Social-media platforms are increasingly under attack for the content they carry and face heavy fines in some European countries. What is under question here is the legal responsibility of a platform for the content users post as well as how much freedom is to be given to speech. It is like a return to the XVth and XVIth century when the Church tried to control philosophy and science.
Silencing the Terrorists
Islamic propaganda is the pretext being used today. Facebook says its algorithms can detect 99% of ISIS and al Qaeda related propaganda within an hour. But these are the same algorithms which deleted a post by the Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten (story click here), in 2016 which showed the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running for help after being burned by Napalm. (Aftenposten defense, click here)
In some European countries laws on what can and cannot be said are very strict.
- In Germany it is illegal to question the number of Jews killed by the Nazis or to say anything which incites to hate or discrimination of another community (such speech to be determined by the courts);
- France has similar laws to Germany. Parliament also voted a law recognizing the ‘Armenian Genocide’ making it illegal to question whether it was a genocide or a massacre;
- Britain is the ‘Libel Capital’ of the world and even saying something true about a public figure can end you up in court.
Last June, Germany passed a law imposing fines of $57 million on social-mediacompanies that are caught spreading hate speech. In the US and Britain, Facebook is under investigation for the role of Russian trolls on its platform. This could end up in charges of collusion with a foreign power.
A Paper Mill or a Radio Broadcaster?
Up until now, the American approach to social-media is the same as that to a paper mill. Would you hold the mill responsible for what a magazine prints with the paper it bought? Europeans tend to say the platforms are more like broadcasters that allow illegal speech over their air-waves. For them, it is the paper mill poisoning the water.
Ultimately, what is at stake is how much speech is free and who will do the policing. First, we must accept that no algorithm will ever replace human editorial judgement, nor should it.
I feel increasingly repressive laws on speech is the elite’s way of trying to contain the information people get at a time when populist movements are growing as voters become more and more disenchanted with technocrats and politicians over migration, a perceived threat to their cultures through lack of integration, the Euro-zone and Wall Street bailouts and more.
One case in point is the debate over Russian meddling in the US elections: attention is focused on who got the DNC files to Wikileaks in order not to discuss their content. There is a movement in the US to indict Wikileaks founder Julian Assange under the 1918 Espionage Act.
The ultimate goal of social-media censorship is to prevent inconvient the truth from getting out, stifle public debate and make sure that only the “approved” version of ‘reality’ is diffused. It is a desperate attempt by those in power to prevent a wave of discontent. Although many Americans may have been abused by Fake News and Trolls, no American voted for Trump because the Russians told him to.
Just as the first target of any Coup d’état is to take over the radio and television, today’s dictators shut down social-media. In democracies, this is not done by force of arms, but rather, by voting laws. The result is the same.
We need to fight censorship while educating online users. We’re not going to ban cars because of drunken drivers. We shouldn’t restrict free speech because of trolls.