Info Wars. Democracy is losing badly. Are we up for the fight?

Comment from Peter Saxon.

 “The first casualty of war is truth.” Hiram Johnson

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Winston Churchill

In 1987, 17 years before Facebook was founded, I had the great pleasure of watching Maggie Smith (left) perform live in London’s West End in a play written for her called Lettice and Lovage. It was one of those delightfully understated comedies at which the British are masters. Ms Smith played Lettice Douffet, a tour guide charged with explaining the history of an unremarkable manor house somewhere in the English countryside that attracted no more than a handful of visitors a day – if the weather was good.

Bored with having to recite a laundry list of bland historical facts, Lettice decides to spice things up a bit by adding a ghost and some famous royal house guests to the story, all bound up in tales of salacious intrigue that would do Jackie Collins proud.

Soon enough, crowds began to swell and the little manor house shot up the charts of the National Trust’s Most Popular Historic Houses.  All was well until the authorities finally got wind of it and intervened. They decided that the ethics of providing the public with truthful information outweighed the desire to be popular through the use of “alternative facts,” even if it was less profitable. But that was 32 years ago. And it was just theatre.

In 1999, still five years before the advent of Facebook, U.S. ultra-conservative radio talk host and conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones (no relation to our Alan) was fired from KJFK-FM for refusing to broaden his topics. His views, according to the station’s operations manager, were making the show hard to sell to advertisers. Jones, needing both an income and platform for his diatribes went online and started the website, InfoWars: “There’s a war on for your mind.” If nothing else, he had a profound understating of how that war could be fought and won.

What Jones couldn’t predict was the rise of social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram etc – and the weaponising effect it would have on the “alternative facts” that was (and still is) the bread and butter of his website.

Under the cloak of “freedom of speech” Jones was now able to peddle his conspiracy theories to a wide audience at a decent profit without regard to the many people whose lives he ruined.

For example, in December 2012, when a deranged gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children aged between six and seven at The Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut Jones told his fans that, to the contrary, no one died at Sandy Hook. It was all a hoax staged by “crisis actors” working for the deep state to advance their argument for gun control.

For us, in Australia, not directly affected by that massacre it is just another example of how malicious public discourse has become. But for the parents and extended families of those murdered children who are already suffering an unbearable category of trauma that most of us (thankfully) will never have to bear, to then have to put up with some moron with a megaphone accusing you and your dead child of being crisis actors is beyond the pale.

Libertarians and free speech advocates will argue, as does Jones himself, that the U.S. constitution’s first amendment gives him the right to express an opinion, no matter how disgusting that might be. However, these parents were also subjected to ongoing harassment and even death threats through social media. Happily, some of the families have taken Jones to court and it seems he’ll be forced to pay for his free speech. But they shouldn’t have had to go through such a long and laborious process to clear their names. Even then, the true crazies won’t let up on them.


Recently, the actor best known for his role as BoratSacha Baron Cohen gave a speech about the perversion of free speech by social media. You can watch his whole speech below but here are some of his comments  in regards to Facebook.

 Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.

I believe it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.  Last month, however, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook delivered a major speech that, not surprisingly, warned against new laws and regulations on companies like his.  Well, some of these arguments are simply absurd.  Let’s count the ways.

First, Zuckerberg tried to portray this whole issue as “choices…around free expression.”  That is ludicrous.  This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech.  This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.  Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.  I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and paedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.

Second, Zuckerberg claimed that new limits on what’s posted on social media would be to “pull back on free expression.”  This is utter nonsense.  We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society.  We just want them to be responsible on their platforms.

If a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening other customers and saying he wants to kill Jews, would the owner of the restaurant be required to serve him an elegant eight-course meal?  Of course not!  The restaurant owner has every legal right and a moral obligation to kick the Nazi out, and so do these internet companies.

Third, Zuckerberg seemed to equate regulation of companies like his to the actions of “the most repressive societies.”  Incredible.  This, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees.  Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter.

The Silicon Six—all billionaires, all Americans—who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy.  This is ideological imperialism—six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.

