Where Does Accountability End and Censorship Begin?

“The Fake News Media works hard at disparaging & demeaning my use of social media because they don’t want America to hear the real story!”

Interestingly, without the Fake News Media there would be no story to tell here. No serious spreading and amplification…no discussion and certainly no ability to leverage coverage. So Fake News or not, on either side of the divide, the symbiosis linking one to the other creates readership.

“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.”

This one is a little different. If it’s a leak, how are “they,” the Fake News Media, making it up? So, it’s either a leak or not…and again, Fake News is in the mind of the believer.

I share these quotes not to begin a political diatribe – Knee-Jerkers, take note please – but rather to point out how deeply we are all affected by the kind of Fake News that often requires a judgment call – as it emanates from sources that one side or the other trusts or doesn’t – where some truth is more often than not wrapped up in the story and where the purpose is to gain political or ideological currency vs the kind of Fake News that is fabricated in those insidious “Farms” in Eastern Europe where profit or wholesale disruption is the goal.

Bottom line, one is fake to you or me while the other is just plain nutso.

How then do we police this?

How do we help people distinguish between exaggerated points of view and bald-faced lies?

How do we help people make informed decisions?

And most importantly, how do we guarantee continued Free Speech and limit harmful censorship?

According to The New York Times last month: “CNN Refuses Trump Campaign’s ‘Fake News’ Ad”

The head of President Trump’s re-election campaign accused CNN of “censorship” on Tuesday afternoon after the broadcast network refused to run the group’s latest advertisement.

CNN said it would run the 30-second television spot, a celebration of Mr. Trump’s first 100 days in office, only if the campaign removed a section that featured the words “fake news” superimposed over several TV journalists, including Wolf Blitzer of CNN, and others from MSNBC, PBS, ABC and CBS.

CNN defended the decision in a statement on Twitter.

“The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false,” the network said. “Per our policy, it will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted.”

In response, Michael Glassner, the executive director of Mr. Trump’s campaign committee, called the decision “censorship pure and simple.”

“By rejecting our ad, CNN has proven that it supports censorship is biased and fears an opposing point of view,” Mr. Glassner said in a statement. “President Trump’s loyal supporters know the truth: The mainstream media mislead, misguide, deceive, and distract.

And there you have it…

Because, of course, your censorship of me is limiting Free Speech while mine of yours is protecting Freedoms and therein we have a conundrum:

The Guardian posed the question – “To censor or not to censor? YouTube’s double bind”

Advertisers have launched a concerted attack against the video-streaming platform for its devil-may-care attitude to extremist content. They argue it is too hard to guarantee that advertising spend won’t end up going to the likes of far-right group Britain First, and have decided to boycott the platform en masse until YouTube can confirm changes.

In response, YouTube’s parent company Google has apologised, and promised a raft of changes to appease the big spenders, from better categorisation of hate speech to simpler, more powerful controls for advertisers. It’s also promised to hire “significant numbers of people”, on top of the thousands who already do the work, to review questionable content.

At the same time, in a very different community, YouTube creators are lambasting the site after the discovery that its “restricted mode”, a feature intended to let schools, parents and libraries filter out content not appropriate for children, also removed a vast amount of LGBT content. Some videos from pop duo Tegan and Sara, who are gay, were hidden from view, as were videos from bisexual YouTuber NeonFiona – but only those which talked about her sexuality.

The issue facing the Digital Social Channel Industry is a double-edged sword…

On the one hand, hatred, racism, misogyny, child porn, violence, homophobia and all the other evils afflicting us and seemingly getting worse as they get more face time and become easier to find are just that easier to find. The Industry is making some good headway in tackling the problem with technology and human intel…the most powerful weapon.

Yet even the best intentions often run afoul of both human and certainly technical interventions as can be seen in the example cited above.

On the other hand, how do you tell me what I believe is wrong and that what my admired leaders say is Fake when I’m told you are the ultimate fake source?

Worse…when I don’t even know who is following whom. As reported by The New York Times:

Because a single Twitter user can create lots of accounts and run them all in a coordinated way, Twitter lets relatively small groups masquerade as far larger ones. If Facebook’s primary danger is its dissemination of fake stories, then Twitter’s is a ginning up of fake people.

Just this week the New York Daily News suggested an even more serious threat: “Trump Twitter bots, numbering in millions, could be used to blanket internet with weaponized false info”

The millions of Twitter bots that President Trump counts as followers could eventually be “weaponized” to spread fake and misleading news stories that favor the beleaguered White House or distract from the scandals it faces, experts say.

Trump’s “@RealDonaldTrump” account saw a big spike in followers – roughly 3 million – last weekend, most of which were newly created accounts without photos or tweets – telltale signs of Twitter bots.

