Tech Tyranny and Democracy: It’s Time for a Social Media Bill of Rights

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.

Continue reading “Tech Tyranny and Democracy: It’s Time for a Social Media Bill of Rights”

Little Over One Week into Trump’s Administration, We Need a National ‘Time Out’

You’ve heard it everywhere: Trump’s “Muslim ban” is inadequate on the one hand — the list of seven nations fails to include, for example, Afghanistan — and unconstitutional on the other hand. We are told that the President’s executive order only makes us more unsafe — and, indeed, his actions have been met with dismay throughout much of the world.

A surprising thing happens, however, upon taking one small step back from the maelstrom: In doing just that, I was given pause to reconsider what I thought I knew based on mainstream media reporting — thanks to the work of fellow WordPress blogger Seth J. Frantzman, Ph.D.

Frantzman did something extraordinary — well, it ought not be uncommon but in today’s climate it most definitely is: he read the full text of Trump’s executive order. 

So what, exactly, is the deal with the list of seven nations pundits and reporters frequently cite?

The first thing that becomes apparent in reading the text of the President’s order is that there is no “list” per se. The nations thought to pose a disproportionate terrorism risk are referred to as “countries of concern”. In fact, only one country is implicitly named by Trump’s so-called travel ban: Syria.

The executive order contains another surprise. It expresses a not-so-controversial intent to improve vetting procedures to rule out unlawful practices against women, gays and religious minorities. From the order:

In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Based on media reporting, how many of us appreciate that the vetting the President is calling for concerns refugees’ tolerance of minorities, religious, sexual or otherwise?

How many of us, similarly, appreciate that the executive order, in Section 5 (e), also states that the Secretary of States and Department of Homeland Security can lift these restrictions on a “case-by-case basis”?

How many of us appreciate, finally, that what the media is calling “the list” is referenced in Trump’s order only indirectly — as defined, ironically, in legislation dating to 2015, signed by President Obama?

While there is no doubt that President Trump’s actions will continue to trigger controversy,  there is a deeper moral to the story that we cannot afford to overlook: We must begin to appreciate now, before civil unrest breaks out, that social media and media at large has found a winning formula: Fear. In local broadcast news, there is a longstanding saying among reporters and producers: “If it bleeds, it leads”. Speaking of a temporary travel ban as if it is permanent — as if the sole purpose is to hurt and harm Muslims — is the political equivalent of “If it bleeds, it leads”.

Far from tempting a Constitutional crisis, the vetting improvements that the President calls for concerns religious minorities (treatment thereof), women (treatment thereof) and sexual orientation (treatment thereof). To read social media and media at large, however, one would be forgiven for concluding that the only motive is pure, unadulterated evil. Instead, as is often the case in life, shades of gray emerge. This matters not because there is any requirement to support Trump’s actions — those are personal decisions every American has the right to decide for him- or herself. Unbiased reporting of events and actions matters not for the President’s sake but for ours. Why? Because the price of playing we the people against one another will be riots in the streets. Keep up this climate of hysteria driven by self-serving omissions and “alternative facts” and people are going to get HURT here — if not also abroad — because the rhetoric has become toxic.

To the extent Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was marked by hurtful or misleading rhetoric we must also appreciate that such behavior does not exist in a vacuum. Donald Trump is as much a product of the times as any of us. In a climate that is increasingly sensationalized, members of the Fourth Estate are hardly immune.

If ever there was a time to embrace the axiom “take it with a grain of salt”, this is as good of a time as any.

If and when violent clashes occur in the streets of this country, we can’t blame Trump and Trump alone. Although the President’s actions will, without a doubt, instigate controversy, what we do with that “bad news” is up to us. Do we bring down the house — do we destroy our hard work abroad and at home for the sake of proving this man dead-wrong? How far do we — ordinary Americans, yes, but in particular those in media and leadership — go to make a point?

We can no longer deny it: the exploitation of fear through media and social media has become its own force to be reckoned with — apart from whatever policy our political leaders propose. As Americans, we must begin to appreciate this much if only because our safety here and abroad depends on it.

As consumers of news and current events the new rule-of-thumb for the foreseeable future boils down to this: Do not accept any report, no matter the source, at face value. Do your homework: read the source documents, identify nuances and make up your own mind.

Putting a dent in the national hysteria — which must soon occur if we are to forestall an even more tragic global backlash — depends not just on those who occupy the White House. It depends on us — you and I. Today, more than ever, the basic efforts of an informed citizenry — with or without mainstream media cooperation — are paramount. We did not learn how to read and write merely to graduate high school or college and land a job. We learned everything we did — in school, from loved ones — for just these sorts of times. So roll up your sleeves and put on your thinking caps, America. The next four years are going to be one bumpy ride. But remember: This too shall pass.

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