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.


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  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 21 Feb 2018 @ 8:41am

    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.

    There's an old story about a royal banquet that was held in Christopher Columbus's honor, with several other admirals in attendance. One of the admirals grumbled about this honor being heaped on Columbus's head, pointing out that the route to the West Indies isn't particularly difficult to sail. In response, Columbus handed the man a boiled egg, and asked him if he could make it stand up on its end.

    After a few tries, the admiral was of course unable to. So Columbus took the egg and struck its end firmly on the table, flattening it slightly, and was able to make it stay up that way. "It's not particularly difficult to do," he pointed out, "once someone smarter than you has figured out how to do it."

    The Russians don't have to be particularly "brilliant tacticians" to pull this off; all they have to do is look at our reaction to 9/11.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 9:48am

      Re:

      "The Russians don't have to be particularly "brilliant tacticians" to pull this off; all they have to do is look at our reaction to 9/11."

      I was about to post this. The US is fairly predictable on this topic: the government will shred civil rights when it has a reason to, even if it's highly counter productive.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 9:47am

    "impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story" -- YES, at "turning" what "Republicans" and "Russia" are laughing at to serving the FALSE STORY that it had any effect at all compared to hundreds of millions!

    YOU are here ATTEMPTING but failing to turn it to your aims: to not undermine Section 230, railing that's just what the Rooskis want and would harm the US! SHEESH.

    You will do better -- at least not remind that you're a gullible FOOL -- to just DROP the whole "Trump-Russia collusion": there is NOT LEAST EVIDENCE AFTER A YEAR! It's TOTALLY fabricated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 9:50am

      Re: "impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story" -- YES, at "turning" what "Republicans" and "Russia" are laughing at to serving the FALSE STORY that it had any effect

      You're even picking "the narrative" to the projection of trying to say that anyone who doesn't take the indictments as showing serious Russian influence on election is aiding enemies. Sheesh!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 4:49pm

        Re: Re: "impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story" -- YES, at "turning" what "Republicans" and "Russia" are laughing at to serving the FALSE STORY that it had any eff

        it's like you're thinking in russian or something

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 21 Feb 2018 @ 10:08am

      Re: (Troll headline removed)

      Same old claim, same old response:

      Wikipedia: Links between Trump associates and Russian officials

      133 citations.

      Wikipedia: Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections

      415 citations.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Richard (profile), 22 Feb 2018 @ 3:07am

        Re: Re: (Troll headline removed)

        Wikipedia itself proves nothing - it is open to anyone to edit.

        If wikipedia proved anything then the Russians would surely have targeted it to remove these references or make them innocuous.

        The fact that they didn't bother suggests that they don't believe that anyone with any sense would use that argument!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Roger Strong (profile), 22 Feb 2018 @ 6:47am

          Re: Re: Re: (Troll headline removed)

          This is why I point out the vast number of proper citations for the "facts have a left-wing bias" crowd.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2018 @ 8:41am

          Re: Re: Re: (Troll headline removed)

          No, by itself, it doesn't prove anything. However, what you missed is that there are several hundred citations in those wikipedia pages that link to primary, verified, news/fact sources which do provide real, hard, factual evidence to support not only Russian interference but some links between Trump associates and Russians.

          Whether they knowingly engaged in collusion is yet to be proven, but there is evidence to support it, as evidenced by the over 500 citations in those Wikipedia articles.

          What the Russians believe or not is irrelevant to this discussion, only what they did.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 10:18am

      Re: "impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story" -- YES, at "turning" what "Republicans" and "Russia" are laughing at to serving the FALSE STORY that it had any effect at all compared to hundreds of millions!

      lol

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 10:47am

      Re: "impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story" -- YES, at "turning" what "Republicans" and "Russia" are laughing at to serving the FALSE STORY that it had any effect at all compared to hundreds of millions!

      Still mad the ruskies pay their trolls for the work you do for free eh?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 11:35am

      Re: "impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story" -- YES, at "turning" what "Republicans" and "Russia" are laughing at to serving the FALSE STORY that it had any effect at all compared to hundreds of millions!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 2:39pm

      Re: "impressive attempt at basically turning the indictment into one hell of a narrative story" -- YES, at "turning" what "Republicans" and "Russia" are laughing at to serving the FALSE STORY that it had any effect at all compared to hundreds of millions!

