02 January 2017

Considering Cyber Censorship

In 2016, there were many controversies about cyber-censorship. Some social justice warriors will fret about the Great Firewall of China. But there are examples of being cyber censorship which are much closer to home. These are not instances of benign curation, such as Apple blocking Flash media links because the media might not display properly in the Cupertino created cyber walled garden that Apple owners expect. These are instances in which a cyber nanny decides what content should be seen.

Facebook was called out for its biased curating of hot topics to favor liberal sensibilities. While it is hard to believe that well informed people consider Facebook their primary news source, The Guardian asserted that Facebook is arguably the most important distributor of news online. But a former Facebook editor revealed that many times conservative news topics did not trend on Facebook’s sidebar because the liberal leaning staff did not recognize news topics (like CPAC) or held an animus against conservatives (like Ted Cruz).

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
In response to the conservative outcry, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg held a "Conservative Summit" at the company's Menlo Park, California headquarters with right leaning luminaries such as Dana Perino and Glenn Beck to discuss the matter.

While some leading conservatives declined to participate in a so called Facebook photo-op, the social media service subsequently announced some sweeping changes meant to ameliorate the media mess. Although Facebook's internal report denied any ideological bias, they acknowledge limitations of their efforts.  Facebook stopped relying on RSS feeds for curation. Instead it would use a select group of publications to discern if a story should be trending news.

Another instance of Facebook acting like an overzealous Cyber Nanny is how pages of content creators are being capriciously unpublished.  Close to ten years ago, Facebook established Fan Pages that are separate from a personal page, which attracted eyeballs for various interests and business (as well as generating ad income for Facebook).  But recently a group of 2200 content creators banded together under the banner of #powertothepages to protest the byzantine process to objecting to content censorship by Facebook.

To try to explain how Republican Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, many stunned progressives sought to blame "Fake News". Prior to the surprising Election 2016 results, President Obama opined that we need a curating function to deal with the wild west of information flow. This may sound reasonable to hurried casual current event followers to have a source that dictates what is real news. But who decides and on what basis are better questions.

Bloomberg View author Noah Feldman hopes that the news market can correct itself, but that the state might have to step in.  Obviously, the journalist does not appreciate the import of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no laws..abridging the freedom of speech, impeding the freedom of the press..."

Some social media companies seem to have taken matters into their own hands before the state imposes censorship.  Twitter has unceremoniously shuttered some users who spout ideas that do not appeal to the powers that be, such as Milo Yiannopoulos. While Twitter claimed that @nero violated their Terms of Service  with his unflattering exchanges with Ghostbusters' actress Leslie Jones, his rhetoric hardly seemed over the top, yet Twitter CEO permanently banned Milo from the social media site because the exchanges inspired hate mail towards the Hollywood luminary.

Although efforts to #FreeMilo failed to succeed with Twitter, Milo did not make out so bad as Yiannopoulos scored a $250,000 book deal for his memoirs on the social media ban. Others facing social media suspensions are not as handsomely rewarded. A social media site can lock an account on an unsuspecting user and the only established objection process is appealing to an automated digital Big Brother.  If the Cyber Nannies look with favor upon the frantic plea, the user is urged to adhere to the TOS, without knowing exactly what was the infraction, It seems that many progressive activists are eager to claim abuse and a cautious social media company will cover their bases by proactively locking controversial accounts.

Liberal Cyberbullies also ape invoke tactics gleaned from lawfare.  In the run up to the election, a liberal lawyer objected to a political cartoon of Democrat Presidential nominee sporting an orange "pant suit" behind bars with a tag line "Perhaps Hillary Clinton looks best in an orange outfit."  The self proclaimed attorney insisted that she would sue for libel as "destroying a person's reputation with lies and gossip are blatant libel."

Of course, in a rational world, this off-kilter attorney had no standing to sue and even if that weren't the case, the standard for about prominent figures is an extremely high bar, particularly involving political speech in the run up to an election.  Still, knowing the legal system, it was prudent to take time to document everything in case a nuisance lawsuit was filed. Rather that file suspected abuse charges against this budding cyber bully, it seemed better to give the liberal loon a wide berth.

Another modus operandi by micro-blogging platforms is to shadow block as a means of cyber-censorship.  Posts which contain hashtags or terms which offend the powers that be are effectively blacklisted by being  published but kept from going into search features and is hidden from others' timelines. Twitter has confirmed that it  shadow blocks. Twitter does not impose this stealth ban only against spammers but also targets the alt-right, politically incorrect or cultural libertarians. It again begs the question about curation on who decides and on what basis as to posts that are suppressed.

Even micro-bloggers with sizable following have abandoned platforms imposing cyber censorship.  James Woods, a Hollywood actor who had a following of 484,000 Twitter users, quit the social media site as he objected to the suppression of free speech as highlighted by the purge of prominent alt-right accounts.

There has been some push back against cyber censorship.  In August 2016, Andrew Torba created Gab.ai, a micro-blogging platform which allows for all points of view and champions the principle to #SpeakFreely. Even though Gab is still in beta, it has over 100,000 users and is a top 3,000 internet site, even as it is currently invitation only.

Some have suggested to challenge censoring social media platforms by investigating and litigation the violations of the terms of service by the internet companies.  Frankly, that seems like a fool's errand.  These cyber bureaucrats can claim TOS violations and unless it is a high profile case like Milo Yiannopoulos or James Woods, they will not feel compelled to respond.  While they should champion free speech, the First Amendment is a limitation on the government not a private corporation.

Recently, it has become apparent that some content has been stealth banned too close to home..  Although it is praiseworthy to invoke the Ignatian principle of Presupposition by giving one's antagonist the benefit of the doubt.  But using analytics and comparing similar web pages, it is dubious that the stealth banning is not content curation for its viewpoint, not because of obscenity, spamming or harassment (which would be clear TOS objections).

It is disheartening to know that Facebook Content Creators can be deprived of their sources of income by vague complaints made by anonymous sources, and there is an impersonal automated system to object to these page pull downs. But it reinforces the wisdom of not depending only on one platform. It is important to find work arounds and not be at the whims of abstract internet overlords. Methodologies can be tweaked and new ways of getting the word out can be developed to speak freely.

In this era of hyper polarization, there are going to be efforts to block viewpoints which challenge progressive proclivities.  To often, the silent majority has let things go in order to tend to their own personal interests.  Between technological advances and the entrenchment of liberals within the apparatus of government, the levers of culture and "our betters" in academia and corporate boards, free speech for conservative and traditional values could be crushed.

This will not stand in the District of Calamity (sic). 

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