Logan Paul and the Algorithms of Outrage

Leaving aside the issues of “Did Logan Paul actually do anything wrong?” and “Is changing YouTube’s policies actually in Game Theorist’s interests?” Game Theorist makes a good point: while YouTube might want to say, for PR reasons, that it is doing something about big, bad, controversial videos like Logan Paul’s, it also makes money off those same videos. YouTube–like many other parts of the internet–is primarily click driven. (Few of us are paying money for programs on YouTube Red.) YouTube wants views, and controversy drives views.

That doesn’t mean YouTube wants just any content–a reputation for having a bunch of pornography would probably have a damaging effect on channels aimed at small children, as their parents would click elsewhere. But aside from the actual corpse, Logan’s video wasn’t the sort of thing that would drive away small viewers–they’d get bored of the boring non-cartoons talking to the camera long before the suicide even came up.

Logan Paul actually managed to hit a very sweet spot: controversial enough to draw in visitors (tons of them) but not so controversial that he’d drive away other visitors.

In case you’ve forgotten the controversy in a fog of other controversies, LP’s video about accidentally finding a suicide in the Suicide Forest was initially well-received, racking up thousands of likes and views before someone got offended and started up the outrage machine. Once the outrage machine got going, public sentiment turned on a dime and LP was suddenly the subject of a full two or three days of Twitter hate. The hate, of course, got YouTube more views. LP took down the video and posted an apology–which generated more attention. Major media outlets were now covering the story. Even Tablet managed to quickly come up with an article: Want a New Years Resolution? Don’t be Like Logan Paul.

And it worked. I passed up Tablet’s regular article on Trump and Bagels and Culture, but I clicked on that article about Logan Paul because I wanted to know what on earth Tablet had to say about LP, a YouTuber whom, 24 hours prior, I had never heard of.

And the more respectable (or at least highly-trafficked) news outlets picked up the story, the higher Logan’s videos rose on the YouTube charts. And as more people watched more of LP’s other videos, they found more things to be offended at. For example, once he ran through the streets of Japan holding a fish. A FISH, I tell you. He waved this fish at people and was generally very annoying.

I don’t like LP’s style of humor, but I’m not getting worked up over a guy waving a fish around.

So understand this: you are in an outrage machine. The purpose of the outrage machine is to drive traffic, which makes clicks, which result in ad revenue. There are probably whole websites (Huffpo, CNN) that derive a significant percent of their profits from hate-clicks–that is, intentionally posting incendiary garbage not because they believe it or think it is just or true or appeals to their base, but because they can get people to click on it in sheer shock or outrage.

Your emotions–your “emotional labor” as the SJWs call it–is being turned into someone else’s dollars.

And the result is a country that is increasingly polarized. Increasingly outraged. Increasingly exhausted.

Step back for a moment. Take a deep breath. Get some fresh air. Ask yourself, “Does this really matter? Am I actually helping anyone? Will I remember this in a week?”

I’d blame the SJWs for the outrage machine–and really, they are good running it–but I think it started with CNN and “24 hour news.” You have to do something to fill that time. Then came Fox News, which was like CNN, but more controversial in order to lure viewers away from the more established channel. Now we have the interplay of Facebook, Twitter, HuffPo, online newspapers, YouTube, etc–driven largely by automated algorithms designed to maximized clicks–even hate clicks.

The Logan Paul controversy is just one example out of thousands, but let’s take a moment and think about whether it really mattered. Some guy whose job description is “makes videos of his life and posts them on YouTube” was already shooting a video about his camping trip when he happened upon a dead body. He filmed the body, called the police, canceled his camping trip, downed a few cups of sake while talking about how shaken he was, and ended the video with a plea that people seek help and not commit suicide.

In between these events was laughter–I interpret it as nervous laughter in an obviously distressed person. Other people interpret this as mocking. Even if you think LP was mocking the deceased, I think you should be more concerned that Japan has a “Suicide Forest” in the first place.

