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Until he quit a month ago, Yoel Roth was Twitter’s head of trust and safety — or, shorn of euphemism, its chief censor. As Elon Musk has trickled out his “Twitter Files,” Roth has featured as the single biggest figure in them.
On Dec. 2, Matt Taibbi revealed Roth’s internal justification for suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop, which cited the “lessons of 2016” (evidently, when news spreads online it can hurt Democrats). Bari Weiss’s Twitter Files follow-up on Thursday revealed even more, including Roth’s membership on a secret executive team for censoring the largest accounts, and his general support for suppressing anything that “causes harm”– that is, causes harm to the Democrats and their allies in the national security state.
Then, on Friday night, Matt Taibbi dropped more bombshells about Roth, showing him joking about his close but secretive collaboration with the FBI in the wake of January 6.
11. After J6, internal Slacks show Twitter executives getting a kick out of intensified relationships with federal agencies. Here’s Trust and Safety head Yoel Roth, lamenting a lack of “generic enough” calendar descriptions to concealing his “very interesting” meeting partners. pic.twitter.com/kgC4eGykcO
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) December 9, 2022
Until just a few weeks ago, Roth was quietly one of the most powerful figures in the whole country — and in fact the world — despite holding no elected office and not even being particularly rich. And thanks to a recent interview, it’s obvious what a brittle, fragile person Roth was in his position. In a new interview, Roth justified banning the sitting President of the United States because Twitter’s content moderation staff (i.e. himself) were “traumatized” by watching January 6 footage. Even more ridiculous, Roth said the Twitter accounts Libs of TikTok and the satirical Babylon Bee were “dangerous” and should be handled “start[ing] from the premise that it’s fucked up.”
But we’re not here for any of that today. We’re here to talk about Roth’s gay sex dissertation — the one that somebody is desperately trying to wipe from the Internet now.
Many voices have needled Roth about the fact that before he took command of the Twitter Gestapo, Roth collected — we won’t say earned — a PhD in communications for a dissertation on the gay hookup app Grindr.
But needling Roth is perhaps too easy. Soon, we thought, “Hey, why not actually read it?”
Big mistake. This dissertation managed to be both unreadable and disgusting at the same-time—combining the cognitive hygiene of a gas station bathroom stall with the circumlocution of a dollar-store Judith Butler.
Luckily, we were able to access and read it, because on Sunday, UPenn suddenly yanked down the paper. Its website stated that Twitter’s former chief censor’s gay sex app dissertation had been “withdrawn.” The paper is also still available on the Wayback Machine, but given how politically pliable that has proven in recent months, it may soon disappear there also. Consider just downloading it directly here.
Despite its title, “Gay Data” actually has very little data in it. Instead, it’s a 300-page deluge of jargon and analysis of Grindr and its fellow gay dating apps. We speculate that we may have been the first people to even read the dissertation in full. And yes, we’re including Roth’s professors, and perhaps even Roth himself.
Here are the top 10 moments in Roth’s opus.
1. The abstract sets the tone for the entire work—it’s totally impenetrable. Writing is perhaps the only context where the word “impenetrable” applies to the esteemed Dr. Roth:
Throughout this work, I articulate a model of networked interactivity that conceptualizes self-expression as an act determined by three sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting sets of affordances and constraints: (1) technocommercial structures of software and business; (2) cultural and subcultural norms, mores, histories, and standards of acceptable and expected conduct; and (3) sociopolitical tendencies that appear to be (but in fact are not) fixed technocommercial structures. In these discussions, Grindr serves both as a model of processes that apply to social networking more generally, as well as a particular study into how networked interactivity is complicated by the histories and particularities of Western gay culture. Over the course of this dissertation, I suggest ways in which users, policymakers, and developers can productively recognize the liveness, vitality, and durability of personal information in the design, implementation, and use of gay-targeted social networking services.
Hoo, boy! Can’t you just feel the scholarship?
