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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 5, 2022

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I wrote about the likelihood of the Move To Mastodon resulting in a purity spiral of banning-everyone-who-won't-ban-the-target-of-the-week, and it seems to have already started. There's a reasonable summary from Reason here: Mastodon's Content-Moderation Growing Pains

The TL;DR is that Mike Pesca defended an article about puberty blockers by that notorious right wing rag, the New York Times, on a cool-kids-invite-only journalist mastodon server. This is an unforgivable sin in the mastodon universe, and earned calls to purge him as an "anti-trans ghoul" by other journalists.

Reason glosses over the most interesting part to me, which is the massive pressure imposed on on the journal.host moderators to ban Pesca but not Molloy under threat of their entire instance being purged from the mastodon universe (which was done anyway even after they surrendered). Some of that can be seen here. "A line has been crossed and if there aren't consequences it will be a wedge the TERFs use to gain entry into the broader platform." etc. etc. Money quote from one of their own journalist admins: “Banning someone for posting a link to an NYT article sets a precedent that we really need to work through.”

Another incident just happened to Raspberry Pi:

Raspberry Pi posted on Dec 8, at about 10pm NZT, about a new hire, Toby, who was previously a police officer who had specialised in building outdoor surveilliance equipment using Raspberry Pis...

Seeing this behaviour from a well-loved brand like Raspberry Pi was taken as a betrayal of the predominately leftist attitude of many instances. Due to the very different power dynamics of the Fediverse, it took less than two hours from the initial post and initial harmful replies before the official Raspberry Pi instance started being defederated

Now that Raspberry Pi has hit the #fediblock, recovery becomes considerable more difficult. Not only does Raspberry Pi need to withdraw their statements and issue unequivocal apologies, they must also apologise directly to the admins who defederated them, and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to change.

On the Fediverse there is no singular entity such as Twitter, Inc. that financially benefits from the presence of a brand, or benefits from the extra engagement and associated ad sales tha controversy will generate.

Brands seeking to join the Fediverse will need to invest not just in a social media manager, but compentent and long-time administration for the instance that is aware of the political dynamics of the Fediverse, in order to ensure that they are able to stay on the fediverse. (holy shit they reinvented political officers pretty quick, although given that they're all communists is it really "reinventing"?)

(Another instance, Mastodon.scot, appears to have been mass-defederated because they allowed a police officer to join. Or maybe they all insisted on typing in scottish accents and everyone thought it was gibberish, who knows)

I think there's a lot to be learned here about how organizations like twitter and reddit act as central authorities to prevent, abet, or moderate and sustain purity spirals, allowing incredibly "diverse" groups to avoid the infighting seen above so they can focus on torturing a common victim, while keeping the moderate wing sufficiently in fear of the radicals to make them obedient. Nate Silver is now mocking the "hall monitors" moving to Mastodon, showing a lot more brave defiance than when they were on the same platform holding the threat of a direct line to twitter's backchannel over his head.

I'm starting to wonder how much the great awokening of 2020 depended on central authorities endorsing (or simply failing to punish) radicals, sending normies like Nate the message that the Overton window is shifting and he'd better go along with it. Struggle sessions occurred in women's groups and fringe fandoms long before that, but even in those cases the knives never came out until trusted authorities gave the signal that the radicals would not be stopped, and that anyone who tried to defend themselves would face consequences. (Anyone who remembers "racefail" in science fiction would be in a good position to either support or rebut this, because it seems like the Ur woke purity spiral incident that I wasn't there to see).

In exchange for obedience and conversion, normies got some degree of protection as long as they weren't ever the last first to stop clapping at the latest public executions. And the radicals had administrative power they were too unstable to use taken away from them in exchange for being given the right to do anything they wanted to their victims with the authority's blessing. The administrators got a helpful volunteer stasi who would literally do it for free (particularly the entire reddit powermod ecosystem that emerged out of the SRS policing/mass reporting clique).

Musk buying twitter and all the various bits and pieces of private conversations we see echoed in the dissident press makes me think they're thinking along similar lines; that a strong central authority can also choose to check radical purity spirals and direct them into a cycle of self-destructive internal purges in much the same way that the Governor of Massachusetts ended the Salem witch trials.

It's encouraging to think that there may be a way to stop normies from sleepwalking into increasingly radical leftism, treating it as the new normal with no memory or recognition of their previous beliefs. Maybe all it takes is a central authority that aligns people's interests in a non-destructive way and refuses to grant cover to perpetrators.

