No Longer a Caged Twitter Bird

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Alfred Gatty, Public Domain via Reusable Art

I found out the other day that bobonbooks.com, which had been blocked on Twitter for about a month, is no longer blocked. I can post links from this blog page and when people click on links, they no longer get scary warning messages that suggest all sorts of nefarious things could happen if they went to my website (even though this never was an actual problem). I never received an explanation from Twitter as to why I was blocked, what I needed to do to get unblocked, nor that I was no longer being blocked. I simply observed that scheduled posts were now posting to Twitter.

My reaction? I was glad, sobered, and educated.

Glad. One of the main things I do on this blog is post reviews of books, particularly recently published books I’ve received from publishers to review. Tweeting my reviews to the publisher is one way of alerting them I have a review up (I often also email a link to publishers’ publicists). Publishers also like to re-tweet reviews they think will help promote the book. None of that was possible and the scary messages were wrongly discrediting my website. I’m glad all this has gone away, hopefully for good.

Sobered. I hadn’t imagined something like this could happen. I am careful to observe the Terms of Service on social media and any admin rules on pages where I post. I’d never had something like this happen before. One day, I simply discovered that although I could post tweets, I could no longer post any links, even in shortened form, from my site to Twitter. I discovered that the likely cause was a “false positive” report on my site that was filed at PhishTank, a blacklisting site used by many institutions to block “phishing” sites. These reports are not verified nor are website owners notified. I discovered that two other blacklisting sites subsequently had me on their unsafe lists, and I learned from some friends that my website came up with warnings or were blocked at their work computers. I don’t know why this happened. I do post material related to my religious beliefs. I wonder if that was the reason. Maybe it was just random. Whatever it was, it was a personal encounter with a dark side of the web.

Perhaps the most sobering experience was how long it took to get “unblocked” by Twitter. To the credit of the blacklisting sites, when I asked them to review my site, it took minutes to a day at most for them to change the status of my site to safe. I submitted a ticket to Twitter as well. It took a month for them to finally unblock the site. As I said above, I have no clue why I was blocked or unblocked. I was surprised and glad that I was able to post links to bobonbooks.com. My son had suggested I just give up, which I about had, because, in his words, “there is no upside for them.”

Educated. Here are some things I learned:

  • Technically, because my site is hosted on WordPress.com, “drive-by” attacks that post malware or phishing links cannot happen because of their security protocols. I doubt whether this is foolproof, but if someone hacks WordPress.com, there are potentially millions of us compromised. However, if an individual user is blacklisted, you are on your own.
  • If you host your own website, or it is hosted elsewhere, you do need to take the security of your site seriously. Make sure your software, virus and anti-malware software is up to date and running, and you have a good firewall. There are also companies that provide website and reputation protection. If you do business on your site, some form of this protection could be a good investment.
  • I now use Sucuri SiteCheck to check my site daily. It scans your site for malware and phishing links and also checks nine of the top blacklisting sites. It may not be foolproof, but it is a good line of defense and helped me discover blacklisting sites where I was blacklisted. Sucuri rates my site “safe” and not listed on any of the nine blacklisting sites it scans.
  • I revisited my own security practices and added dual authentication to my blog site. Anyone else logging on results in a text to my cell phone. I also clear spam comments, moderate commenting, and block spammers. Visitors to the site never see this.
  • While you can take steps to secure your site, it is still possible for your site to be wrongly blacklisted. Blacklisting sites only check your site if you ask them, and once you are blacklisted somewhere, it spreads to all who use those sites to protect their systems or end users. It can seriously affect your web traffic and your site’s reputation. It can happen to you! I’m not a big fish and it happened to me. I’ve learned it has happened to others.
  • Social media sites like Twitter currently can do what they want. They are not regulated. They have no obligation to offer live support. To have real people available for users with a problem that requires immediate attention may, in my son’s words, “have no upside.” If anything, the death of internet neutrality rules may make it worse. From what I can tell, Twitter can block any links or content it wants. Period. They have the final say. If you don’t like it, there is really no court of appeal as far as I can tell, other than public opinion. I honestly didn’t expect to get back on apart from buying a new web domain name. I’m glad something worked.

