The Era of Freedom on the Web is Dead.
We are now in the age of Orwellian surveillance and censorship.
You have probably noticed that almost every single tweet from the President of The United States in the past six weeks has gotten a little notice under it from Twitter claiming that the claim has been disputed. This is part of Twitter’s relatively new fact-checking initiative. Facebook has its own program for this as well.
Social media is spiraling out of control and desperately needs to be reeled back in, but how much of this is the user's responsibility vs the platforms? Should platforms and their third-party partners be policing the content being shared or should users be more accountable?
Why platforms are censoring content
We’re in a truly exciting, yet terrifying era with the internet. The internet turns 30 next year! In the 30 years the internet has been publicly available, we’ve seen and experienced so many wonderful things. Commerce has completely transformed. Human interaction and dating have changed forever (swipe right if you see me!) Music has transitioned from physical to digital. I’ve made a lot of friends who I’ve never met in person due to video games. Our quality of life has increased significantly because of the internet!
As the internet became accessible to more people, it became a vehicle to influence people and to do evil. Social media went from being the place to connect with friends and family to becoming the battlefield for citizens to assemble and organize a civil war. It also became the battleground for governments to fight back against citizens.
A prime example of this is the Syrian Civil War. As a note, Facebook was banned in Syria in 2007 as part of an effort to crackdown on political activism. Syrian’s were able to get around the ban by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which can show you’re browsing the internet from a different country. You might use it to stream better shows on Netflix, others might use it to plan a civil war.
Anyways, the online conflict emerged in 2011 when organizers Syrian citizens began organizing peaceful protests via Facebook. President Bashar al-Assad responded with tanks. A group of pro-Assad activists dubbed the Syrian Electronic Army fought back with a series of DDoS attacks, phishing scams, and more. Activists in Syria were genuinely concerned that the government was tracking their activity on websites like Facebook and Twitter to punish them later. “I am too scared to speak about my political activity on Facebook,” said a 21-year-old activist, who asked to be referred to as Rana. Reuters did an incredible breakdown of this entire topic here. In short, the internet became a tool to instill fear in citizens and a resource to track down anyone who was against the government in power.
If we fast forward to 2016, we can see how a lack of fact-checking measures affected the outcome of the election. I wrote about this in a previous article.
The Cambridge Analytica x Facebook scandal changed the trajectory of this nation for generations. It provided the Trump campaign with the raw data of 87 million Facebook profiles that, in the hands of the right marketing team, could be used to influence and win an election. An election that put Donald Trump in charge of appointing 200 federal judges including two Supreme Court justices with the potential for more should he be reelected. These judges will shape the rule of law in America for generations.
With what we’ve learned about the 2016 presidential election and what’s been well documented in The Great Hack, we have a really strong case for fact-checking the content on these platforms now more than ever.
And fast forward to 2020… In the case of President Trump, it really makes sense. Trump is attempting to subvert democracy and prevent the peaceful transition of power with baseless allegations of voter fraud. The Trump campaign has regularly promoted and shared altered content to fit their narrative.
Or who could forget this one?:
Trump is currently calling votes illegal after being projected to lose the election. He is doing everything in his power to stir up his voters for support and exhausting every legal option he has available to him. Twitter is censoring his tweets by adding warnings and requiring users to click the “view” button to see the tweets.
In this context, I think it makes sense. These are bold and dangerous claims that absolutely need to be taken with a full fistful of salt. But what if platforms like Google, Facebook & Twitter abuse this power to silence people who don’t follow the mainstream narrative? Should they wield this much power?
Like what you’re reading?
Who is doing the fact-checking and can we trust them to be unbiased?
Facebook, Instagram, and Google have been working with third-party fact-checking organizations that are certified through the non-partisan International Fact Checking Network (IFCN) to moderate and throttle content being spread on their platforms. Facebook has broken down its approach to fact-checking here.
Who is fact-checking the fact-checkers? The big flaw here is that humans are part of the equation and humans are inherently biased.
Is it the responsibility of platforms to fact check the content being circulated? Absolutely. President Trump has vehemently pushed for platforms to be held responsible for the content on their platforms and is aiming to repeal Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Is repealing CDA 230 the answer? Absolutely not.
We need another viable solution because these platforms have benefited greatly from selling our data and manipulating us for profit - even if it wasn’t done maliciously. They crafted the tools for provocateurs to manipulate the masses and as a result, they now have the responsibility to moderate their platforms. I love capitalism and the free market. This is probably the first time I’ve ever thought government regulation would be a good thing.
What are your rights online?
Now we have to ask… What are your rights online? We’re in the Wild Wild West era of the internet. In short - you don’t really have rights. Your freedom of speech doesn’t apply here. On the internet, the platform you use is just another governing body. They determine what is allowed and what isn’t. And much like the government, they have investors to appease.
Despite the majority of social media platforms coming from the United States, they do not have to uphold the constitution. In general, private enterprise shouldn’t. But in some cases, Facebook can restrict certain content to comply with local laws. For example, Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany so if it’s reported, the content will be restricted for people in Germany. You can read more about the policy here.
