US Reporter Ronan Farrow Calls On Internet Companies To Censor Speech Of People He Doesn't Like

from the fascinating dept

Well this is fascinating. Ronan Farrow, the well-known MSNBC reporter who is also an attorney and former State Department official (and, at times, a subject of much parental speculation), apparently has come out in favor of blatant censorship. Following in the dangerous footsteps of Joe Lieberman, Farrow is apparently angry that internet companies like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter aren’t taking down accounts that he believes are used by terrorists.

The Sunni Islamic State insurgents, now locked in a deadly struggle with Iraq?s Shiite majority, excel online. They command a plethora of official and unofficial channels on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. ?And kill them wherever you find them,? commands one recent propaganda reel of firefights and bound hostages, contorting a passage from the Koran. ?Take up arms, take up arms, O soldiers of the Islamic State. And fight, fight!? adds another, featuring a sermon from the group?s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The material is often slickly produced, like ?The Clanging of Swords IV,? a glossy, feature-length film replete with slow-motion action scenes. Much of it is available in English, directly targeting the recruits with Western passports that have become one of the organization?s more dangerous assets. And almost all of it appeals to the young: Photoshops of Islamic State fighters and their grizzly massacres with video game-savvy captions like, ?This is our Call of Duty.?

But officials at social media companies are leery of adjudicating what should be taken down and what should be left alone. ?One person?s terrorist is another person?s freedom fighter,? one senior executive tells me on condition of anonymity. Making that call is ?not something we?d want to do.?

Of course, what Farrow ignores is that it’s not at all difficult to find Americans using social media for similar calls to action. For example, how about a Fox News contributor announcing that it was time to “Muslims are evil. Let’s kill them all.” Or a Breitbart News contributor calling for people to “start slaughtering Muslims in the streets, all of them.”

I find both of those statements abhorrent, but the point is that idiots will make stupid incendiary statements on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all the time — and most people look at them and realize that they’re ignorant crazy people talking. No one is actually incentivized to run out and actually follow those arguments. Yet Farrow seems to think that the people who follow those other groups on social media immediately accept what is said and follow through?

Just because people are saying stupid stuff on social media, doesn’t mean internet companies should step in and decide what is and what is not appropriate. Where do you draw the line? Farrow breezily admits that it may be difficult to figure out what to take down and what to leave up, but… then just assumes it’s kind of easy anyway… because child porn.

More troubling still is the fact that these companies already know how to police and remove content that violates other laws. Every major social media network employs algorithms that automatically detect and prevent the posting of child pornography. Many, including YouTube, use a similar technique to prevent copyrighted material from hitting the web. Why not, in those overt cases of beheading videos and calls for blood, employ a similar system?

See how limited types of censorship almost always lead to calls for greater and greater censorship> It’s fairly amazing that an attorney, former State Department official and a reporter would so blatantly call for censorship, but that appears to be Farrow’s bag. Besides, he’s apparently rather clueless about why his call for censoring “terrorists” is so different from child porn (an absolute liability situation, where it’s generally immediately obvious if something is illegal) and copyright (where the system is already quite problematic, and involves a detailed notice-and-takedown process that has massive dangerous unintended consequences). He also ignores the fact that all of these companies already do pull down extremist content (something many folks think already goes too far). Apparently, Farrow’s not big on details.

Farrow does mention Section 230 of the CDA, but apparently is ignorant of how that law actually works as well:

As always, beneath legitimate practical and ethical concerns, there is a question about the bottom line. Section 230 of the Telecom Act of 1996 inoculates these companies from responsibility for content that users post?as long as they don?t know about it. Individuals involved in content removal policies at the major social media companies, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, say that?s a driving factor in their thinking. ?We can?t police any content ourselves,? one explains. Adds another: ?The second we get into reviewing any content ourselves, record labels say, ?You should be reviewing all videos for copyright violations, too.??

First of all, this is wrong. The “as long as they don’t know about it” is flat out wrong. Section 230 actually is explicit that if you do know about it, it’s entirely the company’s discretion whether or not to remove. If they do, that imposes no additional obligations on them to remove other content. However, the final comment is more accurate — though, amusingly, it contradicts Farrow’s own earlier statement about how these companies already know how to stop copyright-covered content from appearing.

