The never-ending battle over content moderation is only intensifying as we get closer to the 2020 elections and beyond. We’re trying out new formats to round up and summarize developments in this space—both in the interest of everyone’s sanity and to allow more time for the ramifications and context of the outcomes of various screaming matches to become clear. We’ve chosen to call this Hellfeed. Let us know your thoughts and feedback in the comments below.
Early this month White House yanked its nomination for Mike O’Rielly, one of the three Republican members of the Federal Communications Commission’s five commissioners, to serve another term. It didn’t explain why, but O’Rielly made comments that rather obviously alluded to Trump’s executive order directing the FCC to police and punish sites like Facebook and Twitter for supposedly discriminating against conservatives as “gibberish.” (It is, for numerous reasons including fabricated legal theory and damn good odds it won’t pass constitutional muster.)
Trump’s nominee to replace O’Rielly will join feverishly pro-Trump commissioner Brendan Carr as a more pliable lackey. On September 15, Trump named National Telecommunications and Information Administration senior adviser Nathan Simington, one of the key authors of the executive order and thus certain to vote in favor of it. That would leave FCC chief Ajit Pai as the only thing between Trump and his speech police, or at least years of court battles—which is not exactly comforting given that he’s been quiet on the subject, presumably to see which way the wind is blowing. AT&T has also backed the executive order, and Pai loves pleasing his industry buddies.
That said, it’s no certainty Pai will side with the order, even if Simington makes it onto the commission. Given the ongoing national shitshow, it’s fairly unlikely that the Senate will meet to confirm Simington before elections in November. If Trump wins, we’ll have a lot more to worry about. If he loses, any momentum behind the plan will likely evaporate, regardless of whether Republicans in the Senate push him through in a lame-duck session. The Federal Trade Commission, also tasked with investigating bans under the order, has made it clear it wants no part of it either way.
On Friday, the Commerce Department announced it is ordering app stores and service providers to stop allowing downloads of messaging app WeChat and Beijing-based ByteDance’s subsidiary TikTok on September 20, as well as block WeChat’s hosting and traffic. If ByteDance doesn’t strike a deal to sell off majority control of TikTok by mid-November it will face a similar total ban.
Aside from potentially creating a security nightmare if the apps have vulnerabilities that can’t be patched, and the fact that nothing about the arbitrary process that led to the ban suggests that it’s motivated by anything but Trump’s desire to look tough on China, TikTok has 100 million U.S. users that are not going to react well to a ban. (The White House is apparently less concerned about criticism over WeChat, which is widely used by Chinese Americans, expats, and international students.) The total “ban” on TikTok conveniently wouldn’t go into effect until after the election.
TikTok joined the European Union’s Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech last week, saying it has a “zero-tolerance stance on organized hate groups and those associated with them.”
Several high-profile celebrities including Kim Kardashian West, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Leonardo DiCaprio froze their accounts on Facebook and Instagram for one day to show support for the Stop Hate for Profit Campaign, which is leading an advertiser boycott demanding Facebook actually do something about rampant hate speech and misinformation. As one might expect, this was nice and well-intentioned but dubiously effective.
Common Sense Media chief executive Jim Steyer, whose group backs the campaign, told the Times it was just the beginning of a new round of messaging.
Wired has an interesting report on how Github, the open-source code repository, has become a major hub for Chinese citizens to evade authorities’ sweeping campaign to censor news of the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese censors are caught between a rock and a hard place on the subject:
GitHub, known to some Chinese internet users as the “last land of free speech in China,” remains accessible. Chinese authorities cannot censor individual projects, because GitHub uses the HTTPS protocol, which encrypts all traffic. But they are also unwilling to ban GitHub entirely, because it is invaluable to the Chinese tech industry.
Haha, just kidding, a New York Times report found that in the month since Facebook announced new rules designed to fight the conspiracy theory, 100 QAnon groups are still growing at an average of 13,600 followers a week after they rebranded themselves as anti-sex trafficking organizations. Facebook is also still actively promoting QAnon groups via its recommendation engine.
Facebook’s plan for combating conspiracy theories and misinformation on climate change is a totally pathetic “Climate Science Information Center”
After a report in which a former Facebook data scientist outlined the company’s deliberate blind eye to election manipulation across the globe, Facebook announced that it’s cracking down on discussion of political and social issues on internal employee message boards. That’ll work! Google took the opportunity to tighten moderation controls it first imposed last year.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation writes that legal fights against the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are continuing in court, with plaintiffs including Human Rights Watch and the Internet Archive recently filing legal briefs arguing it violates the First and Fifth Amendments. FOSTA makes it a crime for a website operator to “promote and facilitate prostitution” (really, it’s that vague), allows state and local prosecutors to sue websites for sex trafficking, and limiting key liability protections.
FOSTA has the net effect of censoring online speech, because its nebulous terms both encourage websites to crack down on adult content in case it’s somehow tied to “prostitution” and have raised concern that authorities could cite the law as grounds to go after sex work advocates. Plaintiffs include Eric Koszyk, a massage therapist who lost much of his income after Craigslist took down its Therapeutic Services section, and SWOP USA board member Alex Andrews, a campaigner for sex worker rights and safety who said she was forced to halt work on an app that would allow sex workers to report clients for violence, coercion, and harassment. SWOP was concerned that FOSTA would enable prosecutors to claim they were lending operational support to sex workers.
An expose by the Wall Street Journal last showed that Facebook’s top public policy official in India Ankhi Das turned a blind eye to hate speech by members of the BJP, India’s far-right Hindu nationalist party, as well as openly proclaimed support for BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi in internal messages. Facebook tried to temper things down by banning Raj Singh, a BJP politician who called for Rohingya Muslims to be massacred and mosques destroyed.
A coalition of 41 civil rights groups, including the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, Witness, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Southern Poverty Law Center called last week for Das’s removal, warning Facebook it could be complicit in “another genocide.”
Some notable hits from the last two weeks:
- The Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group that arrives heavily armed at protests, got canned by Twitter after it called for “open warfare against the Marxist insurrectionists.”
- A Facebook group with over 62,000 members, “California For Trump,” that quizzed potential members on whether they thought the Prophet Muhammad was a “goat humping, slave trading pedophile.”
- TikTok worked to ban users repeatedly uploading a video of a man committing suicide that was originally livestreamed on Facebook.
- Honorary mention: Trump’s assistant secretary of health for public affairs, Michael R. Caputo, appears to have self-deleted his Twitter account after he uploaded bizarre, angry videos accusing Centers for Disease Control scientists of being a “resistance unit” against Trump and urging fans to arm themselves.
Stay safe on the feed out there and keep your eyes peeled for the anacho-socialist extremist gangs teaming up with the Boogaloo boys and ISIS, as detailed in this totally credible, definitely rigorously scientific report on the antifa social media threat from something called the Network Contagion Research Institute.