Taming the Wild West (Part Two)

In Part One of this blog, I wrote about how individuals who browse the Internet can become wary, skeptical content consumers. They can become personal editors, better able to identify and avoid content that is really propaganda and falsehood masquerading as reliable information.

Of course, that would still leaves us facing the brutal fact that the Internet bad guys — the trolls, the hackers, the cyber bullies  the porn suppliers — are winning control of the world wide web. The good guys, those who believe in quality information, reliable content, and the desirability of the free and open exchange of ideas, are losing not just the day-to-day online skirmishes, but overall control of credible, reliable content — a cornerstone of civil society.

This is nothing less than an existential threat on a global scale. And the fact is, by avoiding responsibility for the content on their Web platforms, the companies with the largest reach and impact, like Facebook and Twitter, are making global Internet pollution even worse.

As the New York Times reports, Facebook is the target of mounting criticism overseas for enabling its website to become a platform for bitter attacks against the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar that has been subjected to brutal violence and mass displacement. Violence against the Rohingya has been fueled, in part, by misinformation and anti-Rohingya propaganda spread on Facebook, which is used as a primary news source by many people in the country. Doctored photos and unfounded rumors have gone viral on Facebook, including many shared by official government and military accounts.

The information war in Myanmar illuminates a growing problem for Facebook. The company successfully connected the world to a constellation of real-time communication and broadcasting tools, then largely left it to deal with the consequences.  — New York Times, Oct. 29, 2017

 

Without concerted attention and action by governments, content providers and First Amendment advocates, the Internet may end up becoming a 21st Century dystopian propaganda outlet threatening trustworthy communication — an essential bulwark of civilization

I believe the key to restoring Internet credibility and trust should fall on the content providers themselves, with aggressive government regulation to insure that “self-policing” is much more than a PR smokescreen.

Many would immediately question whether this even feasible, much less desirable. No one “controls” Internet content, for starters. While some nations have installed content guardrails — which many critics assert constitute barely concealed government censorship —  other countries, especially the United States, balk at doing anything that would impede our collective belief in First Amendment guarantees of a free expression. Until recently, this view has held sway. Yet now, opposing voices are being heard, Russia’s most loudly, that the flow of information must be regulated to avoid social chaos.

There’s also another impediment: the online business model for retailers, media outlets and similar businesses depend upon “click throughs,” which count the number of people who actually engage in a website’s content in some way. Daily newspapers have all but abandoned their print versions to create online websites in which click throughs help determine which stories are covered; the more clicks an article receives, the more you are likely to see similar content.

Although no one really wants to talk about, click through counts also are subject to manipulation. Trolling services will generate computerized click throughs, thus raising search results (and generating increased advertising revenue for those buying the service). Another variant, content farms, churn out chaff about products, services or what-have-you for the sole purpose of rising to the top of search engines. Much of the content is copied, stolen or made up out of thin air.

Click throughs — “eyeballs” on content — are a key measure for advertisers, as long as they are reliable measures of user behavior. Digital media sites are thus skittish about even admitting that falsely-generated traffic exists on the Web, according to Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics Kevin Werbach.

“Trolls and their followers often generate a large volume of activity. Services that monetize based on eyeballs may be concerned about cutting down on their traffic or user growth,” says Werbach, quoted in the University of Pennsylvania’s Knowledge@Wharton website. “Companies need to consider their revenue model, how much activity the trolls actually represent and the overall impacts in both directions.” Cutting down on abuse may make the platform more attractive to current and potential users, for example. “Ultimately, these firms have to decide what kind of company they want to be,” he adds. “Sometimes pursuing every drop of short-term revenue obscures the most profitable strategy over the long term.”

Hopefully, cracks in the facade of anti-regulation are beginning to surface, the result of Russian meddling and numerous cyber attacks on celebrities and websites. Twitter has announced it will no longer accept advertising from known Russian sources. Reddit has shut down Nazi-inspired propaganda sub-forums it had been hosting. Facebook is said to be considering a number of procedural solutions to prevent advertising sourced from Russian and other governments.

