In addition to being the home of cute puppy photos and millions of cat videos, the Internet can also be a house of horrors when someone uses it for the purpose of trolling, stalking or harassing another individual. While a crackdown on cyber-bullying using the laws that are already on the books has been gaining popularity among the public, cyber-harassment is still commonplace on YouTube, which remains the vulgar Wild West of the Web.
The fake news and pseudoscience being propagated through popular social media platforms present unique challenges to the existence of free speech on the Internet, with the old axiom attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan being as relevant as ever: everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.
Taking that a step further: everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to preventing another from sharing their own opinion. Cyber-harassment is intimidation that uses threats and coercion in an attempt to control/manipulate the person being targeted. On social media it’s often employed as a tactic to silence an opponent and quell damaging dissent/questions.
An Intro to YouTuber Michael Janitch (Dutchsinse)
If you’re looking for an unending source of conspiracy theories on anything from weather modification to earthquake prediction then look no further than YouTuber Michael Yuri Janitch (Dutchsinse). As ‘Dutchsinse,’ Janitch has misinformed the public about the dangers of radioactive snow, chemtrails, HAARP rings, crisis actors and so much more (Dutchsinse Debunked).
The 2015 article, “National Park Service debunks volcano rumors,” gives a brief overview of a rumor that circulated online and how, “The story that appeared to give most credence to the volcanic rumor came from Michael Janitch of Dutchsinse.com, a website that provides commentary on earthquakes and other natural science phenomena” (Kennard 2015).
Queue the video, “Dutchsinse – Please Stop Cyber Bullying,” from the expert behind the YouTube channel, Space Weather, who explains to the YouTuber Michael Janitch (Dutchsinse) that there’s a war against fake news:
@ 0:00 I want to tell Dutchsinse that, ‘I’m sorry.’ You probably feel like the whole world is ganging up on you, but have you ever stopped to think that maybe there’s a reason why the world is ganging up on you?
@ 0:14 There’s a war going on right now between the truth and fake news. And the fake news is pretending to be the truth, so it’s a little bit harder for the truth to try and prove to people that the fake news is really the fake news.
@ 1:01 There’s a lot of people out there, a lot of his subscribers, who I think believe that he’s a nice person, and the video that I’m going to play next isn’t very nice – in fact, it’s illegal – and what Dutchsinse is telling his viewers is illegal; he’s actually condoning something that’s illegal.
What the expert at Space Weather says about there being a “war between the truth and fake news,” and so on, relates to a point that Daniel Levitin made in the closing remarks of the introduction of his book, A Field Guide to Lies:
“Unfortunately, found alongside things that are true is an enormous number of things that are not, in websites, videos, books, and on social media. This is not just a new problem. Misinformation has been a fixture of human life for thousands of years, and was documented in biblical times and classical Greece. The unique problem we face today is that misinformation has proliferated; it is devilishly entwined on the Internet with real information, making the two difficult to separate. And misinformation is promiscuous—it consorts with people of all social and educational classes, and turns up in places you don’t expect it to” (Levitin 2016).
That people often repeat misinformation, and inadvertently deceive others, is a historical fact, but as Levitin points out it’s the rate at which it now spreads that is our unique burden. When used malevolently, the Internet allows anyone to easily access to the personal information/history of another, while offering the instantaneous ability to rally any number of people into a group for the purpose of trolling and harassing another individual/group.
There are many sources that detail what “cyber-bullying” is, with many of the more seasoned social media users being all too familiar with it already. But according to RationalWiki, cyber-bullying is:
“when a person is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen, or teen using interactive and digital technologies, such as the Internet or through phones. It has to have a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor. Once adults become involved, it becomes cyber-harassment or cyberstalking” (RationalWiki 2017).
Cyber-bullying (cyber-harassment) is nothing new, and neither is the fake news that is pretending to be the truth. As I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts, social media users need to be aware of the increasing prevalence of computational propaganda and the usage of phony credentials before they internalize any new information that they come across on the Internet.
Questionable sources of information (misinformation) are the new norm online. There are “armchair experts” claiming all manner of things, but the underlying motivation is always the same: financial gain.
