AltSciFi Drama, Part III: How Distorted Language Transforms False Rumours into Bullying and Harassment

Since the social media harassment campaign against AltSciFi began, one hurdle facing this project has become increasingly clear.

(The storm seems to have mostly passed now. These three blog entries serve as documentation and a guide for the future. 1 2 3)

Artists are just people. Like any group of humans online, many artists suffer from weak or absent critical thinking skills. This often combines with high fluency (loves Twitter) and low reading comprehension (rarely reads anything longer than an tweet). The problem only grows when narcissism and cynical “positive thinking” are added to a tribalistic mentality. This results in a babbling pseudo-logic such as “we special good artists against all the mean bad people who steal our art and make us poor victims get really mad.”

And yes, in this case, the behaviour involved was as petty and childish as it sounds.

This entire episode of cyberbullying began due to a false rumour about AltSciFi “stealing art.” The rumour was repeated and gathered steam the more people talked about it, spreading across various social media sites.

No One Asked A Single Question

The most frightening aspect is that, throughout the entire course of bullying and harassment, not one single person thought to ask, “wait — is this true or not? It might be a good idea to directly contact the people being harassed. Maybe there’s another side of the story.”

No one questioned the rumour. No one looked for evidence. Not a single person. Everyone fell for the lie, and hundreds of people thoughtlessly repeated it.

That’s pretty scary, especially in the age of social media where an entire ecosystem is designed around passing emotionally charged information among peers at dizzyingly high speed.

Textual Harassment By “Visual Thinkers”

Visual artists might not like to read. There’s a reason why they’re not writers, after all.

That’s written half-jokingly, but many people believe the false pop psychology concept of learning styles. No matter how naively true it may feel, the idea of a “built-in learning style” or sensory modality isn’t real (dyslexia is an obvious exception). Learning styles are a myth, one step less credible than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and your “emotional intelligence quotient.”

There’s no such thing as a visual learner; you probably just need to read more. But for most adults, it’s too late. If you believe a falsehood and it’s repeated enough times, it eventually becomes true and real to you. In that sense, false rumours and discredited urban myths work in much the same way.

Artists have no excuse for spreading misinformation and engaging in harassment due to poor reading skills, or “I’m an artist; I don’t need to read. I’ll just ask my art friends on Twitter for their opinions.”

Under the Spell of Distorted Language

During the worst of the cyberbullying campaign, three language patterns stood out. They remain memorable for their ability to preclude and defeat basic critical thinking. These tactics were highly effective in ensuring that the harassment exploded exponentially and lingered for days, rather than being extinguished and forgotten within hours.

Pattern 1.

“If you had done y, I would have done z. But you didn’t, so I’m going to keep doing x.”

“If you had contacted me before creating your website (which was in fact a test version of the site that was never marketed or promoted to the public), I would have thought it was a great idea and helped you promote it (although promotion wasn’t even an issue yet, since the site was an incomplete test version, not for public consumption).

But you didn’t contact me (although there was no reason to do so, since the site hadn’t launched yet), so I’m going to continue slandering you using rumours and false accusations (because I need to save face after making a fool of myself in front of thousands of people on social media; I can never apologise because my ego commands me to be right at all times).

Notice how item “x” can be any arbitrary action that didn’t take place. This pattern is nothing more than rationalisation for continuing to do more of the same, while appearing to have been open-minded in a past that never happened at all. This also called arguing a counterfactual, one of many arguments better known as bullshit.

Pattern 2.

“Regardless of everything you’ve said, written and shown that you’re doing the opposite of x, I just know you’re doing x.”

“Even though you’ve written two extremely detailed blog entries documenting the events that took place, and have shown that you’re not stealing artists’ work, I just know you’re stealing artists work.”

Hopefully, the denial at work here is obvious to see. If someone demonstrates that they’re not standing on one leg, it obviously doesn’t mean they’re standing on one leg. It’s a self-contradictory statement; the statement eats itself if you pay attention to the pattern. This was probably the most popular pattern, and it’s also pure bullshit.

Pattern 3.

The fact that you defend yourself by saying and demonstrating that you’re not doing x only makes it more obvious that you’re doing x.

“If you say and show that you’re a group of artists who are trying to help other artists, the more you say and show that it’s true only makes it more obvious that you’re actually an evil middleman corporation stealing from artists.”

Instead of just re-asserting the wrong argument as in Pattern 2, this tortured syntax creates an imaginary cause-effect line between the two statements. “The more evidence you show me that the sky isn’t blue, that only convinces me more that the sky is blue.” This is a word game in which a person can say that any evidence against x actually is itself undeniable proof of x.

What’s the word for this one? It starts with a “b”.