2. Roth’s acknowledgement, where he expresses excitement to have his parents read a 300-page gay sex dissertation.
Last, but certainly not least, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have the unwavering support of my parents. Your pride in my accomplishments and your much-needed nudges to get my work done have kept me going over the last four years. Despite my trepidation about having my parents read a manuscript that’s in no small part about gay sex, I can’t wait to share this with you.
3. About a quarter into the dissertation, Yoel relates his use of “ethnographic participant observation” to gain understanding of the apps — which is an academic way of saying “I know a lot about Grindr because I used it every day looking for hookups.”
A wide range of dynamic or less tangible characteristics — the responsiveness of the interface; how software reacts when the user taps a button; 59 unexpected, intermittent patterns of user behavior; conventions that emerge only in practice; constraints that only reveal themselves when a user encounters them during everyday use — can only be identified through participant observation. Accordingly, I have also employed ethnographic participant observation as a data collection strategy. Between 2009 and 2013, I was an active user of each of the services I study, engaging with each almost daily in a wide range of geographic settings (from the United States and Western Europe to the Middle East).
4. Roth spends an entire page simply describing the innovative ways Grindr users have found to communicate their sex preferences via emojis.
It turns out that funny Grindr emojis are not just a cheeky way to skirt the rules. They are, Roth explains, a mode of “expressive resistance.”
These uses of encoded communication techniques only became available to me through participation in the Grindr community; I encountered their use, and gradually puzzled out their meaning. Nevertheless, in many cases, the obviousness of the symbols in question, or the ability to easily ask another user for clarification (without running afoul of Grindr’s terms of service), makes communication through expressive resistance a generally successful way of negotiating with the constraints imposed by top-down content management strategies.
5. Roth’s horrifying explanation of content filters and what they are filtering (emphasis ours).
What do “vulgar,” “obscene,” “objectionable,” and “indecent” look like in practice on these services? Manhunt, Grindr, and Scruff each translate their legal TOS and EULA documents into a set of operational guidelines for end users, often in significant and graphic detail (Grindr, n.d.; Manhunt, 2009a; 2009b; Scruff, n.d.). Manhunt, for example, delimits four categories of photos that are prohibited on the site: 122 photos depicting scatology, urination on a person, blood, or weapons. Photos depicting “mid-stream urine or urination on inanimate objects,” as well as anal insertion and semen “in or around [an] orifice” are allowable, but only if designated as “private” photos, hidden from the general public of Manhunt.
The photo guidelines for Grindr and Scruff are considerably more restrictive. Scruff prohibits all instances of below-the-waist nudity (or partial nudity), including any exposed pubic hair or the display of genitals that are “obscured with hands, towels, hats, or by other means.” Visible erections or “tenting” in one’s clothing that suggests the presence of an erection is likewise forbidden. Grindr adopts a more general approach, writing simply, “No sexually explicit, revealing, or overly suggestive photos of any kind.” The guidelines then elaborate that skin below the hip bones, exposed underwear, and sexually suggestive objects (Grindr’s now-notorious “fruits and veggies” rule) are not allowed to be displayed in photos. Grindr also prohibits disclosing the size of one’s genitals in the text of a profile, as well as any other references to sexual acts.
6. Roth explains that, instead of creating a separate Grindr profile just for research purposes, he used his standard profile, but maintained integrity by not quoting his pillow talk with hookups.
Because of the reduced focus on individual users in this study, the risks posed by participant observation are less significant here than in other, more directly user-centric studies. Nevertheless, in my own work, I have openly identified on my profile as a researcher studying gay social media. I have not established a separate profile solely for research purposes. In this dissertation, I protect the privacy of users by excluding quotes obtained in any venue outside of a formal interview.
7. Roth kicks off a 20+ page discussion of the blog “Douchebags of Grindr” by listing some examples of its most “offensive” content.
• “Squinty eye, no reply.”
• “No bears, twinks, fats, fems. Please dnt ever hit me up if you will make me throw
up with your pics!”
• “No Disease thank god! Im about to show You F A G s what youve been missing!”
• “I block ugly/old ppl that try to get at me.”
• “Dont even try talking to me”
• “Don’t be gay. Gentleman and Argentinians to the front. NO shorty’s, asians, fats,
or fems. Be masc and funny.”
