SlateStarCodex deleted because NYT wants to dox Scott

by Rudi C1 min read23rd Jun 202095 comments

92

Information Hazards
Personal Blog

NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog

PS: One suggestion I have is to allow anonymous posts on Lesswrong that show the author’s anonymized karma. This is far from a good or complete solution, but I imagine it would at least come in handy in situations like this.

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In general, responses I've seen so far to this have seemed to come more from a "conflict theory" (rather than "mistake theory") interpretation of what's going on. And perhaps too much so.

I thought these comments by ricraz were a good contribution to the discussion: 

Scott Alexander is the most politically charitable person I know. Him being driven off the internet is terrible. Separately, it is also terrible if we have totally failed to internalise his lessons, and immediately leap to the conclusion that the NYT is being evil or selfish.

Ours is a community *built around* the long-term value of telling the truth. Are we unable to imagine reasonable disagreement about when the benefits of revealing real names outweigh the harms? Yes, it goes against our norms, but different groups have different norms.

If the extended rationalist/SSC community could cancel the NYT, would we? For planning to doxx Scott? For actually doing so, as a dumb mistake? For doing so, but for principled reasons? Would we give those reasons fair hearing? From what I've seen so far, I suspect not.

I feel very sorry for Scott, and really hope the NYT doesn't doxx him or anyone else. But if you claim to be charit

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But if you claim to be charitable and openminded, except when confronted by a test that affects your own community, then you’re using those words as performative weapons, deliberately or not.

I guess "charitable" here is referring to the principle of charity, but I think that is supposed to apply in a debate or discussion, to make them more productive and less likely to go off the rails. But in this case there is no debate, as far as I can tell. The NYT reporter or others representing NYT have not given a reason for doxxing Scott (AFAIK, except to cite a "policy" for doing so, but that seems false because there have been plenty of times when they've respected their subjects' wishes to remain pseudonymous), so what are people supposed to be charitable about?

If instead the intended meaning of "charitable and openminded" is something like "let's remain uncertain about NYT's motives for doxxing Scott until we know more", it seems like absence of any "principled reasons" provided so far is already pretty strong evidence for ruling out certain motives, leaving mostly "dumb mistake" and "evil or selfish" as the remaining possibilities. Given that, I'm not sure what people are doing that

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Tl;dr: A boycott is the central case here, not cancel culture. We need to promote a measured response and keep the Times' perspective charitably in mind.

Is there a difference between cancel culture and a boycott? I think so. Cancel culture inflicts 1) significant emotional, financial, or potentially physical harm on a 2) a specific individual who 3) never signed up for a position of responsibility to field these kinds of threats and 4) can't walk away from the cancellation.

Boycotting uses a much narrower set of tactics, primarily protests and advocating that people not buy a certain product. Typically they target an organization, not an individual. When specific individuals are on the receiving end, their professional role typically is in part to deal with those problems. They can quit if they choose and seek employment elsewhere.

This distinction has its grey areas:

Consider entrepreneurs. They can't necessarily just quit their business, and they're the face of it so even if they did, the accusations might follow them. They didn't start the business to field protests, but to sell products, often when the business was so small that the prospect of the former ... (read more)

3ChristianKl5moWhich would not be the case for a journalists who decided to take the repsonsibility of doxxing someone. That seems like a clear way of signing up for the responsibility. You might also prevent a psychopath from visiting someone at home because Times journalists might be more careful about writing attack pieces in the future. That likely happens much more often then Times journalists getting visited. I think what you should actually care about is minimizing the amount of people in general that get visited by psychopaths. It's also good if being more innocent reduces the changes of it happening.

There is a power imbalance in place. It's not like NYT is engaging this side in its decision. It's also true that NYT's norms are self-serving while hurting others. And this community does not have anywhere near the power to "cancel" NYT. Even if we assume the "mistake theory", making NYT hurt a bit (which is the strongest response this community can hope for) is necessary for creating a feedback loop. Mistakes are seldom corrected when their prices are paid by others.

