Saturday, November 23, 2019

Social Media: the Greatest Propaganda Machine in History

Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G. and Borat, among others) won an award from the Anti-Defamation League. Here's his 25 minute acceptance speech. It's in writing, abridged a bit, below the video if you'd rather skim than watch. (Emphasis is mine.)

"Today, around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringe, are going mainstream. It's as if the age of reason, the era of evidential argument is ending and now knowledge is increasing delegitimized, and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging . . .  What do these dangerous trends have in common? . . . All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history. . . .

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplifying the type of content that keeps users engaged: stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. . . . It's why fake news outperforms real news because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it's no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history, the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. . . . On the internet, everything can appeal equally legitimate. . . The rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Noble Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of basic facts upon which democracy depends.

When, thanks to social media, conspiracies take hold, it is easier for hate groups to recruit, easier for foreign intelligence agencies to interfere in our elections, and easier for a country like Myanmar to commit genocide against the Rohingya. It's actually quite shocking how easy it is to turn conspiracy thinking into violence. [In character, he was able to convince a man to push a button he believed would kill three innocent people.] Voltaire was right when he said, 'Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.' Social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people.

In their defense, these social media companies have taken some steps to defuse hate and conspiracies on their platforms. These steps have been mainly superficial. I'm talking about this today because I believe that our pluralistic democracies are on a precipice, and in the next 12 months the role of social media could be determined. British voters will go to the polls while online conspiracists promote the despicable theory of the great displacement, that white Christians are being deliberately replaced by Muslim immigrants. Americans will vote for a president while trolls and bots perpetuate the disgusting lie of a Hispanic invasion. And, after years of YouTube videos calling climate change a hoax, the United States is on track, a year from now, to formally withdraw from the Paris Accord. A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and, to some degree, our planet, this can't possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.

I believe it's time for a fundamental re-think of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies, and lies. Last month, however, Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, delivered a major speech that, not surprisingly, warned against new laws and regulations on companies like his. While some of these arguments are simply bullshit, let's count the ways:

First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as 'choices around free expression.' That is ludicrous! This is not about limiting anyone's free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Sadly, there will always be racists, misogynists, anti-semites, and child abusers, but I think we can all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.

Second, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what's posted on social media would be 'to pull back on free expression.' This is utter nonsense. The First Amendment says that, and I quote, 'Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech'; however, this does not apply to private businesses like Facebook. We're not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society. We just want them to be responsible on their platforms. If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and say he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant, a private business, be required to serve him an elegant eight course meal? Of course not! The restaurant owner has every legal right, and indeed I would argue, a moral obligation, to kick that Nazi out, and so do these internet companies.

Third, Mark Zuckerberg seemed to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of the most repressive societies.  Incredible! This from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees: Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin's ex-sister-in-law Susan Wojcicki at YouTube, and Jack Dorsey at Twitter. The silicon six. All billionaires, all Americans who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism. Six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government, and acting like they're above the reach of law. It's like we're living in the Roman Empire, and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut. Now here's an idea: instead of letting the silicon six decide the fate of the world, let our elected representatives voted for by the people of every democracy in the world have at least some say.

Fourth, Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a diversity of ideas, and last year he gave us an example.  He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust deeply offensive, but he didn't think Facebook should take them down because, 'I think there are things that different people get wrong.' At this very moment there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial sites with a simple click. One of the heads of Google in fact told me that these sites just show both sides of the issue. This is madness! To quote Edward R Murrow, 'One cannot accept that there are on every story two equal and logical sides to an argument.' We have unfortunately millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust. It is an historical fact, and denying it is not some random opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.

Still Zuckerberg says that people should decide what is credible, not tech companies. But at a time when two-thirds of Millennials say that they haven't even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what's credible? How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie? There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist. And if these Internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts, and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.

When discussing the difficulty of removing content Zuckerberg asked 'Where do you draw the line?'  Yes, drawing the line can be difficult, but here's what he's really saying: removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive. These are the richest companies in the world, and they have the best engineers in the world They could fix these problems if they wanted to. Twitter could deploy an algorithm to remove more white supremacist hate speech, but they reportedly haven't because it would eject some very prominent politicians from their platform. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing! The truth is these companies won't fundamentally change because their entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear, and outrage. So it's time to finally call these companies what they really are: the largest publishers in history. So here's an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines, and TV news do everyday. We have standards and practices in television and the movies.  There are certain things we cannot say or do. In England, I was told that Ali G. could not curse when he appeared before 9 p.m. Here in the US, the Motion Picture Association of America regulates and rates what we see. I've had scenes in my movies cut or reduced to abide by those standards. Now if there are standards and practices for what cinemas and television channels can show, then surely companies that publish material to billions of people should have to abide basic standards and practices too. Take the issue of political ads on which Facebook has been resolute.  Fortunately Twitter finally banned them, and Google today I read is making changes too. But if you pay them, Facebook will run any political ad you want even if it's a lie,  and they'll even help you micro target those lies to their users for maximum effect.  Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the Jewish problem. Here's a good standard and practice: Facebook start fact-checking political ads before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and, when the ads of false, give back the money and don't publish them.

Here's another good practice: slow down. Every single post does not need to be published immediately. Oscar Wilde once said, 'We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessity.' but let me ask you, 'Is having every thought or video posted instantly online, even if it's racist or criminal, murderous, really a necessity?' Of course not! The shooter who massacred Muslims in New Zealand live streamed his atrocity on Facebook where it then spread across the internet and was viewed likely millions of times. It was a snuff film brought to you by social media. Why can't we have more of a delay so that this trauma inducing filth can be caught and stopped before it's posted in the first place?!

Finally Zuckerberg said that social media companies should live up to their responsibilities, but he's totally silent about what should happen when they don't. By now it's pretty clear they cannot be  trusted to regulate themselves. As with the Industrial Revolution, it's time for regulation and legislation to curb the greed of these high-tech robber barons. In every other industry a company can be held liable when their product is defective.  When engines explode or seat belts malfunction, car companies recalled tens of thousands of vehicles at a cost of billions of dollars. It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, your product is defective. You are obliged to fix it no matter how much it costs and no matter how many moderators you need to employ. In every other industry you can be sued for the harm you caused. Publishers can be sued for libel. People can be sued for defamation. I've been sued many times. I'm being sued right now by someone whose name I won't mention because he might sue me again. But social media companies are largely protected from liability for the content their users post no matter how indecent it is by section 230 of - get ready for it - the Communications Decency Act. It's absurd! Fortunately internet companies can now be held responsible for pedophiles who use their site to target children. So I say let's also hold these companies responsible for those who use their sites to advocate for the mass murder of children because of their race or religion.

And maybe fines are not enough. Maybe it's time to tell Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of these companies, 'You already allowed one foreign power to interfere in our elections; you already facilitated one genocide in the anima. Do it again and you go to jail. In the end it all comes down to what kind of world we want. In his speech, Zuckerberg said that one of his main goals is to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible. It sounds good. Yet our freedoms are not only an end in themselves, they're also the means to another end: as you say here in the US, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But today these rights are threatened by hate conspiracies and lies. So allow me to leave you with a suggestion for a different aim for society: the ultimate aim of society should be to make sure that people are not targeted, not harassed and not murdered because of who they are, where they come from, who they love, or how they pray. If we make that our aim, if we prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference, and experts over ignoramus, then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history. We can  save democracy. We can still have a place for free speech and free expression and, most importantly, my jokes will still work.

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