• “Hey what’s up looking for friends and people to talk too. Boxer briefs are a turn
on. Sorry not into black people.”
• “no sushi aka no asian”
• “I’m a gay GUY! If I wanted to date someone feminine I would be straight and with
• “I block more Asian than the Great Wall of china.”
• “hate everything. no fats, fems, olds, uglies or ethnics.”
• “Not in2 taste of Asia or India . If I wanted that I’d go to a restaurant.”
• “WHITES ONLY!! All blacks, keep moving cuz I ain’t interested unless u can
prove not all blacks are the exact same mkay?”
• “What’s with Asians wanting to spoon? Don’t they use chopstix!? Ps: I’m not
racist, I own a colour tv.”
• “Just a normal guy here. Not attracted to HIV+ guys, Muslims or Jews. No stalkers
or anyone with a mental disability, either. I’m serious – NORMAL ONLY.”18
8. Roth wonders if Grindr should “possibly” expand its services to give underage users greater access to what is, at heart, a sex app.
Even with the service’s extensive content management, Grindr may well be too lewd or too hook-up-oriented to be a safe and age-appropriate resource for teenagers; but the fact that people under 18 are on these services already indicates that we can’t readily dismiss these platforms out of hand as loci for queer youth culture. Rather than merely trying to absolve themselves of legal responsibility or, worse, trying to drive out teenagers entirely, service providers should instead focus on crafting safety strategies that can accommodate a wide variety of use cases for platforms like Grindr — including, possibly, their role in safely connecting queer young adults.
This one even caught the attention of Elon Musk!
Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services in his PhD thesis: pic.twitter.com/1NiBohjhMQ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 10, 2022
9. Roth describes how cruising for gay sex with strangers using short-range Bluetooth “speaks to a tradition in gay communities of innovatively employing new technologies.”
In his discussion of digital cruising practices, of which Grindr is one example, Mowlabocus makes reference to the technique of “Bluejacking,” a term used to describe the practice of exchanging short, often explicit text messages and photos over Bluetooth connections (Mowlabocus, 2010a, p. 191). This use of Bluetooth, a short-range wireless communication protocol integrated into many mobile devices including pre-smartphone mobile phones, employed the specific affordances of Bluetooth (namely, its low range) to facilitate only connections amongst those users in immediate proximity of each other. (The canonic example of Bluejacking in Mowlabocus’s work is on a subway train.) While Bluejacking never attained significant popularity — one imagines this is due to the difficulty associated with finding and establishing these short-range connections, along with the inherent security risks of allowing one’s phone to connect over Bluetooth with any nearby device — it speaks to a tradition in gay communities of innovatively employing new technologies to facilitate interpersonal interactions. And, more specifically, Bluejacking — like other spatially-situated techniques of cruising — emphasizes the importance of location in gay male self-expression and interaction.
We want to be clear: Cut through all the academic crap, and Roth is just talking about gay men using blue tooth connections to send each other dick picks while riding a train together.
I enjoy having the kinds of meetings where googling “gay bareback porn” is considered academic work.
— Yoel Roth (@yoyoel) September 25, 2012
10. Whatever the Hell is going on here:
The subject on Grindr, too, is multidimensional, even as the chief mode of access to him is a vertical interface that flattens a wide array of data into a grid of photos. On Grindr, vertical mediation collapses the boundaries between different aspects of the user — information about their body, personality, preferences, and location — and positions this reintegrated individual in a grid of other integrated user presences. This reintegrated subjectivity is not merely a Deleuzian dividual; even as the profiles of Grindr users are constrained by technical systems, they are not wholly constituted by them. The subjectivities of the Cascade have depth, emerging from processes of both selfsurveillance and reciprocal surveillance of other Grindr users. The vertical interface of the Cascade provides users with the tools to actively negotiate the rich array of data about other users available to them within the Grindr service. These flattened (but not altogether flat) subjectivities are part of a broader way of looking at other people — what I’ve termed the social-spatial layer of the Grindr app.
Why are we highlighting all this?
