Trump attempts to tame Silicon Valley with questionable results

President Donald Trump has signed an Executive Order intended to limit the protections afforded to social media platforms, though feedback has been varied.

The right-leaning elements of society has celebrated the EO, believing the White House is finally holding the politically biased Silicon Valley accountable, while those on the left side of the spectrum point to an opportunistic attack on opponents. This is a move which has been in the works since Twitter decided to flag two of the President’s tweets as a risk of fake news.

“Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias,” Trump said in the White House statement.

“As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet. As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets. Unsurprisingly, its officer in charge of so-called ‘Site Integrity’ has flaunted his political bias in his own tweets.”

Of course what is worth noting is that Trump is no champion of free speech or a protector of the US Constitution, he is a hawk swooping in on enemies; would the President have signed the same order if presumptive Democratic nominee for President Joe Biden or the politically independent Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders were under the same scrutiny?

The EO attempts to do several things, including:

  • Depict the social media companies as enemies of the US
  • Remove immunity for the social media companies for content which is published on their platforms
  • Designate the social media platforms as ‘publishers’
  • Delegate responsibility of rulemaking to the FCC
  • Restrict how political campaign funds can be spend on social media advertising

Focusing on a section of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, passed in 1996, which states:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The intent of this legislation was to protect freedom of speech by ensuring the platform hosting user-created content could not be targeted by those being criticised. Without this protection, the platforms which give the general public a voice could have been the focal point of hundreds of lawsuits and may not have survived their embryonic development stages.

While the original intentions of this law may well have been good, it has been criticised by both sides of the political aisle.

Aside from President Trump’s, as well as numerous other Republicans, complaints over left-wing Californians controlling the technology industry, the Democrat Party has also found issue with Silicon Valley. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff questioned the role of Section 230 last year as Deepfake videos emerged online, with the social media giants doing little in response.

Interestingly enough, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is clearly opposed to the EO, it also feels it is largely redundant and ineffectual.

“President Trump’s Executive Order targeting social media companies is an assault on free expression online and a transparent attempt to retaliate against Twitter for its decision to curate (well, really just to fact-check) his posts and deter everyone else from taking similar steps,” the EFF said in a blog post.

“The good news is that, assuming the final order looks like the draft we reviewed on Wednesday, it won’t survive judicial scrutiny.”

According to the EFF, the clauses mentioned in the EO are not directly linked, in that, should one be affected by the EO it would not mean the protections afforded to the platforms would be diluted. The EFF believes the White House has misunderstood how the courts have already interpreted the law, therefore the path which is being taken forward cannot be legislated for.

Another very interest element to consider is the social media platforms do not have First Amendment obligations as they are private spaces.

This week saw the District Court of Washington DC rule against an appeal from right-leaning Freedom Watch and right-wing YouTube celebrity Laura Loomer. The two parties were attempting to sue Twitter, Facebook and Google for violating antitrust laws and the First Amendment.

The case was filed against the trio of internet giants on the grounds of political bias. Freedom Watch claimed the trio were inhibiting the organisations growth potential, while Loomer was fighting against a 30-day ban for suggesting a Democrat politician was ‘anti-Jewish’.

In the ruling, the three-judge panel said that as private organisations, the social media platforms were not necessarily obliged to First Amendment in terms of facilitating free speech. Private organisations are perfectly entitled to their own opinions, or to curate content in a manner of their choosing.

This might be contrary to the promise of the social media companies to the masses, but it does mean they are shielded from at least some of the President’s attacks.

While some might debate whether this is a document which has the power the President intended, it is a clear statement of intent. The social media companies have firmly entrenched themselves on the Trump enemy list. Daily Poll:

Is the industry doing enough to combat the 5G conspiracy theories?

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France imposes 1-hour deadline on some social media censorship on pain of massive fines

A new law has been passed in France that allows it to impose draconian punishments on social media companies that fail to take down some content within 60 minutes.

