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Davos Elites Warn That Disinformation Is an Existential Threat to Their Influence

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Davos Elites Warn That Disinformation Is an Existential Threat to Their Influence

The World Economic Forum—an annual meeting of internal business leaders, political figures, and other elites—is well underway in Davos, Switzerland. One of the topics of discussion on Monday was “The Clear and Present Danger of Disinformation,” presented by former CNN host Brian Stelter.

Stelter and his panelists did elucidate several pressing dangers with respect to rampant disinformation on social media; quite inadvertently, they also highlighted the inherent drawbacks of adopting a permanent war-footing approach to stopping disinformation. Indeed, several of the panelists spread inaccurate information during the course of their remarks.

These panelists were Vera Jourová, a member of the European Union’s executive cabinet, the European Commission; Jeanne Bourgault, who helms a nonprofit group that supports independent media; Rep. Seth Moulton (D–Mass.); and A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times and nepo baby.

Stelter kicked off the discussion by framing “disinformation” as the central conundrum of our times—all other problems being downstream of this issue. Sulzberger wholeheartedly embraced this view.

“I think it maps, basically, to every other major challenge that we are grappling with as a society, and particularly the most existential among them,” he said, lumping in disinformation—false information, intended to mislead people—with “conspiracy, propaganda, and clickbait.” Disinformation is why society seems so fractured, why trust in elite institutions is declining, and why democracy itself appears to be retreating, they implied.

In other words, it’s all Facebook’s fault.

Social media has become a popular scapegoat and common enemy of elite media figures and Democratic politicians (as well as Republican politicians, albeit for opposite reasons), who seized on Russian malfeasance as their preferred explanation for how Donald Trump was able to win the presidency in 2016. This explanation—bad actors, probably Russian, are confusing voters on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other online platforms—is now frequently deployed to explain all sorts of troubling developments, even though studies keep disproving it.

Indeed, Moulton at first used his speaking time to equivocate on whether the government should do more to combat online disinformation, correctly noting that Americans do not like to be censored, even if societal elites think it would be for their own good. But when the subject turned to COVID-19, he confessed that his resolve wavered.

“When I have a constituency that I’m trying to keep healthy, and I can’t get them to take a COVID vaccine because of misinformation that’s propagated on the internet, that’s where this becomes a much tougher, more difficult, bigger concern,” he said.

It’s no doubt true that misinformation about vaccines has spread online, causing harm. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown precisely why no central authority can be trusted with the power to restrict allegedly harmful content. Government health bureaucrats, social media content moderators, scientists in good standing with the liberal consensus, and media organizations have all circulated false information about COVID-19.

Sometimes, these were agenda-driven guesses that ended up being wrong, like when The Atlantic described the end of lockdowns as “an experiment in human sacrifice.” Sometimes, these were lies in service of some purported greater good, as when top pandemic health bureaucrat Anthony Fauci downplayed the importance of masking and understated the herd immunity threshold. Sometimes, these were baseless claims from slow-moving government agencies, like when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the strongest masking guidelines for the least at-risk group.

Other times, institutions simply defaulted to knee-jerk censorship until they embarrassingly reversed course, as Facebook did when it finally permitted discussion of the lab leak theory.

None of this means that the pervasiveness and negative impact of false information about COVID-19 vaccines should be written off; assertions that a spate of recent deaths can be attributed to vaccine-induced heart problems are flatly incorrect, pernicious, and worth correcting. But the very experts who would claim for themselves the power to monitor social media and police wrongthink have an astonishingly bad track record of distinguishing falsehood from truth. Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partners, for example, routinely flag true statements for moderation.

Jourová noted that the governing body she works for has criminalized hate speech—something that can’t happen in the U.S., where the First Amendment prevents such actions. But she also pointed out that most of what is categorized as disinformation is legal speech, and there is clearly a balance to be struck. Bourgault brought up Facebook’s Myanmar debacle, in which social media posts contributed to a state-sponsored genocide against the country’s Muslim minority—a genuinely appalling case of insufficient moderation creating real-world violence.

But the most alarmist speaker was Sulzberger, who was pessimistic that disinformation could be grappled with unless social media platforms engage in more restriction of disfavored content.

“At some point, given the central role of the platforms in disseminating bad information, I think they’re going to have to do an unpopular and brave thing, which is to differentiate and elevate trustworthy sources of information consistently,” he said. “Until they do, we have to assume that those environments are poisoned.”

It’s The New York Times’ view—a view quite popular at Davos—that social media is very bad and will continue to be very bad until it awards preferential treatment to The New York Times.

