Upon news that Robert Mueller III’s exhaustive special counsel investigation found no evidence of collusion between President Trump and Russia, I attempted to do what many Internet users have done over the past week: share my 2¢. One comment was contributed in response to a Yahoo news story: “Does the media owe Trump an apology?“. Another was submitted in response to the Breitbart headline: “Jeff Zucker: No Regrets on CNN’s Russia Hoax Coverage, ‘We are not investigators’“
What did my comments have in common? They were on topic. They were coherently written. They did not troll anyone. Yet they were deleted within minutes by what I can only assume are anti-SPAM/abuse algorithms.
Unfortunately, for me, this is nothing new. And perhaps some who are reading this — if by some miracle you are! — can relate.*
I have been aware that my voice has been shrinking for some time — long before the term “shadow banning” came into use to describe the practice of limiting Internet users’ exposure to others’ content without suspending the offending creator/contributor’s account. In the late 1990s I published an e-zine — that’s what they were called before the term “blog” was popularized — which was noteworthy enough to make it into an Internet archive known as the Wayback Machine. In fact, this blog, The Social Critic, is an outgrowth of the efforts I began in 1998.
Today, however, there is no evidence on the Wayback Machine that this blog’s predecessor existed.
Approximately 10 years ago, Social Critic posts stopped indexing on Google. I combed through WordPress and Google’s webmaster tools to no avail. I had no idea what happened and I was unsuccessful finding answers. As a result, this blog is but one of millions of obscurities online.
About two years ago, I noticed that my decades-long DISQUS profile contributions had all but been blotted off the face of the Internet: No matter the topic, no matter the website, no matter how thoughtfully-worded the content, it was yanked — often so fast that I came to conclude that I was being nixed not by any human intervention but by a DISQUS algorithm (“bot”). I reached out to DISQUS and was told that for all the comments “Detected as SPAM”, I would have to individually petition each website moderator to approve my comments. When I pointed out that over the past three years my comments have been pulled so fast that no human moderator could have been responsible for their removal, I was told that there would nonetheless be no effort to address how the DISQUS bot operates on my profile. When asked if the length of my comments or the fact that I sometimes edit them for typos could be responsible for the pervasiveness of the problem, DISQUS refused to be specific. Why, I asked, does DISQUS allow users to post an unrestricted number of characters or make use of an “edit comment” option in the first place — if in fact writing more than one paragraph or performing an edit can trip a SPAM bot by which to nullify any and all efforts to participate in a discussion? Again, DISQUS refused to elucidate. As a result, I am left with years worth of posts — including early contributions that had accrued numerous “up-votes” by readers — that are no longer visible because they have been slapped with a false SPAM designation.
In 2018, Alex Jones, a self-made pundit on the Alt-Right, was banned from numerous social media venues seemingly overnight. That’s when the public, at large, learned about a little-discussed tech company practice of making user-submitted content less searchable and therefore inaccessible. In mid 2016, by contrast, our collective understanding about who might incur the wrath of the tech titans was quite different. News of Russian meddling in the election had scarcely entered the national conversation, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal wasn’t far behind. When Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted over a dozen Russian nationals last year, Americans came to appreciate in even greater detail the role of “troll farms” in playing havoc with our electoral system. In response, Twitter and other social media platforms promised to purge so-called bots.
Big Tech self-policing efforts, well-intended though they may be, lay the groundwork for behind-the-scenes social engineering of a more insidious and pervasive sort.
I hardly qualify as an attention seeker. As a female, I do not go by my full name because I prefer to discuss the content of my ideas rather than to invite trolls to debase or, God forbid, stalk me. Still, as fate or fortune would have it, I have often been on the wrong side of popular opinion — hence my “Social Critic” moniker.
Those who know me best can attest to the fact that I viewed the Gulf War as America’s foray into what would become a Mideast quagmire. As a journalism graduate, I openly challenged the George W. Bush administration’s claims of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and false 9-11 links to Iraq — long before neoconservatives, who went on to rebrand themselves as “liberal interventionists“, were tarred as “warmongers”. Those who know me may also recall that when the rest of the country, led by the New York Time’s Thomas Friedman and a complicit national media, viewed anything less than support for the invasion of Iraq as unpatriotic, if not borderline treasonous, I expressed concern for the destabilizing impact it would have on a generation of youth, raised in a war-torn country — ripe for extremist propaganda. (These conditions ultimately gave rise to ISIS and are a significant contributor to our trillion-dollar national deficits.)
