Online Censorship: The Cure is Worse than the Disease
Fake news is a big problem. And as I’ve written, technology is about to make a lot worse.
But censoring online content to combat fake news is equally problematic. And it doesn’t matter where on the political spectrum your opinions lie…it’s a problem for everyone.
From a legal perspective, it’s clear that the government can’t force the media to filter out fake news. After all, the First Amendment reads, in part:
Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.
But private companies are free to censor anyone they want. That’s how iTunes, Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube justified removing Jones’ audio and video content produced by online provocateur and right-wing activist Alex from their platforms last August.
It’s hard to deny that Jones posted fake news. Perhaps his most infamous claim is that the 2012 school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in which 20 children were murdered, never happened. Or as Jones put it:
Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.
But as big a problem as fake news is, online censorship isn’t the answer. Like it or not, booting Alex Jones off social media puts us as a society on a dangerous slippery slope. And we are sliding down that slope now. On October 11, within weeks of kicking off Jones, Facebook removed hundreds of pages of smaller left-wing, libertarian, and anti-war media outlets. Four of the more prominent organizations affected are Cop Block, the Free Thought Project, the Anti-Media, and Press for Truth.
Alex Jones was initially kicked off social media for alleged hate speech in his audio and video, but these organizations in no way fit the hate speech mold.
In a press release, Facebook said it had removed “559 pages and 251 accounts that have consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.” It also claimed the organizations were “working to mislead others about who they are and what they are doing.” And that they tricked “people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debate.”
These statements don’t add up, though, because at least in the case of the four organizations I mentioned, they all listed contact information on their Facebook feeds. Indeed, until they were removed, they even had a “verified by Facebook” certification.
What’s the real reason why Facebook decided to silence these online publishers? Like any company, Facebook wants to maximize profits, so perhaps these organizations somehow threatened its revenue stream.
So, let’s follow the money.
One clue emerged on November 5, when Facebook announced it had identified 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts that it believed “may be engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior.” A few days later, Facebook published an update, in which it said its takedown had been in coordination with “the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab.”
The Atlantic Council is a virulently anti-Russian neo-conservative think tank. Its “Honor Roll of Contributors” includes the United Arab Emirates and multinational giants like Chevon, Raytheon, HSBC, and even the US Air Force Academy.
One well-known name with close ties to the Atlantic Council is Jamie Fly, former counselor for Foreign and National Security Affairs to Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) In January, Fly said in an interview he was working with the Atlantic Council to help it purge the internet of fake news. Facebook’s actions, he said, were “just the beginning.”
It stands to reason that multi-national corporations and governments might want to silence people who threaten the status quo. For instance, if enough people start reading alternative media sources that advocate anti-war positions, they might vote for candidates who take positions against foreign intervention in countries like Syria or Iran. Among other consequences, that could lead to lower profits for defense contractors like Raytheon.
But Facebook and other social media platforms are private companies. Can’t they censor anyone they want?
Maybe…but maybe not. If an arm of the Atlantic Council is making censorship decisions for Facebook, that muddies the waters. The Atlantic Council is funded in large part by governments – including the US government. Some First Amendment advocates believe that connection limits Facebook’s right to censor anyone it wants.
By working with the Atlantic Council, Facebook is essentially working with the governments that provide funding to the organization. And the US government is not allowed to engage in censorship.
It will be interesting to see if this practice is allowed to continue or if it will be struck down in the courts.
One thing is for sure. Efforts to censor alternative media will grow in the coming months and years. And it’s not just people who follow known purveyors of fake news like Alex Jones who will lose. We all will.
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