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Facebook, Twitter, and Other Social Platforms Go Offline

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Facebook, Twitter, and Other Social Platforms Go Offline

Everything is down. Wednesday afternoon, widespread outages began to affect many of the internet’s most popular services, both social networks and otherwise. As of this writing, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pokemon Go, and the McDonald’s mobile application a just a handful of the many services suffering from log-in difficulties. According to DownDetector, there’s no regional basis for the services going offline and reports are coming in from all corners of the country.

Meta—the parent company of Facebook—is only reporting “Major disruptions” with its ad service while Twitter says all of its systems are operational. Despite the difficulties, all other status pages for the aforementioned services suggest everything is operational. Keep scrolling to see what people are saying.

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Wannabe Blackpool councillor suspended by Tories after civil service staff called 'pedos' in Facebook post

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Wannabe Blackpool councillor suspended by Tories after civil service staff called 'pedos' in Facebook post

A prospective Blackpool councillor has been suspended from the Conservative Party following a series of offensive posts on social media that called …

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Republicans, aided by Musk, accuse Big Tech of colluding with Democrats

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Republicans, aided by Musk, accuse Big Tech of colluding with Democrats

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Soon after Elon Musk took over Twitter, he began promoting screenshots of internal company documents that he said exposed “free speech suppression” on the social media platform during the 2020 election. Republicans were thrilled.

“We knew Big Tech was censoring conservatives, but the #TwitterFiles keep showing us it was worse than we thought,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted recently.

On Wednesday, Musk’s “Twitter Files” will take center stage in a Capitol Hill hearing where GOP leaders will try to advance their campaign to turn Twitter’s decision to briefly block sharing a story about the president’s son into evidence of a broad conspiracy. Conservatives have long argued that Silicon Valley favors Democrats by systematically suppressing right-wing viewpoints on social media. These allegations have evolved in nearly a half-decade of warnings, as politicians in Washington and beyond fixate on the industry’s communications with Democratic leaders, seeking to cast the opposing party as against free speech.

The Twitter Files show no evidence of such a plot. Conservative influencers and stories from conservative platforms regularly draw a massive audience on social media. But Wednesday’s hearing, which will feature former Twitter executives as witnesses, is the latest effort to advance an increasingly popular Republican argument.

Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter files’ are an exercise in hypocrisy

As House Republicans throw their political weight behind the narrative that Democrats colluded with social media companies, they have formed a new House panel to probe perceived government abuses against conservatives, including allegations of social media bias. Meanwhile, two Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Biden administration is circumventing the First Amendment to censor social media.

Taken collectively, these actions represent the next phase of a GOP strategy, which contributed to the distrust among some conservatives that seeded “the “big lie,” the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen. The early warnings that liberal employees inside tech companies tilt the playing field in favor of Democrats have ballooned into accusations that government officials actively collude with the platforms to influence public discourse.

Paul M. Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said the increased pressure from Republicans have resulted in tech companies “bending over backward” to accommodate content from right-wing accounts for fear of political reprisal.

“The fact that … people are continuing to bang this drum that there’s anti-conservative bias is really unfortunate. It’s really confusing, and it’s just not true,” Barrett said in an interview.

What the Jan. 6 probe found out about social media, but didn’t report

Top Republican leaders have made alleged tech censorship one of their first priorities in the House, scheduling hearings and demanding reams of documents in a multipronged pressure campaign.

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.), along with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Jordan, in January introduced a bill called the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act, which would penalize federal employees if they’re found to be asking social media companies to take down posts. The House Judiciary Committee has formed a special subcommittee focused on the “weaponization of the federal government,” designed in part to examine the interactions between the Biden administration and major tech companies.

Jordan sent letters in December to five large tech companies, demanding that they detail their “collusion with the Biden administration.”

“Big Tech is out to get conservatives, and is increasingly willing to undermine First Amendment values by complying with the Biden administration’s directives that suppress freedom of speech online,” Jordan wrote in the letters, which were sent to the executives of Facebook parent company Meta, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). The accusations threaten to unravel nearly a decade of investment in people and policies intended to root out violence and falsehoods online — a powerful partisan attack on Silicon Valley, even as President Biden calls for unity to take on Big Tech.

An evolution of a years-long strategy

For more than half a decade, accusations of anti-conservative bias have plagued Silicon Valley, fueled by a high-profile mishap at Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election. Anonymous former Facebook employees told the tech news website Gizmodo that the social media giant often passed over conservative media outlets when choosing stories to curate for its “trending” news feature.