There are many interesting takeaways from Roth’s paper compared to his positions running Twitter. For instance, it is fascinating that, on Grindr, Roth celebrates the creative use of emojis or other coded language to get around Grindr and other apps’ rules against sexually-related content. Yet, as we now know from the Twitter Files, Roth aggressively bent the rules to enable censorship of conservatives like Matt Gaetz.
Roth pushes for a permanent suspension of Rep. Matt Gaetz even though it “doesn’t quite fit anywhere (duh)”
It’s a kind of test case for the rationale for banning Trump.
“I’m trying to talk [Twitter’s] safety [team] into… removal as a conspiracy that incites violence.” pic.twitter.com/ZQP6u1zevy
— Michael Shellenberger (@ShellenbergerMD) December 11, 2022
That, in turn, leads to the other big question about Roth that has emerged. His… awkward situation about very young people in sex. As quoted above, Roth’s dissertation briefly expresses interest in openly letting younger people onto Grindr, partly on the grounds that plenty of them are already breaking the rules to use it anyway. That by itself doesn’t reveal much, but then there’s the way that Roth’s Trust and Safety had nobody preventing child exploitation while it hunted for excuses to ban Republicans.
— annecollier (@annecollier) December 8, 2022
It is a crime that they refused to take action on child exploitation for years!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 9, 2022
No, it is not.
When Ella Irwin, who now runs Trust & Safety, joined Twitter earlier this year, almost no one was working on child safety.
She raised this with Ned & Parag, but they rejected her staffing request.
I made it top priority immediately.@ellagirwin
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 9, 2022
And then, there’s those odd tweets from more than a decade ago, when Roth was presumably still in his “using Grindr daily” peak.
The tl;dr version of my last tweet: Thanks, testosterone, for making me totally unmarketable once I no longer look young and virile.
— Yoel Roth (@yoyoel) June 10, 2011
It's not so much the accusations of child abuse that'll do me in — it's that site's godawful Microsoft Publisher 97 layout.
— Yoel Roth (@yoyoel) December 29, 2010
But perhaps the biggest scandal of all is the most simple one, which requires no innuendo. Just a few years after writing the above gobbledygook, Roth rose to become, in the words of Elon Musk himself, the de facto CEO of Twitter, and by extension, one of the most powerful men in the world.
Absolutely! The real CEO was the head of “Trust & Safety”.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 9, 2022
Or as Revolver News’ own Darren Beattie put it:
Yoel Roth was the Power Bottom of Twitter https://t.co/5VN0A0xwnz
— Darren J. Beattie ? (@DarrenJBeattie) December 10, 2022
As Twitter user @davidcrockettfa points out, there is something important to note in Roth’s meteoric rise from academic babbler and gobbler to chief global censor.
This was the guy who 10 years ago, GOP pundits were saying would " get a taste of the real world" and be "shocked back to reality" when he got out of college. Instead he banned the president from twitter because he hated conservatives and white people.
— Märtin (@davidcrockettfa) December 3, 2022
Roth built up his “career” in the incredibly fake world of academia, puking out 300 pages of impenetrable nonsense that says nothing. And by the way, all of his academic work is specifically about gay sex apps. His own website lists the following academic works:
Y. Roth (2014), Locating the “Scruff Guy”: Theorizing body and space in gay geosocial media. International Journal of Communication 8.
Y. Roth (2015), “No Overly Suggestive Photos of Any Kind”: Content Management and the Policing of Self in Gay Digital Communities. Communication, Culture, & Critique 8(3).
Y. Roth (2016), Zero Feet Away: The Digital Geography of Gay Social Media. J(3).
Y. Roth (2016), Gay Data. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.
Y. Roth (2017), No fats, no femmes, no privacy? In P. Messaris & L. Humphreys (Eds.), Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication (Second Edition). New York: Peter Lang.
From “no fats, no femmes, no privacy” to “no freedom of speech” in three years. The worthless world of academia, where one can write 300 pages and say nothing, was able to conquer the world where real minds can say something important in less than 300 characters.
Elon Musk truly did save the world by wresting the censorship button away from this vindictive degenerate.