Silicon Valley is changing its mind about censorship.
Two weeks ago, we learned about a new campaign against “inauthentic” content, conducted by Facebook in consultation with Congress and the secretive think tank Atlantic Council — whose board includes an array of ex-CIA and Homeland Security officials — in the name of cracking down on alleged Russian disinformation efforts. As part of the bizarre alliance of Internet news distributors and quasi-government censors, the social network zapped 32 accounts and pages, including an ad for a real “No Unite the Right 2” anti-racist counter-rally in D.C. this past weekend.
“This is a real protest in Washington, D.C. It is not George Soros. It is not Russia. It is just us,” said the event’s organizers, a coalition of easily located Americans, in a statement.
Last week, we saw another flurry of censorship news. Facebook apparently suspended VenezuelaAnalysis.com, a site critical of U.S. policy toward Venezuela. (It was reinstated Thursday.) Twitter suspended a pair of libertarians, including @DanielLMcAdams of the Ron Paul Institute and @ScottHortonShow of Antiwar.com, for using the word “bitch” (directed toward a man) in a silly political argument. They, too, were later re-instated.
More significantly: Google’s former head of free expression issues in Asia, Lokman Tsui, blasted the tech giant’s plan to develop a search engine that would help the Chinese government censor content.
First reported by The Intercept, the plan was called “a stupid, stupid move” by Tsui, who added: “I can’t see a way to operate Google search in China without violating widely held international human rights standards.” This came on the heels of news that the Israeli Knesset passed a second reading of a “Facebook bill,” authorizing courts to delete content on security grounds.
Few Americans heard these stories, because the big “censorship” news last week surrounded the widely hated Alex Jones. After surviving halting actions by Facebook and YouTube the week before, the screeching InfoWars lunatic was hit decisively, removed from Apple, Facebook, Google and Spotify.
Jones is the media equivalent of a trench-coated stalker who jumps out from from behind a mailbox and starts whacking it in an intersection. His “speech” is on that level: less an idea than a gross physical provocation. InfoWars defines everything reporters are taught not to do.
Were I Alex Jones, I would think Alex Jones was a false-flag operation, cooked up to discredit the idea of a free press.
Moreover, Jones probably does violate all of those platforms’ Terms of Service. I personally don’t believe his Sandy Hook rants — in which he accused grieving parents of being actors in an anti-gun conspiracy — are protected speech, at least not according to current libel and defamation law. Even some conservative speech activists seem to agree.
And yet: I didn’t celebrate when Jones was banned. Collectively, all these stories represent a revolutionary moment in media. Jones is an incidental player in a much larger narrative.
Both the Jones situation and the Facebook-Atlantic Council deletions seem an effort to fulfill a request made last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last October, Facebook, Google and Twitter were asked by Hawaii Senator Mazie Hizono to draw up a “mission statement” to “prevent the foment of discord.”
Companies like Facebook might have balked before. They have long taken a position that’s very Star Trek, very Prime-Directive: We do not interfere. Mark Zuckerberg, as late as 2016, was saying, “editing content… that’s not us.”
Part of this reluctance was probably ideological, but the main thing was the sheer logistical quandary of monitoring published content on the scale of a firm like Facebook. The company now has 2.23 billion users, and experts estimate that’s more than a billion new entries to monitor daily.
Although it might have seemed minor, undertaking what Facebook did prior to 2016 — keeping porn and beheading videos out of your news feed — was an extraordinarily involved technical process.
This was underscored by fiascoes like the “Napalm Girl” incident in 2016, when the firm deleted a picture of Kim Phúc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl photographed running from napalm in 1972. The iconic picture helped reverse global opinion about the Vietnam War.
Facebook ultimately put the photo back up after being ripped for “abusing its power.” This was absurd: The photo had been flagged by mostly automated processes, designed to keep naked pictures of pre-teens off the site.
As a former Facebook exec tells Rolling Stone: “Knowing that ‘Napalm Girl’ is one of the icons of international journalism isn’t part of the fucking algo.”
It would seem like madness to ask companies to expand that vast automated process to make far more difficult intellectual distinctions about journalistic quality. But that has happened.
After Trump’s shocking win in 2016, everyone turned to Facebook and Google to fix “fake news.” But nobody had a coherent definition of what constitutes it.
