IS/ISIS/ISIL, social media, and censorship – there is a solution

Shortly after the news broke about the murder of a journalist for money, and the existence of a video showing the beheading, major social media platforms flew into a panic. Their inevitable corporate-reactionary response was to completely scrub their services of any sign of the militant group – or the video – but that only triggered a new wave of concerns about Internet censorship. It’s a thorny problem – on the one hand, social media servers are private property and the companies that own them should have the right to choose who they want to allow to use them… but on the other, these companies have tried so damn hard, aided by our complacency, to become the gatekeepers of the Internet and have total control of our online experience, and having succeeded, they should not be allowed to control or censor the information we can access. There is a solution to this dilemma, but it involves changing the system.

The Internet in general, and social media in particular, has become a powerful tool for the oppressed, the marginalized, and basically anyone with an unpopular opinion. That is, unequivocally, a good thing. There are many good ideas and worthy causes that have long been pressed into silence and obscurity because the powers that controlled media simply didn’t agree with them. Palestine is an excellent contemporary example. Virtually all big media is solidly in support of Israel, and their reporting has always been unabashedly biased in Israel’s favour. But independent reporting by non-mainstream journalists and the voices of Palestinians themselves reaching the world through social media and blogs has caused a dramatic shift in the public perception of the conflict in Gaza. It doesn’t matter what your position on the conflict is – you have to admit social media has changed the way people are talking about it.

But with the good comes the bad. Once you open the doors for all ideas to be freely shared without censorship by governments or big business, you can’t expect that only people with legitimate concerns and opinions would take advantage. Of course the crazies and the assholes are going to jump on board too.

The Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS or “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”, and before that as ISIL or “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” – little buggers’ dreams just keep expanding, eh?) have long been using major social media platforms to promote their shit and to recruit. They haven’t exactly been subtle about it, either. For example, during the 2014 World Cup, they jumped on several popular hashtags on Twitter to get their shit more widely seen. There were dozens of accounts – some official and some just whackjob fans – on all of the major social media platforms.

In the past, the corporations that owned these platforms simply let them be. Their explanation – misguided as it was – was that so long as as IS didn’t violate their Terms of Service, there was no reason to ban them from using the service. It wasn’t a problem that they were posting things the corporate masters found disgusting or reprehensible, the logic went, because they didn’t want to “censor” the content on their services. That’s how we ended up with the absurd situation where you could post long screeds about how much you were looking forward to beheading infidels – complete with bloody pictures of the bodies of your (non-white, non-Western) victims – with no problems… but you can be be banned for showing a nipple.

Granted, poking fun at the absurdity of American moral panic is swiping at low-hanging fruit, but there is a deeper problem here. A small number of corporations have positioned themselves as the gatekeepers of the Internet, and we have foolishly allowed them to do it. If you stop and think about it, the corporate censorship policies of Google or Facebook or Twitter really shouldn’t be all that important to us. Instead, they’re front-page news material. Because so many people rely on these centralized services – often because they have to, because it is impractical not to when “everybody else” is using them – that those services are, in a very real way, their whole view of the entire Internet. So when one of those companies decides to censor or allow something, that can drastically change the character of the entire Internet as viewed by most users, and that can have profound and far reaching effects even beyond cyberspace. Let me demonstrate.

As mentioned above, up until last week the big corporations of the Internet had generally allowed IS to use their services to publicize their shit, and to recruit. That laissez-faire approach blew up in their faces a couple days ago when people started sharing images from the beheading video on their platforms (and, probably the video itself), which left the giant social media corporations scrambling to finally, and belatedly, clamp down on them. Now, IS is effectively completely banned from Twitter and YouTube. The administrators of those services – with the help of an active and observant user base who report any new activity – have done a masterful job of stomping out new accounts almost as soon as they get activated.

That’s all fine and good… but what if those companies instituted the same policy for supporters of Palestine? I posted a link above explaining how Palestine has managed, after years of being demonized in mainstream media, to use social media to get its side of the Gaza conflict out, and how that has profoundly changed the international perception of the conflict. Whatever your position on that conflict, you cannot deny the fact that social media has changed the game completely. So imagine if those companies controlling the popular social media platforms had decided that pro-Palestinian groups were “terrorist groups”, and silenced them… just like they have now silenced IS.