This is a welcome turnabout, as long as the main social media sites finally accept the fact that they are content generators, not just channels for information dissemination, and as such, they need to take responsibility for monitoring and editing the information they distribute. Changing that attitude will be very difficult.

Taking some measure of editorial control over content is arguably the most substantial obstacle for Internet reform, however. American-based social media sites, which generate the majority of Web traffic, have managed to stave off any kind of government oversight or regulation, in the same way broadcast television media is. (The TV networks, regulated via the Federal Communications Commission — FCC — must report the sources and amount of advertising.

The accepted wisdom among Internet executives is that they are the digital equivalents of telephone lines — mere conduits of data — and thus not responsible to moderate the information they disseminate. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, for example, just completed a whirlwind PR campaign in which she asserted that social media is successful because it is open, unimpeded and widely available to anyone, but that it can do better. What hasn’t changed is the assertion that social media platforms should not be regulated.

Yet without regulation, self-policing (a.k.a. voluntary efforts) only gets you so far since standards are left to the individual companies. To address this point, legislation (The Honest Ads Act) has been introduced in Congress to require Internet content providers to reveal the sources and amounts of advertising on their sites. Not surprisingly, the major social media companies are ramping up their Washington lobbying to block regulation, even as they  putting in place voluntary restrictions. (Some observers believe that social media-driven sites are doing this solely because they don’t want to incur the costs of moderating their content).

While this activity may help address the most immediate issue — the spread of nation-sponsored propaganda and destructive troll storms — thornier issues remain. One such issue is censorship and the right to free expression.

Reddit’s action to shut down Nazi-inspired forums presents one such conundrum. The Reddit website does monitor postings, to its credit, but as the presence of hate content demonstrates, the Wild West manages to infect online content even on the most careful platforms. And if Nazi hate content can be eliminated, could not content that others find objectionable, such as Planned Parenthood’s website, or Greenpeace’s, or the Democratic National Committee’s website, or its GOP counterpart, also be shut down?

The answer is yes, and in fact Russia and China are doing just that online in the name of “free expression,” pointed out Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, in a recent New York Times article.

“The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control,” Wu wrote. ” The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

So, where does this lead us?

Well, for one, there is no magic bullet solution to Internet pollution. Each nation governs (or doesn’t) its own Web rules. In this regard, the U.S. is an outlier in its insistence that online content must not be regulated unless there is clear and present danger to life and limb. No other nation, including Great Britain, has such an unswerving devotion to unfettered speech. As a result, the U.S. may be increasingly exposed to surreptitious cyberattacks because of our reluctance to regulate content or protect online consumers.

Another issue is finding a website business model that is not dependent upon ever-increasing traffic numbers. As outlined above, click throughs are a malleable measuring stick, subject to all sorts of manipulation, as are un-moderated comment boards. A more trustworthy mousetrap awaits.

Finally, and perhaps the issue that may never be satisfactorily addressed, is deciding whether the idea of a worldwide information source, free from bias and misinformation, has become not just an antiquated notion, but also doomed. Mark Zuckerberg has talked plaintively about his goal of creating a global community online, Facebook Groups, where people could virtually meet, discuss, debate and share, and in the process bring the world closer together.

But that vision seems woefully naive now. The harsh reality is that while there is much that is good and useful online, quality is in danger of being crowded out by cyber saboteurs who have no interest in truth, accuracy or fairness. Under the cloak of largely unregulated anonymity, the Internet is being swamped with falsehood, propaganda, depravity and hostility. Untold millions of bad actors are employing black arts tools to lie, cheat, steal and disrupt while defying the world’s best security and anti-hacking methods.

The Russian meddling in the 2016 election is definitely a watershed, but of what kind?Was it the event that woke up the world to the real threat to the free flow of information, global trust and mutual comity? Or was it instead the opening salvo in the 21st Century Third World War, to be fought on the digital plains of the Wild, Wild West.

 

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