Many on the left lamented the Wikileaks releases of Democratic Party emails, but those documents were real news, and the complaint there was more about the motives of sources, and editorial emphasis, rather than accuracy.
When Google announced it was tightening its algorithm to push “more authoritative content” last April, it defined “fake news” as “…blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.”
Soviet-era author Isaac Babel once said the only right Stalin had taken away was “writing badly.” He was joking. Google was apparently serious about targeting “low quality.” What exactly does that mean?
It isn’t clear, but within short order, a whole range of alternative sites (from Alternet to Truthdig to the World Socialist Website) started complaining about significant drops in traffic, apparently thanks to changed search processes.
Within a year, Google bragged that it had deleted 8 million videos from YouTube. A full 6.7 million videos were caught by machines, 1.1 million by YouTube’s own “trusted flaggers” (we’re pre-writing the lexicon of the next dystopian novels), and 400,000 by “normal users.”
Subsequently, we heard that Facebook was partnering with the Atlantic Council — which, incidentally, accepts donations from at least 25 different foreign countries, including United Arab Emirates and the king of Bahrain, in addition to firms like weapons manufacturer Raytheon and my old pals at HSBC — to identify “potential abuse.”
Now that we’ve opened the door for ordinary users, politicians, ex-security-state creeps, foreign governments and companies like Raytheon to influence the removal of content, the future is obvious: an endless merry-go-round of political tattling, in which each tribe will push for bans of political enemies.
In about 10 minutes, someone will start arguing that Alex Jones is not so different from, say, millennial conservative Ben Shapiro, and demand his removal. That will be followed by calls from furious conservatives to wipe out the Torch Network or Anti-Fascist News, with Jacobin on the way.
We’ve already seen Facebook overcompensate when faced with complaints of anti-conservative bias. Assuming this continues, “community standards” will turn into a ceaseless parody of Cold War spy trades: one of ours for one of yours.
This is the nuance people are missing. It’s not that people like Jones shouldn’t be punished; it’s the means of punishment that has changed radically.
For more than half a century, we had an effective, if slow, litigation-based remedy for speech violations. The standards laid out in cases like New York Times v. Sullivan were designed to protect legitimate reporting while directly remunerating people harmed by bad speech. Sooner or later, people like Alex Jones would always crash under crippling settlements. Meanwhile, young reporters learned to steer clear of libel and defamation. Knowing exactly what we could and could not get away with empowered us to do our jobs, confident that the law had our backs.
If the line of defense had not been a judge and jury but a giant transnational corporation working with the state, journalists taking on banks or tech companies or the wrong politicians would have been playing intellectual Russian roulette. In my own career, I’d have thought twice before taking on a company like Goldman Sachs. Any reporter would.
Now the line is gone. Depending on the platform, one can be banned for “glorifying violence,” “sowing division,” “hateful conduct” or even “low quality,” with those terms defined by nameless, unaccountable executives, working with God Knows Whom.
The platforms will win popular support for removals by deleting jackasses like Jones. Meanwhile, the more dangerous censorship will go on in the margins with fringe opposition sites — and in the minds of reporters and editors, who will unconsciously start retreating from wherever their idea of the line is.
The most ominous development involves countries asking for direct cleansing of opposition movements, a la China’s search engine, or Tel Aviv’s demands that Facebook and Google delete pages belonging to Palestinian activists. (This happened: Israel’s justice minister said last year that Facebook granted 95 percent of such requests.)
Google and Facebook have long wrestled with the question of how to operate in politically repressive markets — Google launched a censored Chinese search engine in 2006, before changing its mind in 2010 — but it seems we’re seeing a kind of mass surrender on that front.
The apparent efforts to comply with government requests to help “prevent the foment of discord” suggest the platforms are moving toward a similar surrender even in the United States. The duopolistic firms seem anxious to stay out of headlines, protect share prices and placate people like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who just said deleting Jones was only a “good first step.”
Americans are not freaking out about this because most of us have lost the ability to distinguish between general principles and political outcomes. So long as the “right” people are being zapped, no one cares.
But we should care. Censorship is one of modern man’s great temptations. Giving in to it hasn’t provided many happy stories.