The news comes courtesy of Reuters, which reports: ‘online content providers will have to remove paedophile and terrorism-related content from their platforms within the hour or face a fine of up to 4% of their global revenue.’ Other content that is deemed ‘manifestly illicit’ by whoever makes these decisions will have to be taken down within 24 hours.

“People will think twice before crossing the red line if they know that there is a high likelihood that they will be held to account,” said Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, apparently oblivious to the fact that the law largest the platforms, not their users. It’s not clear whether the responsibility for identifying content that crosses this like will be the responsibility of the platforms too, but if it is, they will need to be provided with a comprehensive censorship manual if they’re expected to comply.

The matter of social media censorship is a very tricky one and nobody is saying illegal content should be allowed to remain in the public domain, but this looks like a very clumsy approach by the French. There are many alternatives to the imposition of massive fines and this smacks of yet another cash grab by the French state on the US tech sector.

Twitter tries a better alternative to censorship

Public tug-of-war platform Twitter is opting to label, rather than censor, tweets it considers misleading about the COVID-19 situation.

Twitter’s latest tweak was announced in a blog post entitled: Updating our Approach to Misleading Information. “Starting today, we’re introducing new labels and warning messages that will provide additional context and information on some Tweets containing disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19,” it said.

The disputed part is hilarious, since dispute is what characterises Twitter. What they mean is ‘disputed by sources we favour’. Whether or not something is misleading once more depends on which sources you consider to be definitive. For example Facebook has defaulted to the World Health Organisation as the unimpeachable source on all things ‘rona.

Since all decisions on accuracy are subjective, with the exception of ‘settled science’ (itself a hotly disputed concept), those in a position to make them should do so with humility and a soft touch. Sadly they all to often opt for outright censorship in the mistaken belief that will resolve whatever problems they think the banned speech creates.

Twitter is taking a more sensible approach in this case, by attaching labels to tweets it takes issue with, hyperlinked to either its own curated repository of ‘correct’ information or an external trusted source. Both will be subject to their own biases, of course, but at least outright censorship has been averted and people are being permitted to use their own judgment about what to believe.

Having said that, there is an escalating scale that can still lead to censorship if the tweet is considered harmful enough. Twitter is, of course, free to police its platform as it sees fit, but if it opts to censor too many marginal tweets then this sensible concession will quite rightly be viewed as window dressing and an empty gesture.

Facebook hopes new Oversight Board will resolve censorship dilemma

Facebook’s Oversight Board has announced its first 20 members and will start hearing cases related to content dispute later this year, but the fundamental problems with censorship remain.

Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook post that the first 20 members of the independent Oversight Board. “The Oversight Board will have the power to overturn decisions we’ve made on content as long as they comply with local laws. Its decisions will be final — regardless of whether I or anyone else at the company agrees with them,” he wrote. “Facebook won’t have the power to remove any members from the board. This makes the Oversight Board the first of its kind.”

The selection process started with Facebook selecting four “Co-Chairs” of the Board, who then worked with Facebook to select the rest. The Charter decrees that after the formation of the board “a committee of the board will select candidates to serve as board members”. Ultimately the Board will have 40 members. Board members will serve fixed terms of three years, up to a maximum of three terms. The Board’s financial independence is “guaranteed by the establishment of a $130 million trust fund that is completely independent of Facebook, which will fund our operations and cannot be revoked”, it says in a press release.

The first Co-Chairs, Catalina Botero-Marino (Dean of Law School at Universidad de Los Andes from Colombia), Jamal Greene (Law School Professor at Columbia University), Michael W. McConnell (Professor and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School), and Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Former Prime Minister of Denmark) wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times laying out their tasks.

When the Board starts hearing cases later this year, “Users will be able to appeal to the oversight board if they disagree with Facebook’s initial decision about whether to take down or leave up a given piece of content, and Facebook can also refer cases to the board,” the article said. “In the initial phase users will be able to appeal to the board only in cases where Facebook has removed their content, but over the next months we will add the opportunity to review appeals from users who want Facebook to remove content.”