This initially felt to me like it ignored some of the ramifications of its parent comment, but I'm also not sure the parent comment intended to imply them. So I would like to put forth the more specific idea that the line of action “there is a power imbalance, therefore, we have to amplify our motions by a large factor to counteract it, which is safe because we know we can't do any real damage to them” may not be universally wrong but is still dangerous and, for those acting on the sort of charitability norms ESRogs/ricraz describe, requires a lot of extra scrutiny. Specifically, I think nonrigorously with medium confidence that:

  • This line of action can create a violence cascade if some of the assumptions are wrong. (And in this concrete context specifically, it is not clear to me that the assumptions are right enough.)
  • In the case of “soft power” (as opposed to, for instance, physical violence, where damage is more readily objectively measurable and is often decisive by way of shutting down capacity), this is much more true when there is a lot of “fog of war” going on, where perceptions of who has power over what and whom don't have a lot of consensus. It is very easy to assume y
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8waveBidder5mothis is precisely the argument that cancel culture often makes, often with good reason, with outside actors piling on what may have started as a parochial dispute.

I think it makes sense to be precise and polite, and to make allowances for misunderstandings. I also think it makes sense to have boundaries and have the hypothesis of malice (with a low prior, both because malice is rare and it's easy to see it where none exists).

That said, my prior for malice from the NYT was pretty high, and various details have updated me further towards that hypothesis.