Here’s an idea.  Instead of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world, let our elected representatives, voted for by the people, of every democracy in the world, have at least some say.

Fourth, Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a “diversity of ideas,” and last year he gave us an example.  He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust “deeply offensive,” but he didn’t think Facebook should take them down “because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”  At this very moment, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial sites with a simple click.  One of the heads of Google once told me, incredibly, that these sites just show “both sides” of the issue.  This is madness.

To quote Edward R. Murrow, one “cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument.”  We have millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust—it is an historical fact.  And denying it is not some random opinion.  Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.

Still, Zuckerberg says that “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”  But at a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s “credible?”  How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?

There is such a thing as objective truth.  Facts do exist.  And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.

Fifth, when discussing the difficulty of removing content, Zuckerberg asked “where do you draw the line?”  Yes, drawing the line can be difficult.  But here’s what he’s really saying: removing more of these lies and conspiracies is just too expensive.

As pointed out on 10’s The Project last night, Facebook will take advertising whether it’s true or false from anyone who’s willing to pay. For example, most people have seen those “get rich quick by trading bitcoin” ads that feature “endorsements” famous business people such Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and Janine Allis along with the Project’s Waleed Aly and Hamish MacDonald. Despite the ads using their names and likeness, without permission, to make false claims, they say they’ve found it nigh impossible to get these bogus ads expunged from Facebook.

Mind you, Fairfax’s online publications also ran these ads featuring the Shark Tank entrepreneurs – once. They took the ads down (that were served up by a programatic algorithm) as soon as the mistake was pointed out to them.

Last week, the U.S. Congress wrapped up two weeks of public testimony as to whether President Trump acted improperly by attempting to coerce a foreign power, The Ukraine, into launching an investigation into possible “corruption” by a political rival, former Vice President, to Barak Obama, Joe Biden.

Those hoping that the evidence against Trump will be enough to have him removed from office will likely be disappointed because the impeachment hearings will now move to the Senate where not only do the Republicans hold a simple majority but any motion to remove a President from office requires a two thirds majority to succeed.

While both sides of the argument accuse the other of being politically motivated (Who would’ve expected that from politicians?) the most damming testimony was delivered by Russia – Ukraine policy expert Dr Fiona Hill (above) who told Congress: “Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.

“I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimise an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016 – (with) politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned.”

The point here is that whether you happen to be an avid Trump supporter or a Never Trumper, the fact is that a foreign enemy, Russia, has waged war – an info war – on the U.S.A. and the elected officials of that country don’t seem too concerned about it. In fact, it seems that the White House would welcome Russian interference in the 2020 elections if it helps the incumbent. In which case, why bother with elections at all? About half the country’s too lazy to get out and vote anyway. Just let Putin decide.

At least, here in Australia, our politicians are holding mature, bi-partisan discussions about similar threats to our cyber security and social influence from China. Meanwhile the Yanks don’t seem to understand that regardless who the Ruskies help to win an election and regardless of whether their meddling is successful or not, America and the West can’t allow totalitarian actors like Putin or Xi Jinping to interfere at will in our democratic processes.

The most galling part of all this is that these actors are using the West’s own social media, to wage their info war on democracy by spreading falsehoods aimed to confuse and divide us. Meanwhile, Facebook and others of the Silicon Six, reap the benefits.

“These are the richest companies in the world, and they have the best engineers in the world,” says Sacha Baron Cohen, “They could fix these problems if they wanted to.  Twitter could deploy an algorithm to remove more white supremacist hate speech, but they reportedly haven’t because it would eject some very prominent politicians from their platform.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing!  The truth is, these companies won’t fundamentally change because their entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage.”

Note: Twitter has since vowed not to accept any political advertising in the future.

In previous wars our forefathers left their homes and careers to face the guns, artillery and bombs of a lethal enemy. Many paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country – to secure the freedoms we enjoy today.

What sacrifice are we willing to make to win the info war?

Would we be willing, en masse, to give up our addiction to social media like we did smoking? Or would that be too inconvenient…  too big a sacrifice to make?

As always, I welcome your comments.

Peter Saxon

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