Editorial: Freedom, licentiousness, fraud and censorship online

US Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has had little to say about the flood of bogus political attack messages from Russia, Trump supporters and other pseudonymous sources that characterized the 2016 US presidential election campaign. But now he is suing the owner of this Twitter account and Twitter itself because it’s one MEAN cow to him.

Freedom of expression online: get past the slogans and into reality

This editor was in 2016 and is now one of the moderators of the Expats for Sanders Facebook group. It’s small-time, but expanded exponentially in a couple of waves back then.

In the primary season there was a flood of fake personas — most of them bots (bits computer data not backed by any sort of responsive human being) and a number of them real people operating under false pretenses. Delete those people and bots and there would often be someone screaming about freedom of speech — and almost never was such a person both human and what she or he claimed to be. There were the set-ups, men saying sexist things — the script was to call Hillary Clinton a “whore” — to be then pointed out to Clintonistas in the corporate mainstream media as proof of the vile existence of “Bernie Bros.” There was a genre of ‘I used to support Bernie but now ____’ by characters never identifiable with Sanders at any point and sometimes identifiably the opposite — when these posters were not bots.

The nomination decided, there were waves of scurrilous anti-Clinton messages, some clearly not written by anyone very familiar with American English, a lot memes posted by bots, a lot by humans under false pretenses coming from three main directions that we could discern at the time.

A minor one was actual Green activists trolling for a few recruits for the Jill Stein campaign. There were also bots and fake personas promoting Jill not because they like the Greens but to divert votes from the Democrats.

There were the online pioneering neofascists. From them there was all this “Killary” conspiracy stuff and when there were real people instead of bots one was likely to find a page full of Confederate flags, postings from Nazi sites or so on.

There was all this pseudo-ideological stuff, the main point of which was “Don’t Vote.” There was a heavy preponderance of bots among the carriers of such messages.

Later we found out that there were Russians behind many of each sort of these messages. But I was the guy who got called a Stalinist for deleting messages and blocking those people and programs that posted them.

Donald Trump’s campaign gave the Russians 75 pages of its polling data for the Kremlin to orchestrate its social media interventions in the 2016 US presidential election. Will we now hear the likes of Devin Nunes hollering about “innocent until proven guilty” and “freedom of speech?” No doubt.

But of course, like a group meeting in a hall or a bartender trying to maintain a friendly ambience, it’s legal to have bouncers who eject belligerent people who have come to disrupt the proceedings. The same goes with any social media group.

Is it freedom of the press when a president uses public funds to buy a media empire, which then becomes a partisan attack and disinformation machine? That’s what Ricardo Martinelli did, that’s what El Panama America, La Critica, NexTV and so on are and the dysfunctional Electoral Tribunal and Electoral Prosecutor carefully refuse to admit any of this. But when the tribunal is accused by the Martinelista standard bearer of telling Twitter to erase accounts so as to skew the 2019 Panamanian electoral debate, the magistrates say that it simply isn’t true, that they can’t and didn’t tell Twitter to do anything of the sort.

The game is underdeveloped in Panama, but foreign consultants do get put into play. In 2014 and 2009, the game was “call centers” that mobilized strings of real people assuming fictitious personas to write scurrilous diatribes in the comment sections below articles in the mainstream media. It still happens a bit, but in La Prensa you have to buy a subscription to play the game, some of the papers have electronic alarm systems to pull out the really flagrant stuff, The Panama News just doesn’t allow comments below articles and so on. Panamanian political slop-slinging has come into its own on Twitter and to a lesser extent of Facebook. Instagram and WhatsApp are the expanding new frontiers of this here.

As we saw the other day in New Zealand, social media fascism has reached ugly extremes. In 2016 it was Dutch intelligence — allegedly — that tipped off the Obama administration about the Russian social media game being run on US politics. The Europeans, you see, also have that problem.  (Did Obama already know via National Security Agency eavesdropping, but find it a more palatable cover story to talk about a tip from The Netherlands? It will surely be a question explored for many years by historians.)

In any case there is a great hue and cry from many directions and the giants of the industry — Facebook / Instagram, Google / YouTube and Twitter — have been purging most most vicious of messengers, fraudulent accounts and hate messages. It must be distressing to Donald Trump to have had tens of thousands of his bots kicked out of the social media, but that was done. Very likely lesser Panamanian investors of the same moral cut have suffered similar losses.

Like the “free speech” auxiliaries of the fake personas I have thrown out of Expats for Sanders, Rómulo Roux cries foul. All it really ought to do is raise questions of the gutter tactics he had underway that may have been compromised.

A vintage example of boorish US political satire. Nowadays the skewering of the late US President Gerald R. Ford would be acceptable, but the recycling of an old joke about people with cerebral palsy would be considered cruel beyond the pale. Actually, Ford was the most accomplished athlete ever to live in the White House. He may also have suffered from brain damage from repeated concussions in his playing days. For a time a few people made a good living from jokes about how maladroit Jerry Ford was, but people with neuromuscular disorders usually have a hard time making a living. Panamanian culture is cruel about this, with some islands of kindness and understanding. In this campaign season too many politicians affect charity rather than stand up for rights.

And then there is Delmiro Quiroga, the cartoonist who does both some truly brilliant stuff and crap that plays on base prejudices. He’s a fixture in Panamanian popular culture and the other day he got a notice that due to “unusual activity” his Twitter account was suspended.

Delmiro deserves more of a reason than that. Even if Twitter has a right to police its feeds and eject those who promote racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, homophobia and so on.

The problem with that is the vast scale of fraud and hatred that has been injected into the overall Twitter feed. And meanwhile over on Facebook, the fascist mass murderer’s video from the mosques in Christchurch went viral and nobody reported the crime to Facebook. Just a problem in one small corner of the social media scene. If management throws out a great mass of fraud and hatred without taking the time to hear either reasonable or scurrilous objections, that might e understood. But the aggrieved should get a hearing.

It gets us down to what the social media are — an important part of modern life, platforms through which freedom of expression is exercised, and covert nefarious business plans about collecting and selling information about people.

These services are international and that complicates things, but Twitter, Google and Facebook really ought to be bought out and run as public utilities. But by whom and under what sorts of understandings? It’s not an impossible puzzle, but it is a great challenge for our times.



O people! Your Lord is one Lord, and you all share the same father. There is no preference for Arabs over non-Arabs, nor for non-Arabs over Arabs. Neither is there preference for white people over black people, nor for black people over white people. Preference is only through righteousness.


Bear in mind…


In every society, the definitions of sanity and madness are arbitrary — are, in a sense, political.
Susan Sontag


Hating people is like burning down your house to get rid of a rat.
Harry Emerson Fosdick


To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.
Pearl S. Buck


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