Let’s look at a similar case: When three year old Alan Kurdi drowned, the photograph of his dead body appeared on websites and newspapers around the world–earning thousands of dollars for the photographers and news agencies. Politicans then used little Alan’s death to push particular political agendas–Hillary Clinton even talked about Alan Kurdi’s death in one of the 2016 election debates. Alan Kurdi’s death was extremely profitable for everyone making money off the photograph, but no one got offended over this.

Why is it acceptable for photographers and media agencies to make money off a three year old boy who drowned because his father was a negligent fuck who didn’t put a life vest on him*, but not acceptable for Logan Paul to make money off a guy who chose to kill himself and then leave his body hanging in public where any random person could find it?

Elian Gonzalez, sobbing, torn at gunpoint from his relatives. BTW, This photo won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News.

Let’s take a more explicitly political case. Remember when Bill Clinton and Janet Reno sent 130 heavily armed INS agents to the home of child refugee Elian Gonzalez’s relatives** so they could kick him out of the US and send him back to Cuba?

Now Imagine Donald Trump sending SWAT teams after sobbing children. How would people react?

The outrage machine functions because people think it is good. It convinces people that it is casting light on terrible problems that need correcting. People are getting offended at things that they wouldn’t have if the outrage machine hadn’t told them to. You think you are serving justice. In reality, you are mad at a man for filming a dead guy and running around Japan with a fish. Jackass did worse, and it was on MTV for two years. Game Theorist wants more consequences for people like Logan Paul, but he doesn’t realize that anyone can get offended at just about anything. His videos have graphic descriptions of small children being murdered (in videogame contexts, like Five Nights at Freddy’s or “What would happen if the babies in Mario Cart were involved in real car crashes at racing speeds?”) I don’t find this “family friendly.” Sometimes I (*gasp*) turn off his videos as a result. Does that mean I want a Twitter mob to come destroy his livelihood? No. It means a Twitter mob could destroy his livelihood.

For that matter, as Game Theorist himself notes, the algorithm itself rewards and amplifies outrage–meaning that people are incentivised to create completely false outrage against innocent people. Punishing one group of people more because the algorithm encourages bad behavior in other people is cruel and does not solve the problem. Changing the algorithm would solve the problem, but the algorithm is what makes YouTube money.

In reality, the outrage machine is pulling the country apart–and I don’t know about you, but I live here. My stuff is here; my loved ones are here.

The outrage machine must stop.

*I remember once riding in an airplane with my father. As the flight crew explained that in the case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, you should secure your own mask before assisting your neighbors, his response was a very vocal “Hell no, I’m saving my kid first.” Maybe not the best idea, but the sentiment is sound.

**When the boat Elian Gonzalez and his family were riding in capsized, his mother and her boyfriend put him in an inner tube, saving his life even though they drowned.

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The AntiFa and Me

Ages ago when I set off to college, my political views were fairly moderate and conventional, if passionately argued. (For that matter, I still consider myself a “moderate,” if an unconventional one.) At some point I read Persepolis (volume 2), Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of the Iranian Revolution and her childhood in Iran, college years in Germany, and return to post-revolution Iran. It’s a pretty good book, though I liked Vol. 1 better than Vol. 2.

While in Germany, Satrapi began reading Bakunin, whom she refers to as “The anarchist.”

So of course I read Bakunin. According to Wikipedia:

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin…. 30 May 1814 – 1 July 1876) was a Russian revolutionary anarchist, and founder of collectivist anarchism. He is considered among the most influential figures of anarchism, and one of the principal founders of the social anarchist tradition. Bakunin’s enormous prestige as an activist made him one of the most famous ideologues in Europe, and he gained substantial influence among radicals throughout Russia and Europe. …

In 1840, Bakunin traveled to St. Petersburg and Berlin with the intention of preparing himself for a professorship in philosophy or history at the University of Moscow… Eventually he arrived in Paris, where he met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx.

