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Who do you trust to censor social media?

Calls to censor Facebook and its rivals are growing – but society needs to consider carefully the motivations of those making such demands

It appears inevitable that censorship is coming to social media. The political head of steam behind the idea is such that it’s going to happen. Oh, sure, it will be voluntary codes of conduct, fights against fake news, but it will amount to much the same thing – it will be possible to say some things on Facebook, Twitter and the like, and not others.

Take one recent attempt at this: the Indian government defined – pretty much and however their demur – fake news as anything which made the Indian government look bad. That one was beaten back as being too brazen even for today’s political arena, but that is the sort of thing that will be tried.

Of course, it’s entirely true that there is a problem here. Facebook did erupt in anti-Rohingya propaganda in Burma, just as radio was used in Rwanda to spread anti-Tutsi stories.

Every form of communication has faced exactly this sort of problem: the use by those of ill-heart. However, it’s the reaction to that misuse which worries. For we’ve not imposed censorship on those other forms of communication, why should we now upon social media?

Open up algorithms

Do not doubt that it is being planned. A Dutch MEP is demanding that every algorithm be open to political examination for its effects. We’d not – outside a totalitarian state at least – put up with the political examination of editorial decisions at a newspaper or the running order at a radio station, which is very much the same demand given the difference in the technologies. So why would or should we have such in this latest communications method? EU officials are insisting that social media must face curbs at election time. The reason for that is obvious enough.

The general assumption – wrongly or unfairly used – is that social media swung Brexit and also that election for Donald Trump. Everyone had access to the same tools and some used them better than others, but that isn’t generally accepted. The wrong people won, you see. That Obama was praised for his campaign’s use of Facebook against Romney is also rather glossed over.

I do not mean wrong in some cosmic sense of course – whatever my own prejudices on either subject (Leave and anti-Hillary as it happens) – but wrong by the standards of those calling for all of this monitoring and regulation of the social media under discussion.

But then that’s how new tools are always used. The very definition of establishment is those who control the current structures of society. Any monopoly will, as economists insist, eventually be overturned by technological change. It’s not paranoia to insist that the vast majority of the US media was anti-Trump. Heck, most of the Republican Party was.

I used to be a press officer for Ukip and the very idea of leaving the EU was some fringe interest shared only by my fellow “fruitcakes and loonies”. It certainly wasn’t something to be allowed into the polite conversation of the mainstream media, as my working day repeatedly reminded me.

Those with the more conventional views are right to be worried about social media in this political sense, for that’s exactly where the next irruptions against convention are going to come from – precisely because of the manner in which the unconventional faces the gatekeepers.

But that, for any given value of the word “democracy”, is precisely why the regulation and the banning of certain views from social media must be resisted. After all, a plurality of those who voted did so both for Brexit and Trump (true, the latter by the rules of the Electoral College, not the popular vote).

Yet we have even Mark Zuckerberg musing that perhaps there should be some independent oversight of who can say what on Facebook.

Defining fake news

It’s possible to appeal to grand tropes about freedom, liberty and the like, but there’s a much more practical reason to argue against direct regulation – Kip Esquire’s Law. Those who favour planning always, but always, envision themselves as the planner. It’s not a grand change to this idea to point out that those who would censor insist that it will be their idea of censorship that will prevail.

But who is it that will be defining what is fake news? Well, clearly and obviously, it will be those who consist of our current establishment. That’s what the very word means – those who control the levers of societal power. As we’ve seen in those political votes, they dont exactly have the greatest understanding of what it is that we the people want, do they? So what makes us certain that they’ll edit or censor social media to our aggregate liking?

The answer is, to my mind at least, to retreat to the same solution we had with those other forms of communication (the newspapers, radio channels, TV stations and so on). We have general rules based in the Common Law. No libel, no incitement to immediate violence, that sort of thing. After that, anything goes – and we assume, cross fingers and hope perhaps, that the truth wins out. Not particularly because this is the perfect way to do things nor is it without costs.

It does, though, solve the problem of who can we trust to do that editing of the national conversation for us. The answer to that being the depressing “no one”. As we cannot trust anyone to do that, we’d better not have anyone trying.

The attempt to impose this sort of editing of social media is coming if it isn’t already here. The reason we don’t want it should be obvious for those basic freedom and liberty concerns – but if that isn’t enough, the argument should be compounded by the fact that there’s no-one wholl do it without imposing their own insistences of what is true and what is fake news. And since there is no such concord, there’s no-one who can do the job, is there?

Read more about social media and privacy

This was last published in April 2018

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