More Sunshine Less Problems

Well, in the long-run anyway, and only if we’re thoughtful and disciplined about it…

Eons ago, during my undergraduate years at Tufts, within a period roiled by free-speech controversy, FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate held an on-campus forum with students. We covered many topics but one anecdote remains etched in my brain twenty years later.

During a similar forum run by Silverglate at another school an LGBTQ community member had expressed frustration at their school’s anti-hate-speech policy. The student’s stance was that they wanted it all out in the open: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the indifferent. Their rationale was that knowing who the extremely hostile were would improve their safety and knowing who the moderately antagonistic folks were would create opportunities for engagement.

That really stuck with me and perhaps never has it been more relevant than now. We have long slugged it out over Net Neutrality and have recently moved on to what I think of as the Platform Neutrality fight. Sadly within this realm anything resembling principles seem perpetually undermined by the vicious melee of partisan politics and the profit optimization of machine learning powered advertising companies.

Facebook represents one of the most powerful, dangerous, and poorly understood phenomena in the history of humans. As the machine learning algorithms continually re-tune to optimize our engagement, the micro-verses we inhabit become an ever more warped version of reality. Yet this is only the latest in an evolution of communication media spanning thousands of years, each paradigm shift creating new and poorly understood emergent phenomena, and the temporal space between subsequent revolutions during which we can reason about them getting smaller.

Consider for a moment The History Of Communication. Ponder briefly how each of the phases would affect such properties as Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability, Tractability, and Democracy. Now reflect on the implications of a world in which a small number of companies powered by advertising revenue and machine learning have come to control the discourse of populations reaching into the billions.

We ought look askance at these recent entrants. On the one hand they represent an enormous opportunity for transparent and democratic sharing of information, but on the other hand, as a consequence of a small number of individuals wielding extensive power over the physics of their universes, they could end up crushing transparency and democracy, either with cynical attempts to grow revenue or well meaning but ham-fisted attempts at delivering medicine that proves worse than the disease.

Consider the present firestorm surrounding Zuckerberg’s decision not to quash Trump’s “when the looting starts the shooting starts” message. I come down on Zuckerberg’s side in this instance as I want every person on planet earth to see Trump for what he is and represents so we can have the appropriate conversations.

But here’s the thing. Companies like Facebook are rapidly getting themselves into untenable positions. On one side you’ve got Facebook employees outraged by this passive stance, employees who spend their days building an engine for the hyper-customized mass-filtering of reality, and on the other side you’ve got executives increasingly reticent to pull various levers in a hyper-politicized environment, mindful of the enormous potential blow back in the form of regulation that could harm profitability.

Perhaps the most salient fact about Trump’s post is that it wasn’t fake news. It was “just” the appalling threats of a tyrant testing the limits of his sphere of influence. What is the rationale for hiding this? That it glorifies and perhaps incites violence? Sure, it does, and that is disgusting and terrifying, but I would rather we employed extreme transparency as soon as possible as an escape valve, not try to hide it away which both fails to change the present reality and likely incites greater resentment and extremism in the fullness of time.

Facebook’s recent directions in content filtering have felt alarmingly like what the Chinese government has been doing for years by hiring armies of content reviewers who decide what gets to see the light of day and maybe even what gets a knock on your door from the secret police. We ought be extremely careful about the machinery we accept to enforce the opinions of those presently in power. Even if you love those in power today you must always fear those who might be in power tomorrow and leverage all the machinery that accumulated before their arrival to enforce their subjective reality. Hong Kong’s freedom fighters are China’s terrorists.

Deciding what is true, fair, and appropriate is generally far too squishy and subjective for a non-trivial number of people to agree. I would greatly prefer that, to the extent we regulate social media companies and/or expect/allow/demand that they manipulate posts, it be only that they annotate them with highly objective information from which people can draw their own conclusions, the only goals being to encourage a healthy skepticism of posts and to disrupt blatant PSYOP campaigns by organized actors.

Many tools and techniques already exist and can be borrowed from the cyber-security domain. Consider the following pieces of data:

  1. Age of registered domains in the links being shared
  2. Ownership of registered domains in the links being shared
  3. Age of the account making a post
  4. Apparent legitimacy of the poster’s social connectivity graph
  5. Apparent legitimacy of the poster’s account activity

If you’re in the security community you probably recognize those as valuable signals for combating bot herders, identify thieves, link farmers, and web scrapers. We should bring such tools, and only this class of tools, to bear on the Fake News problem, annotating posts with such hard data in the same fashion we require packaged food to be labeled with ingredient lists and nutrient breakdowns, and then leave people to decide on their own without the sense that they are being manipulated by nanny corporations and nanny governments. Anything else is a minefield at best and authoritarian thuggery at worst.

If you are grateful for the long overdue outrage that the transparency of George Floyd’s death caused to erupt worldwide then you might also consider the value of having another ugly event on full public display.

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