9Kerry5moMy prior for malice was also pretty high, and had updated in that direction significantly in the last year or so from monitoring the coverage, and also with recent details. It may not be an "evil villain" highly coordinated malice, but the incentives and dynamics led in the direction of enough general "bad faith" insinuation to be net negative. It didn't have to be intended as an attack on Scott or the blog, but rather as a morally obligatory denunciation of perceived ideas or associations---the increase of obligatory denunciation in its pieces makes it structurally very difficult for them to cover many topics in a net positive way. Ten, even five, years ago, I would have had totally different priors and been much less suspicious. I feel like people are treating the legacy media like a programmed computer and not like a group of humans in a specific set of circumstances. Of course, we can't know anything for sure, and people too easily assume malice. And I'm not claiming most people at the NYT are malicious. But I'm surprised at how much people are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the NYT at this point, especially in terms of principled consistency. If this were a policy matter, it should have been settled long ago--what could be so complicated?
3Kerry5moHere's an example of one thing that made me wary of the paper: https://medium.com/@lessig/lessig-v-nyt-very-good-news-d8b3c57150c4 [https://medium.com/@lessig/lessig-v-nyt-very-good-news-d8b3c57150c4]
8ChristianKl5moWe are in a situation where the decision whether or not to publish Scott's name isn't yet made. As such it's important to build up pressure to affect that decision and it's not useful to be charitable. Even if canceling the whole NYT would not be proportional canceling the reporter in question might be. You could argue that influential writers on political topics should have skin in the game and Scott being pseudonymous prevents him from having enough skin in the game. If that's the argument then I don't see the reporter who writes such an article shouldn't have the same likelihood of losing his job over the article then Scott. I think journalists bullying people they perceive to be easy targets is a general problem and not specific to Scott. The NYT times also frequently runs attack pieces which are hard to defend on utilitarian grounds. From a mistake perspective living in a world where Moloch rewards journalists for causing harm to people is bad.
4ESRogs5moI don't think it's so cut and dried as that. I think Scott's move to delete the blog was a reasonable one. But after that it's not clear to me whether all of us effectively saying "Fuck you!" to the NYT is more likely to result in them not publishing the name, or something more like, "Hey, I know you've got norms in favor of publishing real names, but I think you're making a mistake here, and hopefully the fact that Scott actually deleted his blog makes you realize he was more serious about this than you might have thought. I hope you make the right decision." Like, maybe the latter won't work. But it's not obvious to me one way or the other. It seems like it depends on facts about the state of mind of various folks who work at the NYT that are hard for us to know. EDIT: Or maybe a better way to put it is that being charitable might be part of how you "build up pressure to affect that decision". See Richard and Patrick's threads here [https://twitter.com/RichardMCNgo/status/1275363026246524929]. A charitable reading of what's happening from Metz's perspective might factor into your calculus of how to act to get the result you want.
6ChristianKl5moI don't think say effectively saying "Fuck you!" is a good description of what most people are writing. I think that's very different then saying the incentives should be changed in a way so that Moloch doesn't let reporters destroy the good.
8Raemon5moI think it kinda matters how people perceive it as being said, and, well, note that someone who is friendly on-your-side initially perceived it that way. (This is not really a strong claim about strategy, it just seemed like something one should be weighing while formulating their overall strategy)
2ChristianKl5moIn general there's no cost to ignoring it when people curse. Different comments imply a variety of costs such as canceled subscriptions.
2ESRogs5moFair points.
2Douglas_Knight5moWhat do you mean by "mistake theory" and "conflict theory"? I'm really confused by this comment and I think you are using the terms backwards. Telling someone that they've made a mistake is a violent act, a form of conflict, but it is an example of mistake theory. Some people theorize that there is an irreducible conflict. They generally recommend that their side not talk to NYT. Until the doxing came up, they were the dominant voices on the topic of this article in preparation, or at least the ones causing discussion. But after the topic moved on to doxing, they have nothing more to say and have been overwhelmed by This LW thread is almost entirely about mistake theory. Maybe you see different things on twitter, but if so, you should say that, because the one thing all your readers have in common is that they're on LW.
4ESRogs5moThis comment section is not what I was responding to. (There weren't many comments on this post when I made mine.) It was responses I'd seen in general across media, and yeah, a lot of that was on twitter. Apologies for ambiguous wording.
8NancyLebovitz5moI think that even if the NYT doesn't dox Scott in a first article, his identity is now part of the story, and he'll be doxed in various major media, probably including a second article from the NYT.
8mr-hire5moWoah, that's fancy. When did that happen?
8Raemon5moWe implemented Metaculus hoverovers a few weeks ago (I assume that's what you're asking). We mentioned in the open thread.
4TurnTrout5moLooks beautiful. Great work! :)
5Raemon5moThe Metaculus folk actually did the embedded iframe, we just implemented the use of the frame in the LW link previews.
3Pablo_Stafforini5moThere's also a similar question [https://poly.market/market/will-the-new-york-times-publish-an-article-revealing-scott-alexanders-full-name] on Polymarket, a new prediction market. (Note that the Metaculus question is conditional on the NYT publishing a story on Scott, whereas the Polymarket is unconditional.)

On preventing this

You can email the New York Times technology editor Pui-Wing Tam at pui-wing.tam@nytimes.com to voice concern (they are not the one writing the article, so might not be aware of the situation).

You can also tweet them @puiwingtam or retweet me (https://twitter.com/matiroy9/status/1275335651186094080).

You can also leave feedback here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/homepage/contact-newsroom.html

From Scott's blog:

> please be polite – I don’t know if Ms. Tam was personally involved in this decision, and whoever is stuck answering feedback forms definitely wasn’t. Remember that you are representing me and the SSC community, and I will be very sad if you are a jerk to anybody. Please just explain the situation and ask them to stop doxxing random bloggers for clicks. If you are some sort of important tech person who the New York Times technology section might want to maintain good relations with, mention that.

> If you are a journalist who is willing to respect my desire for pseudonymity, I’m interested in talking to you about this situation (though I prefer communicating through text, not phone). My email is scott@slatestarcodex.com.

EtA: petition: https://www.d

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1megasilverfist5moAs a heads up it looks like you need to be logged in to use the contact-newsroom page.

This reminds me of the time that Slate published hilzoy's real name, in 2009.