There is almost an “over-to-you” type of sigh of relief from Zucherberg. “The Oversight Board will help us protect our community by ensuring that important decisions about content and enforcement are thoughtful, protect free expression, and won’t be made by us alone,” he said in his post. “I know that people will disagree about what should and shouldn’t come down. But I’m confident that the Oversight Board will make these decisions thoughtfully and fairly. I look forward to watching them begin their work.”

The Oversight Board may be able to take some of the trickiest burdens off Zuckerberg’s shoulders, but if he thinks he could wash his hands completely off troubles with the set-up of this Upper House, he would be wrong. The Oversight Board may find itself facing as many questions it cannot answer as those it can.

The fundamental question remains, as this publication has stressed more than once, who gets to decide what the right answers should be? While there is no dispute that 5G does not spread coronavirus, when it comes to issues we genuinely do not have a definite answer yet, the matters can get messy. Facebook has been actively removing Covid-19 related content not toeing the WHO line, regardless of WHO’s own dubious communication messages and conspicuous cosiness with China. Would the Oversight Board have upheld the content’s right to remain standing if it did not toe WHO line? Moreover, when it comes to “truth” about the novel coronavirus that caused Covid-19, if there is anything the world’s scientists could agree on, it is that we do not yet know much about it.

Another often disputed topic is hate speech. The Board expects to see “cases that examine the line between satire and hate speech”, but the definition of hate speech varies from person to person. The Student Union at Oxford University recently passed an “Academic Hate Speech Motion”, demanding materials it deemed harmful or “triggering” be removed and banned from the syllabus, which led to Richard Dawkins, an Oxford alumnus, retorted that, by the hate speech definition in the student motion, “history students can’t read up on women’s suffrage, or the rise of Nazism or Apartheid, theology students can’t read Bible or Koran”.

The University immediately rejected the motion and upheld the principle that “‘free speech is the lifeblood of a university.” Suppose the Student Union would ask Facebook to remove certain content it believes falling into its definition of hate speech but which by the definition of the University “enables the pursuit of knowledge”, would the Oversight Board side with the students or with the school?

In his essay “On Liberty” (1859), John Stuart Mill gave four reasons why opinions one does not agree should not be suppressed. These should still be our guiding principles:

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.” (Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”)

The Facebook Oversight Board does seems like an honest attempt to establish a balanced, independent body for making censorship decisions. But even the most qualified, objective censors are still censors and, but definition, have to make subjective distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech. Merely shrugging and pointing to the board will not absolve Facebook of responsibility for these decisions and won’t resolve the underlying paradox of platforms increasingly behaving as publishers.

Twitter plunges to loss thanks to weakened online ad demand

Twitter has been on the rise over the last few years, but the coronavirus pandemic has slammed the brakes on its progress.

While some of its neighbours have been sailing through the coronavirus turbulence, Microsoft or Google for example, Twitter is one Silicon Valley resident which is wearing some very visible bruises.

“In this difficult time, Twitter’s purpose is proving more vital than ever. We are helping the world stay informed and providing a unique way for people to come together to help or simply entertain and remind one another of our connections. We’ve delivered our strongest ever year over year MDAU growth.”

Twitter quarterly results 2018-20 (USD ($), millions)
Period Total revenue Operating income
Q1 2020 808 (7)
Q4 2019 1,007 153
Q3 2019 824 44
Q2 2019 841 110
Q1 2019 787 94
Q4 2018 909 207
Q3 2018 650 92
Q2 2018 711 96
Q1 2018 575 75

Source: Twitter Investor Relations

Although engagement has been increasing, Monetizable Daily Active Users (MDAU) were up 24% year-on-year, this was not reflected in the advertising revenues. The team has suggesting the period begun strongly, however from March onwards, when societal lockdowns were introduced, advertising demand shrunk.

