Category: On Writing

Imagined communities: The alt-left on Twitter

In January, I joined a team of researchers in Amsterdam to explore the online communities of ‘Alt-left’ and ‘Antifa’ using data from Twitter and Reddit. This was one of many projects all taking place as part of the Digital Methods Initiative Winter School, organised by the University of Amsterdam.

In particular, we wanted to use the data to find out whether the so called ‘alt-left’ represents a genuine community or if it’s simply a construct of the alt-right in the latter’s attempts to promote a false equivalence, as has been claimed.  We were also curious to establish whether alt-left overlapped with Antifa online, or if they were two distinct communities.

We arrived at the following research questions. This blog post will focus on the first two only.
1. Does the ‘Alt Left’ exist (to Antifa)?
2. Could the ‘Alt Left’ be considered an Alt Right construct?
3. Is the ‘Alt Left’ as a notion mainstreaming?
4. How did the ‘Alt Left’ emerge? How to characterise the
Alt Left’s identity (semantically)?

For the first question, we collected a list of top 20 hashtags associated with both ‘alt-left’ and ‘Antifa’ keywords. We found very little overlap between the two groups. Notably, the discourse of the alt-left (shown in green below) consisted of more words that could be considered ‘mainstream political dialogue’, compared to the ‘Antifa’, which seemed more fringe.

The latter’s hashtags contained references to lesser-known terms such as ‘democratTerrorism’, along with the names of some Japanese Antifa groups. From this data, we could reasonably conclude that the alt-left and Antifa are separate, distinctive discourses.

The term ‘alt-left’ arrived in the mainstream after Donald Trump used it when talking about the violence around the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in the US city of Charlottesville. He condemned groups on both sides of the violence, saying: “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?”

Subsequently, there has been discussion in the mainstream media about whether alt-left really exists. It could simply be a construct of the far-right as it attempts to gain moral ground against its opposition by creating a false equivalent that can be painted as equally, if not more, violent.

The next section of our research examined this question in more depth, using Twitter data to give a clearer picture. We compared the top 50 Twitter users for both the #altleft and #Antifa hashtags, by looking more closely at their bios and timelines.

Right-wing conservative Trump supporters dominated the alt-left group, while the Antifa group was populated by a strange mix of accounts posting ebay related tweets and tweets in Japanese promoting the ‘Antifa Handbook’.

A deeper dive, this time into the most influential hashtag users (influence = most followed), produced illuminating results. For both keywords, we identified the majority of influential users as pro-Trump conservatives, with the exception of one rather prolific Japanese bot.

We found three significant users who overlapped with both terms: both pro-Trump. The common thread connecting both altleft and Antifa hashtag users appears to be their support for Trump, rather than specific alt-right features.

The below Gephi graph shows the different communities grouping around the Antifa keyword on Twitter. As can be seen, the biggest cluster represents American, right-wing Trump supporters.

We also created an equivalent for the alt-left hashtag communities. This graph is less consistent, but the striking feature about it is the large purple cluster, with one Twitter account ‘kwilli1046’, at its centre, meaning this user is extremely influential.

A screenshot of his profile is shown below. ‘Kevin W’ has around 88k followers and a bio link to a page on Gab, the alternative ‘free speech’ social networking platform where many of the far-right have ended up after being kicked off Twitter.

In conclusion, we found that the ‘alt-left’ does not exist outside of an online construct. In addition, the alt-left is mainly a term propagated by pro-Trump accounts in their attempts to create a ‘faux-public’. With so many of these accounts being pro-Trump, this could potentially point to the use of state-sponsored bots and organised trolling to push the alt-left as a form of disinformation. This could be a worthwhile topic for building on the findings of this research.


How I learned to stop worrying and love self-study

It’s been a long time since I last posted here. I had some mysterious issues with getting my previous post to show up on the live site. Happily, when I went back to it today and did a new git commit and push, it finally worked. I have a theory that my VPN (a necessary addition in Turkey…) might have caused the problem. I’m not sure how well Git and Github play with VPNs.

So it’s time for a progress update! It’s now mid-March – how time flies. I’ve been on this learning to code mission for over a year now. Although it feels like a hard slog at times, when I look back on my old stuff I can definitely see progress being made! Even this blog is testament to that.