      Actually, you're the one who keeps bringing up the collusion. Nowhere in this article did he mention collusion. He did mention Russian interference, which is not the same thing.

      And as others have pointed out, there is plenty of evidence (but not proof) to support the allegation of collusion. Hence why the investigation was started and is still ongoing, to determine if there was or was not collusion.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 21 Feb 2018 @ 10:17am

    Bad Speech, Bad Ideas

    I'm almost ideologically in favor of openness, as Techdirt seems to be.

    The question is, with an open system that can be subverted anonymously (see criticisms of Facebooks "real name" policy, followed by the truth of its virtual unenforceability), how do you build in an "immune system" that keeps "bad speech" under some kind of control?

    It's going to be very context sensitive...above in the comments for this article we have some obvious troll comments, and while I can think of people who would be taken in by them, I've just skipped over them harmlessly.

    Likewise, when, according to The Atlantic, half the country is a christian tribe that doesn't want to be educated beyond the sixth grade, or exposed to radical propositions like two men marrying each other, how do you drag those folks into the 21st century reality of discussing ideas, and sorting the wheat from the chaff and even the muck?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 21 Feb 2018 @ 10:57am

      Re: Bad Speech, Bad Ideas

      "how do you build in an "immune system" that keeps "bad speech" under some kind of control?"

      By developing critical thinking. This can be done at school without resorting to partisanship or religious inclinations. A person capable of critical thinking will naturally question partisan and religious bs. Not saying it's an easy task and it would take more than 1 generation to work. And of course you need to have a government that is willing to pick the fight. So it's kind of very hard to implement.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Roger Strong (profile), 21 Feb 2018 @ 2:45pm

        Re: Re: Bad Speech, Bad Ideas

        By developing critical thinking. This can be done at school without resorting to partisanship or religious inclinations.

        For some, critical thinking hurts them in the polls.

        Which is why non-cash benefits that made teaching a good career choice have been chipped away. Job security, good health insurance, pensions, union/association protection etc. are mostly gone.

        Respect in community too, now that education and critical thinking are now a partisan issue used to attack those who teach it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          JEDIDIAH, 21 Feb 2018 @ 3:55pm

          Absurd nonsense. Ridiculous propaganda.

          Get a fucking grip. Public school teachers have NEVER been anything like you describe. Neither has the school curriculum. School is where you are taught to have a pathological fear of failure. The American schooling model is meant to produce soldiers and factory workers.

          The recent attacks on civil service benefits which correlate with similar declines in private sector benefits are irrelevant.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Roger Strong (profile), 21 Feb 2018 @ 4:41pm

            Re: Absurd nonsense. Ridiculous propaganda.

            Thank you for illustrating my point by example.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 22 Feb 2018 @ 6:06am

            Re: Absurd nonsense. Ridiculous propaganda.

            And universities and higher education is used to produce mindless liberals with no critical thought, only that their feelings are facts.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Roger Strong (profile), 22 Feb 2018 @ 6:50am

              Re: Re: Absurd nonsense. Ridiculous propaganda.

              Right. I forgot that education makes one a lib'rul. And that training in critical thinking makes one incapable of critical thinking.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Christenson, 22 Feb 2018 @ 8:03am

                Re: Re: Re: Absurd nonsense. Ridiculous propaganda.

                Roger, I disagree on what you forgot...

                Critical thinking is *hard work*...and it's a delicate thing that requires the right conditions to happen...not being to odesperate, not too rich and self-satisfied, not too self-interested or self-centered, not too narrow a perspective, a willingness to make mistakes and admit them. True education can help with these things, which is why it is dangerous.

                Liberals at least know the words and give them lip service. But they are no less human than anyone else.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 12:14pm

      Re: Bad Speech, Bad Ideas

      You should read up on Louis Pastuer. If it weren't for his knowledge that life doesn't spontaneously generate, you would still be drinking spoiled milk.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Christenson, 21 Feb 2018 @ 3:18pm

        Re: Re: Bad Speech, Bad Ideas

        There's been a recent outbreak in the US of bad problems happening to people because of unpasteurized, "RAW" milk as a fad. Then there's "RAW" water, too.

