Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Memes, Subcultures and Social Media

July 10, 2017

Education and the Internet — Part 3

Introduction

News items relating to the Internet are by now a daily occurrence: cyber war, cyber terrorism, ransomware attacks, election interference, news manipulation, cyber bullying, and so on. Although these are serious issues, and rightly subjects of concern, another online phenomenon that rarely makes the front page (in Australia, at any rate) is perhaps more directly relevant to many people’s everyday experience. I am referring to the ubiquitous ‘internet meme’. The reader may be tempted to scoff at the notion that memes could be compared to the more alarming topics listed above. After all, most peoples’ experience of memes is probably the occasional (and endlessly re-posted) humorous, cute or motivational image that appears in their Facebook newsfeed. What harm could there be, right?

Some may be familiar with the origin of the word ‘meme’ in a 1976 publication. I’ll hazard a guess, however, that few would be aware of the connection between the internet-meme phenomenon and several online subcultures with dubious reputations. Furthermore, although some media organizations (e.g. The Guardian) have recently started to shine a spotlight on the controversial content to be found on social-media sites like Facebook, analysis of the links between the above-mentioned subcultures, memes, and social-networking groups attracts little, if any, publicity.

I first became alert to Facebook ‘meme groups’ early in 2016, and in April of that year I posted a message indicating my concern about some of the groups that were using the social-media site as a platform. I wondered at that time whether the parents among my Facebook contacts were even aware of the nature of some of these groups and their associated pages. For a while the topic was off my radar, but recently it became a topic of discussion in the school where I teach, and I decided to investigate further. My research resulted in a better understanding of the background to the Facebook meme-group culture, which I present below.

First, however, a point about terminology. The word ‘meme’ itself is neutral, just like the word ‘joke’. There’s nothing inherently offensive about a joke. Many jokes are simply funny; some make a point about something, perhaps a political one (e.g. satire); some might be a bit ‘edgy’; yet others would be generally considered in poor taste or, worse, downright offensive. As with jokes, so also with memes. It’s a spectrum, and the dividing lines between acceptable, edgy, in poor taste, and downright offensive, vary from person to person. I think it’s fair to say, however, that most people would recognize there is a spectrum, ranging from perfectly acceptable to downright objectionable. We might wonder at someone who collapses such distinctions and sees no difference between the two extremes.

Dawkins’ dodgy dogma

The word ‘meme’ pre-dates its internet incarnation by several decades. It was coined by Oxford evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Like its biological counterpart, the gene, a carrier of heritable traits between generations of an organism, Dawkins conceived of the meme as a carrier of cultural information, such as an idea, a symbol, or a practice. Such cultural units are transferred from mind to mind, and in this sense either survive or die out. Successful memes, therefore, have survival value. Like genes, they are ‘selfish’, using minds as ‘hosts’, just as a virus uses an organism as a host. Dawkins derived his coinage from the ancient Greek concept of mimesis, from which we get words like ‘mime’, ‘mimicry’ and ‘imitate’.

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. (The Selfish Gene)

Unsurprisingly, Dawkins’ theory of memes has been the subject of astute criticism, with one critic describing it as ‘pseudoscientific dogma’ (see ‘Memetics: A Dangerous Idea’). To me the concept of meme seems a crude version of ‘sign’, in the semiotic sense, a study of which was part of my postgraduate research in philosophy (see the section on ‘Semiotics’ in my earlier post: An Educational Autobiography). A useful summary of the development of the meme concept, including some inherent problems with it, is James Gleick’s ‘What Defines a Meme?’, which is an extract adapted from his 2011 book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.

My concern here, however, is not with meme theory as such, but rather the social phenomenon of internet memes, and in particular the online groups that employ them relentlessly. For this analysis, the coherence or otherwise of the theory is irrelevant, and it would make no difference if the word ‘meme’ had never been invented.

Digital deviation

In its transition to the Web, the term has undergone an evolutionary development of its own. The internet usage carries the more restricted sense of ‘an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry or for comedic purposes, from person to person via the Internet’ (Wikipedia). Images, usually with some form of text, are probably the most common permutation (see image macro). Standard forms have developed, with associated protocols. Typical examples of internet-meme jokes are ‘Y U NO’ and ‘Condescending Wonka’.

Y U NO

‘Y U NO’ meme

One thing to note about these is that the link between the image and the text is usually tenuous: just about any text could be used, ranging from relatively benign (the examples given here) to strongly offensive.

Condescending Wonka

‘Condescending Wonka’ meme

Not all memes are jokes. Animals feature prominently, and, while sometimes amusing, they are more often ‘cute’ as in the following example (which also demonstrates the popular animated ‘gif’ format):

Cute

Bear cub playing with wolf cub: cute animals are common memes

Sticking with animals, we have the ‘pet shaming’ series:

Pet shaming

And it would be negligent not to include some reference to the most famous cat on the Internet, ‘Grumpy Cat’ (real name: Tardar Sauce), whose fame can be traced to a September 2012 Reddit post by her owner’s brother. The cat’s peculiar physiognomy, caused by feline dwarfism and an underbite, gives her a permanently scowling expression:

Grumpy Cat

‘Grumpy Cat’ meme

Yet other memes depend on incidental photographs, often amusing, whether staged or fortuitous:

So I turned into a toad last night

‘So I turned into a toad last night’

All that’s needed is a clever caption:

Instructions were unclear

‘Instructions were unclear’

One of the most famous photograph memes is indicative of a further development in this rapidly evolving social phenomenon. ‘Bad Luck Brian’ is a goofy photo from a 2005-2006 school yearbook. The picture is of Kyle Craven, a class clown and self-confessed prankster, who deliberately dressed and posed in order to create a joke image. The principal was unimpressed and forced Kyle to sit for the picture retakes, although he (Kyle) later persuaded someone on the yearbook staff to include both images. Kyle was forced to surrender the photo, but not before he and his friend, Ian Davies, had scanned and saved it. It was Davies who posted the image to Reddit in January 2012, naming it ‘Bad Luck Brian’ and including the caption ‘Takes driving test – gets first DUI’ (Driving Under the Influence). It was an instant hit, and ‘Bad Luck Brian’ became a magnet for every conceivable bad-luck caption.

Bad Luck Brian

Kyle Craven as ‘Bad Luck Brian’

Reddit fame was only the beginning:

Before long, Bad Luck Brian was an Internet sensation. His face appeared on Facebook, blogs and advertisements. T-shirts with his photo were sold at Wal-Mart and Hot Topic. Companies made Bad Luck Brian paperweights and Bad Luck Brian stuffed animals. He was flown to Internet conventions across the country. People like me, who barely knew him in high school, bragged about his photo’s popularity. (‘Anatomy of a meme: The real story of Bad Luck Brian, his viral class portrait and the fleeting nature of online fame’, National Post, 6 January 2015)

As the case of ‘Bad Luck Brian’ indicates, it didn’t take long for commercial interests to realize the marketing opportunities presented by internet memes. ‘Grumpy Cat’ garnered similar attention, not to mention being featured in mainstream media (see ‘Grumpy Cat’ on Wikipedia).

Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and many of them can be found on websites like ‘quickmeme’ and ‘knowyourmeme’. Those provided here demonstrate that there is nothing inherently objectionable about the content of internet memes. Other aspects of the practice, however, are legitimate topics for discussion: its potential for time wasting; an occasional tendency to misinformation (especially quotes attributed to celebrity geniuses like Einstein); and perhaps a general trivialization and dumbing-down of culture. These topics will re-emerge in future posts in this series.

Furthermore, I have chosen some particularly ‘tame’ examples, and there are definitely ‘edgier’ ones, depending on the viewer’s perspective. The phenomenon becomes problematic when it goes beyond what might be termed ‘common decency’. Here the internet meme seems to cross a line that only a minority are willing to traverse. Moreover, the memes themselves are only a part of the problem. At this point, the context in which they are being shared becomes just as salient.

