Using Fake News to Censor the Internet

internet-regulationIt’s ironic the lack of self awareness shown by corporate media in the US. First they invented the term “fake news” to smear the alternate media, then they were shocked when they were caught out in lies and their slur was reflected back on them. The corporate media has barraged us with articles about “fake news”, and continue to do so, even calling for outright censorship. For example, the msn news article Internet regulation: is it time to rein in the tech giants?, which calls for internet regulation on a massive scale. It’s a long article, so I’m only going to comment on parts of it.

Jaron Lanier, an internet pioneer who first espoused the idea of commercial virtual reality (in the 1990s), worried in his 2013 book Who Owns the Future? that the way new companies such as Instagram use the internet is destroying the middle class by removing jobs and offering no replacement. “It’s a winner-take-all capitalism that’s not sustainable,” he told Salon. He pointed to Instagram, not then owned by Facebook, as having just 13 employees, and having effectively wiped out Kodak, the camera and film-maker, which had employed thousands. Where, he asked, had those thousands of jobs gone?

And what is the alternative? When a company is offering a product that nobody wants, should it not have to evolve or die? Does Lanier think that there weren’t people like him one hundred years ago bemoaning the loss of thousands of jobs in the buggy whip industry? Also, I think Apple deserves a share of the blame for killing Kodak, considering the millions of high quality digital cameras they bundled with their iphones.

Twitter’s founders would have been – and still are – appalled by the idea that they had created a service that would enable the organised harassment of women (as seen in the Gamergate dispute), or the organisation of the “alt-right”, or the disruption by paid Russian trolls of the US presidential election and, perhaps, Brexit.

This merely shows Twitter’s (and the author of this article’s) hypocrisy. Gamergate was a backlash by real gamers against a gaming media that was calling them sexist. What the media calls the “alt-right” is often simply anyone with an opinion they disagree with. For example, the oft maligned Milo Yiannopoulus is a conservative gay Jewish provocateur, but is regularly called a Nazi. That is what I would call fake news. And what, pray tell, is wrong with promoting Brexit? Forgive my skepticism regarding the claims of paid Russian trolls, given the rest of these examples.

In 2012, Twitter’s UK general manager, Tony Wang, told a London audience that, in the view of its chief executive (Dick Costolo) and its chief counsel, the social network was “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party”. “There are Twitter rules about what you can and can’t do on the platform,” he added. However, those rules were exceedingly loosely applied.

They are loosely applied in some cases. In others, notably in the case of conservatives, they seemed to be applied overly strictly. The idea that Twitter is truly for free speech is laughable.

Google… unwittingly promoted sexist, racist or just inaccurate search results by blindly following its underlying business model, which rewards content that gets attention, regardless of accuracy.

Google’s algorithm, at least until recently, did a fantastic job of giving the most relevant results. The fact that someone finds a search result offensive is hardly Google’s fault. The Internet is so big (with millions of new domains added every day) that no one could possibly police a search of all of it. That said, recently, Google seems to have been biasing their search results.

[Fake news is] like a coal-fired power station, providing exactly what huge numbers of people want, but over time inconveniencing everyone just a little; and for those too close to its exhaust, a lot. Also like global warming, the process produces secondary effects: just as a warmer planet makes the sea a little higher, so the focus by the internet giants on attention over accuracy nudges media outlets towards “clickbait” rather than in-depth focus; like migrating fish, they’re just adapting to stay alive in the conditions.

I love the analogy to global warming. The idea that coal fired power stations are inconvenient because they emit CO2 is comical. They are, like the automated algorithms that regulate social media, simply the most effective way at the moment to deal with enormous demand (whether it be for electricity, or information). The media need no help from fake stories on the internet to focus on click bait. They have been revealed to be interested in one thing: money.

Google repeatedly points out that hours of video are uploaded to it every second. How can it spot extremist videos or radicalisation content among those? Google’s chief lawyer, Kent Walker’s … answer wasn’t to get video uploads approved by humans (as happens at publishers), but the application of unspecified “technology” to “help identify extremist and terrorism-related videos” – although more humans will be trusted to have correctly flagged such content.

The idea that all video uploads would have to be “approved” by an editor is ridiculous. Amazon does not review self published titles. They use an algorithm that checks for plagiarism. I’ve run afoul of it when it erroneously flagged an original work of mine. And the user flagging system that Google has initiated on YouTube has been used to abuse and suppress people with unpopular opinions, resulting in some predicting the death of the platform.

