social-media

Also posted here.

Whatever one thinks about Russia and Wikileaks working to influence the 2016 Presidential election, it’s clear that Russia and Wikileaks were not powerful enough to elect Donald Trump by themselves. Instead, they relied upon legions of re-tweeters and commenters on social media to intimidate and belittle people who questioned a foreign power meddling with American democracy. Should Americans have known better than to believe thousands of commenters saying that Hillary’s emails prove she’s corrupt? Perhaps, but the cumulative effect of these sorts of repeated comments should not be dismissed.

Internet trolls are nothing new; liberals and conservatives have been shouting at (and often past) each other in comment sections for the better part of the 21st century. Two things changed since the election: one, a profound sense of punching down, because Trump supporters, now controlling the U.S. government in every conceivable way, are in many ways bullying their opponents, and two, a profound credence given to lies that Trump supports, e.g. these. Sure, perhaps we should all develop a thicker skin, but it’s difficult to measure the level of demoralization that comes from the ubiquity of bullying, hostile, mendacious comments.

Perhaps some opponents of political correctness feel that they have been victims of hostile fabrications regarding their bias, and thus Trump-supportive comments are simply tit-for-tat. Perhaps. Certainly, both sides engage in bullying and lying. So there’s nothing to be done, right?

Wrong.

Now, let me be clear: I would never deny an American the right to free speech. But a non-American, well…

I want you to picture Facebook, Twitter, instagram, snapchat, reddit, youtube and news site comment sections with a tiny new piece of information next to the commenter’s name/handle: the comment’s country of origin. So, for example, my next comment might say “Daniel Smith-Rowsey • USA” or similar.

So the next time we’re arguing over whether or not Trump is going to give Putin America’s military secrets, we can see “John Smith • Moldova” and “Jane Jones • Ukraine” or whatever. Something tells me the people on the comment thread won’t be taking the non-Americans, like the ones Samantha Bee interviewed, very seriously for very long.

I know what you’re thinking: it won’t work. People will make up the name of the country they’re commenting from. Well, if you think that will work for liars, you’re wrong, and you probably haven’t spent a lot of time in foreign countries.

Wherever you go, pop-up ads appear that are tailored not only to your preferences, but your location. Google (who owns YouTube) and Facebook (who owns Instagram) and many other sites know where you are. They recognize your computer’s IP’s country of origin. And if you have a cell phone, they recognize the country where that phone was purchased and made active. They probably even recognize the country of the wi-fi spot you’re using.

Anyone who advertises on social media learns where you are. That includes all the news sites. If I paid Google enough money tomorrow, I would know what country you’re in.

That’s why I don’t consider my plan an enormous violation of privacy; you’ve already given that information to any corporation who has paid enough.

Let’s be clear: this could start as an “opt in” thing rather than an “opt out.” I suspect that eventually, the people who have opted out will be seen as suspicious. Their pro-Trump comments will carry the stigma of foreigners trying to tell us Americans what to do and what to think.

My wife, who I love, was born and raised in a foreign country. Ten years ago I lived (for two years) in Britain. I believe everyone should have the freedom to live anywhere and post on the internet from anywhere. One thing I love about Web 2.0 are threads that involve passionate people from all over the world. That won’t change with what I’m saying.

Earlier I suggested that I only believe in free speech for Americans. Well, that isn’t true. I do believe everyone in the world should have free speech. But the fact is that in many countries, speech is restricted. In some countries, like North Korea, they can force you to say what they want you to say. I don’t think our social media should be polluted by unfree speech.

Every year with my undergrads, I argue on behalf of privacy to their seeming indifference, their “what do you have to hide?”-ism. Every year I argue for 25 different areas of American life that must remain private; I sometimes direct them here. And yes, I still passionately believe that those things should remain private. But I no longer think that about country of origin when it comes to social media. It’s not like anyone needs social media the way that we do food or shelter. Social media is a privilege, and it needs to be protected differently than our rights.

Ten years ago, many of us decided to eschew the anonymity of MySpace and use (or migrate to) the rather more transparent Facebook, complete with our actual first and last names. Why? Probably because too much anonymity was a bad excuse for people to get away with too much. Same thing now.

Putin has very talented hackers, but he also relies upon, and I believe pays (perhaps indirectly), a much larger amount of trolls who expand his “soft power,” like the people Samantha Bee interviewed. If my proposal happens, that will piss him off. That’s almost a good enough reason for my proposal by itself.

Let me be clear that I’m not proposing a law change, merely a policy change for the big companies in social media and the news media. These companies have proven very receptive to customer agitation in the past.

I would think Sarah Palin’s “real Americans,” the ones who believe our country is better than anyone else’s, would be the first to agree with a proposal like mine.

I know one last thing you’re thinking: paid trolls get paid in America. Sure. But I know us: I bet we cost more and do less.

Will there still be pro-Trump trolls with a “USA” next to their name? Of course. But I have a feeling they’re going to be vastly, and I mean vastly, outnumbered. And that will serve as a very healthy reminder of the sanity of those of us who still love democracy, pluralism, the Constitution, women, minorities, and so many other things that feel so unsafe in the Trump era.

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