This does put an end to a promising streak of financial results, which suggested Twitter was on course to join Silicon Valley’s big leagues.

While Twitter could be recognised as one of the founding fathers of the Silicon Valley fraternity, its financial performance has not lived up to the reputation. Users were never a problem, though engaging advertisers and creating a platform which offers ROI was. This equation was seemingly solved in recent years, with the introduction of new products and reporting features, though it seems to have reared its head once again.

When you compare Twitter’s current woes with the on-going success at Facebook and Google, perhaps advertisers are strategically placing resources with preferred platforms. In other words, as marketers see budgets trimmed in the face of a global recession, Twitter activity is being scaled back in favour of Facebook and Google.

We’ve said this before, but one bad earnings call does not make Twitter a bad company. Last October, Twitter share price tanked 18% as it failed to meet analyst expectations, but three months later it soared 15% after the financial statements were released.

The company is going through a tough period right now, but so are millions of other companies. This is a unique period in living memory and Twitter will play a very important role as the world recovers, especially with a Presential Election campaign on the horizon.

Maybe we should stop talking Millennials and start chirping Generation Z

With 5G becoming a reality, it won’t be too long before new services are launched, which is perhaps why we should stop talking about Millennials and start focusing on Generation Z.

It might seem absurd to ditch the millennials demographic, especially considering they have been referenced so frequently in recent years, but if we are looking to the future, we aren’t designing products and services for the current generation.

If 4G was a technology designed for Millennials, then 5G might possibly have to be designed for Generation Z. In five years’ time, when 5G is likely to be largely ubiquitous in the developed market, this is a digital-native demographic which will come of age with wild ambitions, big plans and credit cards.

Although the definitions of the different generations does vary, below seems to be a widely accepted definition.

Category Born Age range today
Generation X 1965 to 1980 40 to 55
Millennials 1981 to 1996 39 to 24
Generation Z 1997 to 2012 8 to 23
Generation Alpha 2013 onwards 0 to 7

Of course we are being very flippant when we suggest forgetting about the Millennials. This is and will continue to be a generation of individuals who have money and will want to spend it, but for those who are attempting to create a service to take the world by storm, an innovative eye will have to be cast beyond the horizon.

As an example of creating future-proofed services for the generation which is likely to be the most attractive, lets have a look at Rich Communication Services. It is an evolution for the telcos and SMS, but the Millennials are all using WhatsApp. RCS is redesigning a service created for a previous generation and competing against one which has been designed with today in mind. This is an attempt to savage old revenues, as opposed to thinking ahead and attempting to create new streams.

With every new generation of mobile technology, a change in societal behaviour is enforced. 4G democratised mobile internet and was embraced by the Millennials much more aggressively than Generation X. Arguably, older demographics have become accustomed to a way of life, therefore are not as welcoming of change, which will perhaps explain why so many services are seemingly designed for Millennials. But could the same not be said about 5G?

In five years’ time, Millennials will be in the same position as Generation X when 4G started gathering momentum. Your correspondent is a Millennial, so is writing from an informed (somewhat) position and is perhaps exasperated by the idea of something completely new. Today, your correspondent becomes frustrated attempting to learn all the different nuances and features of smartphones, applications, platforms or services, something which would not have been a problem in the first post-Uni years of the early 2010s.

But perhaps there is evidence of services being designed for Generation Z, even if the buzzword is yet to catch on completely.

Twitch is video live streaming service, designed for online gamers, which was acquired in 2014 by Amazon for $970 million. This is effectively an aggregator platform for commentary on gaming videos, tips and tricks, highlights or live streaming of organised competition and all other forms of user-generated content.

This might sound like a ridiculous idea to many reading this article, but Twitch has four million content creators who contribute every month, 15 million daily active users on average and more than 600 billion minutes of content were streamed through the platform over the course of 2019.

