Google and Facebook announced separately on Monday, November 14, that they are taking steps against sites that spread fake news and against social media pages that publish misleading content.
These measures open up some serious questions about freedom of expression.
What news is “fake”? And how and by whom is it defined? What constitutes misleading content, and how is it classified as such? Does a political viewpoint, extreme religious belief, or open criticism on such issues as the operation to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS, for example, govern the judgment of what constitutes misleading content and is to be restricted?
There is no clear answer to these questions. Google announced that it will punish sites by barring them from its AdSense network, which places advertisements on internet sites worldwide. Facebook, meanwhile, announced that it will update its advertising policy and not allow income from ads on social media pages that distribute “misleading” content.
These steps are a dubious extension of the welcome policies that deny advertising and revenue from internet sites publishing pornography, gambling or extreme violence.
The timing, however, is problematic: The new fiats came after US Democratic circles blamed the social media for Donald Trump’s election win. He was mobbed by users during the campaign and he himself used the media extensively.
Until now, the freedom of speech advocated by the news organizations, Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, Microsoft and others has allowed the posting of almost any political content to social networks without censorship. Now, following Trump’s election as the 45th American president, that content faces editorial review. Its classification as true or fake news is put in the hands of faceless “censors,” who may be guided by their political, religious or personal worldview when deciding that a news story or opinion are fit for publication. Who’s to know?
The inordinate power in the hands of the social media and internet news sites – which have an estimated 2.7 billion users – is demonstrated by the latest decisions by Whatsapp and Facebook
These global giants have developed another creative method for limiting freedom of expression. The blocking of “misleading” sites was announced together with the unveiling by Whatsapp, one of the most popular communication tools in the world, of a free video calling-service for its customers.
Jan Koum, CEO and founder of Whatsapp, which was sold to Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, said Monday that the new service would be encrypted and proof against interception or eavesdropping. Its users around the world could be confident that their audio messages would go through servers protected from intelligence interception and hackers.
Koum, an American Jew born in the Ukraine, said in an interview with Reuters that the new service will be available in about 180 countries within several hours of its introduction in India on November 15, saying, “We obviously try to be in tune with what our users want.” He added that the encryption would function in most smartphones, including the most basic and inexpensive ones.
Whatsapp, which has quadrupled its workforce since it was acquired by Facebook, started using the parent company’s hardware and huge bandwidth around the globe, ensuring a growing share of local and international communication infrastructure.
The masses of people, who tired of one-sided reporting by The New York Times, CNN and other mainstream media – and, most recently, were angered by their strong bias in favor of Hillary Clinton, during the US election campaign – turned to social media and private blogs to freely air their views. They now fear the loss of this untrammeled platform to unmonitored censorship that arbitrarily determines whether a news item is fake or true according to unknown criteria.
Who is to make this determination? Apparently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or his counterpart at Google, Eric Schmidt.
Whereas closing Islamic State social media accounts used to recruit and incite murder and destruction in the West was justified, the unbridled power to impose financial penalties on Internet sites, blogs or forums for their political content is a significant threat to the individual freedom of expression. It also gives the masters of the social media the power to influence public opinion outside the democratic process.
In another development this week related to online freedom of speech, Twitter closed the accounts of three right-wing extremist movements that supported Trump’s candidacy. Richard Spencer, president and chairman of the National Policy Institute, a body advocating white supremacy whose Twitter account was suspended, claimed in an interview with The Daily Caller news organization that Twitter’s action constituted “corporate Stalinism”.