‘Something Awful’, ‘4chan’ and ‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’

The story of the internet meme is inseparable from the online subcultures known as Something Awful, 4chan, and Encyclopedia Dramatica.

‘Something Awful’ (SA) was created by Richard ‘Lowtax’ Kyanka in 1999, and is the source for the Slender Man meme (regarding which, see the Waukesha stabbing and other incidents). Something Awful was described in a January 2008 Wired article as a collection of members-only message forums:

an online humor site dedicated to a brand of scorching irreverence and gross-out wit that, in its eight years of existence, has attracted a fanatical and almost all-male following. Strictly governed by its founder, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, the site boasts more than 100,000 registered Goons (as members proudly call themselves) and has spawned a small diaspora of spinoff sites. Most noticeable is the anime fan community 4chan, with its notorious /b/ forum and communities of ‘/b/tards.’ Flowing from this vast ecosystem are some of the Web’s most infectious memes and catchphrases (‘all your base are belong to us’ was popularized by Something Awful, for example; 4chan gave us lolcats) and online gaming’s most exasperating wiseasses. (‘Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World’, Wired, 18 January 2008)

‘4chan’ is an ‘imageboard’ website that was launched in October 2003 by Christopher Poole, then a 15-year-old student from New York City, and a regular participant on the SA forums. Poole intended 4chan to be an American counterpart to the popular Japanese Futaba Channel (‘2chan’) imageboard, and a place to discuss Japanese ‘manga’ and ‘anime’. He encouraged users from the SA subforum, ‘Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse’, to discuss anime on his website. In its earliest days, 4chan had only two boards: ‘/a/ – Anime/General’ and ‘/b/ – Anime/Random’. The latter was the first board to be created, and is, according to Wikipedia, ‘by far 4chan’s most popular board, with 30% of site traffic’ (retrieved 4 July 2017). More boards were added over time, and /b/ was eventually renamed to ‘/b/ – Random’, or simply ‘random’. The ‘random’ board has minimal regulation and its notoriety is attested by numerous sources, including the Wired article cited above (for more, see the ‘/b/’ subsection of the Wikipedia ‘4chan’ article). A 2008 New York Times article (worth reading in its entirety) contains the following description of /b/:

Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand. (‘The Trolls Among Us’, New York Times, 3 August 2008)

According to Wikipedia, /b/ is the source of many internet memes, some of which are listed in the ‘Internet memes’ subsection.

‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’ (ED) was founded in 2004 by Sherrod DeGrippo. Wikipedia describes it as a ‘satirical website’ that ‘celebrates a subversive “trolling culture”, and documents Internet memes, culture, and events, such as mass organized pranks, trolling events, “raids”, large-scale failures of Internet security, and criticism of Internet communities which are accused of self-censorship in order to garner prestige or positive coverage from traditional and established media outlets’ (accessed 4 July 2017). Julian Dibbell, in a 2009 Wired article, situates EA in the context of ‘trolling’ (‘the most obnoxious innovation that architecture [i.e. the Internet] ever produced’): ‘Flamingly racist and misogynist content lurks throughout, all of it calculated to offend, along with links to eye-gougingly horrific images of mutilation, [and] sexual perversity’ (‘The Assclown Offensive: How to Enrage the Church of Scientology’, Wired, 21 September 2009).

As the Wired articles make clear, a paradoxical attitude pervades the subcultures of SA, 4chan and ED, which is a seriousness about not taking anything, including the Internet, seriously. Everything is for ‘the lulz’ (a corruption of ‘lols’, the plural form of ‘lol’ or ‘laugh out loud’). For those who haven’t come across the expression, ‘doing it for the lulz’ means doing something ‘for the laughs’, and the laughs are typically at someone else’s expense. This ambivalent stance appears to be the case whether the activity is online, or real-world events orchestrated by Anonymous, the actvist group spawned by 4chan, with strong links to ED.

The association of the internet meme with these subcultures helps explain the attitudes and ‘banter’ encountered in the meme groups on social-networking sites like Facebook.

Social-media minefield

Like many others, my earliest encounters with internet memes were of the generally innocuous variety described above. These appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, posted by people within my own circle of contacts. They were frequently amusing and I habitually re-posted them, thereby facilitating their viral spread. Facebook procedures make sharing easy, and the default setting is to share with one’s entire circle, which for many individuals amounts to hundreds of people (some younger users number their contacts in the thousands). The process preserves a link to the originating poster, though for memes it’s unnecessary to follow that link since the typical composite of image and text is visible in its entirety.

Early in 2016, one of my contacts shared a meme that caught my attention for some reason. I followed the link to the source and encountered something unexpected. Here was a publicly visible Facebook page with posts that were frequently objectionable for one reason or another. This led to another discovery: there are thousands of such user pages on Facebook. A lot of them have ‘meme’ in their titles, such as ‘Dank Memeology’ and ‘Meme Extreme’, while others, like ‘Filthy Frank’, although dispensing with the defining noun, leave no doubt about the owner’s posting preferences. Postings on these pages range from the merely puerile to the explicitly racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, pornographic, and ‘disturbing’. My contact was following about five hundred of them.

Later I discovered that, in addition to the openly-visible ‘pages’, which require only a button-click to follow and whose historical postings are visible to anyone, there are also member-only groups based on meme sharing. Membership in these is by request. Entry prerequisites may vary, but the bar is likely to be low. Age requirements can easily be circumvented anyway, since Facebook doesn’t verify user age at the time of initial account set-up. In addition to the ‘closed’ groups that still show up in Facebook searches, there are also invisible groups that no one can see, membership in which is by invitation only.

Another common adjective, applied to ‘pages’ and ‘groups’ alike is ‘banter’. A search for this key term on Facebook reveals pages and groups devoted to almost every imaginable topic. These pages and groups also tend to favour the meme-type post.

Apart from ‘pages’ and ‘groups’, there is another Facebook feature that has been adopted by the meme-based group, and that is ‘chat’. Chat uses Facebook’s instant-messaging service, simply called ‘Messenger’, which comes built-in with the browser version, but is also available as a separate app for mobile devices. Chat groups can have the same sort of titles as pages and groups (e.g. ‘Edgy Memes’), but this doesn’t mean that membership in the chat group is the same as the general group with that title. Individuals are ‘added’ to a chat group by an admin who selects them from his or her own list of contacts. Chat is more ephemeral than pages and groups. Chats don’t show up in Facebook searches, and you can’t tell from your own Facebook account whether any of your contacts is in a group chat, unless you are also in that chat of course (although identities can be disguised in chat through the use of ‘nicknames’).

What is true of Facebook is doubtless true of other social media sites, although Facebook is one of the largest, with about two billion monthly active users. Many of the meme-based groups, including ‘Filthy Frank’, have their own YouTube channels.

It is important to remember that there is nothing inherently objectionable about ‘meme’ or ‘banter’ pages and groups. Many are devoted to completely innocent interests. My extended family has a Facebook group, and it’s a great way to share photos and generally keep in touch. Some pages and groups are devoted to political causes; others are based on national, ethnic, or religious identity; yet others are concerned with special interests, such as sport, art, or philosophy; and the list goes on.

That notwithstanding, it remains troubling that there is so much objectionable content distributed across social-media pages and groups. What exactly is the nature of this content, and how does it relate to the well-known memes pictured above? In terms of process, there is no difference: the most extreme and objectionable memes are made in exactly the same way as the examples provided, generally involving the association of an image or short video with some text. Just how objectionable some of them are will become clear in what follows.

The offending categories listed above (racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, pornographic, and ‘disturbing’) refer to ‘generic’ posts, i.e. not targeting any particular individual. It doesn’t stop there, however, as specific individuals are also liable to be victimized. If your photo is available online, then you are a potential target. Both generic and specific types can be extremely objectionable, as several years of investigative journalism have demonstrated.

