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Thread Reader’s Conspiracy Theory Problem

So I’ve been scraping Thread Reader for a month and I think I have enough data to talk about it. Very important: the guy who runs the site and bot seems like a decent dude, I don’t think this is intentional, but there are some actions I think are worth taking.

If you look at the Trending section of Thread Reader as I post this you’re gonna see people angry at Kavanaugh, which is good. Usually, though, you’re probably going to see a lot of Trump fans, a couple of QAnon threads, a random thread… and maybe a progressive thread. Maybe.

Does that matter? Yeah, probably — a lot of us use the site to save off interesting threads, and we link to those threads, and that means a bunch of conspiracy propaganda is one click away from our links, and it’s presented as “trending.” This is a very small scale example of the kind of algorithmic radicalization that Zeynep Tufekci and James Bridle have written about. (Phrase coined by Kim-Mai Cutler.)

I’ve been scraping the trending threads from the Thread Reader front page hourly for a month, along with metadata: who posted them, how many subscribers they have on Thread Reader, hash tags, links, etc. I wanna dig more but I did some quick and dirty number crunching which is worth sharing.

The big dog of Thread Reader is Thomas Wictor. Over the month I’ve been watching, he’s had 42 threads in trending. He’s full of conspiracy theories about how Trump is setting people up — not a QAnon guy but the same kind of themes. He has 1120 followers. The number 2 poster is Stealth Jeff. He credits Thomas with converting him to a Trump fan. Jeff had 20 trending threads in a month, and has 827 followers. Number 3 is a guy named REX. He cites Stealth Jeff and Thomas Wictor often. “Now I can’t prove that this 4Chan prank was a Trump hit, but it wouldn’t surprise me.” He had 16 trending threads last month and 566 followers.

At number 4, we have Lisa Mei Crowley, our first QAnon follower. She had 11 trending threads in a month, 479 followers. Number 5 is Praying Medic, also a QAnon follower. 10 threads, 820 followers.

The first left-winger on the list is Seth Abramson, in sixth place with 5 trending threads over the month. He has 567 followers. After him there’re three people with 3 trending threads, 14 people with 2, and 91 with 1. (Hi, Ed Whelan!)

Generally speaking if you have more than a few hundred followers and you roll up threads frequently you can count on getting onto the trending list regularly. Notable progressive tweet-stormers have lots of threads rolled up — but no followers and thus rarely trend.

I also tracked hashtags and @mentions. Top five used hashtags in order: qanon, maga, fakenews, spygate, and metoo. Most often referenced Twitter accounts: Trump, POTUS, Jeff Flake, Chuck Grassley, General Flynn… and sixth is Thomas Wictor again. Thomas just got banned from Twitter again, by the by.

This is what algorithmic radicalization looks like. It’s the unintentional result of algorithms which highlight popular content. If you’re turned off by the list of trending threads, you’re less likely to make an account. Positive feedback loop.

So: algorithms are easy to game. The behavior we see on TRA may or may not be people gaming the system; doesn’t matter. If you think it would be a good idea to see more sane ideas trending on the biggest Twitter threading platform, make an account at Thread Reader — it’s free. Subscribe to your faves. If they’re OK with it, roll up their threads. The numbers are low in absolute terms; it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference.

Three Billboards and the Moral Rot of Chief Willoughby

I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other night, finally, and then (as is my way) devoured as many reviews as possible and man, my take on Chief Willoughby is different.

Before I hit spoiler territory — yeah, this was a flawed movie. Vox has a backgrounder which is mostly pretty good. I agree that Dixon is not redeemed at the end of the movie, but McDonagh’s black characters are in fact just plot devices. It’s a painful flaw. That said, onward.

Shadows over Six Towers: Session One

After a bit of searching about, I finally found the Blades in the Dark game I’ve been looking for. I dug up two people on Reddit, of all places, and we had our first session last week. It’s a cool group of PCs, sort of occult-leaning novices to the criminal world. Dock is a kid who was raised in a cult and has no idea how the world works (but lots of occult knowledge); Crucible is an alchemist and sailor from the Dagger Isles who got kicked off her ship for stealing things and now has to figure out how to live well in Doskvol; and Loretta (aka Etty) is the child of a noble family who lost all their money and status, so she’s stuck living on the streets with the ghost of her childhood pet for company.

