At a glance.
- Notes on influence ops from Huawei and Saudi Arabia.
- Internet jamming in South Asia.
- The unsolved problem of content moderation.
- Proposals for filtering speech.
- Social media and the stock market.
Spin, from Shenzhen to Riyadh.
The New York Times offers an overview of the way in which Huawei has continued to develop a distributed network of writers and social media personae that can carry the company’s water online, amplifying the messaging that customer nations have nothing to fear from Huawei acquiring a dominant position in their infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia, which had seen an erosion of its lobbying and influence efforts in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has, Foreign Policy reports, quietly begun to reconstitute its networks of influence.
Government jamming in South Asia.
The Internet has gone down throughout much of Myanmar, CyberScoop reports. The reasons for the outage are unclear, but the overwhelming likelihood is that the outage is a deliberate takedown by the junta military leaders installed in a coup d’état over the weekend. Internet usage dropped by a good seventy-five percent Sunday, according to observations tweeted by NetBlocks, an NGO that operates an Internet observatory. NetBlocks says, “The pattern of disruption indicates centrally issued telecoms blackout order.” Internet jamming has become a familiar feature of the contemporary style of coup d’état. It’s what seizing the newspapers would have been in 1850, what taking over the radio station would have been in the 1930s.
Facebook, which has been accused of “fueling a genocide” against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar (see, for example, BuzzFeed's take on the effects of the social network’s hands-off policy) is now seeking ways of protecting users of its services in that country from retaliation should they criticize the coup.
India’s government has also jammed online platforms, especially locally, in the vicinity of New Delhi, CNN reports, as farmers clashed with police during protests over controversial proposed agricultural policies. The government also ordered Twitter to block certain high-profile accounts that were involved in tweeting about the protests and the conflicts between farmers and police. Twitter complied, but a few days later unblocked the accounts. That drew, according to TechCrunch, a caution from the Indian government, reminding the House of Dorsey that the government, and not Twitter, was responsible for public safety.
Social media continue to grapple with content moderation.
As the case of Myanmar in particular suggests, it’s not easy to strike any sort of balance between permitting users free expression and constraining deadly incitement.
The Verge says that Facebook’s Oversight Board, the body Menlo Park has put in place to serve as its gatekeeper against impermissible expression, wants people to tell them how they’re doing. The Board exercises a kind of editorial function, which highlights the platform’s dilemma: it’s neither a publisher nor a public square, but seeks to enjoy the beneficial conditions of both. Events seem to be pushing it toward the publisher role, with Twitter and YouTube moving in a similar direction. Others, like TikTok, continue to run a sort of mixed market-of-ideas, in which, Axios reports, they’ll continue to permit questionable content, but append a warning label.
A policy for permissible speech.
There seems to be more public expression of an appetite for government filters for online content, and even in the US First Amendment absolutists appear to have become scarce. The problem is often framed as a matter of addressing “right-wing extremism” (which the inexcusable Capitol Hill riot gave currency) or “white supremacy” (often and increasingly a current translation of the Old Left, folk-Marxist “bourgeois”).
On the former, see US Representative Jackie Speier’s call for seeking out signs of extremism in the course of security clearance investigations. Representative Spier (Democrat, California 14th District) wants social media posts carefully sifted for indications of “violent extremism and white supremacy.” On the latter, see an essay in WIRED in which activist Malkia Devich-Cyril argues that the palpable relief the author discerned after people were “deplatforming” in the wake of the Capitol Hill riot should teach us that, “Claiming that deplatforming racists violates First Amendment rights shows a distorted understanding of how speech, race, and power work online.”
Much but not all of the urge to ferret out objectionable views comes from left, but there’s a countervailing sentiment emanating from the right as well. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, notes with alarm that some state legislatures are considering measures to redress what they consider a monolithic and stifling progressive, “social justice” bias in state university classrooms.
Social media and the markets: a brief update.
After some retail trading platforms (notably Robinhood) suspended, then resumed, trading in GameStop and a few other heavily shorted stocks, it remains unclear what the self-organized social-media book-talkers did that was illegal, if indeed it was anything at all. Criticism of the trading suspensions was in the US surprisingly bipartisan, CNBC says, with left- and right-wing members of Congress seeing no crime in retail investors winning their bets at the expense of hedge funds’ wagers. And Quartz thinks that no one is likely to find that WallStreetBets and others like them actually did anything illegal.
It’s a novel phenomenon, and the SEC is seeking understanding. So is the new Secretary of the Treasury, CNBC reports. Robinhood is getting killed in online reviews by a whole lot of people who think its app is more like the kind of thing the Sheriff of Nottingham would run on behalf of Prince John. But Robinhood may have had little choice in the matter, having to cover the volume of trades its users were making, C|NET explains.
The Reddit-driven short-squeeze has been widely perceived as a revolt of Main Street against Wall Street, with the hedge funds cast in the Gordon Gekko role. There’s an element of that going on, to be sure, but in some ways the incident is better seen as a contest of longs versus shorts: at least one big Wall Street player, Senvest Management, made, the Wall Street Journal says, about $700 million on GameStop.