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Writer @silvermanjacob

‘What Would Social Media Be Like As the World Is Ending?’

Hulton Archive / Getty, Greywolf Press

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | February 2019 | 22 minutes (6,069 words)


Mark Doten is a deranged seer, a mad scribe mapping the end of the world. In The Infernal, his wonderfully strange first novel, he tackled a host of twenty-first century horrors: Osama Bin Laden and his followers, the moral disaster of the War on Terror, the gravitational pull of the networked world on our minds, and a seemingly inevitable post-human future in which one of the few survivors is Mark Zuckerberg. Now, in Trump Sky Alpha, Doten’s produced a fierce, unexpectedly moving, and surprisingly quickly conceived book about the Trump presidency. The new novel begins with a nuclear conflagration that wipes out 90 percent of the global population. The protagonist, Rachel, a journalist steeped in the folkways of the internet, is one of the few survivors. In an effort to reboot American journalism, the New York Times Magazine, risen from the ashes, assigns her to write an article about internet humor at the end of the world. What were people tweeting as the bombs fell?

It may sound like a deliberately obscure assignment, but it soon takes Rachel into some of the darkest corners of the post-apocalyptic American landscape. Mourning her dead wife and child, Rachel is also searching for their final resting place; along the way she finds a new lover, encounters an American security state that seems just as malevolent as its pre-apocalyptic forebears, tangles with a frightful hacktivist-turned-cyber-villain, and meets a novelist dying of radiation exposure who may be the key to it all. Trump Sky Alpha begins as an elaborate farce and ends as something much more grim and compelling, covering issues of politics, resistance, identity, and what, after all these years of mindless info-consumption, the internet actually means to our society. Read more…

Inauthentic Behavior

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | August 2018 | 7 minutes (1,849 words)

On July 31, Facebook executives announced that they had uncovered “coordinated inauthentic behavior” conducted by fraudulent accounts, possibly with Russian backing. After consulting with law enforcement and independent research organizations, Facebook decided to remove eight pages, seventeen profiles, and seven Instagram accounts. Many of them had been made within the past year. The culprits had endeavored to obscure their activities using virtual private networks, known as VPNs, to mask their identities and, Facebook claimed, by paying “third parties to run ads on their behalf.” The message from Facebook, in a lengthy blog post on the discovery, was stark: “We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too.”

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The Contradictions of Twitter’s ‘We Care’ Campaign

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | July 2018 | 8 minutes (1,917 words)

Last week, James Woods, an actor who supports Trump and delights in right-wing memes, tweeted a photo of a woman at a rally. The woman wore a yellow placard that read “My Legs Are Open For Refugees.” Woods, amused and apparently unimpressed by the woman’s appearance, wrote, “Finally, a real solution to stop illegal immigration.” The photo was fake. The words “Legs Are” were, clearly—and quite poorly—edited into the image. That didn’t stop Woods from sharing the photo, which was retweeted more than 7,400 times and picked up by Nigel Farage, a prominent member of the UK Independence Party, and popular pro-Trump accounts. For a certain faction of right-wing Twitter users, the image was another piece of evidence validating a noxious truth.

Eventually, a photographer named Lasia Kretzel saw the picture. Kretzel was disturbed; she had taken the original photograph, in which the sign read, “My Door Is Open for Refugees.” The sign also had a stamp from Amnesty International that had been removed in some edits. Kretzel had captured the image more than two years ago, at a demonstration supporting Syrian refugees in Saskatoon, Canada. In a series of tweets, she laid out how it had been altered as a piece of propaganda designed to whip up anti-refugee sentiment. Her thread was retweeted more than 6,400 times. Soon, Farage deleted his wrongful tweet. But the Woods post remained up, zooming past Kretzel’s in popularity. It’s likely that few, if any, of his followers ever noticed the correction. Besides, even if the tweet was untrue, it was still a good troll, and it showed his fans what they wanted to see.  Read more…

Private Telegram, Public Strife

Telegram App, Wikimedia Commons

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | July 2018 | 10 minutes (2,418 words)

Telegram, a messaging app with more than 200 million users, is a company known for its rakish independence. Pavel Durov, who created the app with his brother, Nikolai, is a 33-year old from St. Petersburg, Russia, with a taste for dark suits and tax-free municipalities. In 2006, he founded VKontakte (VK), Russia’s answer to Facebook, which quickly became the country’s largest social network and a target of its security services. Durov, who identifies as a “part-time troll” in his Twitter bio, earned a reputation as a sort of maverick entrepreneur, a persona that has come with both free-speech absolutism and immature antics. His most notorious stunt took place in May 2012, when he stood at his office window and tossed paper airplanes made of rubles down onto the street below. He later explained that he had been talking to a vice president at his company who had been awarded a large bonus, and when the VP said that he didn’t care about money, the two decided to throw cash out the window—until bystanders started fighting over the windfall.

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The Menace and the Promise of Autonomous Vehicles

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Jacob Silverman | Longreads | June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,419 words)

In Tempe, Arizona, on the cool late-winter night of March 18, Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old homeless woman, stepped out onto Mill Avenue. A new moon hung in the sky, providing little illumination. Mill Avenue is a multi-lane road, and Herzberg was walking a bike across; plastic bags with some of her few possessions were dangling from the handlebars. Out of the darkness, an Uber-owned Volvo XC90 SUV, traveling northbound, approached at 39 miles per hour, and struck Herzberg. The Uber came to an unceremonious stop, an ambulance was called, and she died later in a hospital. The car had been in autonomous mode.
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