I think what happened there is that the Slate author was following journalistic customs of using real names and didn't realize that hilzoy wanted to stay pseudonymous online, and hilzoy had been even less vigilant than Scott about keeping her real name unfindable. And then once the article had been published, hilzoy's request to remove her name ran into Slate's policy of never changing published articles unless they contain a factual error, and this was not a factual error. (It's possible that the author also had some adversarial motives for publishing the name - it did happen in the context of a disagreement between her and hilzoy - but I don't know of any clear or direct evidence for that.)

So the main storyline here might be about the media having its own customs and not much caring about what happens to the people that they cover. The press does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of stories which it can tell to its audience. I'm not sure what implications (if any) this has about what to do now.

I have a few more suggestions here.

In short, if there is only one person with 1497 karma, (and statistically, given the number of users and amount of karma, most users will have a unique amount of karma) then the karma rating on each blog post will link them to each other. Over many posts, any clues will add up.

So sort users by karma, and only share the decile. So you would know that between 10% and 20% of less wrong users have higher karma. (Or just allow all people with at least X karma to post anonymous posts) Also, use karma at the time of posting. If a whole lot of posts suddenly bump up a rank at the same time, that strongly indicates that they are by the same person.

It's not like we've lost the articles published to SSC so far. There are backups, and not just Scott's. We can even link to some of them. The past SSC still exists.

What we're losing is the future--The part that hasn't been written yet. Scott has more to say and I want to hear it. SSC was my favorite blog. I am not alone in thinking this. Now it's gone. Maybe just until the NYT blinks. Maybe forever. Or maybe only for years, but at a time when we desperately need voices of reason like Scott's. And that is very sad and I feel bummed out about it.

This doesn't have to be over. Scott has won some influential allies. I'm interested in how this all plays out.

Tom Chivers has a nice opinion piece here.

I don't think "wants to doxx Scott" is the best description of their goals. This looks like part of a pervasive rule that also leads many media companies to deadname trans people.

8Douglas_Knight5moI don't think that their principal goal is to doxx him. But there is a big difference between a habit and a rule. It's not that they used the name without thinking about it, but they specifically rejected his complaint and said that they were just following orders. On many other places I see people discussing this, they point out that the reporter's claim that there is an NYT policy is a bald-faced lie. You are the first person I have seen that took it at face value. This LW discussion is striking because no one else acknowledges the claim at all. I think that they believe that it is a lie, but don't want to rudely point that out, so they pretend it was not uttered. Added, next day: I estimate that 99% of the time that NYT writes about someone with a professional pseudonym, they treat it as a real name. 1% of the time, they note that it is a pseudonym and 1/10 of those times, 1/1000 of all times they print the real name. Seriously, 99% of the time. I am not being hyperbolic. The main source of uncertainty is how often they write about someone with a professional pseudonym. I estimate that NYT writes about someone with a professional surname every day.

I've become a bit more suspicious of Cade Metz, now that I've noticed that he had some sort of association with former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne. My impression of Byrne has long been that his personality is sort of like Trump's, but a bit less intelligent.

Anyone writing puff pieces about Byrne is likely to, at best, have poor judgment. That doesn't tell me much about the current controversy, but I now put a moderate probability on the idea that Metz knows he's working for some malicious people.

Also, Metz contacted me on June 1, wanting to ask questions about the rationality community and its overlap with Silicon Valley (he did not mention SSC). I offered to answer questions by email, but not by phone. He did not respond. I don't infer much from this, beyond the fact that his initial interest in a story was not due to something controversial that Scott posted in June.

I sent the following email to pui-wing.tam@nytimes.com (before I noticed Metz's puff pieces about Byrne):

I'm puzzled by your apparent plan to publicize Scott Alexander's real name.

It sounds like you're following a policy which has a chilling effect on any psychiatrist who wishes to comment on public affairs.

