Even If The Russian Troll Factory Abused Our Openness Against Us, That Doesn't Mean We Should Close Up
from the giving-them-what-they-wanted dept
Last week, we wrote about the Mueller indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations for fraud in trying to sow discord among Americans and potentially influence the election by trolling them on social media. If you haven’t read the indictment yet, I recommend doing so — or at least reading Garrett Graff’s impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story. The key point I raised in that article was that the efforts the Russians undertook to appear to be American shows how difficult-to-impossible it would be to demand that the various internet platforms magically block such trolling attempts in the future.
But, there’s a larger issue here that seems worth exploring as well. Among the various attacks aimed at social media companies (mainly Facebook) it feels that many are using this as yet another excuse to demand more regulation of these platforms or to poke more holes in Section 230 of the CDA.
We’ve already spent many posts explaining why undermining CDA 230 will do a lot more harm than good, but it seems worth especially highlighting how undermining it here in response to Russian attacks would only help the Russians accomplish what it is they’ve set out to do. CDA 230 is a key aspect of enabling free speech online. It’s what allows platforms to host our speech without having to carefully review it before it’s allowed, or take it down at the first sign of complaint (allowing a heckler’s veto). This is tremendously important in making the internet a platform for everyone, as opposed to just the elite and connected. And, yes, with that comes serious challenges, because some people will inevitably seek to abuse that openness to try to turn us against each other (as appears to have happened here).
But it would be quite an “own goal” to turn around and dismantle the tools that enable free speech in response to foreign attacks.
As Julian Sanchez points out at the NY Times, the Russian government is annoyed by the US criticizing them for online censorship — so pushing social media companies to censor more in the US would help the Russians point out what hypocrites the Americans are and continue to suppress opposing political points of view:
No less than our ?meddling? in their internal elections, Russia has long resented United States criticism of the country?s repressive approach to online speech. Their use of online platforms to tamper with our presidential race reads not only as an attack, but as an implicit argument: ?The freedoms you trumpet so loudly, your unwillingness to regulate political speech on the internet, your tolerance for anonymity ? all these are weaknesses, which we?ll prove by exploiting them.?
Urgent as it is for the United States to take measures to prevent similar meddling in the next election, we should be careful that our response doesn?t constitute a tacit agreement.
I’m not one to believe the idea that Russians are such implicitly brilliant tacticians that they’d deliberately play the US into taking the exact response they want, but we should be quite careful about undermining our own freedoms and our own services just because some people were able to exploit them. Not only does it harm our own society in the long run, it also gives a fairly explicit basis for lots of repressive regimes (including, but in no way limited to, Russia) to use that as something to point to as they push much greater suppression of free speech.