And while such bot-followers can be purchased simply to create the image that one’s account is influential, they can also be used for far-more nefarious purposes, including to help spread false news stories or to resurface old news stories that might ramp up enthusiasm among supporters on social media or to distract from new or growing scandals.

“A bot army can be utilized for a number of dishonest purposes, chief amongst them, misrepresenting public sentiment about whichever topics the controller has interest in,” explained Brad Hayes, a fellow at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab’s Interactive Robotics Group.

I have long believed that we, no matter where you sit politically, need to agree on a level of discourse and engagement before someone else decides for us and no doubt whoever decides, one of us will be on the other side….

And forget the algorithms…they will not solve the problem.

To that point I share with you two historic case stories that I provide simply for reference and fodder for thought.

Both are media related and both faced censorship, closure and huge political interference…both are in the media category and both weathered the storm by taking on the issues head-on and the evolution of social mores ultimately made them obsolete, but not before they had impacted in a positive way:

The first: Hollywood’s Production Code.

It was a rash of Hollywood scandals in the late teens and the early twenties that helped intensify the ire of local censors and forced the film industry leaders to address the industry’s image problems.… Studio heads hired a public relations man, Will Hays, to bolster the industry’s tainted reputation by convincing the nation that Hollywood was not all scandalous and that the movie industry would censor itself.

But Hays was merely a spokesperson. Since he had very little power to change the content of films, the criticism escalated, exploding into a national crisis when sound technology gave the movies a voice. In the late 1920s, state censorship boards were working overtime to keep up with the “talkies.” These talking pictures incensed religious leaders concerned about America’s youth. “Silent smut had been bad, vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance,” wrote Father Daniel Lord, an influential Jesuit teacher in the twenties. Catholic religious leaders especially turned up the heat on Hollywood, calling for strict moral standards and a Code of conduct for movie content based on the premise that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

The Production Code spelled out specific restrictions on language and behavior, particularly sex and crime — two sure-fire box office draws. It prohibited nudity, suggestive dances, and the ridicule of religion. It forbade the depiction of illegal drug use, venereal disease, childbirth, and miscegenation. The language section banned dozens of “offensive” words and phrases. Criminal activity could not be presented in a way that led viewers to sympathize with criminals. Murder scenes had to avoid inspiring imitation, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. The sanctity of the marriage and the home had to be upheld. Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.

Sounds funny today as even Broadcast TV has become comfortable with nudity and news is a never-ending parade of all that was once banned.

However, in the last century it allowed the industry to progress, find work-arounds and generally focus on craft. And yes, there were some bad moments of censorship calling – but if you study the era, it’s amazing how much was slyly and cleverly slipped by the Moral Police.

And I remind you that back in the 1950s, Elvis’s hip wiggling was considered immoral…

The second example is from another media channel, one that I have loved and still follow in cinema: “Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval.”

The Seal of Approval, once prominently displayed on comic book covers, quietly disappeared in 2011. For nearly 60 years, however, censors funded by the comic book industry enforced rules about acceptable content. Only comics that passed a pre-publication review carried the seal.

Designed to resemble a stamp, the seal bore the words “Approved by the Comics Code Authority,” which was the regulatory arm of the Comics Magazine Association of America. The trade association’s Comics Code Authority and its Seal of Approval were the publishers’ answer to their critics.…

The Comics Code, the bible of comic book censors, went far beyond addressing concerns about crime and horror comics to implement broad regulations that addressed what CMAA President John Goldwater, of Archie Comics, identified as “problem areas.” The 41 provisions purged sex, violence and any other content not in keeping with critics’ standards. Respect for government and parental authority was stressed, and censors even became the grammar police, eliminating slang and colloquialisms. Comics books received the Seal of Approval only if they were suitable for the youngest readers.

Watch Logan, the movie, and you will see just how far this has all come as movies meet comics…and as both meet our era.

The point being, they won by not allowing someone else to regulate, censor or control them.

Now let’s be clear – as some worry, even self-censorship can be dangerous and may limit storytelling or truth or creativity. But as we have seen, the work-arounds are many and the best get their message across.

Truth is, it was once easy:

“The ultimate censorship is the flick of the dial.” Tommy Smothers

And yet, I wonder what he would make of ISIS beheadings and racist rants that pop up in your kid’s feed. Not that simple anymore.

I think Spielberg got it right…. Listen:

“There is a fine line between censorship and good taste and moral responsibility.”

And that is where we all come in. We have to grab the accountability and make sure the censors stay on their side of that fine line…their side of the Wall, if you will….

The threat is real.

What do you think?

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