If you are a blogger or have a website, I hope this doesn’t happen to you. It can. I didn’t even know this could happen. Now I do. It is sad and disturbing that we spend much of our lives online guarding ourselves from those who might harm or defraud or troll us. If you see anything weird going on when you visit my site, let me know. You can be sure it is not intentional. I still love all that you can do and find on the internet. But it’s a far cry from when I first downloaded Mosaic and discovered the wonders of the web. I think those of us who still see this as a place for dialogue and discovery will have to fight to keep it that way. I’ve always said this site is about promoting conversations about the good, the beautiful, and the true. Perhaps what can keep us going against all the weirdness is the belief that somehow, it is the good, the true, and the beautiful that will endure.

Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

shamed

So You’ve Been Publicly ShamedJon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015.*

Summary: Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience.

If you have any kind of presence on social media, this book should give you pause. In fact, even if you are not on social media, it might make you think. Any kind of transgression, whether an offensive statement, or an impulsive act can become the object of a public shaming campaign on social media. It often can be vicious, pervasive, you can even lose your job, and it stays there–on the internet.

Jon Ronson begins by describing how he used shaming to free himself from a form of identity theft cloaked in academic jargon, as a group of researchers created a spambot identity on Twitter of Ronson. Ronson’s only recourse after a film interview of the spambot creators being cute was to upload a video (yes, they were arrogant enough to allow themselves to be filmed) to expose what they were doing. A vicious series of comments wishing all sorts of unspeakable fates followed. The spambot came down. One more victorious shaming campaign!

Then along comes the case of Jonah Lehrer, a one-time promising science writer exposed by journeyman journalist Michael Moynihan. Moynihan became suspicious of quotes of Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book on creativity. They just didn’t sound like Dylan to him, and it turns out they were fabricated. Other material was plagiarized from press-releases, and from earlier pieces he’d written (self plagiarism, a little more controversial, but the rule is still to cite yourself rather than use the material uncited). When Moynihan published an article it effectively spelled the end of his journalism career. Ronson recounts the eerie scene in St. Louis, where Lehrer attempts a poorly constructed apology, with a live Twitter stream of comments being shown on a screen behind him. Posts like this were typical:

“Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist.” (p. 43)

Lehrer, as far as I can tell is still trying to reconstruct a writing career with a blog focusing on social science writing and recently released A Book About Love which makes a more forthright apology than the St. Louis speech, but has received mixed reviews. Fabrication and plagiarism tend to be career-enders for writers. In Lehrer’s case, social media and the internet make it far worse. A Google search still readily turns up the articles about his transgressions.

Ronson moves on to other lesser-knowns. There is the case of Justine Sacco, working in a New York public relations firm (of all things),who foolishly hit “send” on this tweet:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (p. 64)

She became  world number one trending topic on Twitter, before her plane landed, and no efforts to scrub Twitter, or issue an apology could save her job. He recounts the case of “Hank”, who at a software developers conference made a sexually innuendo-ed joke while sitting behind a woman developer, Adria. She turned, photographed him, and tweeted the incident. He came home to find he was out of a job. Eventually he posted something about this to find much of the developer community rally to his cause and shame Adria. Consequently the shamer became not only the shamed, but also lost her job.

As Ronson goes into these accounts, he begins to wonder what they reveal about the shamers, including himself, and their glee, and verbal violence in taking down their targets. Does the anonymity of the internet feed the phenomenon, the social distance between shamer and shamed. He contrasts social media shaming with Judge Ted Poe, who uses public shaming in sentencing. Far from being the “theater of the absurd,” as one blogger called it, Poe maintained, supported by testimony of those he sentenced, that it was the “theater of the effective.” Often, in this kind of public shaming, the defendant ends up being encouraged by people. It is face to face and not anonymous. And it works in turning around lives, maintained Poe.

