More on #AmazonFAIL: Hackers, misogyny, homophobia and you

[For background on what AmazonFAIL is, see my article at the Women's Media Center. UPDATE: See my final post on this topic, after the hacker theory was refuted by Amazon.]

As the day has worn on, more parts of the story are unfolding, and all these little tidbits at the intersection of tech, culture, media and commerce are more than fascinating. This is the kind of story that sends me down the rabbit hole of musing for days.

Let’s start with the tech side of things

According to Jessica Valenti (and her publisher, Seal Press), Amazon reps are claiming that this is a purely internal issue caused by the mysterious “glitch” spoken of last night. I don’t think the reps know what they’re talking about, frankly. What I think is going on: there is a severe vulnerability in the Amazon flagging-for-inappropriate system, and it’s been found and exploited by one or more nerds with too much time on their hands. Amazon’s mistake, vis a vis the brave new world of social media, is two-fold:

There’s a livejournal blogger out there now claiming responsibility for the exploit. I won’t link over, because I actually think he’s full of crap, as do those who’ve attempted to reproduce his exploitative code. It’s a well known practice for those with no skillz to take responsibility for things they have no part of to build up their hacker cred. Please. You know what tipped me off, for the record? The references to wanting to have anonymous sex with women and heroin from Craigslist. Fetishy-objectifying of women is common in the hacker community, for sure, but this guy is just… silly.

This doesn’t mean that someone didn’t come up with something similar– I’m almost positive they did. Which means that Amazon has a serious problem, and they better have a better explanation than the “glitch.”

There’s a bigger picture here: cultural implications

From a tech point of view, recommendation systems and flag-as-inappropriate tools that aren’t built to handle gaming the system are just no good. It’s unacceptable that a masterminding giant such as Amazon wasn’t prepared for this kind of attack. Especially considering how much it affects Amazon’s contract and relationship with the people that provide them with the goods its users demand, and how much users trust Amazon to do the Right Thing.

On a wider cultural scale, as I’d mentioned in the article in the WMC, the cultural implications of these attacks — especially when it’s big enough to get this kind of attention — are huge. Geek culture is one of the last vestiges of an overtly sexist and toxic environment for anyone who’s not a straight guy, most likely white and middle-class. (Not limited to the nerds of computer love, either– check out this post on misogyny and comic books from Amptoons.) When these attacks occur, it reveals not just the hatred that the hackers themselves have for women and LGBT folk, but the wider cultural intolerance we still have running rampant.

Decades of victories in civil rights for women and people of color, and more recently, LGBT folk seeking rights to get married, cannot correct the thousands of years of damage on which our culture is built. When a system of rapid information distribution (oh, like say, The Internet!) provides anonymity, free(-ish) speech and very little accountability, it makes it easy for people’s True Feelings to come out. It’s my feeling that what we see online is a mirror showing us the dark underbelly of what exists.

Some would react by clamping on the anonymity, the level of free speech and the accountability, often all at once. Sure, keeping trolls off your comments section is probably a good idea. Enacting laws making it impossible to operate independently and anonymously online? Bad idea. Very bad. We need to be addressing the root causes of our misogyny, our racism, our homophobia — not piling on bandaids, duct tape and bailing twine to keep people’s mouths shut. Only when it came to the threat of physical danger would I advocate for restriction. I have witnessed friends and colleagues being attacked viciously, and there is no one on this planet that deserves that level of fear stuffed down their throats.

It’s time to get real, folks. These attacks are proof that feminism and its partners in other social justice work still have a long, long way to go. Long way. I’m on board… are you?

Updates on theories, conspiracy and otherwise, are welcome in the comments.


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Discussion

  1. 01. Aspen Baker

    I so appreciate this Deanna. Please keep helping us think critically about how our worlds collide and what it all means.

  2. 02. Sierra Dafoe

    Deanna, I would find it so much easier to entertain this possibility if Amazon hadn’t responded to early complaints by authors whose books were being de-listed with a stock answer that (and I’m paraphrasing) “your book has been deemed adult and we’re de-ranking adult books so they won’t appear in search engines.”

    Unless they’re Kindle editions, of course. As of right now, my print books are missing, even if you search by author and title, but my Kindle editions are easily found.

    I’m not even particularly upset about *my* books — when I first discovered this, all of mine were still showing, and I was nevertheless furious.

    To see the actual text of Amazon’s reply to at least one author, click here. It makes it very hard to believe that Amazon’s just a victim, here.

  3. 03. .pomegranate.

    Thank you for this insightful reflection. However, I wonder what evidence there is that this actually was a flag-as-inappropriate attack? Amazon sent more than one author statements to the effect that this was an internal policy, and if you check out Dear Author’s analysis (http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2009/04/12/amazon-possibly-using-category-metadata-to-filter-rankings/), it seems pretty likely (to me, at least) that this whole debacle stems from a poor, misguided, lazy, and/or regressive attempt to block so-called adult materials based on their category metadata. Based on Amazon’s statements, as well as the sheer number of books that have lost their rankings in a relatively short period of time, I think it makes more sense that this would be coming from within Amazon rather than without.

    That said, the fact that even a single or small group of sad, possibly homophobic, clearly sex-phobic policymakers at Amazon thought they could get away with quietly stripping authors of their sales speaks volumes about wider cultural intolerance. I’m waiting to hear more from Amazon – though I anticipate we’ll only hear more excuses – but I’m with you that this is the kind of thing that will keep me busy for days to come.

  4. 04. deanna zandt

    Sierra, totally agree that there is the wider problem brought up by people like Craig. It’s more the massive delisting over a holiday weekend that seems kooky to me, not that a corporate entity would deem content that’s off the beaten path as inappropriate… that in of itself is extremely problematic and worthy of a whole ‘nother post.

  5. 05. Jessica Freely

    Great post. Thank you for putting all of this in its broader context.

  6. 06. Mhoram

    “Geek culture is one of the last vestiges of an overtly sexist and toxic environment for anyone who’s not a straight guy, most likely white and middle-class”

    – This may be one of the most naive and ignorant single statements I’ve read in a long time.

    That said, good luck ferreting out what actually happened here. A nice scandal and a nice pushback will hopefully make Amazon not assume they can push feminists around.

  7. 07. deanna zandt

    Mhoram, I know that there are discussions elsewhere about this, but let me say: just because BoingBoing and a few other geeky blogs are strongly-profeminist, does not mean that there are not severe problems in geek culture. I’ve been a nerd since day one, got my first computer (TI-99/4A! \m/) when I was eight, and have been swimming in it ever since.

    A great reference for this is the absolutely incredible, fun-to-read anthology “She’s Such a Geek.” I’d love it if dude-geeks everywhere picked it up and then — overtly, clearly, vehemently — joined in on the work to eliminate the toxicity of geek culture. Obviously I didn’t get into the nuances of it for this piece, but I’d love to keep discussing…


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