Social Media Is a Proven Threat to Internet Free Speech

Just a few tech giants dominate social media. Some are using their growing influence to censor news and opinion. Unfettered political speech is both the heritage and future hope for the internet. It now stands in peril.

Reliance on social media for news and opinion has almost doubled since 2013. The trend shows no sign of waning. As of May, 2016, 44 percent of U.S. adults used Facebook to find news. YouTube came in second at 10 percent, followed by nine percent for Twitter, according to Pew Research Center polling. A 2016 Reuters study covering 26 countries found 51 percent of its sample use social media as a weekly news source. Facebook, mostly. 12 percent consider social media their most important news source. 28 percent of 18 to 24 year olds use it as their main way to find news, outstripping television (24 percent) for the first time ever.

Facebook is the most dominant social media worldwide. Few of its users realize it’s among the worst free speech violators.

(The Young Turks catch Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a moment of hypocrisy.)

Facebook CEO Caught Censoring Posts Critical of Immigration During Refugee Crisis.

Social media censorship is fact, not fantasy or conspiracy. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was caught on an open mic in October, 2015, agreeing with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to censor posts critical of her loose immigration policies at the onset of the refugee crisis. Christopher Cantwell, a self-proclaimed right-winger, complains of how Facebook deleted just such a post of his:

Migrants in Hungary.

Migrants in Hungary.

“In Germany, as in many other parts of Europe, thousands of women were sexually abused and raped by gangs of migrants. If they had the right to carry, then they would have the right to defend themselves. Migrants raping women in Europe has become a crisis. Yet Europe continues to disarm its people. They continue to make it harder for them to fight back against the people their government imported. This is why we need guns.”

He posted to the Gun Rights Facebook page – hardly a case of bullying or trolling ideological adversaries. He mentions how Facebook temporarily deleted the Gun Rights page soon after.

Facebook Works with Israel to Suppress Pro-Palestinian Content.

Facebook censorship isn’t limited only to views associated with the political right. The Associated Press reported in September that “the Israeli government and Facebook have agreed to work together to determine how to tackle incitement on the social media network…as the goverment pushes ahead with legislative steps meant to reign in content that Israel says incites violence.” Nadim Nashif, co-founder of the Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media, told Al Jazeera, “the concern is that Facebook is adopting Israeli policy and terminology when it comes to defining what incitement is.”

Facebook hired Jordana Cutler, a former Netanyahu advisor, to be head of communications and policy for Israel in June. She is currently Chief of Staff at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. The corporation sparked a backlash when it cut access to seven editors working for the popular Palestinian Shebab and Quds online publications. Facebook claims it was “a mistake.”

(Israeli Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked posted to Facebook calling for the genocide of Palestinians. She also called Palestinian babies “little snakes.” She deleted the post and now denies its existence. Shaked champions more Facebook censorship to stop “incitement” by pro-Palestinian activists.)

Israeli Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked boasts that Facebook complied 95 percent of the time when, over a four month period, “Israel submitted 158 requests to Facebook to remove inciting content.” An Israeli advocacy group launched a one billion dollar lawsuit against the social media giant this summer, alleging that Facebook is violating the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act by assisting in “recruiting, radicalizing and instructing terrorists.” Gilad Erdan, Israeli Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Information threatened Facebook with “legislation, and not only in Israel…anyone who harms the State of Israel must understand that there will be consequences.”

Facebook Provokes Outrage by Censoring Iconic Vietnam War Photo.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO.

Acknowledged censorship of political free speech on Facebook doesn’t stop there. It repeatedly removed the famous 1972 Napalm Girl photograph from a Norwegian journalist’s presentation on award winning photo-journalism. The photograph of a burned, naked child escaping her napalm-incinerated village depicts the horrors of the Vietnam War. Facebook defended its decision. “While we recognize that this photo is iconic, it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.”

Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, printed a full-page condemnation of Facebook’s decision. Espen Egil Hansen, CEO and editor-and-chief wrote, “I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid – of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society…you are restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility…I think you are abusing your power.” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg posted the banned photo to her personal page in protest. Outrage spread internationally. Facebook soon relented.

Facebook Suppresses Conservative News, Censors for Prisons and Foreign Dictators, “Inserts” Agenda-Driven Stories as “Trending.”

Gizmodo broke the story, based on anonymous employee whistleblowers, in May, 2016 that Facebook news “curators” intervened to suppress organically trending conservative news and any negative stories about Facebook. Curators were instructed to insert certain stories that weren’t organically trending on Facebook, including news about Black Lives Matters. In an internal memo to employees released in February, 2016, Mark Zuckerberg expressed support for the movement. “It’s simply asking that the black community also achieves the justice they deserve.”

The social media giant also caved in to Turkish demands to silence dissent in January, 2015, though under no legal obligation to do so. The Electronic Frontier Foundation uncovered thousands of potential cases of Facebook removing prison inmates’ pages at the request of prisons, and then not reporting it. The examples go on and on.