This game sparked my documentation obsession, so we have a wiki. For the click-adverse, the record of the first session follows.

That Time I Tweeted

So the other day I quickly tweeted a few things.

The aftermath was wild. The first tweet got just over 1 million impressions. Around 48K people interacted with it. 8K likes. Jake Tapper is now following me, but I’m more fanstruck by Eric Heisserer.

The retweeter with the biggest audience was Cory Doctorow, at 437K. He also picked it up for Boing Boing, although he didn’t ask. On the one hand, he didn’t need to ask. On the other hand, Dorkly politely checked with me first. On the third hand, someone at Boing Boing photoshopped Trump’s hair on top of Eric’s head. Meh, screw them.

After Doctorow, the retweeter with the most followers was this voice actor whose name I’m spacing, at around 100K. From there it follows the usual distribution. I spent two days hoping nobody with a million+ followers would pick it up. “OK, guys, you can stop telling Critical Role to look at this now.”  I watched it spread through liberal online journalism Twitter (you know, Vox et al) and through Catholic Twitter (“wait, is that a Jesuit priest?”). If I had to guess I’d say it was mostly spreading through tabletop gaming circles, though. That’s just a kinda wide set of circles now.

I only had a handful of people yelling at me. Some people felt I was naive for thinking kindly of Catholics; those people kind of missed the point. I met and chatted with a few really cool people and I have about 500 new followers, all of whom I followed back. I will trim a few over time (sorry, but if you retweet Louise Mensch as a reliable source I’m gonna be elsewhere) but in general I feel like I have expanded my Twitter universe in a cool way. I also reconnected with a few old friends and had a brief but nice conversation with my freshman year roommate, which oddly allowed me to let go of some stuff I’ve been carrying around for decades.

Three reporters chatted with me. None of them found a story in the tweets, although one guy has another angle he’s working on. I think that’s correct. I don’t have a good enough memory of that year to build a story. I just had an emotional anecdote with a killer stinger and a call to action.

I’m really happy about the call to action.

Final lesson here: tell your stories. You never know what’s going to resonate.

Nordic Museum

We hit the new location of the Nordic Museum in Ballard today. It’s been open a month or so. The space is great — a two story atrium themed after a fjord cuts down the long center of the building, with the permanent Nordic and Nordic America exhibits on either side connected by bridges. You’re crossing the Atlantic to get from one to another. The signage doesn’t go as deep as I’d like, particularly for the temporary contemporary Nordic art exhibition, but I still enjoyed myself a bunch.

The cafe is also very nice. Get the oatmeal raisin cookie.

200 Word RPG

My 200 word RPG is up. I’ll move a copy here at some point but right now, let’s go over to the main site to read it, check out a couple more microRPGs, all that stuff.

The Widening Gyre is basically a sidestep away from a mechanic I was thinking about for Feng Shui, which I basically lifted from Blades in the Dark. Asymmetric relationship stats for the win. I think it’s basically playable although I did not work out the math.

Finally!

It’s about time we got a mass market pop culture version of the Jack Parsons story. Ridley Scott produces. Ben Wheatley directed an episode. This will cause me to buy CBS All Access; the trailer is everything.

Rupert Friend appears to be playing a fictionalized character, so I’m curious about that. Based on John Baxter, maybe? From a quick glance at IMDB I don’t see a lot of real historical figures, so maybe they’re fuzzing all the real names. Either way I cannot wait to start watching this.

That Elephant There

Oh hey, remember that time I pointed out that Republican campaign manager Corey Bliss was ignoring healthcare as an issue? The Democrats have not forgotten that healthcare is an issue.

Health care will be a defining difference in North Dakota, where incumbent Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp faces GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, who backed repeal. In Arkansas, Clarke Tucker, a cancer survivor, says health care is the reason he’s running for Congress. And in New Jersey, Democrat Andy Kim is talking health care as he tries to unseat Rep. Tom MacArthur, who played a key role in finally getting a repeal bill through the House, only to see it die in the Senate.

I’m not terribly confident about winning the Senate back but the House is going blue.