attracted such odd aggrieved bedfellows as militant evangelical Christians and white nationalists.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: I'll get memes, direct message to me of like my face Photoshop into Holocausts gas chambers.
BOB GARFIELD: Slate senior writer Ashley Fineberg deals every day with the risks of muck raking, in her case, while Jewish.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: A lot of things where I just kind of have to not look at my mentions for a few days until things come down.
BOB GARFIELD: Feinberg, Wu, Sacco, all bullied, all victimized–but at least all adults.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: She was known as Becca and police say she took her life after getting bullied relentlessly by kids on the internet.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: What was said to Becca that you'll never ever be able to erase from your memory.
TRICIA NORMAN: 'You haven't killed yourself yet. Go jump off of a building.' That's a big one because that's exactly what she did. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: On this program, we have previously discussed the volatile combination of mob psychology and the online disinhibition effect. Group think plus anonymity, yielding a sense of both power and impunity online. But increasingly the aggression is seeping into the physical world. Sometimes that means having a dozen pizzas delivered to your victim. Sometimes it means tricking cops into dispatching a SWAT team.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:Tyler Barriss has admitted to swatting, calling authorities and triggering SWAT, teams across the country to surround the homes of unwitting victims. In 2017, Barriss thought he was swatting the home of the video game rival after a fight over a bet for a $1.50. But police swarmed Andrew Finch's home, an innocent man with no connection to the game. He was shot and killed by police who thought he was reaching for a gun. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, online dystopia has a death toll. In Myanmar, in India, hundreds died in pogroms instigated by Facebook posts. Other Facebook incitements led to violence in Ukraine, Libya, Germany, and Philippines. The historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote that civilization is a clearing, perpetually at risk from the encroaching jungle. Online the jungle creeps steadily toward us.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Pew did some work in 2017 and found that in America, about 40 percent of adult internet users have personally some form of online harassment.
BOB GARFIELD: Researcher Lindsay Blackwell.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: We're looking at two thirds of adult Internet users who know that this is a problem and they're seeing these types of behaviors in their feeds when they sign onto Facebook, they sign onto Twitter, they hop on Instagram. I mean that's huge and that's just in the US.
BOB GARFIELD: But how to fix it. Here's the rub. The law is too vague, too slow, and too easily evaded to have much impact. The golden rule, treat others as you want to be treated, doesn't farewell when nobody knows your name. So society has looked to big tech companies themselves to somehow police their own platforms, which is difficult, expensive, politically fraught, and extremely slow to develop. As a stop gap, a patchwork of human and algorithmic moderators vainly seeks to identify and remove bad stuff, which is approximately like trying to remove needles from haystacks with a bunch of fridge magnets.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: You have this massive workforce of underpaid, mostly contingent workers who were sitting in front of a screen all day and being asked to review horrible, horrible content, one after the other with very little time given to look at any individual case.
BOB GARFIELD: There's also the question of corporate priorities and a paucity of imagination or simply will to address the problem. Spurred by her own experience of being bullied and doxed, Slate's Ashley Fineberg called for Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey to just shut down his site and then somehow got him to sit down with her for an interview. It was awkward.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: For instance, if someone like tweets out our home address or phone number, uh, it's like a crapshoot of whether or not Twitter is--
JACK DORSEY: Oh, that's unacceptable as well.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: Yeah.
JACK DORSEY: Yeah. We're not in a great state right now with our systems cause they re--they rely upon reporting. We're moving to a world that's a lot more proactive.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: Right.
JACK DORSEY: Um, by utilizing machine learning. But that will have errors and mistakes.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: Right.
JACK DORSEY: Um, so, uh, we, we don't, we don't feel good about anyone being doxed.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: Right.
JACK DORSEY: Certainly we want to catch everything as much as we can.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: Right.
JACK DORSEY: But there are limitations to how much we can do. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Don't worry Ashley, we're on it. Well not completely on it, but you know, technology. We have that and also jargon.
JACK DORSEY: Um, but ultimately we want to make sure that the number of reports that we receive is trending downward, better privatization in the meantime, a lot more transparency, clearer actions within the product.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: Wait, what do you mean by clear actions?
JACK DORSEY: You know, finding the report button isn't the most obvious and intuitive, right now.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: So let's--
JACK DORSEY: That certainly slows things down.
ASHLEY FEINBERG: So what would be like an alternative to that?
JACK DORSEY: Make it more obvious. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Dorsey's big solution for taming the encroaching jungle of barbarism as it threatens to swallow civilization: to make the report a violation button bigger. Maybe not right now, but you know, they're working on it.
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BOB GARFIELD: Content moderation enjoys neither, at the progress nor the urgency, it deserves. It would seem, in fact, that all the king's horses and all the king's men are completely at a loss. And so in this hour we're going to explore a wholly different approach for moderating online behavior. One that has nothing to do with artificial intelligence or report buttons or armies of harassment police. What it has to do with is sociology.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: The big problem with the Internet is really that the big problem with humanity at large is that you know, we aren't very nice to each other.
BOB GARFIELD: Lindsay Blackwell.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Until platforms shift their focus to behavioral change and really digging into the root causes of the behavior, I don't think content moderation alone can ever solve this problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, we'll look to a theory of rehabilitation from our analog world to understand how to abate antisocial behavior in our digital one. This is On The Media.