As early as 2011, The Guardian newspaper reported that Facebook was refusing to remove pages containing rape jokes, on the grounds that a rude joke wouldn’t ‘get you thrown out of your local pub’ (‘Facebook refuses to take down rape joke pages’, The Guardian, 1 October 2011). This was followed three days later by another piece questioning the analogy with pub humour:

By refusing to take these pages down, and by resorting to such a ridiculous and quite frankly offensive ‘rude joke’ analogy to justify their decision, Facebook executives have made absolutely clear where they stand on the issue of gender hate crime. It’s fine to post hateful or threatening content on their site, just as it’s fine to post content that incites violence. Well, as long as it’s primarily aimed at women, that is. (‘Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it’s directed at women’, The Guardian, 4 October 2011)

The campaign against content endorsing rape and domestic violence continued, and in May 2013 The Huffington Post reported that high-profile companies were being urged to boycott advertising on the social media site, in the face of its continued refusal to remove objectionable content. According to the article, the Women Action Media (WAM) group, one of the organizations calling for a boycott, was maintaining a cache of offensive material, including:

a photograph of singer Rihanna’s bloodied and beaten face, captioned with ‘Chris Brown’s Greatest Hits’. It also features an image of a woman lying in a pool of blood, with the words ‘I like her for her brains’ emblazoned across it … Further examples include a picture of a bruised and battered woman entitled ‘WHOREMOUTH – shut it when men are talking’ and one of a man holding a rag over a woman’s mouth, captioned ‘Does this smell like chloroform to you?’. (‘#FBrape: Will Facebook Heed Open Letter Protesting ‘Endorsement Of Rape & Domestic Violence’?’, The Huffington Post, 28 May 2013)

The WAM cache is maintained here (contains graphic content).

The following day, The Guardian reported that Facebook had been forced to take action against ‘hate speech’ on its pages, as a result of the campaign against ‘supposedly humorous content endorsing rape and domestic violence’:

The company said on Tuesday it would update its policies on hate speech, increase accountability of content creators and train staff to be more responsive to complaints, marking a victory for women’s rights activists. ‘We need to do better – and we will,’ it said in a statement. ‘Facebook gives way to campaign against hate speech on its pages’, The Guardian, 29 May 2013).

Fast forward to March 2017, when The Guardian reported that the British government was calling on social media companies ‘to do more to expunge extremist material from the internet’. The main target was ‘the easy availability of material promoting violent extremism online’, with Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, claiming that ‘extremist material online was “corrupting and polluting” many people’ (‘Internet firms must do more to tackle online extremism, says No 10’, The Guardian, 25 March 2017).

Also in March, the tabloid press exposed some of the more shocking examples of meme-based trolling, where victims of terrorist attacks and their families were mocked. The exposé by The Sun Online refers to the members of so-called ‘ghost’ (i.e. invisible) groups:

Jokes are made about Madeleine McCann, terror victims and disabilities – with no topic out of bounds. Groups are moderated by ‘admins’, who can remove sick content – but instead act as ringleaders. An admin of ‘Pure Banter 18+’ last week shared a sick joke about PC Keith Palmer, who lost his life in the Westminster terror attack … Jokes about slavery and racist slurs are also common, with users requesting memes about dark topics. In the ‘Banter18+’ group this week, one member asked for ‘all your best rape memes’ and received scores of sickening posts. Other topics have included Robin Williams’ death, 9/11 and child abuse. (‘Antisocial Network’, The Sun, 29 March 2017)

On 30 March, the same source reported that groups that had been removed as a result of the previous day’s article had been set up again within ten minutes, with members mocking The Sun (see ‘Who Can Stop Them?’, The Sun, 30 March 2017). On 31 March, the Daily Mail carried a similar story.

On 2 May, The Sun reported on ‘The Bathroom’ banter group (180,490 members), in which cash was being offered for the ‘most f****d up memes and videos’, including ones mocking Harvey Price, the disabled son of Katie Price. (‘Sick Facebook troll groups are offering MONEY to the nastiest bullies who taunt disabled kids including Harvey Price’). Later that month, ‘Pure Banter’ was reported to be still in action, with some users making jokes about the bombing at the Manchester Arena. The report added that other members of the group refused to endorse the activities of the trolls. Apparently this was going too far for some. (‘Vile Facebook ‘banter’ groups have been mocking the Manchester bombing victims since last week’s atrocity’, The Sun, 31 May 2017).

Recognizing the scale of the problem, in May The Guardian announced The Facebook Files, a series drawing together the burgeoning investigation into the social-media giant. One focus is the burden experienced by Facebook’s ‘moderators’, who simply cannot cope with the volume of material being uploaded. Another concerns the company’s dilemma in trying to reconcile free speech with social responsibility.

These files raise legitimate questions about the content Facebook does not tolerate, and the speed with which it deals with it. But just as importantly they raise questions about the material it does allow – which some people may consider cruel, insulting, offensive, sexist and racist. (‘Has Facebook become a forum for misogyny and racism?’, The Guardian, 22 May 2017)

One of the articles included in ‘The Files’ goes into some detail about ‘Facebook’s secret rules and guidelines for deciding what its 2 billion users can post on the site’:

They illustrate difficulties faced by executives scrabbling to react to new challenges such as ‘revenge porn’ – and the challenges for moderators, who say they are overwhelmed by the volume of work, which means they often have ‘just 10 seconds’ to make a decision. (‘Revealed: Facebook’s internal rulebook on sex, terrorism and violence’, The Guardian, 22 May 2017)

Given such restrictions, it is hardly surprising that the focus is often on ‘credible violence’. Several of ‘The Files’ deal with the ‘mission impossible’ faced by moderators, as well as the specific threat posed by online extremists.

Before proceeding, there is a final point to make about language in the meme-based Facebook groups. Terms like ‘banter’ disguise the real nature of the discourse that predominates in many of these groups, and especially in chat. There is nothing playful or friendly in the interactions between people who, more often than not, have never even met. Nor will you find the sort of inspirational quotes that do the rounds on Facebook newsfeeds, whether accurately attributed or not. The language in meme chat-groups tends to be denigratory. An indication of this is evident from the abbreviations that are frequently employed, for example ‘kys’ (kill yourself), ‘smd’ (suck my d**k), ‘gfy’ (go f**k yourself) and ‘stfu’ (shut the f**k up) – see Net Lingo. Such discourse is more akin to the trolling mentality, which is facilitated by internet anonymity.

A revealing indication of the extent to which the dark side of meme culture has pervaded society was reported by The Washington Post a little over a month ago (see ‘Harvard withdraws 10 acceptances for “offensive” memes in private group chat’). It concerned a group of students who had been offered places at Harvard, and for whom an official Facebook group had been set up (The Harvard College Class of 2021), allowing admitted students ‘to meet classmates, ask questions and prepare for their first semester’. About a hundred of the incoming freshman class used the official group to create ‘a messaging group where students could share memes about popular culture — a growing trend on the Internet among students at elite colleges’.

But then, the exchanges took a dark turn, according to an article published in the Harvard Crimson … Some of the group’s members decided to form an offshoot group in which students could share obscene, ‘R-rated’ memes, a student told the Crimson. The founders of the messaging group demanded that students post provocative memes in the main group chat to gain admittance to the smaller group.

The students in the spinoff group exchanged memes and images ‘mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children,’ sometimes directing jokes at specific ethnic or racial groups, the Crimson reported. One message ‘called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time”‘ while other messages quipped that ‘abusing children was sexually arousing,’ according to images of the chat described by the Crimson.

University officials got wind of the R-rated sub-group, and, following an investigation, the institution revoked its offers to ten of the offending students, on the basis that ‘the university reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission if the admitted student “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character,” among other conditions’. The decision provoked mixed reactions, divided along free-speech-versus-social-responsibility lines. The newspaper pointedly observed:

The university’s decision to rescind the students’ acceptance to Harvard underscores the dangers of social media posts — public or private — among prospective college students. According to Kaplan Test Prep, which surveyed more than 350 college admissions officers, 35 percent of admissions officers said they check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about applicants. About 42 percent of those officials said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students.

