The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression as they pertain to the ongoing pandemic with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about how vulnerable the United States is to disinformation attacks, whether Facebook should be allowed to censor content, and the obligations of supporting local journalism during this time.
Earlier this week, the State Department reported that China, Iran, and Russia are pushing pandemic disinformation to Americans, saying that it’s an American bio-weapon, that the virus didn’t come from China, and that those three countries are managing better than the U.S., which feels like an uncanny echo of 2016. Is the U.S. totally vulnerable to disinformation attacks like this? And is there a way to prevent them without crossing the line into threatening speech?
I think it’s more than a rerun of 2016. I think it’s a new normal, where all kinds of actors—governments and non-governmental actors—around the world have recognized that they can, incredibly cheaply, purvey propagandistic messages to advance a political or ideological agenda via the internet and do so through manipulation of opinion in our own country. And they play on the openness of the United States and our kind of moshpit of online communications. They did so in 2016 in order, at least according to the reports, to throw support to President Trump, suppress voter turnout, hone in on and play up divisions and polarization in society, to alienate and antagonize minority voters from the Democratic Party. So it’s quite sophisticated.
Here, we see a campaign to undercut the U.S.’s strength and reputation for competence. And obviously, they have an enormous amount to work with because the pandemic response has been so catastrophic. But there are all kinds of fabricated stories about the Gates Foundation having manufactured this virus, or pharmaceutical companies doing so to prop up their businesses. And we see a kind of two-way street where misinformation—a wrong idea, somebody misconstruing something innocently—has traction, in terms of conveying a negative portrayal of the U.S’s virus response, that can be weaponized into disinformation, where a bad actor picks it up and uses it as part of a deliberate, systematic campaign to undercut the U.S. government’s own virus messaging or state-level messaging on the virus.
“I think it’s a new normal, where all kinds of actors—governments and non-governmental actors—around the world have recognized that they can, incredibly cheaply, purvey propagandistic messages to advance a political or ideological agenda via the internet and do so through manipulation of opinion in our own country.”
We also see a move the other way, which is disinformation to misinformation. The “d” in disinformation is really about it being deliberate—as opposed to misinformation, which is more misguided and wrongful, but innocent and not willful—and being conveyed by foreign governments to discredit the U.S., then being passed along and shared on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media at that point by people who do not realize that the origin is in a foreign country, and they just believe, “Oh, this was shared by my friend, my neighbor. Isn’t it horrifying that the Gates Foundation was behind this?”
So it does raise really difficult questions in terms of what we do as a country committed to free speech, where we are hesitant to suppress it, and our government is not empowered to suppress most wrongful, misleading speech. There are narrow categories—false advertising and others—where, under the First Amendment, the government can suppress speech, so then it falls to the social media companies, and they’ve been very aggressive with virus-related disinformation that has a direct health impact. In other words, if somebody is talking about an unproven treatment or saying it’s fine to wander outside and meet up with other people, the social media companies are taking that down. This is different because it doesn’t necessarily have a direct health impact to say that the Gates Foundation is behind all of this. That’s not going to affect how you handle yourself.
But nonetheless, one of the best things that the companies try to do is what they call going after “coordinated, inauthentic activity.” So this is where they look at what’s happening on the network. They can see where messages originate from. If somebody says they’re writing from Seattle, and it turns out their IP address is actually in Ukraine, that can be a trigger. If information moves through the network in ways that suggest it’s being amplified by bots, they can detect that without going after the content of the message, but based on the fact that the activity across the network does not look like normal interchange and dialogue across actual people who are entering into a genuine discussion.
“I think the idea of policing people’s reference to offline behavior, on the basis that it could interfere with quarantining, really poses a risk.”
There’s a slightly different thing also happening on the social platforms now. This week, Facebook said it would actually start pulling down some of the posts related to anti-quarantine demonstrations. In cases where those demonstrations could pose a public health risk, it seems like a smart move that could help prevent infections. But is it a censorship issue?
I think that’s kind of concerning. I think the idea of policing people’s reference to offline behavior, on the basis that it could interfere with quarantining, really poses a risk. Say I live in Georgia, where the restrictions are being lifted, and I send out an invitation to a birthday party. Is Facebook going to take that down because they disagree with the governor of Georgia and don’t think it’s a good idea for me to be hosting this party right now? I think there’s a real potential for politically-oriented intervention in the network, which is what we see in this case—a lot of people think these protests are deeply misguided. It’s also true that they’re not entirely spontaneous. There are political actors and networks that are fueling these protests. There is plenty of reason to be deeply skeptical about these protesters, whether what they’re seeking is advisable and who’s behind them.
But I think the idea of Facebook digging into that level of detail and parsing the posts and deciding what’s being taken down really veers into an ideologically-oriented regulation of content, and also something that could be very intrusive, if it was applied in a neutral way, to suppress all information and posts about all gatherings. That might not be a great idea, in this moment of pandemic. So I would urge them to be very careful about this. I think they’ve done a good job in a lot of ways with the health-related misinformation. But we’re now beginning to see the risks of how that could go too far.
“We’ve seen. . . that local journalism really is a public service and a public good, and that we need it to underwrite our democracy and hold our leaders accountable.”
This week, we unveiled a Local Heroes initiative in the lead-up to World Press Freedom Day, celebrating the role of journalists in keeping us all informed about this crisis. One of the things that I think a lot of people were heartened by was the number of news sites that had taken down paywalls. But now they’ve put them back up again because the industry is hurting so badly amid this crisis. What obligation do you feel these outlets have to all of us, in terms of helping inform the public, and what obligation do we have to support them at this moment?
We’ve seen—particularly throughout the pandemic, but it’s been true, I think for much longer—that local journalism really is a public service and a public good, and that we need it to underwrite our democracy and hold our leaders accountable. I think journalists and editors do see themselves as performing that public service, particularly at the very beginning of the pandemic when things were spiraling out of control and it was so new. To pull down the paywalls and make that as accessible as possible was a great initiative.
But at the same time, as we know, these organizations do not pay for themselves. They’ve come under enormous pressure, in terms of the collapse of their business models that were once based on paid print advertising, which has evaporated. And so I think it’s realistic and quite fair for them, if they can make some money now, by putting up paywalls. There are other sources of information—health department websites, government websites—that have gotten up and running now and are providing up-to-date information. We need to be supporting these local news outlets. I hope people take a look at our wall of heroes—these local journalists on the frontlines who are doing extraordinary work and are among the first responders—who should be heralded in this crisis.
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