Members of Generation X or Millennials might find themselves asking a question now:

Why would anyone want to watch a video of someone else watching a video game and commentating on what is going on?

The users are of course gamers themselves (or very likely to be) but this does seem like a service which is beyond logic. Older demographics might struggle to understand why this is appealing, but then again it is not designed for us. Different types of content are emerging for a different generation, and there is plenty of money to made of the back of it should products be designed with the right nuances in place.

Another example of this evolving landscape is the work-from-home mentality which is being forced on us all due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is perhaps a glimpse into the future, where offices have become obsolete (perhaps not…) and the digital economy is running rampant. This would have been unforeseeable a few years ago, but a new era of connectivity could bring about an evolution in working practices.

Remote working is definitely not new, but it hasn’t really been embraced by the working world until it was forced to. Older generations might not be the most comfortable with the new status quo, but digitally native Generation Z may well be.

Of course, what is worth noting is this is simply history repeating itself. In the mid-00s, some older individuals might have wondered why anyone would want to display personal details on their lives for everyone to see (Facebook), how people could trust taxi drivers when you haven’t rung the depot (Uber) or why on earth you would want to stay in the spare room of someone else’s home (AirBnB).

These are all products which were designed for the next generation and enabled by the emergence of a new mobile technology. The Millennials are far from an obsolete generation for the ambitious innovators, but to fully embrace the 5G era, perhaps the baton will soon have to be passed to Generation Z.

But what could these services look like? Virtual reality might be one, having been written off numerous times by today’s demographics. Virtual meetings and video conferencing will certainly be a trend is staying for the long-term. The voice interface might well overtake touch at some point in the future, and there does seem to be incredible potential for gesture control. And who knows what else connectivity could be embedded into in the future…

And what is important to Generation Z? This is a generation which tends to travel more, is more socially and environmentally conscious, are super-swipers with relatively short-attention spans, they demand connectivity and access to services constantly, are OK with the cloud but take digital privacy and security more seriously and as they have been born into the social media revolution, are more welcoming of user-generated content, as well as creating it themselves.

If you’re wondering what might be big in the future, ask some of the kids in the office and just remember all the things which don’t make sense to you. It takes a special type of person to design products for the next era, but it will become a necessity as 5G stumbles towards us, albeit at a slower pace while we are in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic.

Millennials, we had a good run, but maybe we are just getting a bit old.

Twitter tries to stop people calling for damage to 5G infrastructure

In the latest episode of social media censorship whack-a-mole, Twitter is going to remove any tweets that might incite people to do silly things.

Perhaps drawing on the ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ justification for censorship, Twitter is worried its platform could be used to spread panic among the populace through the dissemination of incendiary material. On the other hand, it could be responding to pressure from the US state, which seems convinced the Chinese are using social media to stir things up.

Either way, Twitter has added another clause to its already Byzantine list of things people aren’t allowed to say. In the section headed ‘protecting the public conversation’ (from what? On behalf of who?), the recent amendment is headed ‘Broadening our guidance on unverified claims’. Here it is summarised, of course, in a tweet.

Examples of the kinds of things that Twitter had deemed no longer cool are: “The National Guard just announced that no more shipments of food will be arriving for two months — run to the grocery store ASAP and buy everything” or “5G causes coronavirus — go destroy the cell towers in your neighborhood!” What is less clear is whether those same sentiments, but without the specific calls to action, are still allowed. That will probably be covered in the next round.

While they’re thinking about that, the Twitter censors should also decide whether all calls to action are bad. While urging people to panic-buy is hardly the most harmful thing you could urge them to do, some calls to action may be actively benign, or at least ambiguous. Take the tweet below, which concerns the word ‘liberate’.

