Social Media and Freedom: A Promise Betrayed

Posted: September 22nd, 2018 under Digital Migration. Tags: , , , ,

Facebook and Twitter are now fueling hatred, conflict, repression, and in some cases – genocide. Where do we go from here? 

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?”

Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Back in 2011, I traveled to Ethiopia for the first time, as part of a US State Department mission to work with journalists, pro-democracy groups, human rights organizations, and other do-gooders. As an international digital media consultant (trust me, it’s a lot less glamorous than that title makes it sound), I was fired up with visions of the free & glorious future that awaited us because we were throwing open the doors of mass media to, well, the masses. 

In the wake of the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (dubbed the “Arab Spring”), it seemed to us giddy internet old-timers that the promise of the web had finally arrived. People were using social media to connect, find common ground (they hated the corrupt regimes they were suffering under), organize protests, and topple repressive dictatorships. 

It felt like a Arab world-centric movement akin to the fall of the Berlin wall — a moment when an entire region woke up and said “We’ve had about enough of this” … and then followed through. In Tunisia and Egypt, soldiers refused to massacre their countrymen, and the regimes toppled. 

And then came Libya. 

Khaddafi had always been an irritating dictator; not noxious enough to justify a full-fledged invasion the way a Saddam Hussein did, but certainly enough to merit airstrikes, economic sanctions and covert action. He did not back down to the popular uprisings, and instead chose to stick around and duke it out. A reaction that was shared by Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. 

In Khaddafi’s case, this led to a painful & ignominious end in a ditch, where the victorious troops shot, tortured and mutilated him to death.  At best, we can say that there were decades of pent-up anger that came out.

But what came next was not in line with the script of “Happy people join together in glorious democracy.”  Far from it. Rather, all the angry factions all started lashing out against each other, and it turned out that one of the things that had kept Khaddafi in power for so many years, was his skill at playing “Divide Et Impera” in Libya. And now, with the central character in that drama gone, all the other players started acting on their generational grievances, and the whole country descended into a war of All Against All. 

Source: Wikicommons

Worse yet, the social media platforms that people used to name their kids after, the hopes for bringing people together, have now been weaponized. 

Some “keyboard warriors,” as Facebook partisans are known in Libya, posted fake news or hateful comments. Others offered battlefield guidance. On one discussion page on Thursday, a user posted maps and coordinates to help target her side’s bombs at a rival’s air base.

“From the traffic light at Wadi al Rabi, it is exactly 18 kilometers to the runway, which means it can be targeted by a 130 mm artillery,” the user, who went by the handle Narjis Ly, wrote on Facebook. “The coordinates are attached in the photo below.

Source: Wikicommons

the Special Deterrence Force, a militia led by a conservative religious commander, Abdulrauf Kara, patrols Facebook with a moralizing zeal reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s once-feared religious police.

Last year his militia detained 20 participants in a Libyan version of Comic-Con, the comic book conference. The militants said they were outraged by photos on Facebook showing young Libyans dressed as characters like Spider-Man and the Joker. Some detainees said they were beaten in custody.

Facebook in Myanmar 

Since I left Myanmar last fall, after my Fulbright Specialist stint in Yangon, the Rohiggya people on the northwest border have been subjected to a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign. I won’t repeat all the crimes and horrors here, because quite frankly they upset me so much I can’t continue typing and have to go on long walks to try to clear my head. 

No, my focus here is on social media – specifically, Facebook. I had heard about the problems with hate speech on Facebook before I arrived in Yangon, and my conversations with students and staff only reinforced what I had been told:

The streets of Yangon are filled with desperately poor people, scrounging out an existence in the margins of opulence. The store in the back left corner sells smartphones. There are dozens of such stores on every major street in Yangon. Such stores were illegal and unknown less than ten years ago. 
  • For the vast majority of users, Facebook WAS the internet, because their smartphones were pre-loaded with Facebook and it was free to use
  • Wild-eyed religious fanatics were ranting on Facebook about how the Rohinggya were subhuman animals bent on killing everyone
  • Thus, all patriotic Burmese had a duty to rise up and “get them before they get us” 

Belatedly, Facebook has realized its role in this conflict, and has moved to try to put in controls and mechanisms to tamp down the online hate. Unfortunately, as of this past August: 

Facebook has acknowledged that it needs to do more to curb misinformation and hate speech spreading in countries like Myanmar, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told U.S. Senators in a hearing last April that the company is ramping up its efforts.

However, Reuters found the network is still being used to spread comments, videos and images attacking Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar. Some of the material, collected by Reuters and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law, has been online for at least six years.

The posts, most of which are in Burmese, use dehumanizing language, comparing Rohingya to dogs and maggots, and call for the Muslim minority to be eradicated.

Designed to Fail

There have been some well-documented failures in Facebook’s system. The “Report” button to alert moderators to hate speech on Facebook was not used because during Myanmar’s 50-years of suffering under the military dictatorship, to “report to the authorities” was basically to mark someone for summary field execution, and draw attention to yourself as an informer. 

The Burmese language also is a barrier. The auto-translation software is laughably bad. Spellings can be somewhat arbitrary, since Burmese is rendered phonetically (which is why Google still struggles with search in this market). 

It cited an anti-Rohingya post that said in Burmese, “Kill all the kalars that you see in Myanmar; none of them should be left alive.” Kalar is a pejorative for the Rohingya. Facebook had translated the post into English as “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar.”

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-facebook-myanmar-hate-speech/facebook-removes-burmese-translation-feature-after-reuters-report-idUKKCN1LM208

But more than this, the entire underlying business model of Facebook is the problem. The drive of all these social media platforms has been towards growth. More users. More time spent. More attention paid. More clicks, swipes, likes, comments, shares. 

Growth. Scale. Velocity. Hockey-stick-like lines on innumerable PowerPoint slides. 

It turns out that the vision the techno-hippies in the Bay Area had when laying the foundations of the internet was deeply flawed. Bringing all of humanity together under one roof, and removing all institutional control does not lead to Utopia. 

There is going to have to be a fundamental shift in the way that major media companies and publishers act — and yes, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, et al., are being forced to wake up and confront the fact that they are now publishers. They can no longer pretend that they are just the “Town Square” where they have no responsibility for what goes on there. 

More than that, the fundamental business model needs to change. 

Advertisers have long rewarded publishers for the sheer size & scale of the audience delivered. This incentive has led to a “Damn the torpedoes – get their attention by whatever means necessary!” attitude, because, well, whoever pops a number in the TV overnights gets to keep their job. The poor slobs who get bad numbers are fired. Rinse. Repeat. 

Journalism is engaged in a deep discussion on how to restore trust in the media. One of the biggest factors is going to have to be removing this relentless push for Scale Above All. 

What Comes Next? 

If we can’t charge advertisers based upon the sheer number of eyeballs looking at their message, what do we charge them for? 

How do we take the “mass” out of mass media? 

Is it even possible to make a shift this big in advertising/monetization models after more than 100 years of market evolution? 

Once again, internet consultants are throwing around buzzphrases like “user trust” and “confidence halo” and “transferrable positive authority.” 

Maybe one of these will arise with a methodology that empowers us all to consume the information that we need to live our daily lives without the hate, ugliness, screeching, shockbait, attention scams and everything else that is the hallmark of late-stage information overload. 

But I worry that these new business models for monetizing content and user attention also carry flaws within them that will be exploited to even worse effect. 

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