Interesting article in The Intercept about Facebook’s attempt to achieve ideological balance in its banning practices by juxtaposing its purge of QAnon-related accounts with one of Antifa ones. Whether such equivalence is at all warranted on its merits is largely beside the point: FB finds itself in exactly the same situation as the old-media publishers of yore, desperate for the public to retain the perception of its equidistance. Antifa was merely the most media-salient target available for this type of operation.
It is unclear to me that there still is a significant middle-ground public who cares about this type of equidistance in its editorial gatekeepers, so perhaps the more cynical suspicions, such as Natasha Lennard’s, that this is simply a move to curry favor with the current Administration in the middle of an election might not be off-track. What is more significant in the long term is that the content-moderation scrutiny FB now undergoes, chiefly because of its size, will only intensify going forward, forcing it to conduct ever more of these censoring operations. This restriction on debate will, in turn, eventually and progressively push more radical political discourse elsewhere online.
On the whole, I think this is a positive development: organizations that think of themselves as radically anti-establishment should own up to the fact that there is no reason they should count on being platformed by so integral a part of the contemporary establishment as FB. Public space for political mobilization is not confined to the internet, and the internet is not confined to giant social media platforms.
I just read a story by Tanya Basu (in the MIT Technology Review) about the use of single-page websites (created through services such as Bio.fm and Carrd) to convey information about recent political mobilizations in the US. It’s very interesting how the new generation of social-justice activists is weaning itself from exclusive reliance on the major social media platforms in its search for anonymity, simplicity and accessibility. These ways of communicating information, as Basu underlines, bespeak an anti-influencer mentality: it’s the info that comes first, not the author.
It is early to say whether the same issues of content moderation, pathological speech, and censorship will crop up on these platforms, as well, but for the time being it is good to see some movement in this space.
Yesterday I attended an online panel organized by the Atlantic Council with government (Matt Masterson of CISA), think-tank (Alicia Wanless of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Clara Tsao of the AC’s DFRLab) and industry figures (Nathaniel Gleicher of FB and Yoel Roth of Twitter) on steps being taken to guarantee the integrity of the electoral process in the US this Fall. The general sense was that the current ecosystem is much less vulnerable to disinformation than the last presidential cycle, four years ago, and this despite the unprecedented challenges of the current election. However, the most interesting panelist, Wanless, was also the least bullish about the process.
Back in the Spring, digital contact tracing was heralded as the hi-tech path out of the pandemic. With the benefit of six months of hindsight, the limitations of the approach have become clear [see Schneier for a concise summing-up of its shortcomings].
While digital contact tracing’s notional benefits seem to belong squarely in the realm of security theater (i.e., showing the public that Something Is Being Done), its potential for justifying intrusive surveillance remains intact. Two recent news items illustrate this dynamic. A small liberal arts college in Michigan is forcing its students to download a contact-tracing app (and apparently a security vulnerability-riddled one, at that) as a condition for being allowed on campus. Meanwhile, the delegates to the Republican National Convention reportedly are to wear “smart badges” (originally developed for tracking pallets) to record their movements through the convention venue in Charlotte. While higher education has long been a laboratory of choice for surveillance technology experimentation, I would have expected the libertarian wing of the GOP to kick up more of a fuss over this kind of intrusion.
A couple of scholarly articles read today on cyberwarfare. The first, a long piece by James Shires in the Texas National Security Review, speaks to a long-term thread of interest for me, namely the (imperfect) mapping of real-world alliances with operations in the cyber domain: the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, although strategic partners of the US in the Gulf region, nonetheless targeted Hack-and-leak (HLO) operations at the US.
Shires underscores the patina of authenticity that leaks hold, and does a good job of showing how HLOs connect them with Bruce Schneier’s concept of “organizational doxxing”. In describing these HLOs as “simulations of scandal “, he leverages theoretical understandings of the phenomenon such as that of Jean Baudrillard. Standards of truth emerge as a major object of manipulation, but the key stake is whether the public will focus on the hack or the leak as the essence of the story.
The second article, by Kristen Eichensehr at justsecurity.org, reflects on the technical and legal process of attribution of cyberattacks. It argues in favor of the creation of a norm of customary international law obliging States to provide evidence when they attribute acts of cyberwarfare to a State or non-State actor. How to guarantee the credibility of the evidence and of the entity providing it (whether a centralized international body, a government agency, or a think-tank, academic institution, or private company) remains somewhat vague under her proposal.