Friday, March 25, 2016

When Internet Bullies Come Out to Play

There were several news stories that caught my eye this week.  One was political, while the other was not.  But both had a similar theme: how easy it is to use social media to vilify or bully someone, often with no consequences for the person (or persons) doing the bullying.

Let's start with the non-political story, which began innocently enough, when Microsoft invented an artificial intelligence, a chat-bot named Taylor, or "Tay." The bot was created with the 18-24 year old demographic in mind, and was supposed to be able to communicate like a teen-aged girl.  (What made the predominantly older, male Microsoft developers choose the persona of a young, female teen is a subject for another day; but it seems kind of creepy when you think about it.)  Anyway, Tay could have been another interesting experiment in the ongoing effort to improve upon AI, but it didn't take long for problems to arise.  Evidently, Microsoft's development team did not anticipate that there are trolls online, folks who find it amusing to teach a bot to make insulting comments.  Tay was programmed without any filters, and without any plan for blocking hateful remarks.  In fact, Tay was designed to simply interact with whatever was said to her, often by just parroting it. (The Microsoft site said Tay was designed to "learn from" conversations with other users, who engaged with her on platforms like Twitter, Kik, and GroupMe.)  It all sounded interesting, but rather than learning how to discuss movies or fashion or sports, Tay was "taught" to make racist, neo-Nazi, and sexist comments.  Before things went so wrong, reviewers who tried to interact with Tay found her responses sometimes clever but usually awkward-- having a chat-bot react appropriately to human conversation is still a work in progress.  But it did not take much effort for certain users to "teach" Tay how to use expressions you might expect from a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  Within 48 hours of her debut, Microsoft had to take Tay offline.

And then there was the political story, the one where Donald Trump tweeted out an unflattering photo of Ted Cruz's wife, juxtaposed with a beautiful shot of Mr. Trump's wife Melania, a former model.  (This was in response to an anti-Trump SuperPac ad that had shown Melania in a semi-nude photo taken back in her modeling days, with a snarky comment that implied she wasn't classy enough to be a First Lady.)  Mr. Cruz took to Twitter to call Donald Trump a "coward" and later suggested on social media that "real men don't attack women."  Meanwhile, throughout the campaign, Donald Trump has taken to Twitter many times to bully those with whom he disagrees-- he has vilified them, insulted them, and made accusatory remarks.  And yet, he has millions of followers, none of whom seem to mind the often-harsh tone of his tweets.  And whether it was Cruz's side or Trump's side that started it, attacking each other's wives is something new, and not a very positive development.  There has always been an unwritten rule that the wives and children of candidates should not be subjected to political attacks; yes, now and then some have been, but it's not the norm.  For the most part, candidates have remained respectful when it came to the families of their opponents... until now.

What I found noteworthy about both of these stories was they once again demonstrate how quickly online communication can descend into rants, accusations, and insults.  I generally enjoy being on Twitter and Facebook, but sometimes when I post my perspective on some current issue, I am still surprised by how vehement and angry (and rude) some of the replies are.  I've been called all sorts of names, just for expressing an opinion.  I understand it intellectually-- on social media, you can say things you'd never say to a person's face-- but I admit I still find the behavior puzzling.  (Yes, I've been known to use all sorts of "bad words," but you won't find me calling the people who disagree with me nasty names-- my mother would be spinning in her grave if I cursed someone out, especially someone I don't even know.)

As for the chat-bot, while I am not a fan of the Siris and Alexas and Cortanas and other friendly female voices in the realm of artificial intelligence, I can always choose not to use them, and I know that some people find them convenient.  But I fail to see what's entertaining about disrupting something Microsoft's programmers tried to create.  No, I am not eager to see the robots taking over, like in some bad science fiction movie; but there are undoubtedly some positive uses for AI.  And whether or not Tay was a good idea, it was an experiment that deserved a chance.  You may say, "Well, it had a chance and it failed."  That may be true, but I still don't think it was funny for internet bullies to teach her to talk like a Neo-Nazi. Or perhaps I'm just lacking a sense of humor.

The late communication theorist Marshall McLuhan envisioned a world united by media, what he called a global village.  At times, the internet does unite us, or at least make it possible for us to reach out more easily.  At times, we are living in a world made more connected, where ideas are exchanged, and friends from many countries can interact across the miles. But at other times, the internet is a place of divisiveness, argument, and bullying-- where candidates can insult each other (or each other's wives), where a simple comment can lead to a series of rude remarks, and a chat-bot can be taught to say she hates blacks and Jews.  Sometimes, we are welcomed, and sometimes we are attacked.  Perhaps Forrest Gump was right when he said that life (and certainly our social media life) is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you're gonna get.


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  2. But I think that even McLuhan knew that the medium would eventually become, well you know. My dear sweet wife would lightly put her hand over my mouth at times to remind me I did not need to say everything I think and to remind me to think about the things I did say. She was raised proper she was. Too bad we all were not raised that way, social media or not.

  3. This happened to me a few times, especially in the Fb page of a radio host in Quebec, known for making polemical. Éric Duhaime. Libertin right with a strong sense of provocation, controversy, always blame the leftists, usually without arguments, without proper information and often riddled with lies. Just for the sake of bashing and divert the debate, completely sterile, just personal attacks, and inappropriate uninteresting. All these attacks supported by a cavalry hate robots. Honestly, I have always applied to be polite, as objective as possible, subtle and ironic. I had been conditioned not to respond to this kind of thing, until I got tired and I answered in the same way. I may as well be polite as I can be bad. This is by visiting the profile of these personages we realize, often the same pattern back and is asking that person (character) that if he really wanted to prove something is to demonstrate real identity, that he should cease to be a morality of scarecrow, otherwise I should complain. A few days later his fb page had disappeared. This is not going in the right direction and does not improve the feelings that have for the other one. All former CIA director would have dreamed to have a tool like this for déstabiliserplus easily power and order square. For them it is really not a game or a bluff, see how they act unscrupulously killing women and children, to a pipeline or to support a currency or economic system (banquaire) that ultimately only benefits has very few individuals. I would not need a robot to know that the Apocalypse has come, the end of the world began and that there will be a third world war. Well, I think the Zionists rich families took the wrong robot.
    I am much on the side of europe on social networks. You know with the latest event in Belgium and France last year. There really is a kind of dark power of hatred. which seeks to oppose the people, to create fertile ground for the destruction,war. Migrants who arrived in mass and which are increasingly of young single man. Many talk of civil war. In addition there is a kind of hysteria and speed to accuse the other of anti Semitic especially in France. You know there are a lot of French Jewish. This becomes (I do not know if that is the purpose search) vicious circle over the French Jewish lobby "LIRA" talks and accused of anti-Semitism, the more people become exasperated because to hear spoken falsely.
    Most scholars accuse the Kabbalists Zionists who dream of Greater Israel to sow chaos. All these things are very far away from me that do not know quite how to speak and to whom. Certainly there is an alarm signal which is quite worrying! I hope I managed to make myself understood. I wish you a good baseball season. For me it has always been moments of peace. A sport where there is little hate and where referees are the most respected. Now with video replays, there is almost no wrong decision. My attention is in the west for the Astros and Rangers but always for the Red Sox and Blue Jays. There is a Carlton Fisk biography that came out reseed, I have always admired this player and individuals. Eloquent and articulate! Do you remember of Luis Tiant?