Censorship vs. Foreign Meddling: Who Should Win in the Battle for Social Media?

Ordinarily I disdain politics. Watching that pitiful reality show unfolding each day in the White House is like perpetual constipation, all useless poots and annoying belly pains. But what kind of journalist would I be if I ignored this week’s juicy happenings around Michael Cohen, long time Trump lawyer, who pled guilty to eight criminal counts, including campaign finance violations before the 2016 presidential election, as part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

No. I can’t do it. I can’t even drum up the energy for the sake of journalism. But I did see another nugget that sparked my interest. Apparently, some of the major technology firms, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. met today at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco to coordinate a “battle against misinformation campaigns by foreign agents,” according to a Yahoo article.

Facebook cybersecurity head Nathaniel Gleicher supposedly called the meeting. “As I’ve mentioned to several of you over the last few weeks, we have been looking to schedule a follow-on discussion to our industry conversation about information operations, election protection, and the work we are all doing to tackle these challenges,” Gleicher wrote, according to BuzzFeed.

At the time I wrote this, none of the companies confirmed or denied their presence in such a meeting, but Yahoo also reported that recently Google, Twitter and Facebook blocked accounts from Russian and Iranian entities that were supposedly propagating misinformation to disrupt the upcoming U.S. elections in November.

In the same vein, earlier this week Facebook removed more than 650 pages, groups and accounts identified as “networks of accounts misleading people about what they were doing.”

“Twitter suspended 284 accounts “for engaging in coordinated manipulation,” adding that “it appears many of these accounts originated from Iran.

“Former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos said in a blog post Wednesday that gaping holes remain in online platforms and that not enough is being done to counter foreign interference ahead of the elections.

“If the United States continues down this path, it risks allowing its elections to become the World Cup of information warfare, in which US adversaries and allies battle to impose their various interests on the American electorate,” Stamos wrote.

On the one hand, I’m absolutely, 100 percent in favor of removing foreign interference from our elections. It’s like, hello, democracy anyone? On the other hand, it’s a slippery slope, no? When does the desire to remove malicious foreign meddling in our political process veer into censorship, or worse, become a modern day form of propaganda? I mean, some might say all media is propaganda in one form or another. But let’s unpack this particular situation for a minute.

How do the tech companies decide what’s real and what’s foreign foolishness? Isn’t this free pass to remove foreign meddling a dangerous tactic that could later be used to promote one political position over another? My questions are endless.

Seriously, at what point do we give up on society’s ability to identify information that’s biased, misleading or promotional? Isn’t it our responsibility – ours as in the two sides because almost everything ultimately comes down to two opposing sides – to make a strong case? Isn’t it up to us, whichever us you subscribe to in this moment or the next, to present our arguments and essentially leave it to the jury – Joe Q. Public – to decide our fate?

I’m speaking very generally, but it’s still a valid question: At what point do we heed interference as we decide what’s right and what’s wrong? Of course, that’s perhaps an idealistic way to look at things. It might be overly simplistic too.

But I suspect we could argue this particular issue to death: Yes, it’s necessary to curtail foreign influence in our political machine. We can check ourselves before we go too far afield. No, it’s wrong. We’re opening a door that we may not be able to close later. Media censorship, including social media, is dangerous.

At the end of the day, influence peddling is still influence peddling, and whoever has the biggest budget – or as today’s tech-based currency dictates, the most followers – can peddle the most. That means, in the court of public opinion, money wins, not necessarily ideas, positions or even politics. That just is.

Propaganda has been used for centuries in one form or another to sway public perception, oust political regimes, establish religious dominance, take down popular K-Pop idols with only a rumor, the list is endless. But whether you describe it as the more negative propaganda or soften things by referring to a more reader friendly version of persuasion, social media influence is undeniably powerful. It’s also corruptible, vulnerable and useful.

I need more information. I want to know what criteria these tech companies are using to cull from the herd, and who’s doing the culling? What qualifies something to be removed or left alone? Are they using established, written policies and procedures, or is this a purely subjective action? Enquiring minds want to know.

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