The latter part of the book explores how people come through shame and explores the interesting idea that those the least apologetic about their shameful activity may cope better. There is the case of Max Mosley, exposed for some rather unusual S & M activities that were alleged to be Nazi scenarios. He turns around and sues the outlet that published this for defamation and wins, on the fact that the Nazi portion of this could not be supported by the facts. He freely admitted his unusual sexual tastes. Ronson also visits shame eradication groups that de-sensitize one to shame. Not exactly his cup of tea.

He explores the case of Lindsey Stone whose friend snapped and posted a picture of her flipping off and shouting at a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that said “Silence and Respect.” The kind of snarky thing lots of kids do, right? Well, the picture went viral, and once again, the comments were vicious, and the result was a lost job. Eventually, Ronson works out a deal with a company that works with online reputations and describes the strategy to bury the damning material way down in search engine results by creating a positive web presence for a person. The goal is to move the damaging stuff to page 2 where nobody ever looks. Their work helps the Lindsey Stone, and others who share her name, mostly by displacing the unsavory image with a host of other photos and web presence under her name.

Ronson’s book raises the question of what much of our “outrage” on social media really reveals, not about the objects of the outrage, but about us. His candor and self-reflectiveness about his own participation in shaming rites on social media invite us to ask, “when have I done this, and what does this say about me?” What I think he doesn’t explore and could be considered is the temptation to be provocative, to push the envelope in order to get more views, comments, follows–the definition of social media success. The closest he gets are the corners Jonah Lehrer cut under the pressures of a burgeoning writing career.

Ronson also reminds us that the consequences of our words on social media have impacts not in virtual reality but in the lives of real people. And his tale reminds us to reflect carefully before hitting the “send”, “post”, or “publish” buttons. Carelessness here could change one’s life, and not in ways one would like. Better re-read this before posting!

*Content and language advisory. Includes descriptions of various forms of sexual expression and profanity.

Bubbles

Bubbles by John Everett Millais

Bubbles by John Everett Millais

Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

I’m impressed that this is true not only in the world of academia but within some of the church and ministry circles in which I work. One of the dubious results of getting onto Twitter is to learn of some of the kerfuffles that arise with nationally known figures and ministries. There is one that broke this week, for example in which one blogger accused another, who works at a fairly conservative institution, of taking a position contrary to one this person actually holds, because this person participated in a dialogue with those holding a different position. It actually became a trending topic on Twitter!

You will notice that I have not named names. I really do not want to fuel this silliness, nor engage in what I would consider gossip, which really is a sin. What I want to call attention to is the “bubble” people engaging in these kinds of kerfuffles operate in.

My son, who is a pretty thoughtful Christian and an active blogger helped me see this last night. I was mentioning some of this stuff and he gave me this frown, and basically said, “you know dad, most of us really aren’t interested in this stuff.” Thanks be to God for a son who keeps me grounded in reality!

It reminded me that most people are really concerned about making ends meet, caring for aging parents or sick children, and more concerned about what kind of country, and what kind of world their children will inherit than in the latest intramural Twitter and blog war, particularly if it is between supposedly religious people!

What is also disturbing is that the individual attacked is actually trying to do something desperately needed in today’s climate — to walk in the tension of living by conviction and engaging in civil discourse without compromise rather than culture wars, with those who differ.

I suspect that the attacker might fall in the category of what is known in the social media world as a “troll”. And it strikes me as sad that such people live in a bubble of incredibly small stakes, mostly those of getting lots of notice, of stirring up controversy and gaining views.

Might it make more sense to get out of this blog and Twitterverse bubble and take food to a family dealing with someone sick, take time to listen to a friend who has just lost her job, or join a local prison ministry or even a choir making beautiful music.

It’s really easy to make one’s home in one or another social media bubble. If, like the academics, we become vicious in those bubbles, it is real and not virtual people we hurt. And the One who bursts all bubbles will call us to account one day for every hurtful word.