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4Douglas_Knight5moI've seen a lot of complaints [https://twitter.com/davidgerard/status/1275424887847469058] about Metz's history, but they all seem backwards to me. They seem like a satire of virtue ethics. Who do you think he's "working for"? If he is working for outside forces (eg, keeping a source happy), then drawing attention to it is exactly the best way to take it out of his hands and force him to work for his editor; and force his editor to work for the paper. Writing puff pieces sounds more lazy than malicious to me.

Is dox the right word here? I guess this fits inside the definition but it feels kinda non-central to me. A typical example would include some intent to do harm. Considering a different principle more important feels importantly different. 

Not that this is much consolation to Scott and I think the NYT is wrong to reveal Scott's identity (and have written in to say this), I just think doxxing is the wrong way to describe it.

3willbradshaw5moI don't think I agree that a central example of doxxing requires intent to do harm. I think if you carelessly reveal, say, someone's home address on the internet, you have doxxed them. If the person first asks you not to, and you do it anyway in spite of them, then the fact that you didn't intend to do harm seems fairly irrelevant to me. I don't buy the intend/foresee distinction at the best of times, and this one seems especially shaky. Revealing someone's name against their will isn't as bad as revealing their address or workplace or so on, but it seems close enough in spirit that I don't think splitting hairs over the definition of doxxing is very useful.
2Bucky5moI think its hard to argue that a central example of doxxing doesn't involve intent to cause harm. The central example I think in most people's minds would be something like the hit list of abortion providers or anonymous. Wikipedia has a list of examples of doxxing [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doxing#Examples] - a rough count suggests ~13/15 involve providing information about someone ideologically opposed to the doxxer (confirming intent is more difficult). The non-centrality here isn't as extreme as it is in, say, "Martin Luther King was a criminal" but it is there. On the relevance of the distinction, yes, I do think it is important. I would support different responses to the NYT depending on whether I thought they were acting out of a desire to endanger/silence Scott or were following a journalistic norm in a way I considered wrong.
7willbradshaw5moThe dispute here, then, is whether doxing is a concept like murder[1] [#fn-rzYx8ZRBXbGG7Y3g4-1] (with intent built into the definition) or homicide (which is defined solely by the nature of the act and its consequences). I think it is useful to have a general word for "publicly revealing personal information about someone without/against their consent in a manner that is likely to foreseeably damage them". Calling that thing "doxing", and saying that doxing is generally bad unless you have a very compelling reason, seems more useful to me than restricting the use of "doxing" to malicious cases and being left without a good handle for the other thing. That said, I am generally pretty opposed to label creep; I think it's often very harmful when terms that were previously restricted to very bad things get applied to less bad (or just differently bad) things (Scott's own work has plenty of good examples of this), especially when this is done as a rhetorical technique to coerce action. So I'm in agreement with the general spirit of the objection, I'm just not convinced it applies in this particular case. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Murder in the UK, that is; I think the US does things differently? ↩︎ [#fnref-rzYx8ZRBXbGG7Y3g4-1]
3Bucky5moI feel like we're still talking past each other a bit here. I don't dispute that doxxing can mean any revealing of information about someone, it could be used even when no foreseeable damage is implied and someone just wanted to remain private. The strict definition is not the question. The non-central fallacy [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/yCWPkLi8wJvewPbEp/the-noncentral-fallacy-the-worst-argument-in-the-world] is when a negative affect word is used to describe something where the word is technically true but the actual thing should not have that negative affect associated with it. Martin Luther King fits the definition of a criminal but the negative affect of the word criminal (the reasons why crimes are bad) shouldn't apply to him. The problem I have using "dox" here is that some portion of the word's negative affect doesn't (or at least might not) apply in this case. An alternative phrasing would be "reveal Scott's true identity" or, to be snappier, "unmask Scott" which are more neutral. dontdoxscottalexander.com's title is Don't De-Anonymize Scott Alexander [https://www.dontdoxscottalexander.com/] which I think is better than my ideas.
2ryan_b5moBut the pitch for the non-central fallacy is that this is an intentional deviation. For example, if everyone everywhere has always talked about "the criminal, MLK" then saying MLK is a criminal wouldn't be non-central anymore, it would just be the way he is described. I've never heard any other term except doxxing for deliberately revealing another person's identity on the internet; it is even common use when describing accidental cases. As a practical matter and according to our (or at least the American-centered internet) norms it is a fundamentally malicious act.