Dating back much further, I anticipated that the Clinton administration’s bipartisan effort to reverse Depression-era checks and balances could set the stage for a future financial crisis. And I cringed when much of the American media failed to properly convey why so many Europeans protested China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization — the still-Communist China, and Russian ally, that threatens to overtake us this Century — the China U.S. trade policy built!
What do I see going forward? I see that the unchecked rise in higher education costs, be it the enormous financial burden on students or their parents, is in turn a reason why so few Americans can afford another unchecked cost — healthcare — both of which, if left unaddressed by our political leaders, may take socialism out of the fringe and place it into the mainstream by mid Century — right around the time that our existing entitlements, such as Social Security, go bust. With two untenable realities on the not-so-very-distant horizon, civil unrest may very well be the end result if our current generation of leaders passes the buck.
When Trump-Russia collusion became the narrative writ large in American media, I questioned, early on, whether or not Russia had any desire to help a particular candidate at all. Indeed, if Russia had wanted to help then-candidate Donald Trump, it begged a simple question few thought to ask: Why would Russian sources cooperate with Christopher Steele, who compiled the “dirt” on Trump that then-FBI Director James Comey later described to the President as “salacious and unverified”, if in reality the allegations contained in the Clinton/DNC-funded dossier did him no favor at all — and instead screamed out for a Department of Justice investigation by which to derail his campaign and/or presidency entirely?
Some months ago, I made the mistake of posting that very question in response to a news article on the Trump-Russia investigation. Almost immediately, I was called a “Russian bot” and soon after my comment — which was in no way abusive — was removed.
If this is what it has come to — silencing the Internet’s most obscure social critic — all of us are in trouble.
For those who routinely and respectfully abide by the Terms Of Service — “TOS” as they are known on social media platforms — it’s difficult to confront the prospect that in the name of scrubbing the Internet of the illegitimate and dishonest, legitimate and earnest voices may be harmed, too.
If my own experience is any indication, we are overdue for a national discussion and a legislative response.
As someone who has been surfing the World Wide Web since 1996 — but by in large stripped from Google search results nearly a decade ago — my sense is that ordinary Internet users cannot afford to put their faith in the benevolent nature of Big Tech any more than we can afford to assume mainstream media will always get the Big Story right.
Full and open transparency for the Mueller report is but one aspect of a broader reckoning that must occur in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and its controversial, demoralizing aftermath. Before the 2020 election is upon us, we need to level the playing field:
- between the public and a mainstream media that has been empowered to dominate public perception, for better or for worse, with impunity, and
- as a means to defend legitimate voices, however small a role they play on social media, from threat by trolls, bots and over-aggressive policing by social media companies.
A Social Media Bill of Rights
The Internet is the new public square. It should be a consumer’s right to obtain — not unlike access to a free annual credit report — a summary from the leaders in Big Tech describing how one’s online identity, profiles and personal blogs are treated and ranked.
When mainstream media and Alex Jones, alike, get major events wrong — but only Alex Jones gets booted from the digital public square for peddling conspiracy, we the people need to rise up and demand transparency for the sake of ensuring that our own voices are not stamped out. Left without redress, the entire social media sphere will exist under a cloud of unrelenting suspicion — cynicism which, while understandable, is antithetical to the First Amendment and to the necessary participation of an informed citizenry.
One reason why so few news organizations saw the outcome of the 2016 election coming — and why the same media missed the broader picture of Russian interference, which consisted of a demoralizing ploy to play our entire political spectrum against the middle — arguably stems from the fact that we have no idea how widespread or pervasive shadow banning, and similar practices, really are.
We need lawmakers to open the door to empirical data collection on social media because we cannot rely on Big Tech to self-report how user participation is influenced, or limited, in the absence of a Social Media Bill of Rights.
Lawmakers need to take up this issue sooner, rather than later, because experts say that hostile foreign influences will continue to interfere in our elections — at worst changing votes, at minimum introducing confusion and most definitely to do what comes easily in an increasingly identity-politics driven society: herd us into silos from whence we are reluctant, even afraid, to emerge.
