By Kent R. Kroeger (August 24, 2018)
It was a sad moment in real time watching Bill Maher’s HBO’s Real Timeaudience cheer at the news that tornadic showman and InfoWars founder Alex Jones was being suspended on a number of social media platforms.
To Bill Maher’s admirable credit, he chastised his audience and the former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who is in a constant search for the most sublime level of political tonedeafness, for their mob mentality in applauding the censorship of Alex Jones.
“If you are a liberal you are supposed to be for free speech; that is for the free speech you hate,” implores Maher. “That is what free speech means. We are loosing the thread.”
Senator Padmé Amidala’s lament at watching The Republic end in 19 BBY seems appropriate now: “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”
[I still can’t forgive Natalie Portman for her acting in the Star War prequels, but she was a given a nice line there by George Lucas in the only watchable prequel — Revenge of the Sith.]
Brooks Heatherly, creator of YouTube’s ‘No Bullshit’ podcast, adds, “Like Bill (Maher) said, the Left is about being free speech. They are the anti-exclusivity party, the pro-diversity party. They are all about being who you want to be. And speaking your mind should be a part of that too. But, apparently, it is not OK to speak your mind if you are not a liberal.”
Alex Jones is indefensible on many levels. He’s a fantasist — a health supplement-pushing performance artist that profits from defaming the powerful (and, to his lawyer’s dismay, occasionally targets defenseless average folk) and pushes social theories meant to exploit existing social and political divisions. His best vein-popping rants, however, are brilliant theater (here is one of his pitch-perfect anti-globalist rants), matched in talent only by the progressive Left’s Jimmy Dore (here is one of his funniest political rants).
Yes, American civic discourse is more coarse than ever — but Alex Jones and Jimmy Dore are, first and foremost, about entertainment in the context of civic discourse. Not every comedian does political comedy (Thank God! for Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld) but some of those who do it, do it very well (and, frankly, Dore’s material is often far more honest and information-laden than any mainstream cable news show).
So when Facebook and Twitter suspends Alex Jones, it should matter to all of us, regardless of ideological orientation. There is something seriously wrong in this country today when people cheer the rapid decay of a social consensus on free speech and of the press.
While not technically a First Amendment issue, as Facebook and Twitter have the legal right to delete Jones (and InfoWars) from their services, their act is still censorship. In fact, it may be worse than government-mandated censorship as Facebook and Twitter did this voluntarily (after weathering some credible threats from congressional Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans that, if Facebook and Twitter don’t censor their service’s content, Congress will).
The enthusiastic cheering by Bill Maher’s audience indicates this new period of American censorship is not about to end and it has already limited your ability to find the news and content necessary to be an informed world citizen.
No, InfoWars should not be your primary source for world news. But with the news that Facebook removed 652 pages, groups and accounts “for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran,” the use of censorship by Facebook to homogeneous its content has become normalized. And it will happen again and again…until Facebook users decide they’ve had enough and collectively leave Facebook.
You’ll be forgiven if you thought Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Google) were just targeting Russian trolls and influence operations for their censorship programs.
Why now are Facebook censors targeting Iran influence operations (and, more quietly, Palestinian-sourced Facebook pages)?
Are Russia and Iran the only countries running covert influence operations through Facebook and other internet platforms? Of course not. Every major country runs covert influence operations to promote their national interests and preferred policies. Its called statecraft.
It’s not as cloak-and-daggery as cyber-security firms like FireEye (who helped Facebook identify influence operations on their service) try to make it sound. Its often just a series of rather mundane publishing activities where the content lacks attribution to its government source.
Countries’ intelligence and defense agencies incentivize journalists to write stories favorable to specific policies or opinions; and some create web-based news sites to propagandize for the government without directly (or even obliquely) identifying the information source. The targets of the information are usually foreign audiences, but not always. And they don’t always tell the truth, even to their domestic audiences. Because that is statecraft. That is what governments do.
And now we have Facebook deciding by algorithm what is ‘good information’ versus ‘bad information.’ And why target Iran now?
It’s not too hard to guess.
[Nikki Haley, make sure your power heels are shined and ready for another long round of Iran-bashing at the United Nations Security Council. This is going to be your president-in-waiting moment.]
Facebook is being persistently nudged by Congress (and the defense and security establishment) to identify influence operations originating from countries hostile to U.S. interests, particularly countries the U.S. may want to militarily engage with in the next few years. Don’t be surprised if North Korea is also on the censorship target list.
Facebook and the other major social media platforms are morphing into propagandizing machines for U.S. business and government interests, not unlike the content already available during an average quarter-hour on U.S. cable news networks.
Facebook will never be that homogeneous, but it will continue to trend towards that type of monotony as its algorithms continue to filter out ‘disinformation’ and unacceptable viewpoints.
The American Civil Liberties Union’ Vera Eidelman, the William J. Brennan Fellow for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, summarizes the problem:
“Given Facebook’s nearly unparalleled status as a forum for political speech and debate, it should not take down anything but unlawful speech, like incitement to violence. Otherwise, in attempting to apply more amorphous concepts not already defined in law, Facebook will often get it wrong. Given the enormous amount of speech uploaded every day to Facebook’s platform, attempting to filter out “bad” speech is a nearly impossible task. The use of algorithms and other artificial intelligence to try to deal with the volume is only likely to exacerbate the problem.”
Having worked with them for thirty years, algorithms are rarely unbiased. The questions always become: Is the known bias acceptable? And what may be the unintended, potentially unacceptable biases?
Facebook and Twitter are fast abandoning their original charters to be open, free speech environments for a worldwide online community.
That dream is officially over and I suppose we are supposed to blame that on the Russians too.
It should never have been Facebook and Twitter’s job to determine what is ‘factually correct’ or appropriate content. In its first censorship algorithm, Facebook suspended a page containing the Declaration of Independence due to ‘hate speech’ contained in its text, but kept Holocaust-denying Facebook pages.
And now the company is expected, with the help of cyber-security firms like FireEye, to identify systematic disinformation on its pages?
I think not. And Facebook and other social media users may want to start looking for better online platforms to share information, opinions, and general happenings.
It might force Facebook and Twitter to remember why we originally used their services in the beginning.
About the Author: Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org)