Where it gets really interesting is when you consider the tweet wasn’t so much about semantics as whether these new rules apply to everyone. You see, US President Trump recently sent the tweet below, as well as a couple of others concerning Michigan and Minnesota, which have been interpreted as a call for the citizens of those states to resist some of the restrictions that have been imposed on them as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

For those of you unfamiliar with the US Constitution, the 2nd Amendment reads as follows: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” What, exactly, Trump was calling for with these tweets remains unclear, but indirect references to militia and arms seem like the sort of thing these new Twitter rules would censor if they had been tweeted by a regular punter.

The longer the coronavirus lockdowns continue, the more people will grow restive and express their frustration over social media. Stopping people publishing clear and direct incitements to criminal activity, such as destroying telecoms infrastructure, is one thing. But Twitter is going to struggle to censor every unverified claim or statements that could lead to public unrest.

US cell site vandalized as Chinese agents accused of sowing panic

US intelligence agencies claim Chinese agents are working to amplify messages that cause panic, while the first report of a cell tower being vandalized has emerged.

As arguably the most significant global crisis since World War 2 progresses, the public appetite for crazy theories and salacious gossip has increased, alongside a perfectly reasonable thirst for the latest news. Additionally this is certainly the most major crisis of the internet and social media era, so every type of information is being spread with unprecedented speed and scope.

Anxiety tends to drive suggestibility as awareness of danger is heightened alongside an increased need for reassurance and, according to a New York Times report, US intelligence agencies are worried that those with an interest in sowing panic among the US population are actively seeking to spread pieces of information that may do so.

Six unnamed US officials told the NYT they reckon Chinese operatives are starting to act in this manner, which is reminiscent of the kind of mischief that has been associated with Russia for some time. Specifically they’re suspected of using bogus phone and social media accounts to get the ball rolling on already existing to make sure they gain traction.

A major cause of domestic friction in the US is the lockdown imposed on most of the country in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19. Civil liberties are a foundation of US culture in a more profound way than much of Europe, let alone the rest of the world, so its citizens tend to be more instinctively opposed to being told what to do by the state. As a result there are already protests against the lockdown in some parts of the country, which are presumably being fuelled by rhetoric from the President, urging some states to open up.

The US President doesn’t seem to have commented on these allegations, perhaps conscious of his own prolific use of social media to further his interests, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed them out of hand. However, Trump has been keen to point the finger of blame for the crisis at China and tensions between the two countries have undoubtedly been heightened by it.

What’s not clear is whether deliberate misinformation played a role in the vandalization of a Verizon cell site in New Jersey, as spotted by Light Reading. The vandals haven’t been caught, so we can’t be sure what specific grievances they have against the cell site, but it’s hard to believe the lunacy regarding COVID-19 and 5G that has gripped much of Europe didn’t play a part in their thinking.

The longer these unprecedented lockdowns continue, the greater the probability there is of significant civil disobedience. While hostile foreign powers may be seeking to stoke panic, attempts to censor such messaging are not only futile, they may well serve to augment existing paranoia. The anonymous US officials who briefed the NYT may have been hoping to unite the country in the face of a common enemy, but they are paradoxically also adding to the flow of unsubstantiated gossip they claim to be fighting against.

Facebook doubles down on COVID-19 censorship

Under mounting pressure to counter misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook is increasingly dictating what its users should see and think.

Facebook already downgrades any posts it doesn’t like the look of regarding the virus, but it’s apparently concerned that some of its users might still interact with the wrong content. It’s not their fault, you see, they’re just hapless plebs with not critical faculties of their own. Thankfully Facebook is on the case.

The social media giant’s VP of Integrity (an Orwellian job title if there ever was one), Guy Rosen, recently provided An Update on Our Work to Keep People Informed and Limit Misinformation About COVID-19. “We’re going to start showing messages in News Feed to people who have liked, reacted or commented on harmful misinformation about COVID-19 that we have since removed,” said Rosen.

“These messages will connect people to COVID-19 myths debunked by the WHO including ones we’ve removed from our platform for leading to imminent physical harm. We want to connect people who may have interacted with harmful misinformation about the virus with the truth from authoritative sources in case they see or hear these claims again off of Facebook.”