As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, the fact of the matter is that trouble will invariably rear its head, “when people start to believe that knowing a little bit about something means ‘expertise’…Knowing things is not the same as understanding them. Comprehension is not the same as analysis. Expertise is not a parlor game played with factoids” (Nichols 2017).
There is no shortage of charismatic individuals on the Internet who pretend to have all the answers, which comes from taking a tiny bit of information on a complex subject and blowing it up into a hot air balloon that they then take their audience for a meandering ride on.
By the time they come down, they’re typically trapped in what’s known as an “echo chamber,” which according to RationalWiki is:
An echo chamber, also known as an ideological echo chamber or the more longwinded closed ideology echo chamber, is a group situation where information, ideas, and beliefs are uncritically bounced from insider to insider and amplified, while dissenting views are censored and/or ignored…Most echo chamber environments rely on indoctrination and propaganda in order to disseminate information, subtly or otherwise, in order to trap those who are stuck in the chamber into conformity and prevent them having the skeptical thinking skills necessary to discredit obvious misinformation” (RationalWiki 2017).
It’s important to note that word “community” when used to reference an “online community” has become synonymous with “echo chamber” in recent years.
The last part of the quote is about how many “online communities” are really just echo chambers that rely on indoctrination and propaganda to trap people into “conformity and prevent them having the skeptical thinking skills necessary to discredit obvious misinformation.” This reminds me of so many of the online communities I have seen, especially the ones that regurgitate the “do your own research” logical fallacy.
@ 1:20 I’m sorry, Dutchsinse, that you’ve been on the wrong side of truth. I’m sorry, karma is going to come and visit you; maybe it’s already happening…I don’t know. It’s really too bad, because you have great talent – you’re a fantastic orator – you could sell a dead cow to a farmer, and, convince them that it’s alive and well. You would be fantastic in the corporate world, selling things, why you’re not there I don’t know. But dude, you do have talent and it could be put to much better use than what you’ve done with it so far.
@ 1:53 You don’t have the education needed to understand the things that you’re trying to understand. You’ve claimed you’ve had to learn everything on your own, I admire that; that’s actually a cool trait. You’ve built an empire upon things that, I think you believe are probably true, but they’re not. The earth does not have a spinning plasma ball in its center, and self-teaching yourself about plasma physics is not going to make that true.
“And while there are self-trained experts, they are rare exceptions. More common are the people seeking quick entry into complicated fields but who have no idea how poor their efforts are…Doing something well is not the same thing as becoming a trusted source of advice or learning about a subject…This lack of self-awareness and intellectual limits can produce some awkward interactions between experts and laypeople” (Nichols 2017).
Again, this is nothing new. People make things up all the time, sometimes they’re outright lying, while other times they truly seem to believe what they’re saying; this is what’s known as the Dunning-Krueger Effect.
Publishing flagrant nonsense and claiming things that are backed only by questionable sources (or no source at all) is something that used to be illegal, now, it’s called “a YouTube video.”
The Scandalous Story of Stephen Glass
Either way, the United States has certainly come a long way since the scandal about fake news before fake news was even a thing; championed originally by the (fake news) reporter, Stephen Glass, formerly of The New Republic.
In the Slate article, “Steve and Me,” David Plotz reveals that the film adaptation (Shattered Glass) of “the multimedia extravaganza that is the Stephen Glass story” is based on people he knows, since it tells the story of events that he participated in, as one of the main characters is based on his wife, Hanna Rosin.
David Plotz gives a succinct description of how it went down in his Slate article:
“In case you are lucky enough to have forgotten, Steve Glass was the young writer caught in 1998 fabricating stories for the New Republic and other magazines. Glass didn’t merely doctor quotes and plagiarise colleagues. He concocted imaginary characters and organizations, then manufactured fake notes, business cards and even a website in order to trick editors into believe his stories were real” (Plotz 2003).
As has been a recurring theme in this blog: it’s possible to fake even scientific credentials by publishing a paper that appears to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal in order to push a false narrative and belief system; complete with its own set of alternate facts.