The joke’s gone too far

According to Dawkins’ original conception, memes ‘selfishly’ use human brains to replicate themselves. In other words, we are not the actors in this evolutionary drama, but rather the passive victims of the meme imperative to survive and reproduce. Ultimately, therefore, we are not responsible for these cultural packages of meaning (symbols, theories, practices, and so on). Their existence is independent of individual human beings, since we are merely temporary ‘hosts’.

The analogy with the ‘selfish gene’ is ultimately dissatisfying, however, and leads to self-contradiction. Dawkins’ theory evinces a modern variation of the ancient paradox of philosophical relativism, since its universal application undermines its own objectivity. In other words, Dawkins’ theory of memes, if true, is itself a meme; but if it is a meme, selfishly using our brains to replicate itself, then how could we ever know that it is true, that it corresponds to some objective state of affairs?

Like all paradoxes, this one points to an important philosophical question: to what extent do we control our ideas, and to what extent are we controlled by them? Dawkins was perhaps aware of the contradiction at the heart of his theory, since he appears to allow us some measure of control over the mental parasites. He concluded the original Selfish Gene with the following: ‘We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on Earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’.

In this connection, it is instructive to examine the writings of another scientist, with credentials at least as impeccable as Dawkins’. I refer to neuropsychologist, neurobiologist and Nobel laureate, Roger Sperry (1913-1994). Sperry opposed the prevailing materialist reductionism of twentieth-century science, and propounded instead a ‘mentalist’ theory in which mind plays a causal role in brain processes, taking its place in a hierarchy extending from the subatomic, through intermediary levels, to the cultural. Causes necessarily vary from level to level and, therefore, an explanation appropriate at one level will not be appropriate at another.

In 1965, over ten years before Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, Sperry authored a paper entitled ‘Mind, Brain, and Humanist Values’ (later included in his 1983 book, Science and Moral Priority). In keeping with his mentalist outlook, Sperry argues for the potency of ‘ideas’ in the brain:

Near the apex of this command system in the brain – to return to more humanistic concerns – we find ideas. Man over the chimpanzee has ideas and ideals. In the brain model proposed here, the causal potency of an idea, or an ideal, becomes just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse. Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell. (Science and Moral Priority,
p.36)

At first glance, this almost seems like a proto-meme theory, with ‘ideas’ playing the same role as ‘memes’ in Dawkins’ later scheme. The comparison is superficial, however, because Sperry incorporates the exercise of individual agency in the process. Ideas are only part of the psychic furniture of the brain, along with other ‘mental forces’. In his opposition to a thoroughgoing physical determinism, Sperry does allow for a moderate psychic determinism: cerebral operations are not without antecedent causes, but those causes are not compelling. Potentially included among the causes are memories of previous episodes in an individual’s life, and also the repository of collective experience that is civilization. Such causes can perhaps be better described as ‘influences’. (See op cit, p.39-41)

To my mind, Sperry’s theory more accurately reflects our ordinary human experience than does Dawkins’ dodgy dogma, and this has important implications for how we conceive of memes in general, and internet memes in particular. The mentalist approach implies a measure of responsibility for the memes we generate and disseminate, and this burden cannot be shirked.

In a 2013 Washington Post article (‘Have Internet memes lost their meaning?’), Dominic Basulto takes stock of Dawkins’ ‘extraordinarily clever idea’ as it has adapted to the Internet. Reflecting on things like ‘lolcat’, he makes no reference to the dark side of internet memes, and merely speculates that memes ‘no longer transmit intelligent ideas – they only transmit banality’.

I would venture further and say that the internet meme represents a dumbing-down of culture. After all, if you fill your mind (and your time) with banality, then there is simply no room for the great ideas that form our cultural inheritance. By this I don’t mean that we should ‘consume’ culture for its own sake. By exposing ourselves to the great cultural creations of the past, including literature, the visual arts and music, we rise above our biological nature and, ultimately, develop character.

Banality may be a problem in itself, but it is hardly the most pressing one. When we consider the darker side of internet memes, as outlined above, we are confronting a more serious issue. As I said at the beginning, when it comes to humour there may be varying degrees of acceptability, but most of us would agree that at some point a line is crossed and we have left ‘acceptable’ behind and entered ‘objectionable’ territory. Why does this matter? I would say that it is because the darkest memes pander to the lowest parts of our nature, where sensuality and aggression are to be found. These primitive impulses have always been with us, to different degrees, but the countervailing forces of civilization have served, as a minimum, to keep them in check, and ideally to transform them. Left unchecked, such tendencies can become magnified into gross sensuality, cruelty and sadism.

The propagation of such destructive tendencies via social media, in the guise of humour, is a cause for genuine concern. The whimsical nature of many familiar internet memes can downplay the toxicity of others. It is a process of trivialization. This toxicity then spreads virally through the entire medium, with an accompanying risk of normalization and desensitization, especially when the consumers are young and still forming an identity. The internet troll represents the nadir of this social phenomenon, and while most of us would not identify with such sociopathic traits, to vary degrees the discourse and practices of trolling have pervaded the culture of internet memes.

When I recently discussed the issue of ‘dark’ memes with Grade-11 Philosophy students at a boys’ school, there seemed to be a general dismissal of the problem, summed up by one boy when he said that ‘no one takes those things seriously, even the people who post them’. In other words, it’s all ‘for the lulz’. Another boy responded to the first by saying that you can’t excuse any offensive content simply by labelling it as a ‘meme’. I added to this objection, by referring to a point made by Umberto Eco (1932-2016) in his 1967 article, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ (published in the 1986 collection Faith in Fakes, later republished as Travels in Hyperreality). Eco pointed out that messages are interpreted at the destination, not at the source. This means that, regardless of someone’s intentions in sending a message, its interpretation will have more to do with the frame of reference of the person receiving it. This means that the interpretation of dark memes is beyond the control of the poster, and ultimately is unpredictable. Doing it ‘for the lulz’ amounts to a form of social irresponsibility, and those who provide a platform for the activity have a share in the accountability.

One suspects that those who post objectionable material ‘for the lulz’ would not be at all happy if the ‘lulz’ were at their expense – if, for instance, a mocking meme incorporating their photo was shared across the Internet, and hence visible to their peers; or if their family received phone calls from anonymous trolls making fun of a personal tragedy. Whether sociopaths have an abundance or a scarcity of empathy, its nature is perverted in their case, and yet an appropriate quality of feeling is required for a functional moral life. One role of civilization is to cultivate this, and I suspect that the aggressive, mocking nature of the internet troll undermines it. The internet meme, so easily generated and disseminated, is a major vehicle for this undesirable tendency.

In his 2008 article, ‘The Trolls Among Us’ (cited above), Mattathias Schwartz suggested: ‘It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural.’ This may once have been true of the college frat-society, but the Internet doesn’t work like that, a situation fuelled by technology and faulty age- and identity-checks. The malice is not contained within the virtual walls of an internet ghetto. It is all too clear that it spills over into real-life actions and harm, as attested by many of the examples given in the newspaper articles above.

In one of the Guardian articles from May (‘Revealed: Facebook’s internal rulebook on sex, terrorism and violence’), Nick Hopkins drew attention to the following astute observation by Sarah T Roberts, an expert on content moderation:

It’s one thing when you’re a small online community with a group of people who share principles and values, but when you have a large percentage of the world’s population and say ‘share yourself’, you are going to be in quite a muddle. Then when you monetise that practice you are entering a disaster situation.

