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Category: Politics

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.

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.

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.

Elephant in the Election

I was gonna be snarky about Corey Bliss in this New York Times piece because of how he manages to pretend health care and insurance costs totally don’t exist and shouldn’t be mentioned when you’re talking about the economy. Frank Bruni gets zero points for going along with it. This is literally just letting a Republican strategist control the message while pretending to be objective; well done, Grey Lady!

But then Kevin Drum went ahead and dropped a few charts about wage growth on us and I decided that was a way better reason to snark. Bliss can be laser focused on taxes if he likes but wages aren’t looking so hot. Think the mostly illusory tax cuts will make up for stagnant salaries? Me either.

Bliss also claimed progressive radical candidates are gonna get steamrolled the day after a pretty moderate set of candidates won in primaries. To be fair he’s actually just trying to get Bernie fans angry there.

Free Speech via Debate

I may talk about this Ezra Klein/Sam Harris debate more, because it’s really interesting and rewards close reading. However, quickie before work: this is exactly how I want to platform controversial ideas. I believe strongly that free speech is important. That doesn’t mean you get to completely control your context.

In this piece, Sam Harris gets a big platform to make his case. He just has Ezra Klein sitting there debating him in good faith every step of the way. Compare this to the Milo tour of college campuses, in which Milo has no interest in defending his views. He’s just there to whip people up with a big megaphone. Context matters, and if you’re interested in advancing ideas that are reprehensible, you maybe need to deal with some pushback in real time.

One detail from early in the Klein/Harris debate:

Ezra Klein
I think you should quote the line. I don’t think that’s what the line said.

Sam Harris
The quote is, this is the exact quote: “Sam Harris appeared to be ignorant of facts that were well known to everyone in the field of intelligence studies.” Now that’s since been quietly removed from the article, but it was there and it’s archived.

[I went back and looked into this and, as far as I can tell, the original quote that Harris is referring to is this one: “Here, too briefly, are some facts to ponder — facts that Murray was not challenged to consider by Harris, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, although they are known to most experts in the field of intelligence.”] (This is Ezra Klein writing.)

That’s gold. In other contexts, Sam Harris gets to recount his version of events as filtered through his aggrieved ego, and people hear him, and sure, it sounds likely. Here, he gets called on it and fact-checked post facto.

Much of this is better expressed in an editorial by Michael McFaul, on the topic of a Francis Fukuyama/Charles Murray debate at Stanford.

“Powered By Reason”

I’ll admit it: when you pop up an ad on my Twitter feed telling me about a debate platform powered by reason, the only thing I see is a hazy red cloud of danger surrounding the words “debate” and “reason.” I blame Gamergate and the alt-right for implanting this reflex deep within my soul. Why are you avoiding my attempts to rationally discuss your inferiority?

But I will rise above my bias and check it out… oh god.

Yes, that’s the problem. Not all claims are created equal; demanding that we put equal time into attacking the argument that oceans would flow away if the Earth were round is a bad idea. The quality of a debate is in part determined by the quality of the claims made during that debate.

Kialo tries to mitigate this by allowing users to vote on each statement’s impact, but that means the displayed validity of points is determined by who can turn out their side the best. Obvious flaws are obvious. More subtly, this concept accepts the assumption that all claims are worth engaging with. Consider the (decade-old!) concept of the social denial of service attack.

2017 Campaigns 1 of 5: The Golden Pyramid

Nights Black Agents campaigns are built using a diagram which represents the classic conspiratorial pyramid structure. It’s called a Conspyramid. The mastermind squats at the top, with minions at various levels beneath. PCs discover the fringes of the conspiracy, and work their way up as the campaign goes on.

The following diagram is a satire. Who would believe that Peter Thiel is secretly influencing 4chan, or that Steve Bannon controls Breitbart News?

Texas State Legislature

Our Texas State Senator is Kirk Watson, in Senate District 14. It’s a ridiculously Democratic district covering most of Austin. At a quick glance he doesn’t look incredibly progressive, nor terribly conservative — I’d guess he’s reasonably middle of the road for the Democratic Party. Health care is a big issue for him, as is the economy. He’ll be running against Guy Fielder on the Republican side. There’s a Guy Fielder in the area who’s been a high tech executive for quite a while — worked at Compaq, etc. — so I’d guess it’s him. No Guy Fielder campaign Web site yet.

Our State Representative is Elliott Naishtat (House page here) in House District 49. The House page is more informative than the single-post blog, but the single-post blog is kind of charming. He’s from Queens, moved to Austin after coming here as part of AmeriCorps, and appears to be very feisty. This is another safe Democratic seat and nobody filed to run in the Republican primary; there are also no Libertarian candidates. Or Green candidates, as far as I can tell.