        I know he's rolling in his grave! We want to know how to stop people from killing themselves this way.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          JEDIDIAH, 21 Feb 2018 @ 3:59pm

          Re: Bad Speech, Bad Ideas

          Spring water is nothing new. It just looks new people that have never been paying attention.

          Cooking in general is a trade off between what you destroy that's good and what you destroy that's bad. Methods optimized for corporate corner cutting likely destroy too much of what you're trying to get out of something.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Christenson, 21 Feb 2018 @ 5:03pm

            Re: Re: Bad Speech, Bad Ideas

            Spring water isn't new, and it's generally been made safe by some processing (typically ozone and pasteurization). I'm talking about "RAW" water....with NONE OF THAT... look it up!

            Though there are those that point out to the incredible waste of bottled water, especially small bottles, in the face of generally drinkable (if not optimally tasty) piped municipal water supplies, (Flint, MI excepted).

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John Smith, 21 Feb 2018 @ 10:35am

    If we're so stupid that we can be manipulated on social media we're doomed.

    I'd like to see Twitter ban any account that is part of 100 accounts tweeting the same thing at the same time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    dcfusor (profile), 21 Feb 2018 @ 11:11am

    "If we're so stupid that we can be manipulated on social media we're doomed."


    We're doomed then. It isn't just foreign interference. I did a little test on social media. Create some accounts.

    The look at some extreme (YMMV on what constitutes that) content from "either side" on one, the "other side" on the other one. You will then be flooded with confirmation bias for whatever you've just been characterized as by their "deep learning" analytics - and it's hard to flush out, extremely. This isn't done so much for politics, as it is for ad sales and eyeballs - as usual, and just like politics, following the money gets you closer to truth.

    I did this as the partisanship that's turning up all over sickens me - friends can't agree to disagree anymore. Brother vs brother is rampant. It's like the shoeshop ray in Hitchhiker's guide is telling us all to hate one another, and because your guy is wrong, mine is right - which is obvious bullshit. Perhaps neither side is "right" or has anyone's interest at heart other than their own, which interest is of course, the money they get paid by lobbies.

    The unthinking religion of partisanship on either "side" is destroying this country. If it's the Russians fault, bad on them - but how about Google, Facebook, Youtube, all advertisers and so on - who have a lot more money, and thus influence and power than a piddly trolling operation that was utterly outspent by either party...Occam's Razor, people. And it's not like our own government doesn't want to "control the narrative" either, and didn't even try to hide the initiative, started of course, while no one was watching...
    https://phys.org/news/2011-10-darpa-master-propaganda-narrative-networks.html
    And of course, it doesn't matter what party was in power at the time to the "true believers" - they give the one with their bias a free pass...

    Too much hypocrisy for my taste. How about we come together and agree they're all against the little guy (eg anyone who can't afford to lobby), as they demonstrate daily?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 21 Feb 2018 @ 12:33pm

      Re:

      I did this as the partisanship that's turning up all over sickens me - friends can't agree to disagree anymore.

      I'm not going to agree to disagree with white supremacists, nor call them my friends. That's not partisanship, it's basic decency.

      It's like the shoeshop ray in Hitchhiker's guide is telling us all to hate one another,

      Huh? The Shoe Shop Intensifier Ray made people want to buy shoes.

      Or was supposed to. It was actually a placebo. It didn't do anything.

      Not sure what this has to do with making people hate each other.

      Perhaps neither side is "right" or has anyone's interest at heart other than their own, which interest is of course, the money they get paid by lobbies.

      That's true, but I'm not sure how it's relevant to the topic at hand.

      If it's the Russians fault, bad on them - but how about Google, Facebook, Youtube, all advertisers and so on - who have a lot more money, and thus influence and power than a piddly trolling operation that was utterly outspent by either party...Occam's Razor, people.

      Occam's Razor states that the simplest solution is the correct one. What "simplest solution" are you alluding to here?

      And it's not like our own government doesn't want to "control the narrative" either

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whataboutism

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      christenson, 21 Feb 2018 @ 3:36pm

      Re:

      OK, so we now find that advertising dollars drive much of the polarization through automation; you there, you seem to be reading Mein Kampf, so we'll send you more Nazi material and connect you with Nazi friends so you will look at our ads!

      Never mind you are actually a Nazi hunter!