These are all real language patterns that appeared as they’re shown here. The problem is that AltSciFi is doing something different; words are necessary to explain how this project works. There needs to be some way to communicate to artists, many of whom have weak critical thinking skills, high fluency and low reading comprehension. There’s no easy answer, but we’ll see. Maybe the average artist online is more capable of independent thought than many have recently shown themselves to be; hopefully that’s the case. The success of this project might depend on it.


Are You A First Class User or Second Class Loser? Hidden Dangers of Social Media De-anonymization.

Hey friends. I’m going to wax geeky and talk about personal online security for Twitter users for a moment, because it’s important.

The following text is derived from a talk given by Shaula Evans, and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Twitter recently announced that everyone can get a blue verified checkmark if you “just” turn over some personal data. Turning over your personal details to Twitter is a Faustian bargain. (Correction: From what I’m reading today, sounds like the change is that everyone can apply for verification, but may not be accepted.)

Twitter wants your government ID in order to verify your account. THIS IS A BAD IDEA. Verified IDs cause two sets of problems.

Verified ID Problem #1: People naively assume removing anonymity solves trolling. It doesn’t.

Trump/Brexit have emboldened people to to stop hiding their bigotry. “Real name” policies provide the illusion of a solution, but it doesn’t work.

Know what DOES address online harassment?

1. Clear guidelines
2. Commitment to enforce them
3. Timely enforcement (Not twelve hours. Or two years.)

I say that speaking from experience. I build and consult on building healthy, inclusive online communities. It is possible, but it takes will and work. Verified ID’s aren’t a solution. They are window dressing. They are shuffling deck chairs.

Verified ID Problem #2: Verified IDs are dangerous for vulnerable people.

Here is a great write up from geekfeminism‘s wiki on who is harmed by real name policies. Read it.…

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do because you’re not affected? Neither did Twitter. That’s why we need diverse teams.

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do and you ARE someone who can be harmed? Twitter just endangered you.

Twitter has gamified the verification process (turn over your data to access more features like the big kids!) without disclosing risks. People who aren’t tech- or security minded are going to jump in (we can’t all be experts in everything) and GET HURT. This is awful.

The previous two verification problems create a third: a two-tiered user community.

People with enough social privilege to use verification safely become “first class” users with extra benefits and prestige. Vulnerable people become “second class”.

That is disgusting, offensive, and grotesque. That is terrible product design. That is myopic design from non-diverse teams. If you say “a real name policy doesn’t hurt me, I’ll do it”, you are now part of the further marginalization of vulnerable people on Twitter, too. I don’t know if you have a problem with getting special privileges by supporting systems that hurt others, but I do.

Two more points about specific problems with Twitter’s verification process.

1. Twitter wants us all to use profile and/or header photos that reflect “the person, the corporation’s branding, or the company’s branding.”

Let’s talk about what it’s like to use the Internet while perceived as anyone other than a white male. If you have a “female” avatar, you get more abuse. If you are a woman of color, it’s even worse. These are not state secrets. The data is out there. Anyone who works in tech and knows their arse from their elbow knows this stuff.

Twitter has effectively said: “We want credit for fixing abuse. So we’re going to encourage you to take steps to increase your abuse.”

2. Twitter wants to know your birth date.

Twitter then gives you fancy graphics on your birthday in return (gamification!). Know who else wants your birth date? Identity thieves.

Oh yeah, and doxxers. Your birth date is incredibly helpful to people who want to dox you, too.

Who gets doxed? Oddly enough, the list looks an awful lot like the list of people who are harmed by real name policies. You might want to think about that before you plug your birthday into a site that publicizes it. Or before you send a birthday wish a friend on social media.

In summary: Twitter’s new “soft” real names policy will hurt people, create a two-tiered community, and make trolling worse. Hurray!


1. Don’t get verified.
If you have verified your account rashly and realize it may put you at risk, contact Twitter right away and get it undone, fast.

2. Don’t let your friends get verified.
If you have friends on Twitter who would be made vulnerable by ID verification, make sure they know the risks. Take care of each other.

3. Tell twitter why you are taking this course of action.

I know: it’s really hard to resist the gamified urge to get the coveted blue check, hard to be skeptical, hard to be a rational adult, hard to be objective, hard to perform due diligence, hard to think of others. So much easier to chase the dopamine rush of gratification.

There are bigger things in life than a blue checkmark, I promise you. Resist the urge, take care of yourself and each other, and stay safe.

P.S. We need to call out the tech press on this. The usual suspects are printing fawning regurgitation of Twitter press release, zero critique. Cutting/pasting press releases (or tweets) does not constitute journalism. We need a robust Fourth Estate more than ever. Pull up your socks.

P.P.S. Read about NYMWARS. No one learned. Deficient knowledge transfer in tech is a huge problem. It astounds me that Google went through the whole Nymwars thing going back to 2011 and the industry seems to have learned nothing. We really shouldn’t be working out these issues from scratch on every single platform.