These individuals who employ the tactic of, “fake it till they make it,” can be charismatic and even dupe others into spreading their misinformation for them, as Plotz points out:
“My wife, Hanna Rosin, was a colleague of Steve’s at the New Republic and one of his best friends. He was a guest at our wedding, he helped us move into our apartment, he spent hours in Hanna’s office every day, chattering, gossiping, apologising. But he lied and lied and lied to her about what he’d done, then enlisted her to repeat his lies and defend him against the New Republic Editor, Charles Lane, who was trying to fire him” (Plotz 2003).
Plotz’ article is corroborated, and expanded on, by a later piece that his wife, Hanna Rosin, published in The New Republic titled, “Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry,” in which Rosin reminisces about how:
“The last time I talked to Stephen Glass, he was pleading with me on the phone to protect him from Charles Lane…I didn’t know when he called me that he’d made up nearly all of the bizarre and amazing stories, that he was the perpetrator of probably the most elaborate fraud in journalistic history, that he would soon become famous on a whole new scale. I didn’t even know he had a dark side” (Rosin 2014).
As I mentioned in the conclusion of my previous blog article, “The War Against Fake News and Pseudoscience on YouTube: Computational Propaganda Creates the Illusion of Popularity and Support,” it’s obvious why someone’s content should stand on its own merit and that, “benefiting from the creation of an illusion of popularity/support is unethical as it misleads people into interacting with something that they would have otherwise ignored.”
Hanna Rosin details the nature of being duped and having to fact-check Stephen Glass’s stories after the fact:
“The story was front-page news all over the world. The staff (me included) spent several weeks re-reporting all of Steve’s articles. It turned out that Steve had been making up characters, scenes, events, whole stories from first word to last. He made up some funny stuff…and some really awful stuff: racist cab drivers, sexist Republicans, desperate poor people calling in to a psychic hotline, career-damaging quotes about politicians. In fact, we eventually figured out that very few of his stories were completely true. Not only that, but he went to extreme lengths to hide his fabrications, filing notebooks with fake interview notes and creating fake business cards and fake voicemails” (Rosin 2016).
Creating a false impression, by using fake references/sources, about the veracity of one’s work is unethical; when it’s published it becomes illegal.
In the Forbes article, “Read The Original Takedown Of Stephen Glass,” writer Michael Noer aptly annotated Hanna Rosin’s New Republic piece from 2014:
“Oddly missing from the [Rosin’s] account, however, is the fact that the scandal was unearthed not by the New Republic or its vaunted fact-checking process, but by what was then called the Forbes Digital Tool and is now known as Forbes.com. At the time online journalism (or “new media” as it was dubbed) had a reputation for being slipshod and second-rate” (Noer 2014.)
A dramatization of many of the details discussed in this blog so far can be seen in the “Conference Call” scene from the movie Shattered Glass:
Even though Stephen Glass holds a Juris Doctor degree from Georgetown University Law Center, he is still barred from practicing law for obvious ethical reasons/concerns; nonetheless, he does work at a law firm.
In 2016, Glass told students in a journalism ethics class at Duke that he’d:
“repaid $200,000 to The New Republic and other magazines that published his work…Monday’s disclosure appears to be the first time Glass has revealed that he repaid The New Republic, Rolling Stone and the publisher of the public policy journal Policy Review for more than 40 stories he fabricated” (Ramkumar 2016).
The Chronicle article goes on to quote Stephen Glass further, “I should have been doing it earlier, I took that money and wrote lies.” This is the kind of honest reappraisal of one’s actions that is admirable and deserves serious contemplation for many content creators on YouTube.
The Bottom-Line: History Seems to Repeat Itself
Stephen Glass’s (Not An Attorney) story is a cautionary tale worth taking another look at as fake news continues to mislead the public with fabricated facts and half-truths on behalf of vested interests. These actions appear to be habitual as the characters who emerge to perpetuate them always seem to follow similar behavior patterns.
The Internet is a playground for those who lie, and deceive, with many social media platforms being too slow on the uptake in terms of dealing (legally) with such an obvious and pervasive problem. Due to this slow response, nefarious individuals still resort to school yard tactics in the form of cyber-bullying (cyber-harassment) when they’re shown to be incorrect; this is not only wrong, but it is illegal as well.
