April 14, 2023

The Out-of-Touch Adults’ Guide to Kid Culture: Gen Z Is Redefining Espionage

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This week’s Out-of-Touch guide is all about dark, hidden corners of the internet—those the secret places that only young people know about about. At least until someone does a treason and the New York Times gets involved.

Gen Z gamer commits espionage for clout

Traditionally, when classified government documents are leaked, the leaker’s motive is either political or monetary. But Gen Z is redefining espionage. Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Air National Guard, was arrested this week for “unauthorized removal, retention, and transmission of classified national defense information,” and it looks like his motive was to impress teenagers on an internet message board.

The alleged leaker uploaded or transcribed dozens of classified documents to a group of mostly teenage boys, seemingly for no other reason other than to impress them. “If you had classified documents, you’d want to flex at least a little bit, like hey, I’m the big guy,” a member of the Discord group said.

Leaving aside the national security and legal implications (which are massive), the leak reveals a weird nexus where history-defining geopolitics meets teenage internet gamer culture. It’s a strange story, and the timeline is fascinating. Here’s an abridged version:

January: According to investigative journalism group Bellingcat, an unknown number of documents were posted in a private group on gamer-centric platform Discord in January. The group, “Thug Shaker Central,” consisted of about 20 people, many of them teenagers, who were devoted to Christianity, guns, racist memes, video games, and a YouTuber named Oxide.

Early March: More than 30 documents, some marked “top secret,” were posted to a Discord group devoted to self-described “shit-posting internet micro-celebrity” wow_mao. They were also posted to a Minecraft Discord, apparently to settle an online argument.

April 5: The documents appear on 4Chan. A few hours later, seemingly doctored versions of some of documents appear on pro-Russia Telegram channel Donbass Devushka, and then on Twitter.

April 7: The New York Times breaks the story for the non-online world.

Teixeira will likely have a lot of time in Leavenworth to consider whether the admiration of online teenagers was worth his entire life, but I hope he at least serves as a cautionary lesson to others about the limits of online anonymity.

AI used to streamline and monetize swatting

Speaking of online anonymity, a lot of serious people are probably looking for a Telegram user called “Torswats,” who apparently figured out an innovative way to swat people. There’s nothing novel about people reporting bogus crimes or nonexistent bombs to authorities to harass rivals or shut down school for a day, but according to a report on Motherboard, Torswats streamlined, automated, and monetized swatting, effectively turning it into a side-hustle.

Torswats reportedly used an AI or text-to-speech program to keep anonymous and charged users $75 worth of crypto to close down a school and $50 for “extreme swattings,” with the goal of having police handcuff the victim.

Business has apparently been good. According to an NPR report, 182 schools in 28 states received false calls about threats between Sept. 13 and Oct. 21. How many of those came from this one user isn’t known, but Torswats posted over 35 recorded calls on Telegram, including calls that targeted a Florida CBD store, an intelligence company that tracks extremism in Virginia, and individuals everywhere from Virginia to California.

Since Motherboard broke the story, Torswats has closed shop, so I’m sorry if you wanted to get out of work on Monday. I doubt laying low is going to matter that much, though. Swatting is not only potentially deadly, it makes cops look foolish, so if I were Torswats, I’d be talking to a lawyer before they break down the door.

The strange world of fake obituary videos

I’m going to tell you about a subgenre of internet videos that seems like something out of a dystopian novel by William Gibson: There are multiple channels on YouTube where artificial intelligences produce obituary videos for famous people who are not dead.

YouTube channels like Hollywood Edition and Celeb News 265 features computer-generated obituary videos of alive celebrities like Ted Danson, Simon Cowell, and Clint Eastwood. Multiple videos are posted daily, and each is basically the same: A computer voice reads an AI generated script over stock images of the “dead” celebrity while the same piece of somber piano music plays. It’s extremely weird and creepy.

Most of these videos don’t catch on, garnering a few thousand hits, but there are exceptions: this Jet Li obit has over 250,000 views, and this video about Cassi Davis is over half a million.

The goals is easy to understand: The videos are all monetized and probably take almost no human effort to create, so someone is making some money off the weirdness. But why YouTube doesn’t ban channels that exist only to spread misinformation is perplexing. Celeb News 256 has been around since 2019, and it’s only one of an unknown number of other channels with the same business plan.

Viral video of the week: Conspiracy Theories with Shane Dawson 2023

Most conspiracy theory videos are dumb and fake, but YouTuber Shane Dawson’s latest vid details an actual conspiracy that you’re probably a victim of. In a (fancy pistachio) nutshell: Supermarkets and groceries stores often sell the same products under different brand names with different price points, so the store brand of Cheetohs from Aldi that looks like a cheap knockoff is actually Cheetohs in a different bag. This isn’t exactly earth-shaking in itself, but the pervasiveness of the practice is eye-opening, and it’s encouraging that young people are using YouTube to say, “Don’t get fooled by this.” According to Dawson’s video, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and other stores are crammed with cheap food in fancy packages, and vice versa, and they often stock the store brand and national brand right next to each other. It’s also troubling that no one has to tell consumers they’re being conned, and the only way we find out for sure is when when there’s a product recall.

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