The point is that determining who is and who is not a “terrorist” isn’t so easy, and that slope is very slippery. Should those Fox News and Breitbart contributors be cut off as well for their “terroristic” threats? Remember that after then-Senator Joe Lieberman went on a similar crusade to get YouTube to take down “terrorist” videos, it resulted in YouTube disabling the YouTube channel of an important Syrian watchdog group that had been unveiling atrocities in that country.

Farrow keeps going back to the genocide in Rwanda to prove his point. But under his logic, anyone documenting that genocide and getting the news out to the world would likely be censored, allowing that kind of genocide to go on.

Yes, if you think simplistically about things, it must seem so easy to just say, “Well, censor the bad guys.” But you’d think that someone with Farrow’s training and background would actually know that simplistic solutions to challenging and nuanced questions often result in very dangerous policies with serious unintended consequences.

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Comments on “US Reporter Ronan Farrow Calls On Internet Companies To Censor Speech Of People He Doesn't Like”

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S. T. Stone says:

Those who call for censorship never seem to realize how far such censorship will go until it has gone too far for even their taste. By then, they will have turned against the very machinations they set forth in the hopes that no one will notice the hypocrisy.

Any call for censorship, no matter how benign or good-natured, must always face the strictest scrutiny possible. We should not – must not – allow those with the power of censorship to unleash that power without consequence.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The best solution for unpopular speech? More speech, not less.

If for every terrorist group speaking out online, you have 10 freedom groups speaking against them, the debates they are starting will damage them more than help them.

If for every outspoken freedom group you are involved in there are 10 terrorist groups attaching their ideals, you are probably on the wrong side of the argument.

Trevor says:

Somewhat relevant

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–
and there was no one left to speak for me.

PaulT (profile) says:

“Every major social media network employs algorithms that automatically detect and prevent the posting of child pornography.”

I doubt this very much, or at least doubt that he’s correct about its effectiveness (more likely, people know that such content is not acceptable on such services and so tend not to bother). But even if he’s right, the thing about child porn is that it’s illegal by its very nature. There’s no free speech or copyright defence about having posted sexual abuse of a child. Context does not matter, nor do moral or political defences. This does not apply in cases of political speech or copyright status.

“Many, including YouTube, use a similar technique”

…which routinely affects not only content that should be exempt from copyright or covered by fair use, but also affects content that’s been uploaded by a rights holder to begin with. Which, strangely enough, is the exact argument people have for not doing this. Free speech will be affected, and one man’s genuine complaint is another man’s genuine political statement. As noted above, sometimes the only difference is which group they target and/or claim to represent, and some people will suddenly change their mind on whether the content is hateful.

Besides, most of the major social media services already remove content, block accounts, etc. if they receive complaints of truly objectionable material, especially if they have law enforcement involved. If you don’t see something disturbing about private 3rd parties being expected to pro-actively, pre-emptively police content, you might not be understanding the actual objections.

“to prevent copyrighted material from hitting the web.”

Try searching for infringing copyrighted material, and let’s see how successful YouTube have been at blocking it from the web. I’ll wait, it will only take a few seconds for you to find some. Why do you think that political views would be blocked any more successfully?

Richard (profile) says:


Huh – what rock does he live under?

Youtube crowd sources the removal of offensive material via the report button – it’s not an algorithm and it is already available for the purpose of removing this stuff .

The Copyright thing (Content ID) IS an algorithm but can only remove near identical copies of an existing, known file. It cannot detect original offensive material.

He should do his technical research before he speaks.

Colin Samuels (profile) says:

We Cannot Bear This Outrage

“And almost all of it appeals to the young: Photoshops of Islamic State fighters and their grizzly massacres with video game-savvy captions like, “This is our Call of Duty.”

If they’re going to continue to massacre grizzlies, they’re crossing a line which no amount of spin will salvage. Today’s youth will flock to “Call of Duty”, but “Cabela’s Big Game Hunter” is on Walmart close-out for a reason. O soldiers of the Islamic State, leave the poor bears be.

bob (profile) says:

not a global problem

see, USA will block something it sees a terrorist but only for USA ISPs, another country will block some USA content it thinks is terrorist but only through their own ISPs, and we’ll all have our own little silos of… kitten videos and flag waving.
and if you want to learn about the world, you’ll have to get on a steamboat and do some travelling.
problem solved. 😛

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

“One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” one senior executive tells me on condition of anonymity.

