April 16, 2018
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Penny For Your Thoughts: Malden

Paul Surette, newly-appointed co-moderator of the Facebook group "Penny For Your Thoughts: Malden", is not pleased with me. Who could blame him?

Recently, he complained to the group about Mya and Deenaa Cook, two high school students from Malden who took a brave stand last year against their charter school’s discriminatory dress code. The Massachusetts Attorney General agreed with the Cook sisters; do did the Anti-Defamation League, the ACLU, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. For some reason, though, Paul wants to take on these two high school girls yet again. (It's not fair; they're much more knowledgable.)

In the ensuing kerfuffle, I wrote:

Mark Bernstein: Amazing how these racists won’t let this go. Malden was already a national laughingstock for harboring the sort of racist school policies normally associated with Mississippi and Alabama. Racism lost; now you want to argue some more?

In response, Joe Kaplan denounced me in an interesting way:

Joe Kaplan: Paul....look who you are debating,. an indoctrinated self-loathing Jew.Save your brain cells.
Paul Surette: You're right, Joe

Now, I have plenty of faults, but self-loathing is not one I hear a lot about. I'm not sure what Joe think’s he’s thinking, but I imagine it all stems from a bunch of boys in middle school with a pilfered copy of Portnoy’s Complaint, trying to find the good parts before the third-period bell. Finding Philip Roth puzzling, perhaps they looked to the flap copy for an explanation. I bet they figured it out eventually; anyway, the phrase seems to have stuck.

“Penny For Your Thoughts” used to be a conduit for local political issues -- the sort of place where you heard about zoning changes for a new restaurant or candidates for school committee. Lately, though, it's changed. More fake news memes were posted and taken seriously, often from Russian or alt-right sites. A former city-councillor decided to catechize a local activist, is a private citizen who happens to be Muslim, challenging her to renounce Sharia. Paul Surette chimed in:

Paul Surette From what I've seen the last 6 years is that a 'moderate' muslim is one who says nothing about secular violence, but quietly cheers it on.
Paul Surette: My 'understanding' of moderate Muslims here is accurate as judged by Muslims I know who live here who know who the moderate Muslum is really about. Moderates live under the quise of being anonymous while quietly cheering secular violence.

The former city councillor joins in, this time ridiculing another private citizen for her religious beliefs.

Neil Kinnon: Some of us have not given up. Better to fight them now. Bruce Warren Lynch is a radical who epitomizes the idea of ”defining deviance down”. He and his significant other according to Nichole Mossalam were elected delegates at the Democratic city Committee out of Ward Two Edgeworth (not confirmed yet) Lynches girlfriend is a self declared Witch, excuse me Wiccan according to him and our lovely friend Nichole, see yesterday’s posts. This is what the local Democratic Party is being taken over by. Pagans who worship witchcraft. The last political group that were elected with widespread beliefs in the occult were the National Socialists in Germany... [emphasis mine]

Another participant lamented the fact that Malden is now “only 37% American”, by which she meant that a majority of Malden residents today are Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, or African-Americans. (A number of Old Maldonians are scions of families that moved to Malden from South Boston to escape school integration in the 1970s, when Malden High was still essentially segregated. The integration of Malden schools may help explain why so many regulars in ‘Penny For Your Thoughts” no longer live in Malden and are so angry at Malden’s current residents.)

In another discussion, Muslims are collectively responsible for, well, basically everything.

Joe Howard …The hateful muslim group is a major problem worldwide, and they're the ones who are responsible for the overseas terror. Immigration sanctions are out of control.

The group’s posted rules call for "No name calling, threats, racism, sexism, or that sort of thing." Interestingly, all the above pass muster. Other posters falsely blamed Warsaw’s Jews for surrendering to gun control and failing to resist the Nazis, attributed credit for Victory in Europe to the German resistance(!), and claimed George Soros was bussing in demonstrators against the Boston “Free Speech” march for white supremacy. What’s behind this bile, in what Mayor Gary Christenson has celebrated as a diverse and welcoming city?

(I have left the spelling unchanged in the quoted posts. A number of these writers often misspell words they dislike — for example, “anti-Semete” for “anti-Semite.” I don't know whether this is meaningful — a dog whistle of some sort? — or merely random.)

- - -

Why not simply ignore white-supremacists and bigots on social media?

I’m a long-time student of new media; it's my primary research area. This year, I’ve been focussing on some dangerous asymmetries that facilitate malefactors on Twitter and Facebook. With Dr. Clare Hooper, I wrote “A Villain’s Guide To Social Media and Web Science” for the 2018 ACM Conference on Hypertext and Social Media. The conference was good enough to give us a prize! (If you enjoy funny academic papers and don’t mind 25 footnotes, happy to share a preprint. Email me.)

One important lesson we have learned is that, in social media, ignoring villainy today makes it harder to oppose villainy tomorrow. This is the lesson of the 1930s: if you close your shutters when the brownshirts are shouting in the street and don’t call the police, next year those same brownshirts may be the police. If you don’t oppose Vichy today, after the Liberation comes your friends and neighbors may look at you and see a collaborator.

A second vital lesson — one that was entirely unexpected — is that on social media it is easier to spread lies than to disseminate the truth.

Third, we have the core asymmetry: a single scurrilous word can do lasting harm that a thousand well-intentioned “likes” will not repair.

In better, safer times, we may safely ignore wretched hives and scum and villainy. This is not such a time.