I had a minor setback last week, when I didn’t make it onto the bootcamp I’d been aiming for. They invited me to try again in a week’s time “after reaching level 5 on CodeWars” (I’m currently on 7) Now normally I’m all for persistence, else I’d have given up on coding long ago. But quite frankly, there are better things I could be doing with my time. Like practising building my own apps, all by myself.

As everyone keeps saying, we learn best by doing. And, to me, being able to build and show off a range of my own apps, is far more useful at this point than figuring out a relentless stream of abstract algorithms. Instead I intend to master programming concepts through trial, error, and building stuff. Plus, I’ll save myself a TON of money, which will help fund my imminent departure from Istanbul.

To give myself solid structure, I’m following the boot camp style curriculum in the Odin Project. It’s pretty comprehensive and includes courses on both JavaScript and Ruby on Rails. By following the materials on Odin, I’ll end up with a wide range of projects to display lovingly on Github. I’ve also reactivated my Treehouse subscription. Much has improved there since last year.

Another thing I’m doing at the moment is finding an interesting open-source project.

While stalking Twitter at 5am I discovered the guys at Hoodie. Hoodie is an open source software that provides all the backend stuff for your apps, so you don’t have to. They have a well-developed and beginner-friendly zone for solving bugs and contributing to docs. I’m looking forward to submitting my first pull request next week.

Open-source is a great way to get used to collaborating with a development team. It’s especially useful for me, living in Istanbul, far away from many accessible tech meetups.

Watch out for my next post, which will be all about my first steps into open-source, and tips for how you too can get started in this intriguing world.

Two heads are better than one

I freaked out the first time I looked at CodeWars.

I was fresh from six months of JavaScript self-study. As it turned out, the knowledge I’d shoehorned so painstakingly into my brain was suddenly nowhere to be found. It had abandoned me.

CodeWars is tough. Even the sign-up process requires new users to complete two code challenges. Once in, the list of problems was overwhelming.

My attitude to programming has changed today after completing the Ronin taster day. I still believe that a collaborative, problem-solving approach is best, but until now I haven’t had much opportunity to develop my coding skills in this way. Most of the code I’ve learned and written so far has been done in isolation, as part of my sometimes lonely digital nomad life.

With me today were eleven participants from around the world, all brought together via video-conferencing. The host started us off with a stand-up session, in which everyone introduced themselves and their goals for the day. He explained how Ronin works and what we could expect from the event.

But more importantly, he explained what the Ronin programme isn’t. It’s not a course in JavaScript or Ruby, although those skills are taught in depth. The overall goal of Ronin is to teach its students to adopt a new mindset. It teaches them to think like programmers.

I’ve been struggling with this for a long time, even while being aware of it. Although I’ve learned difficult things from scratch before (Mandarin, for example), there’s something about talking (and writing) in computer-friendly languages that feels overly abstract and hard to relate to. But to learn programming, one must learn to be comfortable in the unknown.

At least I already know that memorising syntax is NOT the way to become a good programmer. As my successful self-taught programmer friends tell me, Google is there for a reason. I fully agree. I mean, why make life harder?

Most programmers rely on Google to look up bits of syntax. They may memorise certain elements of it, especially the most common ones, but this happens through doing. As Jordan said, ‘you just need to be aware of what’s possible.’

Think about logic first, then code. Decide on the sequence of steps that can take you through the problem from start to finish. Only then should you start trying to translate the logical steps into aspects of code.

It’s essential to develop a hypothesis when you start to tackle a problem.Force yourself to use it and don’t assume anything to be the case. Test everything and be explicit about your expectations.

This is where pair programming can be really powerful.

We did two hours of pair programming during the taster day, programming with two different partners and swapping over the roles. This worked surprisingly well even over a video connection. We were encouraged to keep up a constant flow of dialogue with our partner, to explain what we were doing at every step, and ask questions about what they were doing.

At first there was that scary moment of feeling exposed, nervous about looking incompetent in front of a total stranger. But that soon passed and the process became enjoyable and motivating.