The same point was made by Geoff White, the reporter on a recent episode of BBC Radio’s File on 4 programme (‘Online Grooming’, originally broadcast on 13 June), albeit in a different context:

Shouldn’t the social-media companies themselves be doing more to protect children? After all, Facebook alone has almost two billion users worldwide; many of them are young people, valuable targets for the advertisers who fill the tech company’s coffers. Social-media sites are happy to capitalize on youngsters’ likes, shares, and messages, but are they getting the message when it comes to online grooming? (2:35)

Although primarily concerned with the worrying problem of online grooming, it is perhaps worth noting one complaint made by young people that is mentioned in the programme: the use of personal content by third parties, in a manner unwanted by the original poster of the content. This was reported by Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield:

My starting point is that the Internet is a force for good, but it wasn’t built for children. And a third of the users of the Internet are children, so we need to make special accommodation, if you like, for them. Now what they told me was that they often found themselves coming across content that they didn’t expect and they thought was nasty or distasteful; they sometimes found their own postings being used in ways that they weren’t happy with … There were children who found photos of themselves that had been used in other ways, children who had found content that they found very disturbing, and they felt, in the main, nothing was done about it. (5:48)

The allegation that social-media companies have difficulty policing the content on their sites occurred in several of the journalistic sources cited above. It was also made in the File on 4 programme. The source of the problem is twofold: burgeoning subscriber numbers, on the one hand, and the exceptional legal circumstances applying to social-media companies, on the other. Jenny Wiltshire, a criminal defence solicitor from law firm Hickman and Rose, described the situation as follows:

Social networks come within the regime of hosting companies, which are covered by an EC directive, which gives them a lot of protection. The directive essentially says that if the social network doesn’t have actual knowledge of unlawful activity, then they can’t be liable either criminally or in civil damages. It’s only once they are made aware and they are provided information to say that unlawful activity has happened that they are under an obligation to act expeditiously to remove that material or disable the access to that information. So that’s resulted in social networks acting reactively rather than proactively to the problem. (34:32)

If that is the case with ‘unlawful’ activity, then we can only suppose that companies like Facebook will be even less proactive when it comes to the grey area of questionable content that we have been discussing in this post.

Conclusion

The law offers a certain level of protection against some extremes of behaviour on social-media sites. In addition, social-media companies have guidelines that discourage certain behaviour, although the bar may be set quite low, and in any case their ability to enforce the guidelines is in question. Beyond such formal provisions, it remains within the power of individuals to decide what is acceptable. No one is compelled to visit websites containing objectionable content. No one is compelled to join adult banter groups. And no one is compelled to pass on ‘edgy’ or ‘dark’ memes. In the case of children and teenagers, the responsibility lies with their guardians to become aware of their online activity and make decisions about what is acceptable.

The issues can seem complex. First, there is privacy, by which I mean the ability of an individual to control what is made public. This is a difficult one for celebrities, whose lives are often subject to media scrutiny. But everyone has a right to some degree of control over their information, including images. Some private individuals find themselves in the media spotlight through no choice of their own, such as when they are victims of tragedy. They are rightly enraged when that exposure is exploited by anonymous individuals with sociopathic tendencies. We should also be enraged on their behalf.

Then there is free speech, which is always counterbalanced by social responsibility. Getting the balance right is a perennial political, and legal, problem. There is a role for legitimate protest, for criticism, and for satire. But ‘hate speech’ and harassment infringe other liberties and should not be tolerated, and they cannot be excused on the grounds that they are ‘for the lulz’.

If there is any truth in the old adage that ‘you are what you eat’, then perhaps it is also true that ‘you are what you attend to’. If it is possible to become ill through an unhealthy diet, then might it also be possible to malnourish the mind by feeding it junk? I suggest an affirmative answer, and that the darker side of internet memes are creating a toxic environment from which we may need to protect ourselves and those for whom we care.

Just when I thought I had finished this post, I was listening to a podcast of an episode from ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra programme (‘Democracy and trust’). Presenter Geraldine Doogue raised the topic of ‘civility’ with Bill Emmott (8:00), former editor of The Economist and author of The fate of the West: the battle to save the world’s most successful political idea. It occurred to me that the concepts of ‘civility’ and ‘civil discourse’ are very relevant to the point I have been trying to make here. As the Wikipedia article makes clear, there is much more to civility than ‘politeness’ or ‘good manners’:

Community, choices, conscience, character are all elements directly related to civility. Civility is more than just having manners, because it involves developing a civil attitude and civil responsibility. Civility often forms more meaningful friendships and relationships, with an underlying tone of civic duty to help more than the sum of its whole. (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017)

This is reflected in the etymology of the word, from the Latin civilis, ‘relating to citizens’: ‘In early use, the term denoted the state of being a citizen and hence good citizenship or orderly behavior. The sense “politeness” arose in the mid-16th century’ (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017). The same word is, of course, at the root of ‘civilization’.

The article on civil discourse reminds us that it ‘neither diminishes the other’s moral worth, nor questions their good judgment; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism, or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant’s experiences’ (Wikipedia, ‘Civil discourse’, accessed 22 July 2017).

The opposite of civility is incivility, and the following paragraph from Wikipedia could have been written for this blog post:

Incivility is the polar opposite of civility, or in other words a lack or completely without civility. Verbal or physical attacks on others, cyberbullying, rudeness, religious intolerance, lack of respect, discrimination, and vandalism are just some of the acts that are generally considered acts of incivility. Incivility is a negative part of society that has impacted many people in the United States, but as the world is becoming increasingly more transparent in social interactions, it has become more increasingly apparent that incivility has become an issue on the global stage. Social media and the web have given people the ability around the globe to freely exchange ideas, but it has not come without its consequences. (Wikipedia, ‘Civility’, accessed 22 July 2017)

It may be that the Internet, while not the sole cause of a decline in civility, is playing a significant part in an ongoing process of decline. One reason why this matters is that a good society requires civility, so a society lacking civility will not be good. To use Aristotelian terminology, a good society encourages individual flourishing, or ‘living well’. By contrast, a bad society makes it more difficult to be a good person, and to flourish.

Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude this post with a meme:

Condescending Wonka - Lulz

Wikipedia and Kevin R. D. Shepherd

April 5, 2015

Education and the Internet — Part 2

Introduction

In Part 1 I presented what I described as an ‘educational autobiography’, focussing on key stages of my own education and relevant employment, and taking particular note of the intersection of this career with stages in the development of computer technology. I also included a detailed summary of my MA dissertation in Philosophy, since I believe that the topics with which I was concerned remain relevant to the theme of these blog posts. If, as Thompson claimed in 1991, the ‘mediazation of modern culture’ has expanded the scope for the operation of ideology, then the subsequent development of the Internet is surely relevant to this claim, either tending to support it or to refute it. In addition, there is an ambivalent relationship between education and ideology: to what extent does education reinforce a dominant ideology, and to what extent does it undermine it? These are questions I will return to in a later post, but first I would like to take a detour through one particular episode in my experience of the Internet. This episode stands as a counterpoint to many of the vaunted claims being made on behalf of this evolving technology.

In 2006, at the same time that my eyes were being opened to the realities of educational assessment in the new millennium, I was also becoming familiar with one of the most prominent players in the Web 2.0 arena: Wikipedia. This online encyclopedia had been in existence for five years, but I had not given it much attention. The students I was tutoring in 2006 were warned that Wikipedia was not a reliable source of information, but at first I didn’t understand why this was the case. It was only when another tutor was bragging about some fun-poking ‘vandalism’ that he had perpetrated on one of the Wikipedia articles that I began to grasp the ‘wiki’ concept of user-generated content. I decided to investigate.

From my philosophical background, I was aware that attempts had been made historically to collect and organize all human knowledge. The efforts of the 18th-century French encyclopedists were deemed particularly significant, due to the rational system that informed them. (Indeed, one author compares Wikipedia to this Enlightenment predecessor – Dan O’Sullivan, Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice? Farnham, Surrey, 2009, p.45.) The systematic effort to collect and organize all knowledge seemed a noble ideal, but did Wikipedia live up to it?