Bakunin’s increasing radicalism – including staunch opposition to imperialism in east and central Europe by Russia and other powers – changed his life, putting an end to hopes of a professorial career. He was eventually deported from France for speaking against Russia’s oppression of Poland. In 1849, Bakunin was apprehended in Dresden for his participation in the Czech rebellion of 1848, and turned over to Russia where he was imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg. He remained there until 1857, when he was exiled to a work camp in Siberia. Escaping to Japan, the US and finally ending up in London for a short time … In 1863, he left to join the insurrection in Poland, but he failed to reach his destination and instead spent some time in Switzerland and Italy.

In 1868, Bakunin joined the socialist International Working Men’s Association, a federation of trade unions and workers’ organizations, which had sections in many European countries, as well as in Latin America and (after 1872) in North Africa and the Middle East. The “Bakuninist” or anarchist trend rapidly expanded in influence, especially in Spain, which constituted the largest section of the International at the time. A showdown loomed with Marx, who was a key figure in the General Council of the International. The 1872 Hague Congress was dominated by a struggle between Marx and his followers, who argued for the use of the state to bring about socialism, and the Bakunin/anarchist faction, which argued instead for the replacement of the state by federations of self-governing workplaces and communes. Bakunin could not attend the congress, as he could not reach the Netherlands. Bakunin’s faction present at the conference lost, and Bakunin was (in Marx’s view) expelled for supposedly maintaining a secret organisation within the international.

However, the anarchists insisted the congress was unrepresentative and exceeded its powers, and held a rival conference of the International at Saint-Imier in Switzerland in 1872. This repudiated the Hague meeting, including Bakunin’s supposed expulsion.

Sound familiar? Sounds familiar.

Anyway, I thought Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy was pretty good, though I was less impressed with God and the State.

Since then I’ve read a smattering of other anarchist writings, (eg, Thoreau,) but none of the major figures like Proudhon or Chomsky.

Wikipedia goes into a bit more detail about the Anarchist/Marxist split, quoting Bakunin:

They [the Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship—their dictatorship, of course—can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.

— Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchism[49]

…we are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.

— Mikhail Bakunin, Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism, 1867[50]

Collectivism without the gulags and KGB certainly sounds like an improvement over collectivism with it. As a college student trying to reconcile libertarian-ish tendencies with SJW dogma, Anarchism seemed like a good fit, and I began calling myself an Anarchist.

To me, Anarchism was more of a starting point than an end point, a default position that you should leave people alone to regulate their own affairs unless you have proof that there’s an actual problem that needs fixing and that your fix won’t make things worse than the original problem. You might see parallels here with my current thinking. Society was full of rules, those rules seemed oppressive and arbitrary (Why can’t I eat waffles for dinner and lasagna for breakfast? Why do different states have different traffic laws? Why does copyright last for 90+ years? Just leave me alone, man!)

One of the most important anarchist insights was that “government” should be thought of as more than just the official, legally-defined “state.” “Government” is really the entire power structure of a country, from the domestic relationships of your own home to the influence of religious leaders to the power your boss wields over almost every aspect of your 9-5 daily life. What does it matter if you have “Freedom of Speech” on paper if in reality, speaking your mind results in instantly losing your job, and so no one does it? If the result of government pressuring businesses to fire outspoken employees is the same as businesses doing so voluntarily, the effect on liberty is the same either way, and your boss must be considered part of the power structure.

This is why argument along the lines of “It’s just fine for violent mobs to shut down speakers because Freedom Of Speech only applies to the government” are stupid.

So, armed with my shiny new philosophy, I marched out bravely to meet my fellow internet Anarchitsts.

Yeah…
That didn’t go well.

There were some interesting people in the community, like the guys who wanted to make their own Sea Land.

And there were a bunch of angry Marxist-Stalinist-Maoist who thought everyone who wasn’t in favor of forcefully redistributing wealth along racial lines and sending whites to re-education camps was a counter-revolutionary.

The presence of such people in Anarchist communities genuinely confused me. Didn’t these people know about the Marx-Bakunin split of 1872? Didn’t they understand they were advocating Communism, not Anarchism, and that in practice, these two were direct opposites? I spent a while trying to impress upon them the importance of leaving people alone to run their own lives, but this failed rather spectacularly and I began to seriously hate SJWs.