If satori and the gab guys are brave enough to do it, these dudes have no excuse when all their content is hyper regime-aligned lol

The issue isn't 'regime alignment', it's "what if someone spams CP or copyrighted content or other illegal content on your instance, and what if you didn't make the proper legal incantations to shield yourself from liability"? Gab has lawyers and money to pay lawyers with, joe baker, host of loafstodon.net, has not (as the article shows, very few mastodon instances have).

I admit this is all very entertaining to watch. The journalists/whatever that made pyrrhic hay about being principled platform refugees were on Twitter in the first place entirely because that's where the eyeballs are. Twitter's entire competitive draw is its massive engagement potential. I can't imagine that the Mastodon migration is all that sustainable if all you're going to end up with are balkanized circle-jerk sessions. Similar to the selection problems that befell Gab, Parler, Voat, etc. it doesn't seem like you can build a successful platform unless it is predicated on being broadly accessible to everyone.

Ooh, I’m glad you made this writeup. There’s quite a dose of schadenfreude in seeing a different group faced with seven zillion witches.

If I understand the structure of Mastodon—I’m envisioning a certain Bugs Bunny clip—then this is not working as intended. It’s unhinged and hilarious, yet not terribly surprising.

What’s most interesting is the determination of activists to import Twitter culture. Their course of action is supposed to be defederation. The offender only loses access to instances which can’t tolerate something, not to his home turf. This obviously runs counter to the sense of “justice served” inherent to cancellation.

I think the stable equilibrium, here, is aggressively unresponsive instances focused on easily-legislated moderation. Journal.based accepts all links to mainstream publications, doesn’t moderate for content, and doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Then journal.host can filter on top of that or just flounce and federate with someone who will.

It’s not clear that Mastodon will actually converge on such a solution. If the userbase is homogenous, perhaps because of selection pressures on those who leave Twitter, there may never be demand for apolitical instances. Is there any point in moderating an instance that’s not meant for end-users? Do hosts see some benefit from additional layers of federation? Wait, how’s Urbit doing lately?

There’s another stable state where the platform collapses. A sufficiently fragmented fediverse offers all the risk of social media with little of the benefits. This will happen if activists consistently implode any server large enough for a brand to put in effort.

Which brings us to Raspberry pi, facing the more traditional problem of amateur PR. It’s amplified, not created, by the shiny new format. I think the appropriate response is to find new, more general instances (after booting the current PR guy!) rather than beg back into one of the Soviet republics. If no such instance exists, though, what reason does the company have to hang around in the fediverse?

Maybe all it takes is a central authority that aligns people's interests in a non-destructive way and refuses to grant cover to perpetrators.

There’s a certain irony in saying this about mobs, well, petitioning their sovereigns to align interests and uncover perpetrators. You can even see their attempts to claim “non-destructive” goals of making the world safe for democracy LGBT. Everyone likes to claim the moral high ground.

In exchange for obedience and conversion, normies got some degree of protection as long as they weren't ever the last to stop clapping at the latest public executions.

Did you intend to write first to stop clapping, not last? For the purity spiralers, isn't it a good thing to keep clapping all the way through even after everyone else has stopped clapping, to show that you're that enthusiastic and dedicated to the cause? Or is this like a "doth protest too much" thing where you don't want to be in that extreme either, since that might mean you're trying to cover for your hidden internal lower enthusiasm?

Derp, thanks for the catch. The sentence was too much for my 90 IQ brain.

Wait a second, I thought the selling point of the whole fediverse thing was that it was all decentralised, no one entity in charge, anyone can start up their own instance, etc.

So it turns out that there is a Thought Police patrolling after all?

On part of the promise surely works: You can still run your own instance and federate with those instances that want federate with you and build your own social net. However, social networks with free-for-all blocking are often very brutal brutal.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that decentralization is not sufficient for freedom. Imagine a school cafeteria where you have freedom of association -- but the ruling clique can also say that loser nerds are not welcome to sit in their table.

However, social networks with free-for-all blocking are often very brutal brutal.

And we've seen this play out since the dawn of the Internet. The vast majority of online spaces were rich in cliques, flamewars, relentless trolling, and corrupt moderation that never shied from using the banhammer for personal gain. It's why such a high number of online communities follow a predictable path of eventually becoming echo chambers and later imploding. Perhaps it would even be fair to say that the vast majority of people who take on the mission of establishing and running a community have little or no knowledge of basic coordination mechanisms, some dating as far back as ancient Greece.

Themotte and some rat-adjacent spaces are the only ones I know that have avoided imploding while maintaining the ability to generate novel, interesting discussion. I can see no other reason than the fact that these places have not only enshrined rules that encourage civilized argument, what Karl Popper labeled "the rational unity of mankind", but also ensured that moderation is done in the spirit of those rules.

As evidenced by the broader culture war, the majority of people are fine with tribal warfare, whether it's online or offline.

However, social networks with free-for-all blocking are often very brutal brutal.

This is starting to sound to me like folks that try to run their own mail servers. In theory, it's a federated protocol. In practice, newcomers and small fish are very difficult to operate because automated spam filtering pretty universally rejects them, and a mail server blocked by Gmail or Microsoft isn't terribly useful.

There have been some proposed ways to improve email federation, but the big players have a lot of inertia and no real reason to change anything.

It's interesting because spam filtering isn't particularly politicized to my knowledge, but the outcomes are similar.

Many new users have flocked to a couple large flagship servers running Mastodon because having content curated for them by ideologically similar moderators is more important to them than principles of decentralization or being burdened with having to choose what content they wish to see. The rest of the fediverse is completely unaffected by all this since they've been defederated by mastodon.social long ago in the gamer wars of 2014.

Since the beginning Mastodon is all about censorship. That the tools they are using are really difficult to use for that is just them playing on hard mode. Fortunately for them, they've got enough power to do the censorship anyway. For instance, to ban Gab's instance they had to hardcode the ban into the client. They then got Apple and Google app stores to ban any client which didn't have this ban hardcoded.

Since the beginning Mastodon is all about censorship. That the tools they are using are really difficult to use for that is just them playing on hard mode.

I'm aware that the creators are hardcore leftists, but I'm curious about this claim that it was always about censorship. If they were consciously thinking about this as you imply, why make something federated in the first place?

Iirc the system was stolen by that one German guy from a gnu actually-free-speech project. So they're in a "squatting in master's house while trying to tear it down with his tools" situation.

Raspberry Pi posted on Dec 8, at about 10pm NZT, about a new hire, Toby, who was previously a police officer who had specialised in building outdoor surveilliance equipment using Raspberry Pis...

Seeing this behaviour from a well-loved brand like Raspberry Pi was taken as a betrayal of the predominately leftist attitude of many instances.

Ended up looking at this drama to see if there was a coherent reason for the outrage and mass defederation, and this is what I find:

https://www.raspberrypi.com/news/meet-raspberry-pis-maker-in-residence-toby-roberts/

“I used to be a police officer tackling serious organised crime and terror threats across the east of the UK,” Toby tells us. “I was a Technical Surveillance Officer for 15 years, so I built stuff to hide video, audio, and other covert gear. You really don’t want your sensitive police equipment discovered, so I’d disguise it as something else, like a piece of street furniture or a household item. The variety of tools and equipment I used then really shaped what I do today.”

I'm not the biggest proponent of a "surveillance state" myself, but unless someone is a complete hardliner on the issue I think there can be some justification to the use of these things if the threat warrants it. Counter-terrorism efforts for example can and do make legitimate use of surveillance technology, and there's no real reason to suspect sinister intent or malpractice here. Really it seems clear to me, reading the comments, that most of the distrust and controversy has to do with him being a cop, and because Mastodon seems to be primarily leftist there's a very strong (and IMO ridiculous) "ACAB" sentiment.

I could agree that Raspberry Pi handled the whole drama badly. That being said, it's hard to criticise them much for it when I find the initial fundament for criticism to be so weak in the first place.

I'm definitely chuckling at the idea of this guy building open source spy gadgets to catch terrorists in some East Anglia police station when he should have been handling a important missing sheep case.

(Or maybe the region's changed since I was a kid and it's a hotbed of murderous extremists now. I always knew that kebab shop was bad news)

I've occasionally wondered if American speech issues appear so hypercharged compared to local ones precisely because in European countries there are formal legal authorities ready to make yes-or-no decisions on free speech issues. Ie. I may not like that something like this ever became a court issue, but it also meant that a lot of activists were content to see how this process would play out in the courts (with their processing times, checks and balances etc.) instead of deciding that their only recourse would be stoking up social media / regular media fires and utilize public pressure that way.

Yes, if one has already the capability to use courts to harm the other, weaponization of common carriers isn't required.

And one side has this capability in Europe. True statements about people dead for over a millenium are deemed illegal.

You know, I think we often forget on culture war forums like this just how absolutely insane a lot of people on the actual far left (ie. not AOC, NYT reporters, or even mainstream progressive racial or gender activists) are. Ezra Klein and the median Motte user are politically closer than Klein is to the average attendee at an anarchist radical book reading club.

For 70 years, the “neoliberal elites” so regularly despised here have successfully prevented these types from taking power, largely thanklessly.

