The folks from the government are here to protect us from extremism, fake news, and hate speech, and they've strong-armed some media company friends to help.
"Twitter is sending out messages to people telling them that, for their own good, they are documenting that the user has either followed, cited or re-tweeted an account Twitter decided is linked to Russia & its propaganda efforts," journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted over the weekend. "That's not creepy at all."
The thread to which Greenwald linked featured an example of such an email, which is connected to Twitter's promise last fall to the U.S. Congress to cooperate "with congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election." The company was caught up in the frenzy in Washington, D.C. to pin the country's political turmoil not on angry Americans, but rather on Russia's clumsy, low-rent news-spinning through social media.
"As previously announced," Twitter notes on its blog, "we identified and suspended a number of accounts that were potentially connected to a propaganda effort by a Russian government-linked organization… Consistent with our commitment to transparency, we are emailing notifications to 677,775 people in the United States who followed one of these accounts or retweeted or liked a Tweet from these accounts during the election period."
Ummm… Thanks for that, Twitter. I'd hate to think that I'm paying attention to the "wrong" people.
But maybe I'm also not paying attention to the right people—as decided by the powers-that-be.
"We work with respected organizations… to empower credible non-governmental voices against violent extremism," Twitter's Carlos Monje Jr., director of public policy and philanthropy in the U.S. and Canada, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last week.
"Over the past three years, we have commissioned research on what types of counterspeech are the most effective at combating hate and violent extremism," Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management, assured senators at the same hearing. "We have therefore partnered with non-governmental organizations and community groups around the world to empower positive and moderate voices."
YouTube's Juniper Downs, Director Public Policy and Government Relations, also promised lawmakers that her company was quarantining what she termed "borderline content" to achieve "a substantial reduction in watch time of those videos." YouTube is also actively producing "counterspeech," Downs testified. "We are expanding our counter-extremism work to present counternarratives and elevate the voices that are most credible in speaking out against terrorism, hate, and violence."
To be sure, working against violent extremism sounds, on its face, like a good thing. But let's be clear that these are executives of media companies going before government officials to promise to suppress officially disapproved speech and to promote ideas and messages that the government supports. Historically, the sort of "hate speech" government officials tend to dislike most is that directed at them, and their definitions of "positive and moderate voices" most commonly apply to anything that strokes their egos.
Need an example? Let's peek at our friends across the Atlantic. Unhampered by strong protections for free speech, they're openly most concerned when the targets are themselves.
"In recent years, the intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates, and others in public life, has become a threat to the diversity, integrity, and vibrancy of representative democracy in the UK," fretted the UK government's Committee on Standards in Public Life in a report published last month. "Intimidatory behaviour is already affecting the way in which MPs are relating to their constituents, has put off candidates who want to serve their communities from standing for public offices, and threatens to damage the vibrancy and diversity of our public life."
Aspiring politicians may refrain from running for office because people could say not-nice things about them. Shocking. And journalists who report on politics are such meanies too!
"The freedom of the press is essential and must be protected. Nevertheless, journalists, broadcasters and editors should consider how the content they create might incite intimidation through delegitimising someone's engagement in the political process… While continuing their important scrutiny of those in public office, they must also be careful they are not unduly or unfairly undermining trust in the political system."
Well, we can't have that. What should be done?
"We propose legislative changes that the government should bring forward on social media companies' liability for illegal content online, and an electoral offence of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners."
So, the committee wants to prosecute people for criticizing politicians? I kind of thought that's where we were going. That should work out well.
Unsurprisingly, France's President Emmanuel Macron is also concerned about "fake news" that targets the powerful and the prominent.
"Thousands of propaganda accounts on social networks are spreading all over the world, in all languages, lies invented to tarnish political officials, personalities, public figures, journalists," Macron complained earlier this month.
Macron also has Russkies on the mind. He bitterly complained during his successful presidential campaign last year that Moscow had targeted him with "fake news" that did nothing to prevent his victory, but left him very annoyed indeed.
Or maybe blaming "les Russes" is just a handy way of pushing through laws that would, among other things, empower judges to suppress any content these government officials deemed to be "fake" during election periods. Government regulators would also gain more power to "fight any destabilization attempt" via television content.
"The first question is: What is fake news? Who will define it?" asked Daniel Schneidermann, a media columnist for the French newspaper Libération, in just the sort of destabilizing comment tending to tarnish political officials that gets Macron's goat.
Germans could answer that question, based on the laws they already have on the books. Government officials will define it, of course, and they won't be shy about doing so.
When Beatrix von Storch, a lawmaker from the Alliance for Germany party, greeted the new year with a dyspeptic anti-Muslim tweet, Twitter promptly suspended her account, followed by Facebook, after she reposted her comments there. The social media companies acted under threat of 50 million euro fines under the country's new censorship law, which requires media companies to delete "hate speech" without defining the term.
Next to be suppressed was Titanic, a satire magazine which poked fun at von Storch.
"Why are [North-Rhine-Westphalia] police using Arabic numbers for their emergency hotline?" the magazine asked, in a tweet purporting to be from the lawmaker.
Of course Titanic was suspended. They tweaked a legislator in a country that bans hate speech, and it's clear from the examples of Britain and France that the speech politicians hate most is that directed at them.
Yeah, it's "creepy" when media companies mold and twist the news we see to please their political masters. Worse, it's chilling when governments take the logical next step to promote speech they favor and punish speakers who anger them.
Because when politicians tell us that they're trying to make the world a better place with censorship, that's the fakest news of all. But here's a bit of real news: when government officials suppress critics, they do so only to help themselves.