Or if you object to my using Palestine as an example, what if those companies decided that those who stand in solidarity against the murder of Michael Brown were rabble-rousing, criminally minded anarchists, and started silencing those accounts?

That’s way too much power for anybody to have, but particularly a corporation that can easily be influenced by money or political pressure. The bizarreness of their Terms of Service and content policies is a direct result of these kinds of influences. It’s why we end up with a social media universe where posting a dick picture will get your account banned… but conducting a long-running campaign of harassment and intimidation against a feminist activist is just fine.

This is the problem with the popular social media as it exists today. It is all controlled by a handful of corporations. They are the gatekeepers of all knowledge and opinion on their various platforms, and their platforms are, in essence, the Internet for a vast majority of people.

But in the title of this post I promised a solution. Here it is:

After IS was booted off of the major social media platforms, they immediately started scurrying in search of alternatives. And alternatives they found. In short order IS started popping up on Diaspora, Friendica, and Quitter (which is GNU Social). What happened next was predictable – the administrators of the servers where IS set up accounts promptly started quashing them, just as the big corporations had done. For example, here is the Diaspora foundation saying they don’t want to give IS a platform for their shit.

Now you may be scratching your head at this point, wondering how that is different from Google, Facebook, or Twitter banning IS from their services. To explain the answer I’m going to have to explain some of the technology involved.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter are centralized services. Everything goes through a central server – google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, or twitter.com, and so on, depending on the service. The network map of any of these services looks like this:

There is a server in the center, with 12 clients connected to it spread around it.

A map of the layout of a centralized network. All clients of the network must connect to the single server.

The big corporations love this model because it gives them absolute control over the network. All information necessarily flows through their server where it can be collected, analyzed, and possibly monetized. And all users are subject to their whims, which could be as benign as wanting to push ads at them but could (and does) go as far as controlling what information the users are allowed to see, just to fuck with them.

This is where all the problems come from. In theory, there shouldn’t be any problem with Twitter deciding it doesn’t want IS shit on their servers, or with Facebook deciding nipples are worse than crushed limbs; they should absolutely have the freedom to make those decisions (and we should have the freedom to laud or criticize them, naturally). But when they have monopolistic control, their corporate decisions – wise or flaky – have far-reaching implications for freedom of expression on the Internet in general. Nor is the “free market” a solution: if there were a multitude of competing services there wouldn’t be a problem at first, because if we thought Facebook’s policies were idiotic we could simply move to a competitor, but that would create the problem of disconnected “islands” on the Internet, where the people in one community never see or interact with those in another community (or, alternatively, if inter-service communication is allowed, it could be filtered by either party). These monolithic services at least have the benefit of keeping us all connected and communicating.

Consider the three cases illustrated below. In the first case, the company – be it Twitter, Facebook, Google, whatever – simply lets disinterested algorithms decide what you might find interesting (based on your past likes/dislikes, for example). In the second case, they have decided that the information being shared by SOURCE is something they want more people to see (perhaps because it aligns with the political/ideological beliefs of the company, or maybe they were just paid extra cash by SOURCE). In the third case, they have decided that the information being shared by SOURCE is not something they want many people to see, for whatever reason.

There are 3 network maps that are largely identical - they all consist of a server in the centre with 12 connected clients spread around it. On the right, data is shown flowing from a source node to the server, then to 4 other nodes. In the middle, data is showing flowing from a source node to the server, then to all 11 other nodes. On the left, data is shown flowing from a source node to the server, then nowhere else.

How the server in a centralized network can control the spread of information. In the first case (on the left), information published by the source reaches only parties that have previously expressed interest in that kind of information. In the second (centre), the server has decided to spread the information to as many people as possible, whether they have expressed previous interest or not. In the third (right), the server has decided to suppress the information, even from users that would have been interested in it.

That is a pretty clear illustration of what censorship and thought control (via control of information) looks like. And that’s not hypothetical, that’s actually how these services really work (the Facebook experiment, for example, was just a case of playing with the weighting algorithm and watching the results). That is the reason why the content policies are international news, the reason why their blocking of content they disagree with is censorship. And it is the reason why it is something we all need to be seriously concerned about.

