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Content Moderation Is A Failed Project
In February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I wrote a piece called “Everything will be all the time and everywhere,” where I essentially used social media, but mainly Twitter, to construct a ticking clock of the first hours of the invasion. And while I was able to make some sense of the noise online, I still concluded at the time that, “our feeds aren’t meant for content like this and are breaking.” And a year and a half later, those feeds are completely broken.
As an exercise, I tried to keep track of what I was seeing online this weekend from Israel and Palestine. And it has been, of course, impossible to follow anything. My understanding of what’s going on has not just been muddled by platforms like X, but warped entirely. I know more about adult film star Mia Khalifa’s cancelation for tweeting that Hamas should shoot their videos horizontally, right-wing influencers Ben Shapiro and Andrew Tate arguing with each other about who’s tough enough to go fight in Gaza, and unfathomably racist posts from verified losers than I do about anything material that’s happening on the ground. I’ve seen so much content reported, debunked, and rebunked(?) that I think I’ve reached the limits of my mind’s ability to understand reality. To say nothing of the endless cascade of horrifying violence X is serving up via the autoplaying videos it bricks my phone’s battery with, posted by verified accounts who are actively monetizing them, whether they’re genuine or not. Surrounded by ads for hentai mobile games, of course.
And this dogshit content swirling inside of X is also still guiding what’s being posted everywhere else. Big subreddits and popular Instagram accounts (and legitimate digital publishers) are full of screenshots of the same stuff I’m seeing on X. If Twitter was the cultural engine of the English-speaking internet in the 2010s, it’s now spewing oil into every other part of the internet and there are no mechanisms in place to contain it. As Mashable’s Matt Binder posted today, “Nearly every thing that's gone viral on Twitter over the past few days has been wrong.”
The main framework for how large social platforms have been moderated for the last decade started getting cobbled together around 2014, after 4chan’s massive leak of non-consensual sexual material, dubbed “The Fappening,” and was really formalized in 2015, with the rise of ISIS, and, in 2016, when Facebook launched a factchecking division and acknowledged that Russia’s disinfo factory, the Internet Research Agency, was using the platform to meddle in foreign elections. One by one, major corporate platforms began to accept that they had a responsibility and a duty to protect users from spam, scams, misinformation and disinformation, harassment, abuse, illegal and malicious material, and extremism. And they, of course, failed to uphold that responsibility time and time again. But these companies did hire a bunch of former Obama staffers and made them non-apologize to reporters every time one of their products caused a genocide. Which is nice.
We also now know that the “moderation” these companies kept pledging to increase via sophisticated AI tools was actually just being outsourced to literal sweatshops in countries like Kenya and South Africa where workers make dollars a day viewing the worst content imaginable until they psychologically can’t take it anymore. An experience that Musk, with his infinite business acumen, is now providing to any X user that accidentally clicks on the app’s For You tab. Or worse, he’s outsourced misinformation to the wannabe Wikipedia editors running his Community Notes feature, which completely broke this weekend. Though, it did manage to fire off this incredible debunk before it got clogged up with Arma 3 gameplay videos.
It’s clear now that these companies were only ever going to clean up their platforms to a point and, as we’re now learning, it was only temporary. Musk recently shut down an internal misinformation tool called Smyte and liquidated X’s election integrity team. Meta’s Threads doesn’t even have one. And YouTube and Meta have largely given up on moderating conspiracy theories. The only institution still in the moderation game, it seems, is the European Union. EU commissioner Thierry Breton served Musk with a letter yesterday giving him 24 hours to comply with a request for information on how Twitter is upholding the EU’s Digital Services Act, which has strict rules for how platforms handle misinfo and extremist material. Musk is currently trying to bait the EU into publicly posting out a list of violations it thinks X has allowed, likely because he knows his supporters will dogpile EU officials. Breton responded by posting his Bluesky username lol.
This is where you say, “So what? It’s the internet. Read a news site if you want a clear understanding of the world.” To which The Atlantic Council’s Emerson T. Brooking replied, “Boo-hoo, Twitter’s dead, whatever — except that X remains the preferred platform for policymakers. And what they believe affects millions.” When Musk bought Twitter a year ago, I naively believed that users, especially irl important ones, would react to the increasing noise on their feeds by simply leaving the platform. And, if my own following tab is an indication, many have. But what has actually happened is much more dangerous. Instead of X dissolving into a digital backwater for divorced guys with NFT debt, it has, instead, continued to remain at the top of the digital funnel while also being 4chan-levels of rotten. It is still being used to process current events in “real time” even though it does not have the tools, nor the leadership necessary to handle that responsibility. The inmates are running the asylum and there is nothing on the horizon to convince that that will get better.
And so I think I’m ready to finally face the facts: Community moderation, in almost every form, should be considered a failed project. Our public digital spaces, as they currently exist, cannot be fixed and the companies that control them cannot, or, more likely, will not ensure their safety or quality at a scale that matters anymore. And the main tactic for putting pressure on these companies — reporters and researchers highlighting bad moderation and trust and safety failures and the occasional worthless congressional hearing playing whack-a-mole with offensive content — has amounted to little more than public policy LARPing. We are right back where we started in 2012, but in much more online world. And the companies that built that world have abandoned us to go play with AI.
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Hello fellow Garbage Day kids. Longtime reader, first time caller. As a fan of Ryan's writing (especially when he dunks on Reddit), it felt right to support the launch of the book I've been working on these last four years by advertising here in the Garbage Day newsletter where some of the most curious minds in online culture meet.