Remember how oil companies didn’t like the suggestion that there should be limits on vehicle emissions, or that carbon use should be taxed? Technology companies are exactly the same… YouTube is never going to suggest that some videos, even from known terrorist organisations, should be vetted… Nor will Facebook agree to anything that might reduce revenues.

It’s not just oil companies that don’t think “carbon use” (AKA using currently available energy sources) should be specially taxed, and it’s not just Google and Facebook that are against the state imposing regulation that prevents them from running a profitable and free social media services. It’s pure sophistry to suggest that YouTube and Facebook are not already vetting and purging content at great cost to themselves.

Now is the time to bring democratic standards to the internet – ones that let us own and articulate how our digital society should work… both politicians and the tech industry work harder to understand each other and recognise their obligations.

Fortunately, the internet is not controlled by either the politicians or the tech industry. Service providers certainly control the tap, but any attempt to simply cut people off from the internet would create a huge backlash. With high quality encryption and VPN services, your ISP has little idea what you are doing on the internet. And once your on it, you don’t have to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.

The RIAA discovered this when they shut down Napster. Suddenly, there were a thousand Napsters. The same is true of YouTube. Minds.com and a host of others are waiting like sharks for the regulators to kill it so they can scoop up the content creators and, using a decentralized platform that is far more difficult to shut down, serve advertisements up and reap the revenues. If regulators censor Facebook, the next generation of platforms, like akasha, based on distributed block chains (the technology used for bitcoin), will make that nearly impossible.

The question is not whether to regulate, but who or what should be doing it. In a distributed digital environment, regulations might best emerge through protocols and consensus of the people in the network. This could mean retrieving the mechanisms of the commons, forcibly repressed by government in the late Middle Ages, but due for a comeback. A commons is really just a set of regulations for a shared resource, but imposed by the people who actually use it. The network would itself be responsible for enforcement, and even punishment, of those who violate the agreements that have been established for its sustainability.

The idea of self regulation, given the mob mentality of many on the internet, seems doomed to failure. The commons will either be divided up, or righteous individuals will shut it down (as China attempted to with their infamous “Great Firewall”). This would be analogous to environmental activists blowing up coal fired power plants, plunging whole cities into darkness. You see this today with activists taking down sites with distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks.

It’s important to separate two elements; firstly, the infrastructure of the internet – meaning the connected networks based on standardised communication protocols – which should remain free to use and open to all. The ability for people to share knowledge across borders is unquestionably something that must be protected, as should net neutrality [the principle that all data should be treated in the same way].

Net neutrality is not the idea that all data should be treated the same way, but that carriers should not give preferential treatment to other companies. For example, NetFlix cannot pay AT&T to get a bigger share of bandwidth or better quality of services than YouTube does.

The other question is to do with the power of a handful of large companies. It’s hard to argue that an organisation with an 88% market share (Google with search) or 77% of mobile social traffic (Facebook and ancillaries Whatsapp, Instagram and Messenger) aren’t monopolies.

Actually, it’s not that hard. If you don’t like Google, try Duck Duck Go. If you don’t like Facebook, try Minds.com. The issue with social media is that the most successful sites have built a large user base and, to be useful, you need to have a majority of people using your site. This is exactly the same phenomena that allowed Microsoft to become dominant, and at one time regulators where going after them for monopolistic practices. In the wake of what has happened with Google Android and Apple, you can see how foolish the “have a large percentage == monopoly” argument is.

Attempting to ban encryption would poison relations with (for example) Facebook while driving miscreants to far darker and harder-to-reach places, representing a massive act of environmental pollution.

I love the characterization of anyone not wanting to deal with community thought police as “miscreants”. It reminds me of Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” smear.

With the digital realm offering opportunities for free speech, free press, and free assembly, it’s vital our rights are upheld there. But the Investigatory Powers Act means every single person using the internet is being monitored in a way we’d find completely unacceptable offline, in a clear breach of our human rights. Like any free zone, the internet should be policed – but it should also be celebrated. What needs regulating is the surveillance state.

It’s nice to end on an agreeable note. On the above statement, I’m in nearly complete accord. I merely doubt our ability to police the internet without destroying it.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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