The Holotropic Breathwork Issue

To begin with I looked at an article on a subject that I had engaged with in the 1990s. Holotropic Breathwork (HB) is a trademarked practice that was developed and marketed as a therapeutic procedure by psychiatrist, Dr Stanislav Grof, after a US (and ultimately international) ban on LSD experimentation in the late 1960s. Essentially it is a form of extreme hyperventilation that, like LSD, induces alterations in brain chemistry with unpredictable results. Grof and his wife, Christina, had introduced HB into Esalen, a significant New Age centre in California, during the 1970s and 80s. I had read some of Grof’s books in the 1990s, and I was also aware that there had been considerable controversy surrounding an attempt to introduce the practice into the Findhorn Foundation, another significant New Age centre in the far north of Scotland. I had been in correspondence with some of the medical authorities in Scotland. The most prominent of these, at Edinburgh University, wrote a report that caused the Scottish Charities Office to recommend (in 1993) that the Foundation should cancel the HB programme. I had also been in contact with a renowned psychiatrist in Dublin who had written several articles on the topic, as well as being a practitioner.

Dr Stanislav Grof: psychiatrist and promoter of LSD psychtherapy

Dr Stanislav Grof: psychiatrist and promoter of LSD psychotherapy and Holotropic Breathwork

Reading the Wikipedia article, however, one would have remained in ignorance of this background. It read more like an advertisement than an encyclopedia article. There were no references to the precautionary statements to be found in Grof’s own books. Since Wikipedia encourages the improvement of articles through collaborative editing, I thought that I could make a contribution in this case. Adhering to the foundational Five Pillars and the various policies and guidelines, beginning on 13 July I added two new sections to the article, first one on ‘Criticism’ and later a ‘Reactions and Contraindications’ section. At this stage I was editing under a pseudonym (The Communicator), since that seemed to be the common practice among Wikipedia editors.

My efforts caused considerable consternation among the existing HB editors, and resulted in a small ‘edit war’ that ultimately led to a request for mediation. My additions were all written from a neutral point of view (NPOV) and were fully sourced, so they could not be faulted on those scores. The main complaint was that I had ‘unbalanced’ the article by adding so much ‘negative’ material. I conceded that the criticism section was large in the context of the existing article, but pointed out that Wikipedia articles are constantly evolving and there was nothing to stop other editors from adding more material to balance out the criticism section. There was very little about the history of Grof’s development of HB, for example, or the ‘religious’ context in which he embedded it. Such information would have balanced the article as well as making it more informative.

This was my introduction to Wikipedia editing, and I had jumped in at the deep end. I realised very quickly that it was not uncommon for editors to have a sense of ownership over articles. This was particularly true when they edited articles on subjects about which they felt strongly. In addition, they might have devoted many hours to writing and editing their articles. They would not take kindly to a newcomer trying to alter this work, and especially if the newcomer did not share their partisan position. Of course, Wikipedia had evolved the ‘Five Pillars,’ together with policies and guidelines, for precisely these reasons, and officially the encyclopedia discouraged too strong a sense of ownership, which was clearly detrimental to NPOV.

Less charitably perhaps, I suspected that the real motive for the reaction was that the new information was a source of embarrassment for the existing editors, who admitted to being connected with HB in one way or another. If I was right about this, then it was clear that the Wikipedia guidelines could be employed to eliminate (or at least minimize) undesirable content. It would be a case of the devil citing Scripture for his own purpose.

In the case of HB, some of the partisan editors were more reasonable than others, and one of them edited the article to retain the gist of my additions, albeit in an attenuated form. What I didn’t realise, however, was that the conflict experienced in editing this article was really a minor skirmish, and I was about to be embroiled in a much broader conflict, the ramifications of which would extend beyond Wikipedia.

The Sathya Sai Baba Issue

On 21 November 2006, one of the partisan HB editors (Jablett) posted a comment on the article’s ‘talk’ (i.e. discussion) page, questioning the reliability of one of the sources I had used (the archive of the discussion is here). The source in question was Kevin R. D. Shepherd, an author I had become familiar with in the late 1980s. Shepherd was an independent writer with no academic or sectarian affiliations. His research interests were broad, crossing both disciplinary and cultural boundaries. Although he often described himself as an amateur (albeit a ‘serious’ one), I had found his books to be very scholarly, and often with an interesting perspective. One aspect of his writing was an informative criticism of various ‘New Age’ trends, including practices such as Holotropic Breathwork. This was why I had cited an appendix (‘On Holotropic Breathwork’) in his Minds and Sociocultures: An Analysis of Religious and Dissenting Movements, Volume One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (1995). Unknown to me at the time, however, another book by Shepherd was at the centre of a Wikipedia controversy relating to Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba (SSB).

Kevin R D Shepherd 02

Kevin R. D. Shepherd (b. 1950): an independent researcher and writer. © Kevin Shepherd

By way of background, Shepherd had published several biographies on 19th and 20th century religious figures in Maharashtra, India. One of these was Sai Baba of Shirdi, a liberal Muslim faqir who died in 1918. Shirdi Sai attracted both Hindu and Muslim followers. The former category were in the majority at the end of his life, resulting in a process of ‘Hinduization’ that gained momentum after the saint’s death. Shirdi Sai Baba started to become widely revered in India, which may explain why a young Hindu in Andhra, namely Sathyanarayana Raju, claimed to be the reincarnation of the Shirdi saint in the early 1940s. The Andhra claimant to fame changed his name to Sathya Sai Baba, and was widely successful in gaining celebrity. (For Shepherd’s online article about Shirdi Sai Baba, including Sathya Sai Baba’s reincarnation claim, see ‘Shirdi Sai Baba and the Sai Baba Movement’.)

Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918), a Sufi ascetic

Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918): a Sufi ascetic

In 2005 Shepherd had published Investigating the Sai Baba Movement: A Clarification of Misrepresented Saints and Opportunism. The main subjects of the book were Sai Baba of Shirdi, Upasni Maharaj of Sakori and Meher Baba of Ahmednagar, three religious figures of Maharashtra who had been the subject of earlier treatments by Shepherd. Shepherd also supplied three appendices, documenting the case against Sathya Sai Baba, employing reports by ex-devotees of the latter. Sathya Sai Baba had been accused of fraud, sexual abuse, and even collusion in murder. The allegations were strong, and many disillusioned followers left the Sathya Sai movement. Some of them had published the evidence and allegations on the Internet, and the phenomenon as a whole had attracted major media attention.

On 14 June 2006, the Wikipedia editor Andries approvingly referred to Shepherd’s annotated book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. The full name of that editor was Andries Krugers Dagneaux; he was an ex-devotee of Sathya Sai, and very familiar with events in India. Shepherd’s book appeared in the bibliography of a Wikipedia article about Robert C. Priddy, a retired academic philosopher and sociologist, and formerly the national leader of the Sathya Sai Baba Organisation in Norway. The Priddy article became the subject of intensive attack from another editor who used the pseudonym of SSS108. His real name was Gerald Joe Moreno. Like Andries, he was an editor of the Sathya Sai Baba article, but in contrast, a fervent supporter of Sathya Sai and an obsessive opponent of ex-devotee Robert Priddy.

Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011): controversial guru

Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011): controversial guru

Moreno, of New Mexico, pitched himself against the Priddy article, attempting to have this deleted. On 9 October 2006, he created an idiosyncratic User page with the title User:SSS108/Kevin Shepherd. Moreno disputed a Wikipedia quote referring to Shepherd, whose book was included in the Priddy article he detested. The editorial quote (associated with Andries) mentioned Priddy and the infamous ‘bedroom murders’ at the ashram of Sathya Sai. Moreno regarded this quote as a major obstruction to his apologist cause, especially as the quote was so closely related to Shepherd’s book and the Priddy article, which Andries supported. The basic reasoning involved here amounted to: Shepherd’s book approvingly referenced Priddy, and featured in the Priddy article — therefore Shepherd and his book had to be eliminated.

