Online platforms have a hard time handling hate speech. Twitter, for example, has slowly—many would say too slowly—shifted from its hands-off approach toward policing derogatory tweets, culminating most recently in the banishment of Milo Yiannopoulos, a famously hateful tweeter.
Even so, no censor can be absolute. This summer the triple-parentheses proliferated on Twitter and via a Google Chrome extension, propagated by the so-called “alt-right,” a group of online troublemakers whose extreme right-wing views often dip into outright white supremacy. A name surrounded by three parentheses on each side indicated that the person mentioned was Jewish. Because there is nothing obviously offensive about parentheses, neither to Twitter’s employees nor its algorithms, they are nearly impossible to remove systematically from the platform, in spite of their frequently anti-semitic use.
Now a new type of hateful internet code appears to be emerging: The systematic use of innocuous words to stand in for offensive racial slurs. Search Twitter for “googles,” “skypes,” or “yahoos,” and you will encounter some shocking results, like this tweet: “If welfare state is a given it must go towards our own who needs. No Skypes, googles, or yahoos.” Or this one, reading “Chain the googles / Gas the yahoos.”
What does this mean? Nothing good. In this lexicon, “googles” means the n-word; “skypes” means Jews; and “yahoos” means “spic.” The word “skittles” has come to refer to Muslims, an obvious reference to Donald Trump Jr.’s comparing of refugees with candy that “would kill you.”
By all accounts the lexicon seems to have been conceived on 4chan—a message board famous for its trolls—as a response to an improved method for identifying pages and comments with offensive content and potentially removing or flagging them. The method was developed by Jigsaw, a technology “incubator” within Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The title of the 4chan post that seems to have started it all is “RIP alt-right trolls, SkyNet is coming for you.” The trolls responded with a loosely organized effort called “Operation Google,” which aims to get around these algorithms, and to trick them into blocking the names of their own services and companies.
Hence the use of “google” to mean what is arguably the most offensive term of them all. For a fuller list, including coded anti-LGBT terms, click here. (Warning: It’s not pretty.) This list appeared on 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” /pol/ board, and has been widely shared on Twitter and elsewhere, and similar terms can be found as well.
Asked whether it would be doing anything to address this kind of indirect hate speech, Twitter responded by pointing to its policy on hateful conduct. Google declined to comment.
The operation will not succeed in removing “google” from Google searches. The Jigsaw algorithm the trolls appear to be targeting is not even in use on Google search—thus far it is only being used to flag offensive comments on the New York Times website. Plus, the algorithm uses sophisticated machine learning techniques that will be able to identify, to a large degree, the sense in which a word is being used. It will know pretty well whether “google” is the name of a company or a racial slur, based on the context.
What’s more, once a code like this is widely known, it becomes much easier for users of it to be shamed or disregarded by their peers. That’s what happened with Pepe the Frog, the de facto mascot of the alt-right, which has gone from an underground symbol of racism to an official “hate symbol,” as certified by the Anti-Defamation League (prompting the creator of the cartoon frog to disavow its use by the alt-right, and declare that he’ll vote for Hillary Clinton). And the triple parentheses were re-appropriated by Jews and the left as a symbol of solidarity, co-opting the original, racist meaning.
Until that happens with this new lexicon, be on the lookout—there be trolls about.