Of course I didn’t see how social media could be an accelerant for bigotry

It took a few years after I first reviewed Windows XP for me to realize the enormous omission from my initial assessment of that operating system: It didn’t even include the word “security.” It feels like I’ve devoted much of my work since to making up for that shortfall.

I’ve had the same unpleasant realization over the past few years about social media. Just as my first look at XP showed no imagination about how an OS designed to run on trusted networks would fare on the open Internet, my early writing about social networks evidenced inadequate foresight about how they might help bigots to bond.

Consider, for instance, the Twitter explainer I wrote for the Post in 2008. I loved writing that almost exclusively as a series of 140-character-compliant paragraphs, and I think as prose it holds up well. But although Twitter was still figuring out the basic mechanics of @ mentions then, the piece reveals no consideration of how Twitter’s architecture might let bigoted trolls recruit like-minded people to scale up a Twitter mention’s compelled attention into a denial-of-service attack.

The evidence was there: A year before, writer Kathy Sierra had endured a hail of death threats for the crime of having two X chromosomes while expressing value judgments about technology. But my attention was elsewhere.

I can file away my naïveté about Windows security on not doing enough background research, but I can’t untangle my lack of imagination about social networks from having used them exclusively as a straight white man with an Italian (read: Catholic) last name. On every social network I’ve used–from Usenet newsgroups to Slashdot to the Post’s comments to Twitter and Facebook–I’ve had the unrequested benefit of not being routinely attacked for my gender, sexuality, race or religion.

But I never quite realized that until writing about Gamergate. I spent the day before that Yahoo Tech post ran locking down every important account and steeling myself for a toxic response online. Then nothing bad happened and nobody tried to destroy my critique by impeaching my identity. I can now confirm that white privilege is a hell of a drug.

Since then, we’ve had another unforeseen development: a president who has bragged about sexual assault, regularly evokes such anti-Semitic memes as “globalists”–a laundered code word for international Jewish financiers–and said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last August included “very fine people.” Trump’s dog-whistling seems to have encouraged some bigots to crawl out from under their rocks and look for company.

Some have also been inspired to look for ways to kill people they see as “the other.” This bigotry boom has a growing body count–in C-ville last year, where I paid my respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer earlier this month, and today at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Last week’s pipe-bombing attempts could have added to that toll.

I’m sorry that I was asleep to so much of this before. I think I’m awake now, but I want you to tell me if you see otherwise.

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Seeing my country upended from afar, trying to process it at home

Being on the other side of the Atlantic for a presidential election so I could attend and speak at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon seemed like a swell idea. With my absentee ballot long ago cast, at best I could sing the Star-Spangled Banner with other Americans in some bar as Hillary Clinton claimed an early victory over Donald Trump (though if you’ve heard me sing, you might struggle to find the upside of that scenario); worst case, I could tweet “appreciate the congrats” sometime Wednesday.

us-passport-on-lisbon-streetThat didn’t work out. Reality punched me in the gut at 8 a.m. local time Wednesday, when I opened my laptop after four hours of nightmare-grade sleep and saw the Washington Post’s “Trump Triumphs” headline above a map of red and blue states I struggled to recognize.

Before the first talk Wednesday morning, organizer Paddy Cosgrave asked those of us in the audience to introduce ourselves to strangers nearby and say where we’d come from. On another day, I might have said “I’m from the U.S., peace be with you,” as if I were in church, but I had to go with “I’m from the United States, so I’m having a really shitty morning.” The Europeans near me could only offer versions of “I’m sorry,” as if my country had suffered a death in the family.

That day did not get much less bleak for all the people I knew in our globalist-elite bubble. In retrospect, I could have picked a better day to moderate three different panels.

“President Donald Trump” might have been a harmless comedy line in my childhood. Trump seemed a good guy when he put his own cash into an overdue renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, but that sort of public-spiritedness became increasingly scarce in the decades since. And now Trump is set to become the nation’s CEO after a campaign marked by an embrace of fear, a flight from facts and a refusal of basic transparency. Humor has fled the situation.

On one level, this is like 2004, when American voters picked the wrong guy, and we paid a steep price. But George W. Bush looks like a seasoned statesman compared to Trump. And 12 years ago, we didn’t have a deluge of data points suggesting the Dems had the GOP on the run.

Seeing that running an effective campaign organization when the other side shows little sign of having any doesn’t matter, that a candidate can speak more and worse falsehoods than the other without consequence, that getting caught on tape joking about sexual assault need not hold a guy back, and that so many state poll numbers mean nothing (although Clinton’s popular-vote victory looks to be not far from nationwide polling data)… it’s taken a hammer to my belief in a rational universe. And it forces me to wonder what stories about voters’ concerns I should have read but did not.

I can’t ignore the media’s role in wasting our mental bandwidth with horse-race coverage and breathless and context-starved “reporting” about Hillary Clinton’s unwise but not illegal use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. I myself contributed two posts to that genre, one in March of 2015 and another in July; I wrote far more about tech-policy issues in this campaign, but I suspect those other posts drew far less attention.

faded-american-flag-close-upI would now like to think that Trump will grow in office and that he’ll quietly dump the worst of his campaign promises. I certainly wouldn’t mind him delivering on his plans to renew America’s crumbling infrastructure, the subject that led off his gracious victory speech. (The United flight attendant I chatted with during my flight home Friday was also upset about the election, but we agreed that a building binge that replaced the C/D concourse at Dulles would get our support.) I will allow for the possibility of pleasant surprises.

But I’m also 45, and I’ve seen too many elected officials disappoint me to expect that this one’s conduct in office will depart radically from his behavior as candidate. Why do we put up with two years of a presidential campaign if not to take the measure of the people in it?

In the meantime, we have the additional problem that the worst among Trump’s fans now feel more entitled to vomit their bigotry on people who don’t look or sound like me. Not having an ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or primary language on the enemies lists of “white nationalists” does not make me feel any less offended by the hatreds those cretins preach, or the president-elect’s silence about them.

What am I going to do? Work. The chance to call out abuse of power and control-freakery gets me up in the morning. If Trump’s administration puts forth policies that fall into those categories, you’ll read about them from me. If Democrats endorse them or respond with their own tech-policy control-freakery, the same applies. And if President Trump proposes laws or regulations that thwart abuse of power by the government or corporations, I won’t turn them down.

One aspect of my coverage that may very well change: I somehow doubt I’ll get invited to many White House celebrations of science and technology. Trump spent little time during the campaign talking about science and in some cases, like climate change, outright denied it. Also, this post and most of my political tweets this year may leave me in poor standing with his press people. So be it.