The News Genius Web Annotator is a tool that allows anyone to add any commentary to any page on the internet. Users install a Chrome extension and, boom: Genius is everywhere.
News Genius bills itself as “a journey into the future of journalism.” In this future, reporters and news organizations are not “the gatekeepers of information.” Instead, news is “an ongoing and evolving discussion between many parties.” The company launched in 2009 as Rap Genius and is still arguably known primarily for this function: a combination of crowd-sourced and professional explanations for and commentary on song lyrics. But the site relaunched in 2014 as, simply, Genius, and now its aim is to leave no spot on the internet un-annotated. The world is your Wikipedia.
News Genius came on the scene in March, to mixed reviews. Journalists were understandably not thrilled at the idea of having their stories edited in perpetuity by anyone with WiFi. And News Genius allows readers to annotate pages anywhere on the internet, including personal blogs. For days, writers have been speaking out about their personal, negative experiences with News Genius and their big-picture concerns about the platform, notably that Genius does not provide a way to report abuse or harassment or a mechanism for blocking users.
On Tuesday, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) sent a letter to Tom Lehman, CEO of Genius Media Group, which she also shared on Twitter and Facebook, adding her voice to the chorus of critics.
— Katherine Clark (@RepKClark) March 29, 2016
Clark has been a leader in Congress on the issue of online harassment. She spoke at SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit and has called on the FBI to prioritize Gamergate; she brought that movement’s most high-profile target, Zoe Quinn, to speak at a Congressional briefing. In 2015, she introduced a bill asking for 10 additional agents in the FBI specifically focused on investigating cybercrimes, for each U.S. Attorney’s office to designate at least one assistant U.S. attorney to investigate and prosecute cybercrimes, and to implement “a regular and comprehensive training program to train FBI agents in the investigation and prosecution of, and the enforcement of laws related to, cybercrimes.” In March, Clark was the victim of a swatting attack — a false report calling police SWAT teams to her home — at her home with her family.
Lehman replied to Clark’s letter, writing, in part, “Like every platform that enables commentary, it has the potential to be misused. However, we want to be clear that Genius does not enable abuse. This is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets.” He went on to say that Genius has “a strict policy against abuse that our community has been enforcing for years… Today we released a feature that allows anyone to report abuse by clicking a single button on any annotation.”
“Our goal is to use annotation to enhance the public discourse — we can only achieve this by building an inclusive community, which is why we take issues of abuse and harassment seriously,” he wrote.
The language Lehman uses here to deny that this format — essentially a comments section woven throughout an article — would not enable abuse is patently absurd. To try to gaslight anyone, particularly a woman, into thinking that the idea that Genius enables abuse “is a false narrative that has taken hold on Twitter and other outlets” is equally ridiculous. (And just because a narrative “takes hold” on Twitter does not mean that narrative is false. But it’s lovely to see Genius so concerned about the ways in which humans will use technology to spread misinformation — on other platforms, that is, not on News Genius, where of course such a terrible thing would never happen, because of moderators.)
If you are going to put a piece of technology into the world, and if that technology is designed so that anyone with internet access can use it to express themselves, the number one thing you should expect is not, as Lehman’s letter to Clark puts it, “to enhance the public discourse.” The number one thing you should expect is harassment.
As Pew Research has found, 40 percent of all internet users have experienced online harassment. The most likely victims of that harassment — again, this should not come as a surprise to anyone who spends even a minimal amount of time online every day; it certainly should not be a shock to professionals who work in tech — are young women, who “experience certain types of severe harassment at disproportionately high levels.” 26 percent of young women (aged 18 to 24) have been stalked online; 25 percent have been sexually harassed. Online harassment can easily escalate into offline harassment, and worse.
Some other telling highlights from Pew: “African-American and Hispanic internet users are more likely than their white counterparts to experience harassment online. Some 51 percent of African-American internet users and 54 percent of Hispanic internet users said they had experienced at least one of the six harassment incidents, compared with 34 percent of white internet users.” Also: “Comment sections on websites were also noted for hosting antagonistic conversations between contributors. These were often news sites.”
