Sources

Facebook And Russian Meddling, Don't Blame The Messenger

Think of Facebook as akin to a delivery truck, noting that such trucks often carry guns, junk food and bad books.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch (left) and his Google and Twitter counterparts testify in D.C.
Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch (left) and his Google and Twitter counterparts testify in D.C.
Tyler Cowen

-OpEd-

NEW YORK — Facebook Inc. takes its place as the new political whipping boy in congressional hearings this week, revealing that at least 126 million Americans were exposed to Russia-backed content on the site during the 2016 election campaign. Yet most of the circulating critiques of Facebook are grossly overstated, and are often little more than variants on the age-old charge that free speech allows many bad and even harmful ideas to circulate.

Just to be clear, I am not a fan of Facebook as a way of using our time or shaping our culture, but the best protest is voluntary abstention. I am worried that the exaggerated rancor against Facebook will become an excuse to renege on principles of free speech.

Facebook is a relatively new product, so you can't compare it exactly to the media of the past, but let's consider a few analogies. Take the phone company of your choice, either in earlier times or today. All sorts of phone conversations are carried out using its wires and bandwidth, including talk of money laundering, plots of murder, and fascist and racist sentiment, not to mention political and electoral conspiracies. The phone company is of course "neutral" across these conversations and doesn't try to monitor, intercept or restrict them, though in extreme instances the government may step in with wiretaps.

Most of us seem OK with this arrangement, although when Facebook tries to serve as a neutral medium they are seen as more at fault for the bad content.

Critics may argue that Facebook isn't so much like a phone company because it uses complex algorithms to decide what to place before our eyes. That's true, but would the critics be much happier if ads and posts on Facebook simply appeared in linear, chronological order? And on the question of algorithms, consider an analogy with a traditional publisher: Plenty of mainstream companies have published and promoted the works of Marx, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. The "algorithm" behind these decisions was whether these works would find an audience and bring in profit.

Focus on the bad ideas themselves

The ideologies behind those works, of course, led to revolutions and the massacres of many millions, plus the infiltration of Western governments by communist sympathizers and delusional beliefs for several generations of Western intellectuals. Few of us are happy about those outcomes, yet for the most part we don't blame printing presses, publishers' quest for profit or their "algorithms." We instead focus on the bad ideas themselves, and how we might persuade individuals otherwise.

You could think of Facebook as akin to a delivery truck, noting that such trucks often carry guns, abused medications, junk food and bad books, among other evils. If Russian conspirators order you flowers for Valentine's Day, perhaps in appreciation of your pro-Putin tweets, the delivery truck will bring those too.

Some critics object to the lack of transparency in online postings. Personally, I strongly dislike a lot of the content, but anonymity and pseudonymity are a time-honored tradition in Western thought, including for the Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine and many other classics. I don't want to abolish anonymity, nor do I think it is practical to do so. In any case, to the extent I find the practice objectionable, I don't hold Facebook uniquely at fault.

A common myth is that Facebook sells our data to Russians or other outside parties. But your data are not passed on; Facebook keeps its information secret, while helping third parties target ads in an exact way known only to Facebook.

Nor is Russian interference in American politics new, or for that matter vice versa. The Comintern funded "The Daily Worker" in the 1920s, and various Soviet and communist sources have funded agitation around the world for many decades. Those nefarious activities used a variety of cooperating Western suppliers, including delivery trucks, publishers, paper makers and much more, but again we don't regard those businesses as sinister.

Another claim might be that Facebook is special because it is a monopoly of sorts, unlike publishing or delivery companies. But for the issue in question -- formation of political opinions -- Facebook hardly has special status. There is cable TV, discussions with friends, books, phone calls, email, Twitter, talk radio and many other venues. If there is any source that has a quasi-monopoly on your political views it is probably your family and upbringing, not social networks.

Keep in mind that a lot of what you read about Facebook is coming from mainstream media, an institution whose biggest competitor often is … Facebook. Yet that reality typically isn't disclosed in the body of those stories. Facebook deserves to be protected by law and the First Amendment, the same as other media.

At the end, we're left with a sadly neglected truth: We have to fight the bad ideas and the messengers, not the medium. The failings of Facebook are most of all the failings of America more generally.

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Geopolitics

Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.


The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.

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David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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