As ever with censorship initiatives, it all comes down to who decides what it the truth, what is harmful, and so on. Facebook seems determined to position the World Heath Organisation as the ultimate authority on such matters, despite mounting accusations of its bias in favour of China, which contributed to the recent decision by US President Trump to halt its funding.

One of the single biggest reasons Facebook has decided to double down on censorship may have been a report by online activist organization Avaaz, criticising Facebook for not censoring more. Sadly many journalist are also jumping on the censorship bandwagon, apparently unaware of how utterly self-defeating such a desire is.

The above tweet does, presumably inadvertently, serve one very useful purpose. If Facebook is being so proactive about censorship of COVID-19 talk, why isn’t it applying that level of rigour to other topics organizations like Avaaz disapprove of? Surely the censorship should never stop until bad speech is entirely eradicated from the internet and, ideally, people’s minds.

As we have said many times, the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to free speech on the internet. People will always find somewhere to say what they want and attempts to stop them often do more harm (which we’re supposed to be against, right?) than good. Conversely, if Facebook is serious about telling its users what to think, even its latest increase in censorship doesn’t go nearly far enough.

YouTube to limit exposure of 5G conspiracy theories but won’t remove content

YouTube has confirmed it will reduce the exposure videos which promote 5G as some sort of cause or accelerator of the coronavirus, though its actions are somewhat limited.

Officially, the video content which makes the link between 5G and COVID-19 does not actually break community guidelines, but it will be removed from recommendation engines as it has been deemed as borderline content.

Thanks to the incorrect conspiracy theories, telecommunications infrastructure was set on fire over the course of the weekend in multiple locations. Three has confirmed at least five sites were attacked, while Vodafone has said six sites were damaged, some of which were shared infrastructure and not all of which were housing 5G base stations. BT and O2 did not respond at the time of writing.

“Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the coronavirus around the world,” a YouTube spokesperson said. “We’re committed to providing timely and helpful information at this critical time, including raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation and showing information panels, using NHS and WHO data, to help combat misinformation.

“We have also begun reducing recommendations of borderline content such as conspiracy theories related to 5G and coronavirus, that could misinform users in harmful ways. We’ll continue to evaluate the impact of these videos on the UK community and look forward to continuing our work with the UK Government and the NHS to keep the British public safe and informed during this difficult time.”

While YouTube will remove this content from the recommendation engine, it is stopping short of completely removing conspiracy theories from the platform. Although these statements are quite obviously false, creating content which states such beliefs or theories are not actually in violation of YouTube’s rules.

According to YouTube, the conspiracy theories would be labelled as borderline content. This is a category of content which could misinform users in harmful ways, such as promoting miracle cures, claiming the earth is flat or making blatantly false claims about historic events. Such content accounts for less than 1% of the videos available on YouTube, and while it will remain on the platform, removing it from the recommendation engine will make it much more difficult to find.

This is the position which YouTube is currently taking, but it might well be encouraged to a more firm stance over the coming days or weeks. Aside from Government pressure, the content is linked to violence, which will get YouTube’s PR team twitchy.

Following a weekend which saw ill-informed arsonists attack dozens of masts which host critically important communications infrastructure, it was suggested Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden would be speaking to social media representatives on ways in which misinformation can be combatted.

Although there is no official statement from DCMS on action moving forward, Chair of the DCMS Select Committee Julian Knight has called for more stringent action.

“To hear that crackpot theories are leading to people attacking phone masts or threatening telecom workers is sickening and it’s clearly time to act,” said Knight. “Government should work with social media companies to stamp out deliberate attempts to spread fear COVID-19.”

Considering the importance of communications infrastructure to aid society while COVID-19 is forcing a state of lockdown, but also its role in helping the economy bounce back in the future, something needs to be done. The infrastructure needs to be protected from the idiots who believe the pseudoscience and ignore statements made by who have the qualifications to make such assertions.