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Thank you all for a moment of your time. I hope my book helps,
Tickets For Garbage Day Live Are Moving Fast
We have a stacked roster of guests, including comedian Ena Da, reporter Katie Notopoulos, YouTube creators Patrick Willems and Emma Logsdon, and TikTok phenomenon DJ Cummerbund. The show is a week from today and tickets are moving quick! You can grab one here.
A Dubai Electronics Store Is One Of YouTube’s Fastest Growing Accounts This Year
—by Adam Bumas
Aside from MrBeast, the most consistently popular YouTube account for the past year has been a phone store in the United Arab Emirates. It spent the summer in the lower half of our monthly Garbage Intelligence rankings for YouTube, but thanks to the Skibidi Toilet guy slowing down production, it shot up the fourth-most popular channel in September. So it seemed like a good time to finally investigate.
Zamzam Electronics Trading probably wouldn’t stand out if you were to walk by it on the streets of Dubai, but its YouTube account has gained almost 30 million new subscribers this year. It’s also enormous on TikTok and Instagram.
The videos it’s posting are aimed right at YouTube’s algorithm. Zamzam’s most popular stuff is the same hazy intersection of pranks, skits, contests, and braggadocious charity that MrBeast has refined to a science. The channel also has crossovers, fan meetings, sponsorships, and other videos that you get on every massive YouTube channel.
The difference is, instead of a hype house or studio, the videos are almost all filmed in the phone store, and there are frequent promotions for discounts, trade-in programs and so on. And that’s the question that kept messing us up. How did such a major channel grow out of the social media presence of a small business?
Zamzam started as a family-run storefront owned by a Pakistani family in Dubai. In 2020, they started letting their 17-year-old little brother, Muhammad Shakoor, run their social media. He snagged the TikTok handle “@usedmobile1” and started doing regular giveaways of their phones and laptops to boost their numbers on socials. A large chunk of Zamzam’s audience speaks Hindi and the Indian government banned TikTok in 2020, so their YouTube account started growing faster than their TikTok.
In 2021, though, YouTube introduced YouTube Shorts, which actively incentivized people to reupload TikToks for a better boost in the algorithm, and Zamzam was off to the races. Now, since the phone store seems to be heavily subsidized by their creator revenue, there’s a ravenous expectation for giveaways. Pretty much everything they put out has either “give me a free phone” or “where’s the free phone you promised?” as the top comment.
A bit sketch? Maybe. But it’s a sound strategy. Though, I don’t think any phone store could start doing giveaways and expect the same success. There are too many specific factors of time and place and platform. Plus, there’s Muhammad’s older brother Abdul Ghafoor, who started dressing identically to him. The two now go by “Little Brother” and “Big Brother” in their videos, like the Emirati answer to Jake and Logan Paul, which would probably be way harder to recreate.
If you want to get more of Adam’s great analysis, you should sign up for the monthly Garbage Intelligence reports. They’re $150 for a year and you get all the other Garbage Day subscriber benefits when you sign up. If you’re already a subscriber, you only pay the difference. Hit the green button to find out more.
Something Real Weird Is Happening With This Wikipedia Page
If you haven’t seen Hulu’s Reservation Dogs, you should. Easily one of the best TV shows of the 21st century, if you ask me. Users on the subreddit for the show recently noticed that the Wikipedia page for one of its lead actors, Paulina Alexis, who plays the character Willie Jack, has an incredibly detailed Wikipedia page. It refers to her entirely by her first name and even has a section on what kind of shoes she likes to wear:
Alexis' favorite socks are Puma Half-Terry Crew-Length Socks. Alexis claims that they fit her feet perfectly, and she wears them for hockey and horse-racing, if she's not riding barefoot. Alexis' favorite footwear are her Nike Victori One Women's Slides, which she says are durable, and that she will even wear them out in the wintertime. During her fittings for Reservation Dogs, the costume department suggested that Alexis wear the black and white slides in some of her scenes, and the slides became a big part of Willie Jack's image.
The leading theory on the subreddit is that perhaps the Wikipedia page was filled out by an overzealous family member and if you read through it with that in mind it’s actually pretty cute. Anyways, let’s hope that’s the explanation and not something much weirder.
Lord Miles Is Out Of Taliban Custody
One of the most bizarre storylines of 2023 reached some sort of end this week. Miles “Lord Miles” Routledge, the right-wing edgelord “danger tourist” that once got scared walking around Brooklyn, is out of Taliban custody. Routledge has been under some form of house arrest in Afghanistan since January. Most of his followers assumed he was dead.
As VICE reported this week, while Routledge claims to have had a grand ol’ time with the Taliban, he was released this week along with three other British nationals, including a UN aid worker named Kevin Cornwell, who was imprisoned in squalid conditions and suffered from numerous health emergencies while in Afghanistan.
Make no mistake, Routledge’s entire project, aside from exploiting communities in the Global South for YouTube ad revenue, is promoting a right-wing agenda and painting the Taliban as his “best mates” is firmly part of that. After regaining control of his X account, he threatened to sue Patreon for disabling his funds, and teased upcoming trips to Gaza and to meet with Andrew Tate.
People Are Weirdly Horny For This Balloon Test Video
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I’ve seen this video all over X this week. I did not realize, however, that it’s from a TikTok account associated with a Ukrainian dental office. It went viral on X after it was reposted by a verified account from Turkey that promotes sports betting Telegram channels. Weird.
Weirder is how horny everyone is for the dentists and dental assistants in the video. The two that people seem to be really into are the woman in pink with the bangs and the man in green who sort of double-pumps the needle.
Also, probably worth pointing out, this isn’t really a thing used in hospitals to measure how gentle someone is at administering a shot or anything. It’s just a fun party trick.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s the full power of the constrictor knot.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***