Effective pair programming requires communication and collaboration. Working together over a video link demands extra clarity and precision when explaining ideas and giving suggestions. It becomes easier to figure out problems and both people in the partnership come away with added confidence.

I’ve worked as a language teacher and a journalist so my communication skills are already quite well-honed. But pair programming adds a new layer to that existing ability. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before, but I found it very fulfilling and even fun! An hour passed by in a flash.

Now I need to go and practice my regular expressions. Those are tricky!

Beauty in simplicity

I’ve always believed in the power of simplicity.

To me, concise writing is better, the best dishes have the fewest ingredients, and the minimalist lifestyle wins every time.

That’s why a website framework like Bootstrap feels so right. I gave it a trial run this week as part of expanding my front-end skill-set.

My verdict? Wow.

Using Bootstrap, I could put together a one-page website with quite striking ease. It was literally as simple as grabbing code from the main Bootstrap site and tinkering with it to fit my exact needs.

Bootstrap is highly responsive thanks to its clever grid system. I put some time and effort into understanding how the grid works, as this seemed to be the key to efficient website building with Bootstrap in future. At some point I’ll figure out how to jazz up this Jekyll site with a touch of Bootstrap magic.

This quick and simple YouTube video from LearnCodeAcademy helped me with Bootstrap.

Another thing I’ve been focusing on this week is JavaScript. I’d been floundering for a while among the hordes of good study resources out there. But this week I finally settled back into using a book I picked up recently, in hard copy for a change: “JAVASCRIPT & JQUERY” by Jon Duckett.

The book has an intuitive layout, clear explanations and helpful graphics to illustrate concepts. I particularly like how it uses real-life examples to illustrate how JavaScript fits into the overall website code structure.

This week I studied the chapter on error handling and debugging, as advised by the useful curriculum on JavaScript is Sexy. Knowing how execution contexts and stacks work has significantly improved my overall understanding of JavaScript.

When studying using resources like Codeacademy, there’s a tendency to get lost in the code. For me anyway, this leads to lack of understanding of the big picture, of how JavaScript works as a whole. Reading Jon Duckett’s book has helped to bridge this gap for me.

Bosphorus tech blues

Istanbul: a heaving mega-city of 20 million people – and growing every day.

You’d think with all these people it’d be easy to find a good programming group. But it’s not. There are a few on, my usual go-to venue, but they are largely populated by local guys, speaking in Turkish mainly. There’s a need for an internationally focused tech meetup group in Istanbul, but that’s a subject for another post.

Also contributing to the ever-growing Istanbul population is a steady influx of refugees from troubled countries in the region, mainly Syria. They are allowed to enter Turkey freely, but often compelled to live in refugee camps far from the amenities of the city centre.

Those that do come to the city are often faced with high rent prices, crowded living conditions and visa rules that prevent them from finding legal employment. This no-win situation forces people to beg on the streets. Those who don’t beg will eke out a small living by selling bottles of water or packs of pocket tissues to passersby.

This gave me an idea. Because they work online, not in a physical office, independent digital nomads tend to traverse a grey area in worldwide visa regulations. They may receive payments into bank accounts in their home country, while working with a client base from all over the world. This means they are not taking work away from local people, nor are they (necessarily) providing services to people in the country where they reside. All their work is conducted in the virtual space.

Web development is one of the most sought-after skills for any aspiring digital nomad. It’s also work that can be done with non-native English language skills. As long as you know the programming language, and enough English ability to understand the client’s basic needs, then you can produce the website as required.

What about creating a website to help Istanbul’s Syrian refugees to learn coding skills and find their way into digital nomad-style employment? It could include a jobs board where employers would post jobs, and a section where job-seekers could study things like HTML, CSS, Javascript and WordPress. After acquiring a range of skills, they could then apply for web development jobs.

The site could also be useful for refugees who have already qualified in I.T. back home in Syria, but are still seeking employment after becoming displaced. Ideally, I’d like to seek funding to make this happen, so that I could devote time to building and promoting it myself. If realised, this project could benefit many people. It would empower them to bring in additional money to help them through this time of crisis, and restore some of their feeling of autonomy, which has no doubt been stripped away almost completely.