There was an underlying sectarian motivation to the User page of SSS108, who called Shepherd’s reliability into question, on the basis that he was a self-publisher and allegedly unknown. Moreno did not, of course, declare his apologist orientation. His User page appeared on Google and caused widespread confusions among persons with no knowledge of the underlying situation. Moreno almost succeeded in eliminating the Priddy article in the ideological struggle that followed between him and Andries (repeated attempts were made to delete this article, which survived for several years after, until a more general deletionist pogrom became pervasive, eliminating thousands of articles).

Supporters of Holotropic Breathwork seized upon the SSS108 User page as an excuse to deny Shepherd’s legitimate criticism of Grof therapy. These pseudonymous editors were typical of the partisan mindset so often to be found on Wikipedia, a glaring contradiction to NPOV. They imagined that SSS108 was an authority on matters he referred to. The confusion was such that an editor calling himself Minehunter even accused me of being Stephen Castro. This was because I had cited (in my criticism section to the HB article) Castro’s book Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation (1996), which included a very critical chapter on HB.

Minehunter defended Jablett’s call for removal of the Shepherd reference at the HB article, and on 23 November, on the basis of Moreno ruse, he misleadingly described Investigating the Sai Baba Movement as a ‘vanity publication’. He knew nothing about that book, and had not read it. The references from opponents were based entirely upon their preference to exclude criticism of their favoured subject. The situation was laughable, and yet at the same time tragic, because the false status of pseudonymous bias could so easily gain ascendancy on Wikipedia. The Shepherd reference at the HB page related to an annotated book a thousand pages in length. The Shepherd reference on the Priddy page related to an annotated book over three hundred pages in length.

I defended my editing in general, and my inclusion of Shepherd in particular. I was appalled by the damaging lore created by pseudonymous editors, who masqueraded under the auspices of NPOV. Contrary to hostile insinuations, Shepherd was not unknown or insignificant. For instance, in 2006 he circulated an open letter to hundreds of eminent persons, and received replies from such British political celebrities as David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell.

In 2006, I was supported on Wikipedia by an editor calling himself Jedermann, whom I later discovered was a British academic. On both the HB discussion page and the SSS108 User page, Jedermann contested the shallow attempt to undermine Shepherd’s credibility, and provided several academic citations of the latter’s books. In 2007, Jedermann left Wikipedia in disgust at the low editorial standards in general evidence.

Shepherd himself was unaware of the attack by Moreno, not being a computer user at that time (he evidently still has a low opinion of internet influence, see ‘Internet Problems and Wikipedia’, which is part of his ‘Autobiographical Reflections’). I myself was at first only aware of the discussion at the HB article. At this time, I did not realise that editor SSS108 was a strident online defender of Sathya Sai Baba, and one who had gained notoriety for his intemperate attacks on the disaffected ex-devotees. The latter included his arch-opponent Robert Priddy, whose industrious online output eventually created an extensive and major website detailing the critique of Sathya Sai Baba (http://www.saibaba-x.org.uk/ — see also Priddy’s blog).

Other prominent ex-devotees were Brian Steel and Barry Pittard, former lecturer in English at the Sathya Sai College in India. They and many other ex-devotees were web victims of Moreno (the number of victims was eventually estimated at over a hundred). Moreno established a network of attack sites and libellous blogs, the sole purpose of which was to discredit the allegations made against Sathya Sai Baba. Moreno himself had been a devotee, and referred to a personal interview with the guru. Yet he claimed that he was no longer a devotee, which many did not find convincing in view of his strident defence tactics.

Robert Priddy

Robert Priddy: philosopher and sociologist at the University of Oslo, 1968-85. © Robert Priddy

Moreno claimed to be an expert on what he called the Sai Controversy. His method was to mock and deride opponents, whom he called Anti-Sai, and to provide very one-sided descriptions of events from an avowed Pro-Sai perspective (see ‘Gerald Joe Moreno and Sai Critics’). Shepherd refers to Moreno as a cyberstalker, indicating the forms of harassment involved (see ‘Cult Campaign of Equalizer’). Priddy is also explicit in his counter to Moreno invective. These two are the major sources on a rather fantastic web career of ‘Pro-Sai’ attack during the years 2004–2010, and inseparably associated with Wikipedia.

Unlike Priddy and others, Shepherd was not an ex-devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. The guru’s reincarnation claim made him relevant to Shepherd’s book of 2005. When Andries supported this scholarly book, Moreno (SSS108) rejected it, using the pretext of self-publication, which he was able to invoke because of acutely generalizing Wikipedia guidelines.

The conflict between Andries and SSS108 came to involve other editors, and ended in an arbitration process. At the conclusion of this event in March 2007, Moreno was described by a Wikipedia administrator as ‘aggressive, abusive, and confrontational’. He was banned indefinitely on account of activist editing.

Beyond Wikipedia

In July 2007, after the Wikipedia ban, Moreno extended his hostility against Shepherd. Using the pseudonym of Equalizer, he posted ‘Kevin Shepherd and Robert Priddy’ on his blog circuit, repeating his earlier attempt to undermine Shepherd’s credibility as an author. By such explicit association with Priddy, Moreno clearly thought that he was identifying Shepherd as a suitable target for ‘Pro-Sai’ attack and stigma. Afterwards, the first website of Shepherd appeared in August 2007, and this included an article protesting against the hostile tactics of Moreno (see ‘Wikipedia Issues and Sathya Sai Baba’).

Moreno ignored the points of protest, and instead quickly mounted a fresh attack in September. This occurred at his notorious website saisathyasai. Shepherd has described and contested the content in various online articles and features. For instance, ‘Apologist for Sathya Sai Baba: Gerald Joe Moreno’. Moreno presented himself as the victor in argument, dismissing all objections to his Pro-Sai version of events, and contemptuously denigrating Shepherd and the ex-devotees. Superficial readers were misled, lacking a due analytical faculty.

Shepherd subsequently rebutted the claims of his attacker, in an update of 6 November to ‘Wikipedia Issues’. This foil was entitled ‘Kevin R. D. Shepherd in response to Gerald Joe Moreno’. The update was so strategic that Moreno did not counter, save in relation to one point only, which he misrepresented.

Shepherd afterwards contradicted Moreno in extra detail. His 2008 article ‘Wikipedia, Moreno, Google’ was a thorough repudiation of the apologist conveniences. Moreno never did admit any error on his part. Instead, he pursued an elaborate SEO (Search Engine Optimization) tactic of duplicating his attacks originally appearing at saisathyasai.com in 2007. Being unable to contradict what Shepherd said, Moreno resorted to confusion by posting the same blogs over and over again at other internet locations.

In October 2008, Moreno created a new attack blog that was merely a duplication of saisathyasai in relation to Shepherd. He misleadingly called this ‘Kevin Shepherd Exposed’. That subterfuge was in the same blogspot series as his so-called ‘exposures’ of ex-devotees. All this was part of an explicit campaign in the cause of Sathya Sai Baba.

By cross-posting his attack articles against Shepherd, the cyberstalker was optimizing his blog ranking on Google Search results. This strategy demonstrated what several of the ex-devotees had already pointed out: Moreno was an astute manipulator of internet technology.

Because Moreno had resorted to this extremist expedient, in 2009 Shepherd posted a new article entitled ‘The Internet Terrorist Gerald Joe Moreno’, revealing Moreno in his true context. Robert Priddy emailed Shepherd to say that his contribution had defeated Moreno polemic. Priddy recognized that Shepherd had achieved a standard of rational argument that the ex-devotees had not been able to express. Moreno improvised new attack blogs, but his contentions were regarded as absurd by informed readers. The problem was uninformed readers, and also sectarian interests of another kind.

