These Twitter Bots Not Only Detect Online Misogyny, But Stage An Intervention
Introducing Operation #ZeroTrollerance.
Pretty much anyone who uses social media knows it has a problem with sexist abuse.
A report by my colleagues at Demos last year called Misogyny on Twitter found that the words "slut" and "whore" were tweeted 6 million times in just over a month. Roughly a fifth of the tweets were actively threatening, and they were disproportionately aimed at women, and in particular women of colour. Often, people were attacked purely because of their gender.
Step one: Identify the troll.
If a Twitter user posts a tweet containing a list of words or phrases on the Peng! Collective's carefully curated list, a "bot" – an automated Twitter account – notes down the offending account. (Terms likely to incriminate you include, but are not limited to, "feminist bitch", "fat slut", "die stupid bitch", "die tranny", and "attention seeking whore".)
Step two: first contact.
Once the users have been identified, their account names are passed on to bots that start tweeting back at the trolls.
Twitter doesn't allow bots to spam users, and it has systems in place to shut such bots down automatically. So a Peng! programmer called "Jenny Mainframe" – the brains behind the bots – has set up hundreds of these automated accounts. Their offensive will go in waves, with each set of bots launching its attacks, then fading away to be replaced by fresh troops.
Step three: Send them self-help videos.
The videos are full of tongue-in-cheek motivational messages.
"Zero Trollerance is a self-help journey designed by guru Adler King in consultation with reformed trolls," claims the project's website.
Apparently, Adler's team of Troll Coaches are constantly analyzing Twitter and enrolling new trolls in the programme, in which they are led through a process of self-reflection and given practical tools to overcome their inner hurdles. "For trolls, this is the first step towards a new life," the site says.
Of course, this is far from a self-help scheme. Rather, it is its own type of trolling: trolls trolling trolls.
One problem might be who gets targeted: A quick search on Twitter for misogynist language shows that it isn't just men who use it. In fact, the word "sluts" seems to be used by angry women as much as angry men.
Ada Stolz, the member of Peng! behind all this, doesn't see that as necessarily a bad thing. She told BuzzFeed News: "Our bots are feminist and they can't support the use of derogatory and violent language without a clear political agenda, like in the naming of the Slut Walks, for example."
The collective are also interested in rolling the programme out to include racist and homophobic language too.
Part of the goal is to show that it is better to fight back against misogyny than to try to ignore it.
But as the GamerGate scandal has shown, this may well be a case of kicking a hornets' nest.
Stolz isn't worried about the possible reaction, however. "Trolls will learn some social skills, of course," she predicted. "And Twitter will realise that blocking trolls is not going to make the violence disappear."
Alex Krasodomski-Jones is a researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank Demos.