According to the New York Times, Facebook employed Definers, a DC-based PR company that attempted to blame George Soros for the anti-Facebook movement 'Freedom from Facebook' because it wanted to divert attention from the scandal around the so-called foreign interference in the 2016 US elections, hate speech and the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Sputnik discussed this with Paul Levy, author of the book Digital Inferno.
Sputnik: What do you make of the accusations against George Soros and how justified are they?
Paul Levy: This is going to be a really difficult one to unpack, particularly in the world of fake news and the way that social media reports things, but clearly the accusations against George Soros are not new as well. He's been attacked on a number of different occasions because he speaks out against companies like Facebook and the rise of social media platforms that, by claiming to be neutral, allow conversation to happen that can be anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic and anti- quite a lot of other things. The difficulty also comes when a company such as Facebook claims to have a very public mission. Right from the start, Mark Zuckerberg talks about needing to create a world that is more open and more connected and yet when these things come up, we know that these large companies, some of which have incomes bigger than some countries, are in a constant, dynamic conversation with governments and other corporations. So on the one hand they're having to meet the needs of shareholders, they have brands, they have relationships upwards in the hierarchy of our world towards government but also they have a huge user based that needs to trust them and believe in them. So the accusations against George Soros suggest this is the corporation reacting rather than the public service organization.
Sputnik: How likely is it that George Soros actually encouraged groups to criticize the tech giants, do you believe that to be true?
Paul Levy: Certainly George Soros is, you know, a big enough presence in the world to have his own voice, but also possibly involves, as most large organizations do, PR companies in making their case and saying what they want to say. George Soros has been fairly consistent as an individual, pointing to the worrying rise of these large corporations and their influence, which potentially can be on the elections, just by claiming them to be neutral but then not scrutinizing the (private) content on their websites, which can allow hate speech, it can allow racism, it can allow corporate interests to be served. What Mark Zuckerberg was saying is 'we're just a platform', but quite clearly if these companies are also reacting as corporations against people attacking them, then we have a conflict of interest here. The thing that I find most interesting here is that the very companies that claim that they would like us to be more open and connected, along with Google and Apple, quite often when they're asked to comment, they decline to comment when it comes to their own behaviour.
Sputnik: We also know that Facebook executives have allegedly looked into whether US President Donald Trump broke any of the network's rules when posting about the subject matter of immigration back in 2015. That move led to many people saying that banning Donald Trump could be seen as a violation of free speech. It seems as though one rule for some and another rule for others in many cases like that, what's your take on the matter?
Paul Levy: I suppose I'd say, and it's not in terms of defending them, because I don't think this was about George Soros or Donald Trump particularly, if I were to say on social media something anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic, that isn't acceptable with those policies. But what's interesting that when suggested that Trump be banned from Twitter, Jack Dorsey on Twitter made the defence that what he is saying, even if unacceptable, is news worthy, so they kind of went for openness and he's still there.
The issue becomes, once again this popular kind of conflict, is: are these platforms genuinely neutral so we can have the conversation? Clearly not. Because they've had to put governance in place fairly quickly, especially with these kind of the robots that are putting out hate speech and are trying to influence what we think and we see.
So the problem becomes what is their agenda. How open is their agenda? What are their views higher up, including when Mark Zuckerberg was worried that Trump may have broken the rules. He couldn't be seen to be an autonomous editor of Facebook from the top, so they took it down and tried to delegate and that's when they went into huge confusion, because clearly they no longer knew what to do.
Sputnik: This is not the first time tech giants have attempted to censor conservative opinions either on their platforms, how open-minded and free are these networks actually?
Paul Levy: Interestingly what you say is, of course, what has now is being called generation Z, the kind of post-millennial generation are being seen to be leading these traditional social media platforms, along with things like fake news. They don't trust the large corporations, they're looking for other ways to connect. In some ways it's an understandable problem for Facebook too, because is it actually viable to be a commercial organization with strong connections behind closed doors to other corporations; the other corporations, the enemy of Facebook and its competitors we know they talk to each other as well, is it possible to do that? And to do the equivalent of me, say on a personal level, opening a cafe and saying come into my cafe and have conversations about anything you want, the cafe is just a neutral platform and then when people come in and do you hate speech who is going to stop that from happening?
The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.