October 20, 2022
I promised my editor I would write an intro after I watched "Lego Masters." (I never promised it would be good.) Today's newsletter is 1,254 words, a 5-minute read.
1 big thing: How the far right borrowed its online moves from gamers
The key template that the far right and former President Trump's MAGA movement have used to organize online came not from the world of politics but from gaming, a leading misinformation researcher argues in a new book.
Catch up quick: Gamergate, in 2014, pitted some male gamers against the leaders of a movement to make video games more inclusive of women. As part of the conflict, online mobs deployed techniques and tactics that were later taken up by the Trumpist right, including the use of memes, false allegations and coordinated harassment.
Driving the news: Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, traces these connections in a new book, "Meme Wars," co-written with Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg.
Why it matters: The far right learned from Gamergate and other online movements how to use social media attacks to achieve real-world political gains in ways that many key institutions — from journalism to government to tech — are still struggling to understand.
As one recent example, Donovan points to the entirely false but oft-repeated notion that some schools and workplaces allow people to identify as cats and use litter boxes.
- The absurd falsehood has been used by dozens of Republican candidates and elected officials to further a broader attack on transgender people.
Be smart: By understanding the tactics and impact of Gamergate, Donovan says individuals and institutions can better evaluate possible responses to the current "meme wars" that include a wide range of racist, sexist and homophobic tropes.
- Donovan identifies memes — visual references that reduce complex issues to a cartoonish, often childish shorthand that's endlessly repeated in online forums — as a particularly effective means of spreading misinformation.
- Memes send a powerful signal to those who are clued into a particular controversy but are often missed or ignored by the masses, as was the case throughout Gamergate.
Trump himself is something of a meme, Donovan told Axios in a recent interview.
- He's a TV tycoon recycling lines like "lock her up" and "build the wall" that echoed slogans from earlier far right movements, signaling to potential followers that he was on their side.
- "People could very quickly get behind them and feel as if they were being seen," Donovan said.
Between the lines: In some cases those posting the memes are themselves seeking to inspire others to violence, but even when that's not the direct intent, real-world violence can follow.
- Donovan notes that the man who killed 49 people at two churches in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 cited online videos by YouTube creator and gaming personality Pewdiepie as inspirations. "I often make the argument these things are inconsequential until they are not," Donovan said.
State of play: Gamergate had severe consequences for individuals who were directly targeted in the course of its fights, but its impact wasn't immediately felt in the broader political landscape.
- Now, though, similar techniques are being used to intimidate and harass entire groups of people, most prominently transgender youth and adults.
- In some cases, it's also translating into risks of real-world violence, such as bomb threats against Boston Children's Hospital or a planned attack at a Pride event in Spokane, Washington, that was thwarted by the arrest of 31 white nationalists.
The bottom line: "Social media becomes this amplifier of harassment," Donovan said. "Instead of a few people on your back who don't like what you are doing, you have tens of thousands of people."
2. Voice-scanning AI aims to detect health woes
Software that analyzes snippets of your speech to identify mental health problems is making its way into call centers, medical clinics and telehealth platforms, Axios' Jennifer A. Kingson reports.
- But its growing ubiquity raises privacy concerns similar to those prompted by facial recognition tech.
Driving the news: Hospitals and insurance companies are installing voice biomarker software, so that — with patients' permission — they can identify in real time if someone they're chatting with may be anxious or depressed, and refer them for help.
Where it stands: A scant but growing number of scientific studies support claims that voice biomarkers can help screen for everything from depression to cardiovascular problems to respiratory ailments such as COVID-19, asthma and COPD.
How it works: Vocal biomarker systems analyze how you talk — prosody, intonation, pitch, and so on — but not what you say.
- Your voice sample is run through a machine-learning model and compared against a database of anonymized voices.
What they're saying: "From as little as 20 seconds of free-form speech, we're able to detect with 80% accuracy if somebody is struggling with depression or anxiety," Kintsugi CEO Grace Chang tells Axios.
Where it stands: Kinsugi is seeking Food and Drug Administration clearance for its product to become a recognized diagnostic tool.
- Sonde Health positions its system differently. "We are an early warning system — we are not a diagnostic device," Sonde's CEO David Liu tells Axios.
- Sonde's technology — which screens for depression, anxiety and respiratory problems — is being integrated into hearing aids and tested by the Cognitive Behavior Institute.
Yes, but: Skepticism and ethical questions surround voice biomarker tech, which observers describe as promising but not foolproof — and ripe for potential misuse.
- "There is still a long way to go before AI-powered vocal biomarkers can be endorsed by the clinical community," reads an editorial published by medical journal The Lancet.
3. Study: Cameras take toll on delivery workers
Homeowners are increasingly using doorbell cameras, such as Amazon's Ring product, to surveil and even harass delivery workers, according to a recent report from Data & Society.
Why it matters: Surveillance isn't just companies watching people — it's also people watching other people, and doorbell cameras are a prominent instance of this sort of distributed remote observation.
What they're saying: "While doorbell cameras are heavily marketed and described as tools for safety and security in the home, they are also near-constant tools of workplace surveillance for delivery workers," researchers Aiha Nguyen and Eve Zelickson write in the report.
- Camera owners often use what the researchers call "boss behavior," using what they record to "monitor, instruct, and punish delivery workers."
Between the lines: Compounding the issue is the fact that many of those making deliveries are gig workers, who already lack significant benefits and job security.
The big picture: This is just the latest warning over how images from doorbell cameras are being used.
- Much of the previous focus has been on police use of private surveillance-camera footage, which privacy experts say is typically subject to few legal limitations and can easily be misused.
4. Take note
- Snapchat parent Snap reports earnings after the markets close.
- A sentence in yesterday's story on trust in the tech sector misstated a statistic: It should have described low levels of trust in a host of emerging technologies among people in developed countries, not developing countries.
- Meta has named Montreal-based Joelle Pineau as the sole managing director of its Fundamental AI Research (FAIR) unit, the company announced internally and Axios has confirmed. Pineau previously co-managed the role with Antoine Bordes, who will now report to her.
- Microsoft aims to build a mobile game store in conjunction with its pending Activision Blizzard acquisition, according to documents filed with British regulators. (The Verge)
5. After you Login
Bella Rasmussen, a senior at Laguna Beach High School, made history on Friday by becoming the first girl to score two touchdowns in a high school football game.
Thanks to Scott Rosenberg and Peter Allen Clark for editing and Bryan McBournie for copy editing this newsletter.