Reuters Exposes Facebook’s Elite Council of Censors. Wikileaks Exposes Facebook COO and Top Censor’s Ties To the Clinton Campaign.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, speaking at Davos, Switzerland, 2013.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, speaking at Davos, Switzerland, 2013.

Facebook hires legions of monitors who judge whether to censor posts and ban pages or users based on arcane and subjective “community standards.” The company has come under criticism for a lack of transparency over the exact process it uses. Content is deleted and users banned, tyically without detailed explanation or a process to contest it. Based on accounts from eight current or former high-level Facebook executives, Reuters revealed in October, 2016 that a council of five elite executives has the final say on what is censored.

Three of the members have longstanding personal ties to Facebook

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Wikileaks released a Sandberg email to Clinton campaign manager John Podesta from May, 2015. “I still want HRC (Hillary Rodham Clinton) to win badly,” she wrote. “I am still here to help as I can. She came over and was magical with my kids.” Earlier batches of emails released by Wikileaks reveal that Sandberg offered to arrange a meeting between Podesta and Zuckerberg. She stated he was interested in influencing policies on “social oriented objectives like immigration, education or basic scientific research.”

What’s perhaps even more disturbing is Facebook’s hidden and proprietary censorship programmed into Facebook algorithms. They determine what posts a user sees – and doesn’t see – on their news feed. No one but the corporation has any way of knowing.

Censorship Concerns Increase on YouTube and Twitter

YouTube and Twitter face censorship scandals of their own. YouTube recently made it easier to demonetize videos that aren’t “advertiser-friendly,” based on vague rules. They stifle “controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown.” Unlike Facebook, YouTube enforces the rules relatively even-handedly through algorithms. It also offers an effective appeals process.

Free speech on YouTube started off relatively unrestricted in the mid-2000s. This led to scores of newly affluent content providers. YouTube is the prime source for raw video footage sought by independent journalists.

(YouTuber Hank Green talks about the Internet Creators’ Guild.)

YouTuber Hank Green fears a chilling of free speech for YouTubers who report and analyze news. “Having to go through an appeals process or having a video stay de-monetized could have the unintended consequence of discouraging creators from making edgy, interesting content.” Green formed the Internet Creators’ Guild in June, 2016.

Unlike YouTube, Twitter embraces controversy. It strives to be a destination for news, analysis and debate. It caught heat from the political right after banning Breitbart commentator and alt-right hero Milo Yiannopolous for abusive behavior toward Ghostbuster actress Leslie Jones. She quit Twitter after Yiannopolous’ fans deluged her with racist, pornographic and violent tweets. It’s hard not to sympathize with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. “We hope – and we recognize it’s a high hope – to elevate civil discourse…abuse is not part of civil discourse.”

Concentration of Corporate Social Media Power Threatens the Foundation of a Free Society

Gleen Greenwald, investigative journalist. "All of this underscores the severe dangers of having our public discourse overtaken, regulated, and controlled by a tiny number of unaccountable tech giants."

Gleen Greenwald, investigative journalist. “All of this underscores the severe dangers of having our public discourse overtaken, regulated, and controlled by a tiny number of unaccountable tech giants.”

Though corporations are privately owned, government creates them and grants them special protections. So, should the government intervene when control over an industry falls into the hands of a tiny number of very powerful corporations? Should a parent control its children? Anti-trust legislation, as impotent as much of it is, sets that logical precedent. It’s intended to prevent inevitable price-gouging by monopolies or oligopolies.

How much bigger is the threat to a republic, such as the United States, when censorship by a few, big, social-media news aggregators threatens to control the flow of ideas and knowledge? To distort public debate for their own self-interest?

Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Government won’t come to the rescue. Six mega-corporations control 90 percent of mainstream media outlets. The process has been ongoing for decades now as government, bribed by corporate campaign contributions, stands idly by. It’s one reason why more people are turning to alternative voices on internet blogs, foreign and social media.

Is it likely that more competition will solve the problem? The number of social media outlets continues to dwindle. They demand a critical mass of users to function. How likely are users to abandon a social media platform when they have accumulated followers over years, invested countless hours to create their page and persona, and use it to socialize with friends and family? Or, increasingly, have businesses or professional contacts that require they maintain an account? Social media is no longer optional for most.

Social media creates dependency. Dependency leads to control and abuse of power. Like a heroin pusher.

Facebook is already far down that evil path. YouTube seems ready to back out entirely. It remains to be seen if Twitter can maintain the fine line between civility and censorship.

Convenience. That’s the lure of social media as a news source. Facebook spoon-feeds information it tailors to each user’s tastes, all in one place. Along with cute kitten videos and likes from friends. For our own sakes and that of society, the responsibility falls on our shoulders not to consume “news.” Not to click on what’s presented to us or trust in talking heads. But to find truth the only way possible. By researching for ourselves.

Related content:

Israelis Fight Terror Incitement, Sue Facebook

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