That’s a bunch of crap. Terrorists and freedom fighters are trivially easy to distinguish: a freedom fighter has a problem with a government he perceives to be corrupt, and he fights against them.

A terrorist’s aim is not to fight against corruption, but to incite terror among the populace, and he does this by attacking civilian targets, rather than legitimate military and government ones.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

A terrorist is someone who uses terrorism as a tactic. Terrorism happens due to asymmetry in power: it’s the only effective way to conduct warfare against an opponent who can cream you in a straight war.

Many freedom fighters, by your definition (which I agree with) throughout history have used terrorism as their tactic. Perhaps most of them. Even the people who fought against the British in the US revolutionary war engaged in terrorism in the effort.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The British explicitly called the revolutionaries terrorists, and given the current US definition of terrorism, they were certainly correct. They attacked civilian cargo ships carrying nonmilitary goods, tarred and feathered civilian loyalists, burnt buildings and vehicles to the ground, etc. This is not hidden history at all — check out the history of the Sons of Liberty.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Sullivans expedition. The expedition severely damaged the Iroquois nations’ economies by burning their crops, villages, and chattels, thus ruining the Iroquois technological infrastructure . With the Amerindians’ shelter gone and food supplies destroyed, thereafter the strength of the Iroquois Confederacy was broken. The death toll from exposure and starvation dwarfed the casualties received in the Battle of Newtown, in which about 1,000 Iroquois and Loyalists were decisively defeated by an army of 3,200 Continental soldiers. White Loyalists also lost their homes and lands in the deliberate scorched earth actions explicitly ordered by General George Washington, who was soon after known in Amerindian cultures by the pejorative “the Burner of Towns”

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Did you actually read the article? The Iroquois in question had not only allied with the British, but had been going on rampages, indiscriminately slaughtering civilians and children against the wishes of the British forces that were theoretically giving the orders. Today, we’d call that “war crimes,” but the term wasn’t around back then. Washington did what was necessary to destroy their ability to wage war, but he explicitly called for prisoners to be taken from Iroquois civilians, rather than returning their wholesale murder tit-for-tat.

I’d hardly call that an act of terrorism.

sorrykb (profile) says:

There isn’t a broadly-accepted legal definition of terrorism, so in practice it’s come to mean “violence or intimidation towards a political end that I disagree with or done by people I don’t like”.

The U.S. war of independence was an illegal violent uprising against an established government to achieve a political goal. I think it was a good goal, but from the perspective of the Loyalists, it could certainly be perceived as terrorism.

sophisticatedjanedoe (profile) says:

I think that it would be illuminating to this guy if he visited Russia and tried to work from there. For a couple of weeks. What ostensibly started as care for children (“we need to protect them from harmful information!”) 2 years ago, now shows its ugly grimace: not only every major opposition media blocked, but Kafkaesque stories like this happen daily:

A public school website was blocked because it displayed a Google map, which, in turn, displayed the Google logo. Someone decided that it was a promotion of a “foreign unfriendly service.” (Source – ru-RU)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Any group that calls for the destruction of others cannot be called “christian”. That kind of extremism is usually the domain of self-centred, self-focussed, arrogant, evil, unforgiving, self-gratifying, hatred filled, murderous people. Funnily enough, the very people who actually need the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to turn their lives around. But they are generally so full of self-righteousness that they can’t see how much help they actually need.

Since I was one of them once and had the change made to me, I appreciate the knowledge and understanding of what was my life to what it is now. There is much evil in the world, and it fills all areas of life, from drug abuse and addiction, to torture, to abuse of power, to carnal corruption, to lovers of money, power and influence, to control, to greed and covetousness, to rebellion and witchcraft. And this just from our governments, courts, police, military and medical fraternities. Let alone what is happening in our schools, universities, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and streets.

But until His return, the world will continue to get worse and worse.

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