Non-profit organizations like Public Citizen are actively working towards building a framework for comprehensive privacy protection and digital rights in the United States. Their goal is to protect our privacy by way of a data protection agency. They have outlined the failures of our current system and their vision for a US Data Protection Agency here. In theory, this can be great but it’s still just an idea.
In 2018, the European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which regulates the processing of personal data and how it is controlled. It is one of the first major steps towards securing rights for individuals on the web.
Earlier this year, California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) which gives residents the right to know what personal data is being collected, whether it’s been sold or disclosed, the ability to say no to the sale of their data, and more.
Steps are certainly being taken in the right direction, but we need a global solution instead of a regional one.
Does big tech need to be broken up?
Again, I’m a big believer in capitalism and letting the market regulate but it’s become clear that these companies have grown too big and become too powerful. It mirrors what has been going on in China for years. China has its own Amazon by way of Alibaba. Facebook/ Instagram/ WhatsApp/ Messenger are all bundled into WeChat which is owned by Tencent.
Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon effectively own the internet. These companies are currently at the center of antitrust hearings from the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission for their anti-competitive practices.
Remember when Snapchat chose not to sell to Facebook and then Facebook took all of Snapchat’s features and added it to Instagram? Or when Facebook took TikTok’s features and created Instagram Reels? At the end of the day, Facebook is just aping WeChat at every turn, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Instagram just published their new Terms of Service in which they disclose how they’re using your phone to spy on you. They revealed how they use your phone number, your IP address, and information about nearby devices. This means computers, smart TVs, or anything else connected to your wireless network. The app knows where you live and where you go. They can view and analyze things through your front camera, make a copy of your address book, call log, and text history.
Instagram also took things a step further with their new terms to make things harder for sex workers which have consistently been targeted on the web over the years. Sarah Osei of High Snobiety outlines the war on sex workers really well here. With the new terms of service, anything deemed sexual can be flagged and have your account removed. Don’t you dare drop an eggplant, peach or water drop emoji in your caption ever again.
Instagram is now worse than TikTok.
What happens when these platforms work together?
Things can get exponentially worse when these companies align and take a hit out on influential people who don’t play by their rules. They can work in tandem to deplatform these people. It happened to Alex Jones.
Let me make it crystal clear - I am not endorsing or supporting Alex Jones in any capacity. I’m trying to paint a picture of the power these companies wield.
“On Aug. 5, Apple removed several Alex Jones-affiliated podcasts from iTunes. Over the next 48 hours, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Mailchimp, the radio broadcaster Stitcher, and even Pinterest followed suit. Twitter eventually banned Jones after a short and awkward controversy, in which the company's CEO Jack Dorsey tried and failed to defend his decision not to ban him earlier. In September, PayPal also dropped InfoWars.” Read more about his deplatforming here. On the Joe Rogan podcast, Alex Jones claimed that the banks marked him with a hate symbol which designated him as an international terrorist. Five out of six of his bank accounts were frozen.
His assets were frozen and his business peddling conspiracies and snake oil were shut down in a coordinated hit. If they can work in tandem to strip away his ability to earn a living, they can do it to anyone else.
Even major businesses like PornHub are victims to the bullying of these tech companies. Creators can’t run ads that lead users to PornHub. And just two weeks ago, Visa & MasterCard dropped payment processing for PornHub at the same time until PornHub deleted all unverified content from the platform. PornHub can’t collect payment Visa & MasterCard just dictated what kind of porn you can watch.
Toe the line or start looking for decentralized solutions.
What are the alternatives to big tech? Parler? Bitcoin? A decentralized future.
Big tech is inescapable. I’ve come to terms with that. Freedom & privacy on the internet is gone. While there are alternatives to big tech, they aren’t really financially viable because so many companies are dependent on ad revenue. Companies, blogs, retailers, and content creators all need to publish content that can be monetized so they can survive.
New social media platforms like Parler have popped up recently and have been promising free speech and less censorship. But how will they monetize this? “Our business model is going to be an ad revenue model. The idea of how we’re going to do it isn’t going to be a centralized model for ads, it will be specific around influencers. So advertisers will target influencers and those people with a large reach, rather than us as a platform,” John Matze, CEO and founder of Parler. The platform is controversial as it has become a place for Trump supporters to hang out without fear of scrutiny but I welcome the competition. I’m curious to see how long the platform lasts - not because of its user base but because of how they’re choosing to monetize the platform.
Alex Jones is turning to Bitcoin. PornHub is turning to Bitcoin. Even PayPal is embracing Bitcoin. Bitcoin is an answer to a lot of the banking issues because it’s a decentralized digital currency. There is no central bank and no one to answer to. And maybe this is what we need more of. Companies are too powerful. Every ounce of our privacy has been sold - we are constantly being tracked. The internet is no longer free.
TL;DR: Burn the social media platforms to the ground.
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Very insightful! Thank you!