The tide of public opinion is turning towards a swift crackdown on these individuals in order to reduce the danger/harm from dubious tactics, like cyber-harassment, trolling, and doxing, as many of the laws to do so are already in place.
Experts, like the solar physicist behind the YouTube channel Space Weather, shouldn’t have to worry about cyber-harassment just for pointing this out:
@ 2:19 It would be really cool if you had found a way to predict earthquakes, that would have been very cool, but you didn’t. Instead, what you stumbled upon when you tried to start predicting earthquakes: you found that you were right in certain regions of the world…because earthquakes there happen so frequently you didn’t know that you would be right there. So perhaps that reinforced this thought that caused you to want to continue to do this.
@ 2:45 But the fact is: you can’t predict earthquakes. And I’m sorry that you can’t, it’s unfortunate; and I hope that you would move on and make something of your life. If you’re in your 40s now, you’ve still got half your life ahead of you; you could make a career – this is just not the right one for you.
@ 3:03 This one’s going to get you in deep deep trouble, because what you’re doing in this video, which I’m going to show, is wrong: it’s ethically wrong, it’s morally wrong, and it’s illegal. You can’t do this, you can’t say this, you can’t promote this and when you act on it, as you did when you tried to dox me, you crossed the line. So the reason I am publishing this is to warn other people to be careful and to help them realize that this is illegal, this is cyber-bullying, this is wrong and it has to stop.
The public needs to fact-check and question every mouth-piece on the Internet who thinks nothing of hurling abuse and publishing “opinions” that are obvious attempts at trolling to provoke a response in order to sell outrage for financial gain.
When social media is all about attention, some people will say or do just about anything to get more of it; holding people accountable for what they say and do on the Internet (a public space) is something that’s been a long time coming.
Kennard, David. “National Park Service debunks volcano rumors.” Daily Herald: June 07, 2015. Website: https://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/national-park-service-debunks-volcano-rumors/article_51ae055c-ba71-500c-9f5f-4104e2874479.html
Levitin, Daniel J. “A Field Guide to Lies.” Penguin Random House: 2016. Website: https://www.amazon.com/Field-Guide-Lies-Critical-Information/dp/1524702528/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1520528130&sr=1-2&keywords=a+field+guide+to+lies+critical+thinking+in+the+information+age
Movieclips. “Shattered Glass (6/10) Movie CLIP – Conference Class (2003) HD.” YouTube: October 05, 2012. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8oGdak7vN4
Nichols, Tom. “The Death of Expertise.” Oxford University Press: March 01, 2017. Website: https://www.amazon.com/Death-Expertise-Campaign-Established-Knowledge/dp/0190469412/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1521833181&sr=8-1&keywords=the+death+of+expertise
Noer, Michael. “Read The Original Forbes Takedown Of Stephen Glass.” Forbes: November 12, 2014. Website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelnoer/2014/11/12/read-the-original-forbes-takedown-of-stephen-glass/#1584aad683ae
Plotz, David. “Steve and Me.” Slate: September 30, 2003. Website: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/life_and_art/2003/09/steve_and_me.html
Ramkumar, Amrith. “Discredited journalist Stephen Glass reveals $200,000 repayments to 4 magazines.” The Chronicle: March 28, 2016. Website: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/03/discredited-journalist-stephen-glass-reveals-200000-repayments-to-4-magazines
Rosin, Hanna. “Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry.” The New Republic: November 10, 2014. Website: https://newrepublic.com/article/120145/stephen-glass-new-republic-scandal-still-haunts-his-law-career
Space Weather. “Dutchsinse – Please Stop Cyber Bullying.” YouTube: January 29, 2018. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohswLumj6i4&t=28s
The Rational Media Foundation Inc. “Cyber-Bullying.” RationalWiki: December 29, 2017. Website: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Cyber-bullying
The Rational Media Foundation Inc. “Echo Chamber.” RationalWiki: July 26, 2017. Website: https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Echo_chamber