Sunday, March 03, 2013

Capture and release

Week before last, I posted a video of the Amazon ad for their Kindle Paperwhite. It didn’t even last a day before it was gone, the victim of rightwing chicanery.

The day after I posted the video, anyone clicking on it in my post got a message: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube's policy against spam, scams and commercially deceptive content." As I said in a comment to my post, “This is definitely a WTF?!! moment!”

It turns out that the video, which was eventually released from the block, was a casualty in the cyberwar between the Left and Right. Regardless of which side is doing it, it’s pretty despicable.

The video above is a clip from “Turf Wars: How Corporate America Is Faking A Grassroots Revolution”. From the YouTube description:
This clip shows Austin James of American Majority training tea party activists on guerrilla internet tactics to "control the online dialogue". The footage was shot at the 2009 American Liberty Tour, run by a group of libertarian groups tied to real-estate mogul and Koch associate Howie Rich. The clip is taken from a section of the film showing how libertarian/free-market groups are recruiting tea party protestors into their cause.
In the clip, Austin talks about going on Amazon, searching for “liberal” books and giving them all one star “reviews”, while also giving rightwing books five stars. He admits he didn’t actually read the books.

Similar tactics are used on YouTube, where—as with the Amazon commercial—rightwingers flag a video as spam. If enough of them do it—and there are a lot who will—YouTube removes the video unless the victim of the guerrilla political activism can convince YouTube that the video is NOT spam.

The false spam complaints are used because copyright complaints require evidence (and Google publicly documents takedown notices in the interest of transparency), and because the “offensive” flag almost never gets a video taken down because Google doesn’t censor content (apart from banning things like porn, some kinds of violence, things like that); it doesn’t take down videos merely for upsetting people’s political sensibilities.

So, for LGBT content, or other content that is LGBT-supportive, rightwing attackers flag it as spam as the only way they can get gay-positive videos taken down.

The Left does this, too. For example, in the past, Left-ish folks would use that Amazon one-star tactic. However, it’s completely unclear which side started that.

Left-ish Twitter users used to report rightwing accounts as spam, getting them blocked and the account suspended (“spam blocking”, it’s called). Suspended accounts are said to be in “Twitter Jail”; the Right called it “Twitter Gulag”. In response, the rightwing formed what they called the “Twitter Gulag Defense Network”. The idea was that accounts with large numbers of followers don’t get blocked, so they pledged to follow each other to ward off attacks.

Ironically, the rightwing then used the very same “defense” group to launch spam blocking attacks on liberals and progressives—doing the very thing they were supposedly against. The temptation to “get” their political adversaries was clearly too great for them to resist.

There’s nothing new about abusing systems to attack adversaries. Four years ago, my podcast was attacked through iTunes reviews, as were many other GLBT podcasts at the same time. In that case, however, it may have been some sort of personal vendetta (we’ll never know for sure). But the mechanics are the same, regardless of motivation (as an aside, I turned that negative experience into a positive one, because it inspired the name for my podcast with Jason, 2Political Podcast).

For me, the bottom line is that I don’t care what the motivation is for “guerrilla Internet tactics”—personal, political or commercial, I think it’s all pretty despicable. However, I think that politically motivated attacks are particularly smelly. I agree with one commenter on the YouTube video posted above: “If you can't defend your ideas with honest, careful reasoning, then you ought to seriously wonder if you're subscribing to good ideas.”

It doesn’t matter that the attacks usually fail in the end, and the person victimised in the attack is eventually freed. The goal is harassment and to "control the online dialogue". Apparently they can’t win a political battle based on the merits of their ideas alone, and to me that’s the worst part of this whole thing.

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