Ethical Issues on Wikipedia

In December 2009, I participated as an editor on an AfD (Article for Deletion) page, complaining against the attempt to delete a new Wikipedia article on Kevin Shepherd (see ‘Wikipedia Exegesis of Simon Kidd’). One of the opposing editors resorted to the despicable measure of making links to Moreno attack blogs on the AfD page, with the evident attention of stigmatizing Shepherd. That new agent of libel was Dazedbythebell, a supporter of Meher Baba who evidenced some indication of underlying sectarian animosities. Shepherd has provided his own detailed description of the deletionist episode in a lengthy online article (see ‘Arguments For and Against Article Deletion’ and ‘If in doubt as to whether there is consensus to delete a page…’). Indeed, this is by far and away one of the longest critiques of Wikipedia that I know of. The author has provided a convenient summary at ‘Citizen Vocation and Wikipedia Misinformation’.

Although Wikipedia personnel asserted that the deletion process was fair, in my opinion that is not true. There are two quite strong additional considerations.

First, Kevin Shepherd was not in any respect a typical instance of self-publishing, all his books being annotated and possessing indelible associations with Cambridge University Library (via the activity of unpaid private research — see ‘Cambridge Library Phase’). I was astonished to find that one of his books has over 800 endnotes. In certain of his books, the indexing is also substantial.

Secondly, the affliction suffered by Shepherd from a Wikipedia User page poses ethical questions that were very conveniently not recognized by the Wikipedia administration.

The presiding administrator (Smartse) on the Shepherd AfD page admitted that he had never heard of Sathya Sai Baba or Meher Baba. In other words, he was completely ignorant of the cyberstalker campaign that was in evidence on the AfD page, and also at a disadvantage in assessing Meher Baba movement hostilities represented by the aggressive Dazedbythebell, who was so prominent in deletion.

Jimmy Wales eventually deleted (or courtesy blanked) the SSS108 User page, but that event did not occur until 2012 (see ‘Jimbo Deletes SSS108 User Page’). Meanwhile, in December 2009, Gerald Joe Moreno (Equalizer) was able to crow triumphantly over the deletion of the article on Shepherd, advertising this event on his blog network with typically misleading flourishes (see ‘Wikipedia Slap from Gerald Joe Moreno’). The huge black hole in Wikipedia public relations and ethical standard was abundantly revealed. The depreciatory User page of a banned User was influential on Google until Wales intervened over two years later.

In 2009, I myself was a target for Moreno attack, and merely because I defended Shepherd against extremist calumny (see ‘Attacking All Connections’). Ex-devotees said that Moreno became ever more manic in his blog output during 2009; they interpreted this development in terms of his basic frustration at the strong resistance he had encountered. Moreno arguments too frequently relied on defamation, insult, and name-calling (see ‘Hate Campaign Blogs of Gerald Joe Moreno’). The logic was superficial, even when he quoted from opposing sources.

A number of Moreno blogs attempted to blacken Shepherd’s name by associating him with the more questionable beliefs and activities of some SSB ex-devotees. Shepherd’s reference to these sources never amounted to a blanket endorsement, but that made no difference to Moreno, who showed no scruple in turning the most tendentious associations to his apparent advantage. A ludicrous example of this strategy was entitled ‘Author Kevin Shepherd Endorses Psychic Trance Medium’. This deception was cross-posted on all corners of the Moreno blog network (see ‘Conny Larsson and Sathya Sai Baba’). Another puerile contrivance was ‘New Age Promoter Kevin Shepherd’ (see ‘Kevin RD Shepherd Not a New Age Promoter’).

The victim eventually provided a counter blog entitled ‘Kevin RD Shepherd Not Exposed’. This has 27 entries, thus matching the number of entries on the Moreno blog which claimed to expose him. Shepherd has abundantly revealed the deceptions in sectarian apologist thinking of the extremist variety. He notably expressed sympathy with Professor Tulasi Srinivas, who was the recipient of a blog attack by Moreno in June 2010 (see ‘Tulasi Srinivas and Moreno’).

The cyberstalker is said to have died soon after. Priddy has concluded that Moreno is dead, although another verdict is more cautious, saying confirmation is required. Certainly, the Moreno website saisathyasai disappeared from the Internet after the webmaster’s reported death. Many of his blogs remain visible.

One of the many misleading Moreno creations is the blog ‘Comical Citations to Anonymous Scholars’, appearing in September 2007 at saisathyasai.com, and thereafter widely duplicated. I happen to know something about this blog, because I was one of the anonymous scholars mentioned. Shepherd’s references were not comical, but accurate. At that time I was still identified pseudonymously on Wikipedia. Shepherd had therefore inevitably used my pseudonym (The Communicator).

Moreno claimed that Shepherd was ‘naive’ and ‘gullible’ in accepting my credentials and those of another pseudonymous editor (the abovementioned Jedermann). Shepherd had noticed my comments in a print-out of the lengthy discussion page at the HB article. He had formerly heard of me via the author Stephen Castro, to whom I had sent copies of relevant medical correspondence in the 1990s (see ‘Joe Moreno Insults Academics on Wikipedia’).

Moreno wanted to believe that The Communicator had no academic context. He even stated that this instance indicated ‘some sort of collaborated scheming’, which is another error. In support of this false contention, his update of 6 October asserted that I had altered my Wikipedia User page to include information (about an academic background) that Shepherd had supplied. Moreno wrongly claimed that this action must have been at the instigation of Shepherd. I did indeed update my User page to include relevant details of academic career, but that was nothing to do with Shepherd, who was the victim of cyberstalker assumption.

My pseudonymous status remained a problem, but I subsequently disclosed my real name on Wikipedia in 2009. Most Wikipedia editors were pseudonymous, and false names were not actually considered a problem in this web milieu. In contrast, I take the view that the difference between pseudonyms and real name editorship is an ethical issue to be duly confronted.

Reverting to Moreno and ‘anonymous scholars’, he made a similar error in his evaluation of the situation concerning Jedermann. He accused Shepherd (or Jedermann) of inventing the academic status here involved, meaning the credential of a Ph.D. Moreno more or less pronounced this to be a fiction. In actual fact, Dr. M. E. Dean, alias Jedermann, had declared his real name identity on Citizendium in March 2007, several months before Moreno made his significantly erroneous accusation. Dr. Dean had an active role in a British university. Shepherd subsequently pointed out the error of Moreno, but the facts were typically ignored by the cyberstalker (see ‘Serious Citations Are Not Comical’).

Moreno was anxious to dismiss the ‘anonymous scholars’ because they had supported Shepherd. Therefore they must be wrong, and acting in a nefarious manner. In Moreno’s argument, Shepherd could not possibly be of any significance, and therefore his supporters were fit only for derision. This angle is confirmed by Moreno’s subsequent negative reaction upon learning that I was a senior research officer at a well known Australian university. That role was similarly despised by the vehement cyberstalker, who paraded my image and supplied a mocking description. This did serve to illustrate that Moreno was an internet extremist, as Shepherd and the ex-devotees had warned.

Kevin Shepherd was completely innocent of any fabrication in relation to Jedermann or The Communicator. Yet the Moreno stigma of deceit was reapplied by Wikipedia personnel on the AfD page which caused removal of the article on Shepherd from Wikipedia. The Meher Baba supporter Dazedbythebell explicitly referred to this stigma on the AfD page, himself having placed there some links to misleading and libellous Moreno blogs. Dazedbythebell clearly endorsed the Moreno stigma, which I believe was influential to a substantial degree in this supposedly fair play of the deletionists.

I have not witnessed such malpractice in any other channel. This was one of the reasons why I supported Shepherd so strongly, although outnumbered by persons of a different disposition. The presiding administrator (Smartse) was completely unconcerned with any due investigation of the context attaching to Moreno attack blogs. He was a biologist, not an ethicist. Smartse believed that only his judgment, and that of entities like Dazedbythebell, could be the effective standard in operation (see ‘Smartse and NPOV Abuse’).