But what about those other services I mentioned? Well, Diaspora, Friendica, and GNU Social are distributed services. They are spread out like a web – much like the Internet itself. This has technical benefits; if any one server goes down, the rest of the web is more or less unaffected – information could be routed around the missing node. Indeed, it would take significant chunks of the network to fail before it made any observable difference.

There are 5 servers, each of which is connected to the other 4. In addition, each of the 5 servers has 3 users connected to it.

A map of the layout of a distributed network. All clients of the network must connect to a server, but there are several interconnected servers.

But more important than the technical superiority of this design is the practical value. In a distributed network, there are many servers – not just one – and whatever gets posted on one server gets passed through the network to all the other servers, then finally to the users. That means that even if a number of servers decide they want to block your content, that probably won’t be enough to actually block it completely. And that is a vitally important point.

The fallacy in the centralized model used by Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc., is that corporations are put in the position where they must act both as unregulated private corporations – protecting their own interests and making money to justify their existence – and as providers of necessary utilities services – much like water or electricity. Can you imagine your local water authority deciding not to pump water to the houses of people they disagree with? No one would think to criticize their local power company for giving power to a racist organization’s meeting hall, yet we expect Twitter to shut down accounts of hatemongers. It’s a contradiction born out of the position these companies have put themselves in, and that we’ve let them adopt. The model in decentralized networks is very different – it views the Internet in general as a vast open field that we all can have our own private plots of land on. I can tell people I don’t like – like racists – that I don’t want them camping on my land or even passing through it, but they still have the freedom to walk around the outskirts of my property on unclaimed land, and even get their own property to camp on. If someone puts mail in my box that I don’t like, I can simply refuse to read it and discard it without passing it on without censoring them – they’re still free to send mail, and whoever wants to read their shit can find it and read it.

This is not to say that all messages or ideas will have equal weight. Messages and ideas that are popular will be shared more often, increasing their visibility throughout the network, while bad or stupid ideas that no one wants to hear will languish in obscurity… but even those ideas will still be available, for anyone who ever wants to hear them. The “natural selection” of ideas will favour some ideas and frown on others, but nothing actually gets censored.

So when the Diaspora Foundation decided they didn’t want IS on their servers, they weren’t censoring IS from the entire Diaspora network… while when Twitter said they didn’t want IS on their servers they were censoring them from the entire Twitter network. The difference is that in Diaspora’s case, IS is still free to go to another server in the network – or set up their own – and publish their shit… while in Twitter’s case, their decision effectively removed IS from that entire protocol. IS can still be on the Diaspora network (just not the Diaspora Foundation’s servers, or the servers of anyone who follows the Foundation’s lead and bans the group as well), but being blacklisted by the major servers tells other users of the network that these guys are not wanted, which is a signal to you that you might want to ignore them… though you’re free to ignore the community’s advice and listen to IS‘s message if you want to.

That’s exactly the way the Internet and social media should be. That is what a free and open Internet looks like. Nothing can truly be censored, but the Internet society can signal general approval or disgust with things – and you’re free to listen to their suggestions or not, as you please.

And make no mistake, the Diaspora Foundation and the other organizations associated with the decentralized networks I mentioned take the issue of free expression and Internet censorship very seriously. Those ideas were were the primary motivators behind the original creation of these decentralized services (along with privacy, and owning your own Internet identity). Hell, when news got around that the Diaspora Foundation had booted IS from their servers and sent messages to other servers asking them to the same, people lost their shit. But slowly the realization has dawned across the networks that what had happened wasn’t really censorship, just the community making a judgement… that individuals were free to listen to or ignore. If you read down through the comments in the post in that link, and you can actually see people figuring this out, and saying: “… Wait a minute, it’s working. The high-minded ideals we had behind founding these services… they’re working!”

And it is working. The bigots at IS are being shown the door, but they are not being censored. They still have the freedom to publicize their message over the same service… they just don’t have the right to do so from any server they please. They can damn well set up their own server, if they can’t find one that will host them.

