Monday, March 5, 2018

Game of Trolls: The Sinister Face of Facebook

Written by  Tatiana Christy

Oppressive governments around the world have realized that social media have become powerful alternative voices to official propaganda, so governments have not stopped looking for ways to combat political and social dissent on those media. Governments persecute dissenting voices either by openly denying access to the Internet and social media or by harassing critics, especially during elections or turbulent events.

We have seen such trends in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, in countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, and many others. Such governments quickly craft laws to justify their crackdown on Internet communication, wrapping them under notions of “public safety,” “terrorism,” “extremism,” “traditional values,” “treason,” “indecency,” etc.

However, lately oppressive governments have discovered a more subtle, but equally effective, way to censor and harass political opponents by using Facebook’s Community Standards as a weapon against dissent.

When Facebook and Twitter were founded a decade ago, they heralded a new era in which the voices of ordinary citizens could be heard alongside — or even above — those of establishment insiders.

From the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to demonstrations against Russia’s Vladimir Putin, activists have used social media to attract followers and broadcast their messages free from official oversight. But increasingly, authoritarian regimes are deploying social media to disseminate official propaganda and crack down on dissent. What began as a tool of freedom is being turned into a weapon of repression.

In Facebook’s case, Pandora’s box was opened by its Community Standards, the company’s rules for determining what is permissible.

 Facebook says it is intolerant of “nudity, hate speech, self-harm, dangerous organisations, bullying and harassment, sexual violence and exploitation, criminal activity, violence and graphic content.”

And its  “hate speech,” for example, covers content that directly attacks people based on their “race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity, or serious disabilities or diseases.”

If the company finds violators of its standards, it generally blocks the content.

And those Community Standards are being exploited to attack prominent voices of those who herald positive change. How it works:
 Repressive governments hire armies of trolls — either employed by the governments directly or by seemingly independent agencies — who go after government critics.

The trolls single out Facebook accounts and, if they find any key words or phrases that Facebook might consider a “violation” of Community Standards, complain to Facebook about violations.

If Facebook agrees with the complainant, one’s Facebook profile can simply disappear.

Problem Platform
The core of the problem is that Facebook is unreachable to request a formal audit or to obtain information about who complained about certain posts or profiles.

 A Facebook profile can disappear without any possibility of users defending themselves. Some people have  tried to fight the Facebook system by contacting media or NGOs dealing with free speech and human rights. Some looked for political help from the European Parliament or the European Commission, or writing directly to the very few official contacts Facebook has posted, but the bottom line is that such efforts often prove futile.

The company’s rules of conduct have turned into a powerful tool of censorship.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in 2012, as Facebook prepared for its initial public offering, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a letter to investors touting the company’s role in helping ordinary citizens hold their leaders accountable. “By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible,” he wrote.

Social media has undeniably helped activist movements draw attention to their causes. But regimes around the world have figured out how to use social media to drown out dissent.
According to Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Net 2017” report, fake news and trolls have led to a decline in global Internet freedom. In their yearly Freedom of the Net report, Freedom House studied 65 countries worldwide between June 2016 and May 2017 and found that Internet freedom has declined for the seventh consecutive year. In the case of Turkey, up to 6,000 trolls (real people) have been recruited by the ruling Justice and Development Party to infiltrate online discussions in order to spread propaganda and to identify anyone criticizing the government.
Photo: AP Image