I eventually decided that there must be something about unusual philosophies that draws crazy people–perhaps folks who are already a little bit off are more willing to consider ideas outside of the mainstream–and while this didn’t necessarily mean that the actual principles of Anarchism itself were bad, it certainly meant that Anarchist communities were full of unhinged people I didn’t want to be around.

Some time later for totally independent reasons I became interested in what scientific research had to say on the effectiveness of parenting strategies on children’s life outcomes, (short answer: not much,) and more relatedly, the neurology underlying people’s political persuasions–why do some people turn out liberal and others conservatives?

That path, of course, eventually led me here.

It was only later that I connected these cranky internet communities to the now rather visible AntiFa who shut down Berkley and have been generally making a ruckus.

No wonder we didn’t get along.

Rumor, Outrage, and “Fake News”

coek9auvuaajigfBack when I started this blog, I had high hopes that the internet would allow people to bring together more and more information, resulting in an explosion of knowledge I referred to as the “Great Informationing.” To some extent, services like Google and Wikipedia have already started this ball rolling by essentially creating searchable databases of crowd-sourced data on a scale and at a speed never known before in human history–indeed, this blog would be much more limited in scope could I not look up at a moment’s notice almost anything I desire to learn.

In the past year, though, I have become disillusioned. While the internet does put a great deal of information at my fingertips, it also puts a great deal of misinformation at my fingertips.

Rumor flies halfway around the world before Truth has got its pants on.–variously misattributed

It’s bad enough to try to delve into subjects where I don’t speak the correct language to read most of the sources and thus can’t even begin properly searching. It’s even worse if the news I am getting isn’t reliable.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “fake news.” I’m not sure which sites, exactly, have been promoting “fake news,” but I noticed toward the tail end of the election a seeming proliferation of websites and news sources I’d never heard of before. Clicking on these links generally led me to a site plastered with adds and images (which had a high probability of instantly crashing my computer) and headlines that looked lifted from other sources.

Since noticing this trend, I’ve tried to avoid linking to or trusting any headline that comes from a site I don’t recognize on the grounds that I have no way to confirm whether they are trustworthy, and further, I don’t like having my computer crash. The downside to this policy is that the internet is vast and I certainly do not know every respectable site out there.

I noticed some time ago that even “respectable” papers like the WaPo and NYTimes had quite a lot of one-sided or otherwise questionable reporting. Lies and more Lies were another theme that got hounded a lot in the early stages of this blog, but my focus was more on society than the media. Since reading a lot of iSteve, however, I’ve grown more sensitive to the ways media shape narratives, especially via what they chose to report and chose to remain silent on.

When you realize that there are stories the media isn’t commenting on, or is giving you a particular spin on, what do you do?

quote found on Twitter
quote found on Twitter

Look for other sources, I guess.

Last summer I noticed prominent papers printing not just mistakes or one-sided stories, but outright false statements that could only have made it into print because someone purposefully decided to make them up. (For privacy reasons I’m not going into more details, but you can probably supply your own cases.)

There are a variety of things going on with the media, but the internet, sadly, appears to be making matters worse.

borders-store-closingIt’s no secret that traditional print media has had a rough time since the information super highway started jazzing up our lives.

I remember when Borders first opened in my neighborhood. I loved that place. I’d bike over there and spend endless hours browsing the shelves, especially during the summer. I found my first anthropology books there.

And I remember when the Borders went out. The empty husk of the building is still there, unoccupied. It’s been empty for years. I wonder what on Earth is wrong with the person who owns that spot. Can’t they find someone to rent it to?

Newspapers have also suffered; with dwindling subscriptions, they’ve simultaneously cut everyone with enough expertise to demand a high salary and turned to generating click-driving content.

Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. --https://www.amazon.com/Politically-Correct-Bedtime-Stories-Garner/dp/0285640410/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480157739&sr=8-1&keywords=politically+correct+bedtime+stories
Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. (source)

When you have subscribers who actually pay for newspapers, they value thoughtful, high-quality reporting. (Otherwise, what are you spending all of that money on?) When readers are just clicking through, outrage drives the news cycle. Articles don’t even have to be about something outrageous–the article itself can be the outrageous thing, so long as people link to it and say, “OMG, can you believe they wrote this?”

Every hate click makes things worse.

The outrage machine is helping drive the SJW-fueled obsession with “identity politics,” particularly feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT issues. This isn’t the first time this style of political correctness has broken out–remember the much-mocked silliness of the late 80s? But back then, only the National Enquirer could hope to use stories about transgender elementary school kids to sell papers. Now everyone can.

It’s bad enough being the kind of person who worries about whether or not the division between “tree” and “bush” is just a social construct, or the basic unknowablity of what one doesn’t know.

But now we have to consider the effects of hate-clicks and outrage on everything we know.

Liberals and Conservatives have Stopped Talking to Each Other

They aren’t talking to each other; they aren’t even talking about the same stuff anymore.

I normally hang out with liberals, but this past weekend I spent around some of the more traditionally conservative members of my extended family. Since I spend a fair amount of time critiquing liberal ideas, you might think we’d have a ton to discuss, but no. The things I’m concerned about and the things they’re concerned about are totally different things.

Think about it: how often do you hear liberals make an impassioned defense of Obama’s actions in Benghazi?

Personally, never. I’ve never heard liberals discuss Benghazi at all. The only time I’ve heard the word cross their lips, (or keyboards,) is in the context of, “Oh god, my conservative relatives ae going to rattle on endlessly about Benghazi at Thanksgiving dinner.” It might as well be a hemorrhoid treatment for all liberals want to talk about it.

Now take the conservative side. When’s the last time you heard your conservative relatives talking about “white privilege”?

Probably never.

Some stuff makes it into both communities–riots, for example–but a ton of political debate, discussion, philosophy, development, etc., is going on in total isolation from the other side.

The reason, quite simply, is the internet.

Once upon a time, there was no internet. Everyone watched TV and/or read newspapers, and even if you hated Fox News or MSNBC, you probably still encountered it occasionally or knew people who watched it. In other words, there were only a few news sources, and chances were good that you were watching/reading them.

Then came the internet. Many young people today get most of their news/political discussion from internet sources like Tumblr and Facebook. Many of them do not take a newspaper or watch the evening news, and neither do the majority of people they know.

Older people still get their news primarily from TV and newspapers. (One older relative claimed to spend $190 a month just so he could watch Fox News–a news source he very adamantly vowed to never give up.)

So young people progress ever leftward, largely oblivious to what old people are thinking and talking about. And old people, in their own information-bubble, have no idea what young people are thinking and talking about.

Conservatism tends to be pretty bad at making coherent counter-arguments to liberalism, (mostly, I think, because conservatives tend to operate on an emotional basis of “I like it like this because I’m used to it,” rather than on rational arguments,) but if the two sides aren’t even talking, the chances of getting the two sides to agree on anything or debate their way to a rational consensus seems even less likely than usual.

I think it likely that some new form of conservatism may spawn from the depths of the internet.

The Great Informationing

I’ve never been convinced by the Singularity argument (when graphs start going straight up, my assumption is that a crash is immanent,) but I do believe we are in the midst of a great period of data conglomeration via the wonders of Google, Wikipedia, Snopes, etc., etc., with the effect that many formerly disparate strands of thought will (are) finally find each other, producing new insights.

The process has most likely been going on for quite a while, of course. For evidence, I point to the general plethora of nonsense that was widely believed back in the ’80s–UFOs, faith healing, crop circles, ley lines, ESP, psychics, horoscopes, Satanic daycares, and religion in general–that has drastically declined in popularity since the internet arrived.

The potential for data conglomeration to really benefit people seems most obvious in medicine.

There are probably some downsides, of course. Our general bullshit detection modes aren’t all that advanced, after all. So there’s still a lot of nonsense wandering around. But one can hope for a brighter future.