Free speech furores now happen on a weekly basis. The latest iteration concerns the ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart, who has stepped down from his duties following some regrettable posts on social media. At the centre of the controversy is a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which he posted during an argument with activist Martin Shapland. It includes the line “His glassy essence, like an angry ape.” Shapland is black, so the post attracted accusations of racism (comparing black people to apes is an undeniable racist trope). In that respect, it echoes a controversy last year, when Danny Baker posted a picture of a chimpanzee and likened it to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby Archie (who, like his mother, is mixed-race). The Stewart resignation caused consternation among his fellow journalists. All the comments I saw paid tribute to his career; and many said that the offence taken at his tweets was misplaced. This was similar to my own, initial reaction. It seemed to me that the outrage was overblown. The Isabella quote from the play talks about humanity in general, rather than describing an individual as monkey-like. However, reading comments from other people online have made me rethink that position. Those who saw the discussion unfold in real-time say that it was not just a single Shakespeare quote, but a mean-spirited and out-of-character pile-on. And when someone else wryly drew attention to the ‘ape’ slur embedded with the quote, Mr Stewart posted an emoji in response, suggesting he was aware of, and indifferent to, the offence he might cause. Continue reading “What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart”
I’ve been busy recently—work, study, Christmas—and haven’t felt a huge urge to write anything here. So let’s round off the year with some old fashioned web-logging: the mere bookmarking a story on a subject that feels emblematic of the entire decade.
A discussion about a pre-publication research paper with some shoddy methodology leads me to a New York Timesarticle by Kevin Roose, published in June this year, chronicling one young man’s journey into alt.right radicalisation. A key insight:
The radicalization of young men is driven by a complex stew of emotional, economic and political elements, many having nothing to do with social media. But critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.
The impact of algorithms on our psyche and society has become very apparent in the last few years. The power to determine who sees what and when can change moods and swing elections. But discussing the issue this week, Roose and other data journalists present some important caveats. The algorithm isn’t everything.
Same goes for journalism. The incredible reporting from @kevinroose was so powerful because the dataset he analyzed showed what *content* Caleb watched over time. It could have been recommended in the algorithm, but not necessarily.
The only thing I’d add, coming at the issue (as I do) with an eye on freedom of expression concerns, is that the way the algos affect our interests is not in itself a bad thing. We’ve all fallen down algorithm-induced ‘YouTube Rabbit Holes in our time, and when the subject is not political, the way that the system steers users away from mainstream content and into the back-catalogue the results can be delightful. Last night, for example, I watched a load of astonishing videos of ballet performances. I know nothing about ballet and cannot now remember how I happened upon them (perhaps I clicked on a link on someone’s blog?) but it’s possible this could be the start of a deep and consuming interest that we would usually applaud.y Even political ‘radicalisation’ is not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine that ‘radicalising’ people to fight for racial or gender equality (say) or to become environmental activists, is actually desirable. The issue, as ever, is not with ‘radicalisation’ per se but ‘violent radicalisation’ or (as the Commission for Counter Extremism recently suggested) with ‘hateful extremism.’ Algorithms that serve us relevant content are useful tools for many that can be misused by a few. Or, as Kevin Roose and Becca Lewis point out above, algorithms don’t radicalise people; people radicalise people. That is not to say that we shouldn’t intervene to temper the algorithms. Just that the challenge for tech companies and governments is not one of banning, but of balance. This will be the task of the next decade. Let us hope that by 2030 we will have reached a fair settlement.
What do people mean when they use the term ‘woke’ in a political context? By the time it crossed my radar, it had come to mean, simply, an acceptance that racism, sexism and other prejudices were still a problem for society. With that definition in mind, I always thought it slightly weird for anyone to seriously describe themselves as ‘woke’ – especially if one was white and male. For a short time my Twitter bio was tautological-for-fun: Woke Free Speech Bro (until an incredibly embarrassing case of context collapse involving a famous author that I’m too embarrassed to link to). ‘Woke’ has become a term of derision and mockery. Over the summer I asked this:
I just realised that I don’t ever recall hearing the word ‘woke’ (in its new, political/social sense) used in a way that wasn’t pejorative or ironic. Are there still communities where it’s used seriously?