That, of course, isn’t the only reason why the American people must urge their representatives in Congress to take up the cause of tech company transparency and social media accountability. Journalists, many of whom are active on social media, should be exposed to how their stories impact real readers and viewers without behind-the-scenes censorship to skew the social media conversation. After all, when diversity is marginalized, echo chambers replace them. We only hear what we want to hear. We only read what we want to read. And, increasingly, we only see what they want us to see.
When social media platforms permit mainstream media to make their share of mistakes, whether it was false WMD-911-Iraq connections or Trump-Russia collusion — only to ignore corporate attempts to crack down on the little guy — the result is de facto propaganda.
Big Tech makes its bread-and-butter selling user data to advertisers, whereas ordinary Americans rarely have insight into how many citizen voices are silenced so that public relations firms, members of the media and sophisticated data crunching operations, such as Cambridge Analytica can manipulate consensus. To cite a real-world example, in just a few years “border security” went from eliciting yawns — a bipartisan no-brainer, if you will — to a xenophobic affront to human rights. Mainstream media, once wary of committing the errors of yellow journalism, has taken to playing up emotionally-loaded controversy at every turn. This new normal has little in common with our recent past. How did a “consensus” that national borders are inherently cruel form? Did it arise from the lips of ordinary Americans — or from the well-funded efforts of social engineers?
The Internet is a precious medium. Unlike radio, television and much of the entertainment media, anyone with an Internet connection has a voice — a reflection of democratic participation in its truest form.
Some 25 years after America went online, however, the honeymoon is over.
Reality has come into sharp relief even for the Internet’s creator, British software engineer Tim Berners-Lee, who 30 years ago this month conceived of the World Wide Web. “One has to ask oneself if we did not, in the end, create a completely out-of-control monster,” he told an Australian news site.
Indeed. Russian trolls. Revenge porn. Cambridge Analytica’s propaganda machine. Alex Jones under legal fire for characterizing Sandy-Hook and similar tragedies as “false flags” aimed at undermining the Second Amendment. Meanwhile, Covington Catholic teenager, Nicholas Sandmann, for whom misleading images and viral video outtakes at the nation’s Capitol sparked unrelenting harassment and even death threats, has charged no less than the Washington Post and CNN — on the heels of upwards of 50 cease-and-desist letters — for defamation.
We are at a digital crossroads not just in the United States but in much of the West: how to reign in bad actors without stamping out the voices of the non-corporately funded and aligned — the rest of us. To err in favor of non-transparent Big Tech self-policing measures, is to never appreciate if the titans of tech are protecting us or abusing us. To err in the way this medium started — with Internet Service Providers and technology platforms taking a hands-off stance — means a Wild West atmosphere will prevail.
However the Internet of the future shapes up, the period between 2015 ~ 2025 promises to make one thing abundantly clear: Our sense of who or what to believe is on the line. Trump-Russia collusion drama was but the first shot across the bow in an increasingly sensationalized, hard-to-navigate social media world.
When all facts are in dispute and all fiction fronts as fact, the Internet is nothing if not a cesspool of disinformation — made all the worse by the fact that we can no longer count upon an anemic, post-Media Concentration Fourth Estate to sort it out.
Somewhere lies a middle way, which we must seek with the help of Congress, so that this medium is not held hostage to trolls and propagandists, on the one hand, and those who would rather see all “unknowns” — we the people — move over to make way for those who pay handsomely to sell us only what they want us to see, hear, buy — and believe — on the other hand.
The only way to create robust checks and balances between the public and political, corporate and media elite, is to call upon Congress to support the reorientation of Big Tech away from the exclusive service of advertisers to that of full transparency and accountability to user-driven privacy and participation standards. The Internet must be fair and accessible — but that won’t happen by accident. If we fail to level the playing field, the Internet ~15 years from now will not be one the average person can participate in in any meaningful way. And that would do a grave disservice to a one-of-a-kind medium that has great potential to help, not harm, the cause of democracy.
* Do you agree that it’s time for a Social Media Bill of Rights? If so, do two things: Contact your Congressperson and share this story.