Since hating on the mainstream media is itself mainstream now....would it be a net benefit for SSC to pass this story (about NYT doxxing) to some of NYT's competitors/new media? Just brainstorming, not suggesting this as potential course of retaliation/threat, since it could backfire if it causes NYT to double down when feeling attacked.

I feel like the more places report on this, the higher the probability that at least one of them will publish Scott's real name.

2willbradshaw5moI fear the growing Twitter storm will have the same effect, even if successful.

It has already happened. I checked.

I’ve tried to keep my last name secret. I haven’t always done great at this, but I’ve done better than “have it get printed in the New York Times“.

It's not like his real name was ungoogleable before. The determined could find him (and have). Therefore, I expect a few tweets from nobodies would likely remain obscure when this blows over. Do not amplify them when you see them. Ignore. But a NYT article is a bigger deal.

2lifelonglearner5moDid a cursory look through Twitter and found several critical accounts spreading it, so as gilch said, it's already happening to an extent :/
1ataftoti5moI agree with that prediction, but that seems a given, with how Scott has called his supporters to action with emailing the NYT. Such a coordination is gonna draw the attention regardless.
3Kerry5moI suspect the strategy more to make it obvious the paper is aware of what it is doing, not allowing them to spin it as a misunderstanding after the fact. I think this changes their calculation more than people realize, but it's impossible to say what the final decision will be.
4ChristianKl5moRetaliation only makes sense if the article gets published with the name which hasn't yet happened.
3ataftoti5moIf it happens before the publication, it wouldn't be retaliation, but more like a commitment to retaliate. If there's people making a fuss about the reporter's current intention to publish, it's a pretty clear signal what would happen if they follow through. If it gets them to change their minds in time before the publication, that seems like the best outcome.
2Slider5moI think it "not being retaliation" makes it any more less edgy. If I credibly threaten to beat you up if you do something I have made an illegal threat even if I never punch someone. And I feel it goes along the same lines on the moral level. The relevant distinction would be emotive "I didn't really mean to" speech vs credible communication of intent. If it is intentional and credible it is very comparable to actually carrying it out.
2siclabomines5moGiven the news cycle speed, it makes sense to get ready for the likely scenarios.

It likely makes more sense to follow Scotts advice to contact the NYTimes to advice not to doxx him then focus on preparing for retaliation.

3siclabomines5moOf course, that was a given. I just assumed that most of us don't need days of exclusive focus to write an email.
3ChristianKl5moIt's quite possible to invest more time into "contacting the NYTimes" then writing a single email. You could for example encourage other people to write as well. Especially people who they NYTimes might more care about than random people.
2siclabomines5moFair enough.

Given that Steven Pinker retweeted Scott's deletion post and this news article , this issue will probably keep getting publicity for better or worse. Given this, some people will start looking for Scott's real name, and thus it would be a great idea to increase the entropy here by promoting a value for Scott's real name that is not ahem entirely accurate. Thoughts?

8Rudi C5moConsidering Scott's name is known by many, spreading false names might break the taboo against doxxing and let the genie out of the lamp. If his name does get out, then the solution might work, but I'm not hopeful. What are the methods you are thinking of spreading the false info? Twitter? Wikipedia?
1alex_lw5moHuh, what, Russia Today's article is used for defending SSC??? These times we're living in are strange indeed..

"New York Times Threatens To Doxx Slate Star Codex. Journalist Explains."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiAhDKKrinI