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A Scientist’s Nightmare: Doxxed on Twitter

The surprisingly good news is that online riots may be hurting the Twitter brand

One scientist found out the hard way.  Kevin Folta, who works with genetically modified organisms, found himself the target of harassment by anti-GMO groups, using an inventive strategy:

In October 2015, I wrote an article for RealClearScience that detailed how activists were abusing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by requesting that universities turn over private e-mail correspondence from professors. FOIA is meant to uncover wrongdoing by elected officials and bureaucrats, but activists use it to selectively extract quotes out of context in order to create controversy where none exists. Alex Berezow, “Doxxing: The Newest Strategy To Destroy Scientists” at American Council on Science and Health

Ensuing years of mostly pointless controversy can drive researchers from a field the activists oppose and prevent others from entering it. But that’s not all. Folta didn’t budge, so someone published his personal information on Twitter:

Publishing someone’s private information is known as “doxxing,” and there is one and only one reason to do it: To encourage the mob to engage in intimidation, identity theft, violence, or worse. Alex Berezow, “Doxxing: The Newest Strategy To Destroy Scientists” at American Council on Science and Health

Earlier, Berezow detailed the case of a woman who was encouraged to commit suicide on Twitter, and did. No wonder he considers the medium “an absolute sewer pipe. ”

Doxxing, in general, makes data into a weapon any irresponsible person or entity can use:

In a recent research study I found that news organizations have doxxed commenters who posted on articles. In online communities, where people are often anonymous, violating someone’s privacy like that is considered aggressive – and for some people, what’s come after being doxxed has been downright dangerous…

More severe cases have resulted in online and real-world harassment of women in the gaming industry, prank calls to summon police to a politician’s home, and even death threats against a person and her family. Jasmine McNealy, “What is doxxing, and why is it so scary?” at The Conversation

To a great extent than most media, Twitter’s format favors the development of thoughtless rapid-response mobs:

The ‘retweet’, ‘comment’, and ‘like’ buttons are immediate. A retweet sends a posting, no matter how angry or misinformed, to all the retweeter’s followers, who can then do the same to their followers, and so on, in a runaway chain reaction. Unlike blogs, little to no thought is required, and in practice very few people even follow the link (if there is one) to ‘read the whole thing’. According to a study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of people who share a link on social media don’t read the underlying story. I’m honestly surprised the number isn’t higher.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Twitter is a virus of the mind” at Spectator USA

The surprising good news is that the market for senseless outrage is not as large as expected and the online riots may actually be hurting the Twitter brand. Many sources say that Twitter has been losing accounts for years. A data journalist explains:

For the last time, Twitter publicly disclosed its monthly active user count on Tuesday, revealing that an average of 330 million people a month used its service in the first quarter of 2019. While that’s a slight improvement compared to the previous two quarters, it still marks a net loss of six million users compared to the same period of 2018. Over the past three years, Twitter has now added just 20 million monthly active users, with its user count hovering around 330 million for the better part of that period, indicating that the platform may have reached its growth limit.

To address the problem at hand, Twitter is taking a page out of Apple’s playbook. Just like the iPhone-maker will no longer reveal unit sales figures for its products, presumably because they don’t look as impressive as they used to, Twitter will simply stop reporting monthly active users going forward, presumably to avoid uncomfortable questions about its lackluster growth. Felix Richter, “Has Twitter Reached Its Natural Growth Limit?” at Statista

A media analyst responds, “Is Twitter fudging numbers to hide their dwindling user numbers? Sure looks that way.”

It’s not that society is becoming more moral; rather, well-meaning people have always preferred to avoid foreseeable mayhem:

Consider: call a dozen strangers names in real life, and you’ll probably get punched in the face six times. Punch six people in the face, and at least one of them is likely to call the police. But do it digitally, and 1,000 fake friends will magically appear from nowhere and actually cheer you on, while the tech companies hosting the mob won’t do much to stop (much less prevent) it. Hence, a downward spiral of cruelty. Umar Haque, “The Reason Twitter’s Losing Active Users” at Harvard Business Review

Everything has a natural limit to growth. In response to doxxing, many of us seem to be nixxing Twitter from a role in our social lives. The Outrage Machine may be feeling the chill. Investors certainly have been, to judge from recent reports.


See also: How did Twitter become a “virus of the mind”? A libertarian law professor reflects on the poisonous atmosphere problems and proposed remedies 

Twitter doesn’t just seem out of control. It actually is.

and

No, Twitter is not the New Awful. It’s the Old Awful back for more. It’s the Town Without Pity we all tried to get away from.

Note: The featured photo is by Pathum Danthanarayana on Unsplash


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A Scientist’s Nightmare: Doxxed on Twitter