That's... precisely backwards. They would never get anywhere near power, where it not for active protection from Ezra Klein types telling everyone it's just a couple of crazy kids on tumblr/college campuses.

The average attendee at an anarchist radical book reading club, assuming it really is a club that meets up live, may not even represent the most wacky section of anarchist radicalism, since at least they're still out and about, meeting other people and exposing themselves to potentially problematic opinions in such a space. In my experience, biggest hyperradicalism usually comes from shut-ins who essentially live their entire lives online and have a major effect on online discourses that way.

The general power of extremely online shut-ins who do nothing but post and engage in online dramas all day to affect social discourses - not just in woke way, but also in, for instance, the views of the extremely online far right seeping to related spaces - is generally an understudied topic. It may be that one of the most effective ways to give an ordinary nobody power is to bully them hard enough to ensure they won't ever go anywhere where they may meet anybody and will only process their resentment via social media.

Welllll, one of my arguments is that liberals have often managed and used these types, or redirected their rage towards powerless victims.

I can't remember who said in 2020 ( probably David Hines) that liberals consider their children joining a leftist gang to loot and burn a helot neighborhood a charming traditional rite of passage--something to enjoy and get out of their system before they grow up and become university administrators, just like they did in the 60s. They do prevent the radicals from taking power, but only out of paternal instinct and self-interest.

That they defend the world (and themselves) from their own children is relevant, but it isn’t necessarily an indictment against them, given what happens when you allow the children of the PMC to run free and develop some ideological independence. Things in the West could be much, much worse. Cultural dispossession and great prosperity is still better than cultural dispossession and grinding poverty coupled with the endless banality of the socialist aesthetic, which was the most likely alternative for much of the 20th century.

I think there's a lot to be learned here about how organizations like twitter act as central authorities to prevent or abet purity spirals, allowing incredibly "diverse" groups to avoid infighting as they torture a common victim, while keeping the moderate wing sufficiently in fear of the radicals to make them obedient.

That's a very interesting theory.

Back when I was but a wee lad, I read some amount of Forgotten Realms books. There was this one following the adventures of some Drow priestess, which delved into the details of how their society was run. It was a long time ago, and I don't remember that much, but the TL;DR is that there was a lot of rat-racing, ladder-climbing, and backstabbing, all to get the favor of their goddess so she would grant you superpowers and status.

At the time I found it a bit ridiculous, how could a society like that be stable enough to create a marvelous city-state like the one being described? I remembered that a few months ago when someone or another was getting cancelled, and thought "huh, actually maybe a society of backstabbers is more stable than I thought", but I think you zeroed in on exactly what makes it stable. If it's a backstabber free-for-all, it's probably just a question of time before it collapses, but if there's, say, an evil spider-goddess of chaos, who's favor you can fall into and out of, the system might be more stable than you'd expect at first glance.

Funny how a silly fantasy book for teens ends up having so much insight.

We probably read the same book and if I remember it correctly, the goddess never showed up. If you didn't know it took place in a world which had real deities, it could have just as well have been a society where people can use magic but the goddess herself was completely invented.

The thing about most D&D settings is that actual priests run around, casting spells that can’t be replicated by sufficiently advanced magic. This includes Commune.

But yeah, if no one ever mentions that over the book, the rest is compatible.

You are allowed one such question per caster level.

WHAT IS THIS MORTAL, A GAME OF 20 QUESTIONS?!

Max level power gamer: "yes"

Assuming this is the Liriel Baenrae trilogy, I think I only read the first one, and she was a wizard, not a priestess. But in the rest of the dozens of realms books about drow priestesses, mostly by Salvatore, Llolth is fairly active in the form of empowering/depowering priestesses she favors/disfavors. As one element, they all have multi-snake-headed whips, where the number of heads indicates favor.

Like I said it was ages ago, so I might be misremembering or mixing up a bunch of things. But isn't the whole idea that priests' powers in FR come directly from their gods, so if you lose their favor you're not going to be casting any spells?

Yeah. Priests don't have inherent magic powers in Forgotten Realms. They are channeling the divine powers of their patron. If they get cut off by their god then they lose all their magic.

I always think about that regarding the Ferengi in Star Trek too. They're supposed to have stolen all their tech, but still, how could a civilization who glorifies treachery ever create and maintain a space program at all? Or even a power plant? Two brothers can't even cooperate long enough to hold a poker game.

there is nothing that prevents lawful evil and neutral evil societies from flourishing. it's the chaotic evil or lawful good alignment that leads to circular firing squads.

