Eight people were murdered by a terrorist in New York City, who in a choreographed attack copied from online forums, used a truck to mow down pedestrians at a time and place chosen to maximize destruction.
At the same time, in Washington, DC, the so-called Tech Giants were testifying before a committee of the United States Senate about Russian interference in the last US presidential election…specifically, Russian usage of social media through paid ads to sow hate and dissent in America.
What inextricably links these two events is not just the highjacking of a medium most of us use to share what’s important to us—be it personal, business or political. More to the point, it is the possible reaction to what’s seen as a dangerous takeover of our currently open, free and unregulated channels of communications.
Make no mistake, we are standing at a crossroads here. California Senator Dianne Feinstein made the challenge clear to Facebook, Twitter and Google, as reported by the Washington Post and Vanity Fair:
“I must say, I don’t think you get it…. What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.”
“Colin Stretch, a vice president and general counsel at Facebook, testified before senators on Tuesday alongside executives from Twitter and Google. He told them that Facebook’s staff focused on sensitive security and community issues will grow to 20,000 by the end of next year.”
“Today, across our safety, security, and product and community operation teams, we have about 10,000 people who are working on safety and security generally,” Stretch said during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. “We’re committed to investing more and doubling that number by the end of 2018.”
The question is: will that be seen as enough? Wired reports:
“Russians have been conducting information warfare for decades,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in his opening remarks. “But what is new is the advent of social-media tools with the power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale that was unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall. Today’s tools seem almost purpose-built for Russian disinformation techniques.”
In an increasingly nervous world, “purpose-built” tools that are being used to create murder and mayhem are in the spotlight for regulation and control…resulting in censorship of content.
Take China, for example. On the one hand, financial markets have been worshiping at its growth altar for years; on the other hand, censorship of daily discourse has seemingly grown in proportion to its perceived loosening of business and personal restrictions. A report on media censorship in China published by the explains:
“More than a dozen government bodies review and enforce laws related to information flow within, into, and out of China. The most powerful monitoring body is the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD), which coordinates with General Administration of Press and Publication and State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television to ensure content promotes party doctrine. Ng says that the various ministries once functioned as smaller fiefdoms of control, but have recently been more consolidated under the State Council Information Office, which has taken the lead on Internet monitoring.”
“The Chinese government employs large numbers of people to monitor and censor China’s media. Experts refer to an October 2013 report in a state-run paper, the Beijing News, which said more than two million workers are responsible for reviewing internet posts using keyword searches and compiling reports for “decision makers.” These so-called “public opinion analysts” are hired both by the state and private companies to constantly monitor China’s internet. Additionally, the CPD gives media outlets editorial guidelines as well as directives restricting coverage of politically sensitive topics.”
The report includes this editorialization:
“The restrictions mount on a regular basis, adds the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos. “To the degree that China’s connection to the outside world matters, the digital links are deteriorating,” he wrote in an April 2015 article. “How many countries in 2015 have an Internet connection to the world that is worse than it was a year ago?”
So take that, Facebook! You have 20,000 checkers? The Chinese have two million. Maybe you can offshore…just kidding.
Frankly, though, do we expect anything different from a totalitarian state? Maybe not…but we do expect different behavior from Western media based in seemingly “free” countries. Take this piece, “Outcry as latest global publisher bows to China censors,” from the Financial Times:
“Springer Nature, the German group that bills itself the world’s largest academic book publisher, has blocked access in China to at least 1,000 articles, making it the latest international company to succumb to intensifying Chinese censorship demands.
Research by the Financial Times shows the publisher has removed more than 1,000 articles from the websites of the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics, two Springer journals, in the Chinese market. All of the articles in question contained keywords deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese authorities, including “Taiwan”, “Tibet” and “Cultural Revolution”.”
This troubles me because censorship can often be justified, even by the censored. We know how easy it is to fall into its seductive trap, as seen in this quote from The New York Times article “As U.S. Confronts Internet’s Disruptions, China Feels Vindicated“:
“This kind of thing would not happen here [in China],” Mr. Zhao said of the controversy over Russia’s influence in the American presidential election last year….
Mr. Zhao, the young volunteer on Weibo, is typical of those here who believe government control is justified.
In a restaurant called Europa, Mr. Zhao — who declined to disclose details of where and how he works — described China’s system not as “Big Brother” so much as a younger brother, which he is, protecting children, like those of his sister, from harmful material.
“Even though the internet is virtual, it is still part of society,” he added. “So in any space I feel no one should create pornographic, illegal or violent posts.”
So, what’s the solution?
The Catholic Church once censored ideas that they considered heretical, and the list wasn’t abolished until 1966. Springer and others are censoring their own work for commercial reasons.
Facebook, people and all, has ‘new and improved’ algorithms they hope will help.
Personally, my biggest fear is the zeal that can build around the fear, which is real and well founded, and the lack of accountability that pervades the channels and us.
That zeal can quickly become zealousness, which will breed zealots, and then the zealots act. And while they might be successful in limiting the spread of one kind of terrorist hatred and targeted social unrest, they will bring their own brand to the table, as history has shown us. The Beacon for Freedom of Expression cites:
“From these ashes will rise the phoenix of the new spirit”, Goebbels optimistically declared as the flames devoured massive funeral pyres of some 20,000 volumes of offensive books in Germany in 1933.
Some might think me melodramatic. Frankly, I couldn’t be more serious as to the dangerous waters we are navigating.
Those who saw the Russian ads might agree that their most disturbing feature was that they came from our own posts and comments and were to so many credible and believable.
As for the terrorist organizations spreading their poison and murder, they will always find ways, no matter what we shut down.
Facebook and the rest must take more accountability, yes! But so must we. And quickly, before others do.
Yes, it’s easy to say take accountability. I don’t mean to be glib. So here are some actions that I believe will begin to bulwark against the encroachment of the vise held by those who would limit our freedom of thought and idea:
- See something…say something.
Understand that while the physical danger is in a bag left to explode, the existential danger is from the cynical manipulation of the very freedom the terrorists try to take down. Be vigilant. Be vocal. Report trolling. Nasty posts. Inappropriate comments. Every platform has the mechanism to enable you. Don’t be afraid.
- Expand your horizons.
Don’t allow the algorithm to limit your world view. Venture beyond your comfort zone to explore new ideas and challenge your thinking. Always keep an open mind while never losing your tether to basic humanity.
- Watch for the highjack.
Don’t mix metaphors. If you are part of a group lobbying for more flowers in municipal settings, don’t let your group be taken over by another cause, no matter how right it might seem. Too often, and more and more, important issues are being clouded by outside interests, who post and link and create noise, that only muddy the waters and create strife and confusion.
- Manage your own social media.
If you are on multiple platforms, what do you use them for? What is their value to you and others? What pictures, thoughts or shares are best where.
- Don’t be confused.
Don’t confuse freedom of speech and thought with freedom to destroy others… with the right to blow up others because you don’t like them or their ideology or religion or color. This is the trickiest and the one that gets often caught in politically correct doublethink.
Yet always remember…
“Where books are burned, in the end people will burn.”
This time the flames will be metaphorical and virtual but the sentiment will be the same. Never forget the resultant truth.
Where ideas are stopped and shut down, people will be too.
What do you think?