Though stories with a conservative slant regularly outperform those from moderate or liberal-leaning outlets, tensions escalated under former president Donald Trump. As tech companies scrambled to shore up defenses against misinformation in the wake of Russian influence operations in the 2016 election, they created policy on the fly for Trump’s often false and racist tweets. Under political pressure, Facebook tilted to the right in policies, personnel and public gestures, according to a Post investigation.

How social media ‘censorship’ became a front line in the culture war

Top Republicans and right-wing influencers routinely accuse the companies of secretly tampering with their follower counts or “shadowbanning” their posts, even as their online audiences have grown. For many influencers, promoting how deeply they’ve been suppressed has become a marketing tool, especially after a number of them were invited by Trump to a White House “social media summit” on censorship in 2019. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., that year solicited preorders for his book on Twitter by calling it “the book the leftist elites don’t want you to read.”

Prodded by calls in Congress to overhaul social media laws, Trump signed an executive order that sought to change Section 230, a decades-old legal shield that prevents tech companies from being sued over the posts, photos and videos that people share on their platforms. In 2021, social media companies made the unprecedented decision to ban a sitting president from their services in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Trump’s ban ignited a new legislative strategy in Republican-led statehouses. Florida and Texas forged ahead with new laws aimed at prohibiting the companies from banning politicians and censoring political views. States and the tech industry have called on the Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the laws, after federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings. The Supreme Court recently asked the Biden administration to weigh in on whether states can bar social media companies from removing political speech.

From the early days of his deal to buy Twitter, Musk has signaled that he shares Republican concerns that tech companies are suppressing their views. Before closing the deal, he boosted criticism of Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde, who was involved in politically controversial content moderation decisions, including the decision to ban Trump. Republicans have summoned Gadde to testify at Wednesday’s hearing.

Twitter lawyer long weighed safety, free speech. Then Musk called her out.

Since the deal closed, House Republicans have pressed Musk to hand over records related to Twitter’s handling of the New York Post article about Hunter Biden. In December, a group of handpicked journalists tweeted screenshots of internal company documents dubbed the Twitter Files, and GOP policymakers immediately teased congressional action.

“We’re very serious about this. We’re very concerned about this,” Comer said in a December interview on Fox News.

Back on Capitol Hill, Comer described the hearing as the beginning of a “narrow investigation” into “influence-peddling by the Biden administration.” House Republicans have mounted a sprawling effort across multiple congressional committees to scrutinize communications between tech companies and Democratic leaders, blanketing platforms and public officials with demands for documents and internal emails.

“I think Musk should be applauded because he’s been very transparent,” Comer said. “He’s putting stuff out there.”

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee say they plan to use the hearing to probe former Twitter leaders on concerns about violence and misinformation.

“Elon Musk has made it clear that he is going to be completely with the right-wing propaganda program,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview with The Post.

Raskin said that the controversy over whether the government alerted Twitter that the Hunter Biden story could be foreign propaganda was a nonissue, and that GOP bills seeking to ban such interactions would only serve to benefit foreign leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I think it should be completely within the power of government to alert private media entities about the existence of foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns,” he said. “So that legislation … looks like it’s going to be very good news for Vladimir Putin.”

Jan. 6 Twitter witness: Failure to curb Trump spurred ‘terrifying’ choice

Meanwhile, discovery continues in the Missouri and Louisiana case. Biden administration lawyers have attempted to dismiss the case, arguing that it contains no plausible evidence of coercion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has been skeptical of the states’ arguments, urging a lower court to consider the federal government’s argument that voluminous documents produced during discovery have so far shown no First Amendment violation.

State attorneys general leading the suit said in a recent statement that the litigation is part of a broader strategy to defend constitutional rights.

“This case is about the Biden administration’s blatant disregard for the First Amendment and its collusion with Big Tech social media companies to suppress speech it disagrees with,” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said.

Bailey’s office has promoted emails between the White House and Facebook, in which a White House official flags posts related to coronavirus vaccinations that he finds concerning. In one message, the official says that “the top post about vaccines today is tucker Carlson saying they don’t work.” Biden has previously called on social media companies to address coronavirus misinformation.

Barrett, the NYU professor, said political leaders and government officials have been communicating with companies for years, citing Trump’s dinner as president with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Often, such communication is not nefarious, Barrett said, and has the routine intention of getting out information about how to vote or protect public health.

“We don’t want there to be some kind of impenetrable wall between these companies and the government,” Barrett said.

There is a need for Silicon Valley to be more transparent about its policies for interacting with governments and legal enforcers, he added, and congressional hearings could be a venue for politicians from both parties to ask “fair and substantive” questions about companies’ efforts to promote authoritative information.

But Barrett is not expecting that at Wednesday’s hearing, which he said has “all the earmarks of a purely partisan mudslinging exercise.”

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