You're confusing lawful neutral with lawful evil, I believe.

Why does lawful good lead to firing squads?

Righteousness and ideological rigidity. It's much easier to do atrocities when you believe you are the good guys.

This quote has been done to death around here, but just for completeness' sake:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

—C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 292.

It's been done to death because it's so damn applicable to so many scenarios. Truly one of my favorite quotes, from anyone about anything.

Also, cupidity is a great word.

Purity spirals. You compete by being a more virtuous person than your neighbour. But when everybody is already virtuous, how do you stand out? Well, by inventing new ways to be over-the-top virtuous. You want to burn the heretics even more, you are even more disgusted by heterodoxy, you invent new jargon for the righteous that changes weekly, etc.

I would not define a Good society as a competition in being virtuous. Pretty much by definition.

That's just a semantic objection then. "Lawful good" refers to a very particular (and highly stylised) flavour of morality in the DnD universe.

Why you think that lawful evil would not result in this? We have plenty of examples of exactly this problem happening.

Lawful evil is pragmatic

Pragmatism can be applied to different goals. For example, it would be quite pragmatic to backstab all your rivals and send the region into a downward spiral if you decided that what you want is to rule the ashes in a perfectly orderly manner.

But would it be lawful? Generally no.

It would be lawful if it's my rules.

Why you think so?

German Third Reich was very lawful evil. Technically they ended with vertical firing squad rather than circular firing squads, but problems in the end were very similar.

(maybe there could be treated as pragmatic with "Jews are evil" axiom, still society they created was far from flourishing due to their own actions)

And yet in that very time USA were also lawfully evil and they built the greatest superpower the world has ever seen in the aftermath.

If you insist on dumb binary ethical categorizations (which are dump) then USA at that time was closer to lawfully good than lawfully evil.

(not claiming that it was ideal but on evil to not evil range populated by governments in human history it was quite far on "not evil" side)

Almost every regieme ever is at least "Lawful Neutral" compared to the LITERALLY (acutlly literally) Hitler and the Third Reich.

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Brands don't need to be on Mastodon. And the majority of people that "moved" to Mastodon still post on Twitter. The whole thing will cost Raspberry Pi sales of exactly 0.

Recently read a Guardian article (leftwing British newspaper) about the problems with Mastodon: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/08/masochism-drove-me-to-mastodon-at-first-i-felt-high-but-the-comedown-was-brutal.

It's generally a pretty good litmus for a certain kind of liberal opinion. (The more metropolitan varieties.) In fact, the Guardian was where I first heard about Mastodon.

Since Guardian readers are exactly the demographic to have the most problems with Twitter, this is pretty telling. I think they'll move back to Twitter, assuming Musk doesn't drop the ball too badly.

I think there's a lot to be learned here about how organizations like twitter act as central authorities to prevent purity spirals, allowing incredibly "diverse" groups to avoid infighting as they attack a common enemy.

Maybe, but it seems to me like this is an entirely predictable result. The people moving to Mastodon are (anecdotally, based on my observation) mostly the people who were most zealous in their political opinions. Which is to say, they are the ones who were by far the most likely to start purity spiraling and attacking people they don't like. Essentially, Mastodon got an influx in some of the most censorious Twitter users, so of course they're going to be censorious when they get to their new platform.

Maybe, but it seems to me like this is an entirely predictable result.

If you've been online for a while you've probably seen this story before.

I remember the split of Atheism+ - basically atheism + an even more strident version of the progressive politics that most liberal atheists already shared - from the general New Atheist/Skeptic camps after Elevatorgate and how its forums spiraled so fast into policing every single element of speech and turning into a circular firing squad.

If anything the more shocking thing is how this mindset - which was mocked as fringe at the time- slowly became so pervasive on the Left, even amongst the alleged grownup orgs and people.

But the key is that their censoriousness worked on twitter despite them having less direct power, which is why people like Silver didn't criticize them until they were safely gone. Something about twitter (and reddit) allowed radicals to organize to hurt people without spiraling into self-destructive turbo-insanity the way they are on mastodon.

The presence of various outgroups and a mechanism to punish them provided them with a lightning rod for their free-floating anger and an incentive to band together. Now that they are among themselves, they have to turn on each other if they want a good fight.

Silver started picking fights with his followers last year already, at least over the Covid issue, where he became a supporter of ending the restrictions quite a bit before it was a liberal consensus in the United States.

I didn't know that, thanks. That must have legitimately taken a lot of courage, and explains why he has so many dedicated mastodon-and-mask-in-bio reply trolls to every tweet he makes now. That struck me as an odd hatebase for him to have picked up.