As one survey respondent put it, “Anytime there’s a chance to voice opinions, people will take it too far and make personal attacks.”
There’s really no excuse for Genius to demonstrate such apparent disregard for the obvious. A platform like News Genius is like the textual equivalent of that urban legend hazing ritual wherein sorority pledges have their physical “flaws” circled with Sharpie. Lehman’s mission statement is callousness masquerading as optimism, a willful obliviousness to the well-documented ways in which people behave online. (When asked for comment, Genius sent ThinkProgress a link to a tweet with Lehmann’s letter excerpted above.)
Remember Microsoft’s artificial intelligence bot, Tay? She was supposed to be a teenage girl on Twitter. She turned into a racist troll after less than 24 hours online. The theory behind Tay is that she would grow with every interaction she had, learning from “casual and playful conversation” with real humans until she resembled one herself. But within hours of Tay’s launch, people started to tweet at the bot your typical stream of internet garbage: Misogynistic, racist, hateful trash. (Sample tweet: “Hitler was right I hate the jews.” Godwin’s Law in action.) Microsoft hustled to take Tay offline, apologizing in a statement for the “coordinated effort by some users to abuse Tay’s commenting skills.”
You may also recall a similar hack of a 2015 Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad. The innocuous-sounding marketing campaign implored Twitter users to reply to negative tweets with the hashtag #MakeItHappy, tweets which Coca-Cola would turn into ASCII art. Gawker Editorial Labs director Adam Pash built a bot to tweet Mein Kampf, one line at a time, to Coke, which in turn tweeted back excerpts of Hitler’s manifesto in cutesy text-as-cartoon form. Once the humans at Coca-Cola realized what they’d accidentally posted, they deleted all the Mein Kampf posts and suspended the campaign.
In a statement to AdWeek, the company said, “The #MakeItHappy message is simple: The internet is what we make it, and we hoped to inspire people to make it a more positive place. It’s unfortunate that Gawker is trying to turn this campaign into something that it isn’t.”
Genius co-founder Ilan Zechory told Re/Code in a phone interview that the company “takes this stuff really seriously” and employs a full-time staffer, plucked from Genius’ community, to monitor all comments made on the Web annotation tool. “I think that… whether it’s pen and paper or Twitter or Instagram or anywhere you can put text in a box and publish it, there’s no way you can architect the Internet so there’s zero chance of abuse,” he said. “You need to have good monitoring, good culture, good response and good mechanisms.”
In a written statement to ThinkProgress, Clark elaborated on her letter to Genius:
After working with victims of online threats and harassment as well as advocacy groups and online platforms, it is clear that we can’t stem the torrent of online abuse until corporations that develop apps and platforms take responsibility to consider how their technology could be used to enable abuse. The vast majority of developers are well-intentioned and are innovating in ways that are beneficial to online communication and our economy; however, it often does not occur to them how their great idea could be used by someone wishing to do harm. By raising awareness about online abuse, I’m hopeful that more developers and corporations will take the time to think about how their products might enable abusive behavior so it can be prevented or mitigated.
A thought: Is there really a demand for the service News Genius is offering here? Readers certainly don’t lack for ways of commenting on stories that are published online. Anyone who shares a story on Facebook can set up the link however they desire, using the space allotted to say that the story is garbage, or the most amazing thing you’ll see all day, or proof that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams — really, sky’s the limit. Twitter, too, offers room to describe, criticize, celebrate, or otherwise annotate the links users share. Poignant or troubling lines can be highlighted in text for emphasis, screenshotted, and posted. You don’t even need Photoshop to go to town on this stuff if you have Microsoft Paint and a dream. If anything, the internet seems to be moving in the opposite direction: A number of news sites, including Reuters and The Chicago Sun-Times, have eliminated comments sections altogether.