Editor’s note: As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Political Ads: To Be or Not To Be on Social Media?
Facebook recently made waves by declaring that it would not fact-check politicians’ claims, on the basis that such speech is “newsworthy” – unlike the voices of the plebians, of course. The social media giant was thus criticized for allowing fake news to spread and keen, apparently, to avoid the same bad press, Twitter has decided to go in the opposite direction by banning all political advertising on its platform. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” tweeted CEO Jack Dorsey. He continued:
“While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions … This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
Facebook has been targeted in particular by Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who, during a recent hearing, sardonically told CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future. So I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year.” She proposed placing an ad on the network claiming that Republicans had voted for the Green New Deal. Zuckerberg conceded: “I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie in it, that would be bad,” though he has not backed down on the policy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) claimed to have taken out a deceptive Facebook ad in protest. However, this is largely fake news, given that the ad began: “Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election. You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not. (Sorry).” Not exactly the deceptive ad the media claims it is.
Donald Trump’s election campaign has also been criticized for putting out a Facebook ad claiming that possible 2020 opponent Joe Biden threatened to withdraw funds from Ukraine unless an investigation into his son was stopped – a claim which fact-checkers have deemed there is no evidence to support. Facebook refused a request by Biden’s team to remove the ad.
The New York Times published an open letter signed by over 200 Facebook employees complaining about the policy, while the company’s chief seems to have gotten into a public spat with screenwriter Alan Sorkin, who worked on the Zuckerberg origin-story film The Social Network. Sorkin published an enraged letter, also in The Times, saying:
“This can’t possibly be the outcome you and I want, to have crazy lies pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together. Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.”
Zuckerberg responded by posting a quote taken from one of Sorkin’s movies, The American President, in which the eponymous character said in a rousing speech:
“You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.”
Touché. For the moment, Zuckerberg is sticking to his guns. Given the fact that everyday citizens are still subject to Facebook fact-checking rules, though, one suspects his lip service to free speech is as phony as Sorkin’s.
People who value free expression have been disturbed to discover that messages they post on the once-open social media forum are subject to the editorial whims of unknown staffers in Silicon Valley. It is troubling to find out that humans are handpicking which points of view should be restricted, but all human action is temporary – worse must surely be the inbuilding of such biases into the very computer programs that moderate a huge portion of our speech, these days. Twitter recently announced that, rather than removing offensive tweets only when prompted by complaints, half of removed tweets were simply detected by the company’s technology tools. A year ago, the site’s algorithms were detecting 20% of the tweets removed for abusive content. Now, that figure is 50%.
“Twitter is committed to the open exchange of information,” says the Twitter’s transparency report webpage; the irony is seemingly lost on the company, whose 15th report boasted that the first half of 2019 saw:
“More than 50% of Tweets we take action on for abuse are now proactively surfaced using technology, rather than relying on reports to Twitter; 105% increase in accounts actioned by Twitter (locked or suspended for violating the Twitter Rules) …”
However, humans are not to be left behind in the race to silence their fellow man or woman. According to Twitter: “There was a 48% increase in accounts reported for potential violations of our hateful conduct policies. We actioned 133% more accounts compared to the last reporting period.” There was also a 22% increase in complaints about violations of abuse rules and Twitter took action on 68% more accounts than stated in its last report, which was released in May.
The internet has been a blessing and a curse when it comes to free speech. For a few years people had never been freer to express their thoughts but, as many people have experienced, online abuse is a real thing and the anonymity provided by technology has resulted in some rather ugly behavior. Is the answer to this problem simply to remove the offending content or do we need a psychological deep dive into why people today are so easily provoked into abusive behavior? As the late self-help guru, Wayne Dyer described, when you squeeze an orange, what comes out is orange juice – because that’s what’s inside. Also: “What comes out when life squeezes you? When someone hurts or offends you? If anger, pain, and fear come out of you, it’s because that’s what’s inside.”
That’s all for this week from You’re Not Alone. Check back in next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.