Posted by: David Harley | May 5, 2013

Facebook, Scepticism, and the Antisocial Media

Today I came across an article on Trial by Facebook – Dangerous Trends by .

Haley makes some good points about the use and misuse of vigilantism in the social media, though such ugliness as ‘Fred Bloggs is a hacker’ hoaxes (see also http://www.welivesecurity.com/2013/02/08/its-a-wonderful-hoax/), the malicious victimization of individuals such as joe jobs (no relation to Steve – a joe job is an attack, not a person), and orchestrated online bullying were around in some form long before Facebook and Twitter. He cites a number of recent examples of people who were mistakenly victimized, and offers a sensible high-level guide to distinguishing fact from rumour.

In fact – and Haley does hint at this – the issue goes far beyond the question of how to distinguish between fact and uncorroborated stories. It’s about how people behave in an environment that allows them to express themselves in front of huge virtual audiences while remaining themselves to some extent anonymous or pseudonymous.

Not that anonymity or the use of a pseudonym is invariably malicious or undesirable, but in situations where human beings perceive themselves as being less accountable for their behaviour than in a room with a few of their peers, they don’t always behave admirably. Much is made in the Age of the Internet of ‘crowdsourcing’ and ‘the wisdom of crowds’, but we seem to have forgotten the historical lessons of the ‘Madness of Crowds’.

It sometimes surprises me how often I’ve referred to Mackay’s book on ‘mob psychology’, first published in 1841, when writing about the psychosocial aspects of IT security, but his examples are constantly re-echoed in contemporary events. A shorter and more scholarly contemporary analysis by my friend Mich Kabay on Anonymity and Pseudonymity in Cyberspace: Deindividuation, Incivility and Lawlessness Versus Freedom and Privacy offers an excellent introduction to many of the psychological drivers underpinning social behaviour on the web, though he was probably more focused on frankly antisocial behaviour than the greyer areas where you or I might sometimes cross a line. And while the Radio Times isn’t generally the first place I’d look for security-related commentary, a recent article by Justin Webb (Radio Times, 27th April – 3rd May 2013) makes some interesting points about the way in which a healthy scepticism can give way to a less healthy refusal to believe anything that challenges views they already hold. (He cites Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction which I haven’t read, but sounds like something I possibly should read.)*

Hat tip to my colleagues at ESET Ireland for bringing the site to my attention. And while I generally keep my security-related writing and my attempts at a more literary style separate, I can’t resist including a link to a poem I wrote in the 1980s called Rumour, which seems strangely apposite. Curiously, it turned up in a pile of papers I was sifting through as I wrote this piece, so I added it to a more appropriate blog page.

* Webb also quotes Senator Daniel Moynihan as telling Americans that ‘they were entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.’ That’s a little ironic, in that while Moynihan may well have said something to that effect in 1994, the same quote has been attributed to James R. Schlesinger in 1973. Well, many of us have had the experience of coming up with what we believed to be a good original thought (or even a mistaken thought*) only to find that someone else had much the same idea. And the essential value of the is particular thought is not devalued by a slight uncertainty about its provenance. It does demonstrate, though, how easy it is to absorb and disseminate information that may not be altogether accurate.

Another example I’ve seen several times recently is the attribution of the quotation ‘Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy’ both to Sir Isaac Newton and to the much more contemporary Howard H. Newton. While the phrasing of the aphorism suggests Howard H., I’ve given up trying to find a verifiable source – i.e., exactly when or where either Newton actually made the remark.

**I have in mind an anecdote by Richard Dawkins about how both he and E.O. Wilson, apparently totally independently, mistitled papers by Hamilton about his theory of kin selection. The papers were called, according to Dawkins – I haven’t read them! – ‘The genetical evolution of social behaviour’, but both Wilson and Dawkins cited it as ‘The genetical theory of social behaviour’. In Dawkins’ own words (in the end-notes to Chapter 11 of The Selfish Gene), ‘Wilson and I had independently introduced the same mutant meme!’

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

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