And there is an important corollary to this: it makes the responsibilities of server administrators clearer and more meaningful. For example, consider the case of the harassment of feminists (or women in general) on Twitter. Twitter has been leery of instituting blanket bans or strict policies against misogynists because it would amount to censorship. Twitter may be a private company, but they are also the utilities provider of a vitally important Internet service – there’s a lot of people whose careers depend on Twitter. And like a utilities provider, they can’t just cut the power to people’s houses willy-nilly. The terrain of issues and consequences they have to navigate is a minefield for them. On Diaspora, however, the administrators of a server can cheerfully institute strict and clear anti-harassment policies, and enforce them vigorously, because when they ban an asshole from their server, they’re not banning them the service as a whole – the asshole is free to move elsewhere, if they can find anyone to put up with them, or put the effort into setting up their own server so they can have a platform for their assholery. That means that if there is a server that is hosting a bunch of assholes and harassers, victims and onlookers can and should expect the server admins to do something about them… or let it be publicly known that they condone that behaviour (and thus face the shaming that will follow). There can be no more weaselling out by pleading that you’re defending free expression and trying not to censor, because on open networks banning from one server (or many) does not equal censorship.

Just imagine what the social mediaverse would be like if it were like that. Suppose some asshole on the same server as you is spreading hate or harassing you. If it’s your server… just kick ‘em off; you’re under no obligation to host jerks on your property. If it’s not, you can contact the server admins and explain what is going on, and demand action or explanation. They will either ban the asshole – which is not censoring them, because they can go to any other server and still be part of the network – or they will have to come up with a damn good explanation of why they can’t/won’t… and the “I believe in freedom of expression and oppose censorship” canard won’t fly anymore. If the admins of that server won’t take the action they should and won’t give a good explanation of why not, you can just leave and either go to another server… or set one up on your own. And you can configure your own server to block incoming stuff from assholes you know, or from servers that you know host assholes – which is, in technical terms, much like a boycott (if enough people do it, it lowers that server’s visibility over the whole network, though it’s still there).

That’s the way the Internet should be.

Denizens of Diaspora have come to realize that their network has got it right. Some of them have gotten perhaps a little smug about it, and are cheekily “welcoming” IS to the Diaspora network (#NewHere is a tag used to greet newcomers to the Diaspora network), and posting stuff making fun of them to their attention. Tell me that’s not the way the Internet should be. Open to everyone (even if you’re not welcome on any existing servers, you can always make your own), but if you put your shit out there, expect it to be openly and freely praised, criticized, or even mocked, such as it deserves.

And let me be clear, Diaspora is neither the only nor even necessarily the best decentralized network – for Facebook/Google+-like stuff there’s also Friendica, Friendica Red, Libertree… or for Twitter-like stuff there’s GNU social, pump.io – Diaspora just happens to be the network I know most about (and that had the most info about IS readily available).

Most of the distributed social networks are under heavy development, but I strongly urge you to give one or two a whirl. If you’d like to dip your toes into an open and free Twitter, try Quitter (which uses GNU Social). If you want something more Facebook/Google+-like, try Diaspora – just pick a pod (Friendica is also nice, but less user-friendly, and is currently undergoing what may be a massively cool upgrade to “Friendica Red”, so I won’t recommend the casual user try it at the moment). Bear in mind that if you like any of these networks, you can – in the future – set up your own instance and transfer yourself over, to take complete ownership of your Internet presence yet still be totally connected.

This is what the future of the Internet should be like, and it is very likely that it will eventually be that way. It is absurd that we are stuck with these closed-off services wholly owned by unregulated private corporations – who then get automatic ownership of all of our content and our Internet identities when we use their service, and who control the information we see. It is absurd that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have to share a platform equally with IS (up until a few days ago) or any of these idiots. It is absurd that shitheads have to be allowed to harass and terrorize people because any action taken against them by the administrators might be too draconian, because the service is an important and integral part of the modern Internet, and if they get banned from the service they’re totally and absolutely gone from it (barring creating a new account, but that’s not really a solution).

Seriously consider ditching the existing, monolithic, walled-off social networks in favour of distributed networks. It will be hard at first – you can always keep one foot back in the dark ages until you’re ready to make the move for real – but it really is the future of the Internet. If you make the move now, and stick with it, all your Facebook/Twitter/Google+ friends will follow eventually. And what a beautiful social Internet it will be when that day comes.

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IS/ISIS/ISIL, social media, and censorship – there is a solution by Indiana, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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