      When we had limits on speech through scarcity, in the form of TV and newspapers, this degree of isolation of the individual was impossible. Maybe a piece of this solution is to require platforms to create a *public* piece of their experience shared by everyone.

      That is, one very important way in which Facebook, etc differs from Techdirt is that everyone that comes to Techdirt sees the same posts, the same comments, creating a common experience even for our favorite troll, "out-of-the-blue". I think that is valuable and possibly a piece of the solution we seek.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 12:23pm

    Good work, Mike. I knew we could count on you to make a "poor little misunderstood Facebook" post.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 12:24pm

      Re:

      I can't wait to see what TD looks like when Zuckerberg announces his presidential campaign. I bet you'll barely be able to contain your excitement.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 22 Feb 2018 @ 12:44am

      Re:

      Of course, we criticize Facebook all the time. The company does lots of really dumb things. I'm curious to see if you'll have any comments on my post coming up later today that slams Facebook... or will you suddenly disappear.

      Taking bets...?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 2:29pm

    Why are you surprised that we are so influenced by social media?

    Great example, I bet quite a few of you want to ban "assault rifles" or AR15s. Correct?

    A Ruger Mini 14 is not either of the above and would not be affected by a ban on either one of the above, but it does exactly the same thing as both of the above. People worry about the hype, not the substance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 2:37pm

      Re:

      No one is surprised by this, least of all the author. What he's saying though is we should not go trampling on our freedoms just because somebody abused them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 2:48pm

      Re:

      That’s nice and all, but the adults are taking about free speech, not banning guns. So please sweep up after your strawman.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        JEDIDIAH, 21 Feb 2018 @ 4:04pm

        Lies, damned lies, and journalism.

        Both are inalienable rights that our founders thought important enough to put at the top of the list.

        The hysteria over "big scary guns" is a great example of media manipulation (conventional or social). Clueless dimwits create and propagate all kids of nonsense and propaganda quite without the help of foreign nationals or hostile governments.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Roger Strong (profile), 21 Feb 2018 @ 4:58pm

          Re: Lies, damned lies, and journalism.

          Both are inalienable rights that our founders thought important enough to put at the top of the list.

          Guns? A constitutional amendment several years later doesn't seem like "top of the list."

          The hysteria over "big scary guns" is a great example of media manipulation...

          ...by gun owners who keep shooting up schools and other crowds every few weeks.

          Look, we sympathise with you that mandatory background checks, a ban on assault rifles and some basic safety rules to prevent weekly shootings by children would really hurt your manhood. But how about we send you OUR thoughts and prayers for a change?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            The Wanderer (profile), 22 Feb 2018 @ 4:05am

            Re: Re: Lies, damned lies, and journalism.

            By "top of the list", he appears to have meant "the list of specifically-enumerated rights, when they got around to enumerating those rights in amendments to be on the safe side, after having initially tried to not enumerate any in the original Constitution".

            IIRC the original argument way back when was that enumerating any rights would lead people towards thinking that any rights not enumerated did not exist, and they wanted to go with an explicit-grant-of-powers rather than explicit-grant-of-rights model, but after the Constitution originally passed the side arguing that failing to enumerate important rights would inevitably lead those rights to be ignored later on won out.

            And indeed, the two rights mentioned - free speech and (by paraphrase) bearing arms - are covered by the first two Amendments in the list of Amendments.

            gun owners who keep shooting up schools and other crowds every few weeks

            More frequently than that, actually, depending on your threshold for "shooting up".

            When I first heard about the recent mass shooting that's in current public discussion, which occurred approximately six weeks in to 2018, it was cited as being the eighth school shooting thus far in 2018.

            Now, they didn't specify their criteria for what they were counting as a school shooting; I've seen reports that some such counts include things as inapplicable as "a police officer doing a firearms-related demonstration to a high-school class flubbed the demonstration and shot himself in the foot while trying to get the gun out of the holster" through "a gun went off accidentally, hitting nobody" all the way down as far as "a student whose family keeps guns in the house forgot that he had one in the car when he was driving to school". And certainly most of the other seven will not have been on anything near the scale of Number Eight.

            But even if half of those eight turn out to be invalid, that's still considerably more frequent than "every few weeks".

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Feb 2018 @ 6:53pm

          Re: Lies, damned lies, and journalism.

          No ones talking about big scarey guns but you bro.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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