A congressman who has been fighting conspiracy theories and disinformation believes that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a turning point, and that a critical mass of law enforcement and military institutions are now “playing offense” against right-wing extremism.
“The experience that we all had in the Congress ... on Jan. 6 — that strengthened my determination, our determination,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. “I'm tired of playing defense. I'm tired of waiting for the next threat. We are now playing offense. We're going to go after these people. We're going to deal with this problem. I'm confident of that.”
Yahoo News reported last week that an internal report by the Department of Homeland Security said right-wing extremists were responsible for the majority of fatal domestic terrorist attacks last year. Top DHS officials and FBI Director Christopher Wray said last year that the biggest domestic terror threat came from right-wing extremists.
After the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, police and military institutions are “taking seriously the threat posed not just by a handful of crazy-sounding individuals out there, but organized groups like the Proud Boys and the boogaloo bois and the Oath Keepers,” Malinowski said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.
“The law enforcement piece of this is going after those people and those groups, not waiting for them, not just putting up fences in case they attack … but actually going out, conducting arrests, disrupting their organizations, conducting surveillance where that's lawful,” he said. “It's completely changed the posture of these groups. They are now more in hiding than what they were before the 6th.”
More than 225 people have been charged with crimes related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
Malinowski is also unhappy about the proliferation of razor-wire-topped fencing that now surrounds the U.S. Capitol in the wake of Jan. 6. “I hate these fences,” he said.
Malinowski was already working on the issue of conspiracy theories when he became the target of death threats last year, after the National Republican Congressional Committee ran misleading ads that seemingly tapped into the growing popularity of the bizarre QAnon cult. QAnon is an alternative-reality belief system that falsely says Democrats are part of a sex trafficking ring. Congress approved a resolution condemning QAnon that was co-sponsored by Malinowski and a Republican congressman last year, although 17 Republicans voted against it.
Malinowski said conspiracy theories like QAnon are a “precursor drug” that radicalizes people into violent action. “[It] gets your mind in the place where you're then susceptible, vulnerable, to being recruited by even more extreme and better-organized groups that actually conduct actions, operations,” he said.
Many QAnon adherents took part in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, which Malinowski said was unsurprising if you think about the fake world that its followers have entered.
“Imagine if you really believed that there were thousands of children being held, kidnapped and sexually abused in your community. Would you write a letter to the editor? Would you go to a peaceful protest? I think a lot of people, if you really believed that, might think that that actually does justify smashing things, breaking things and hurting people,” Malinowski said. “The disinformation, the lies themselves, are an incredibly important part of this.”
The congressman — who is only the second Democrat to represent his district in the past 100 years and narrowly won reelection last fall — is working on legislation to address this, aimed at changing a portion of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. His bill would “remove liability immunity for a platform if its algorithm is used to amplify or recommend content directly relevant to a case involving interference with civil rights; neglect to prevent interference with civil rights, and in cases involving acts of international terrorism.”
Malinowski said this would mean that someone “could sue Facebook after an event like Jan. 6, if you had a strong case that their algorithm, the way that they structure their social network, enabled this to happen, and then Facebook would have to defend itself.”
There is an increasing focus on the way that social media companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and others design their platforms to keep users on the page as long as possible, sometimes through algorithms that either feed content that provoke emotions like anger and outrage or through a constant stream of content that reinforces users’ biases.
In recent letters to the big social media companies, Malinowski and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., cited a Wall Street Journal investigation from last May that revealed Facebook knew in 2018 that its algorithms sometimes radicalized its users, but did not take action to reduce this because it would reduce profits.
“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” an internal Facebook presentation said, noting that the company was providing “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.”
Some advocates and experts think that forcing the companies to be transparent about how their algorithms work is a key first step. Many of these same issue experts believe, as author Francis Fukuyama recently wrote, that deplatforming — the act of removing troublesome users from social media — is “not a sustainable path for any modern liberal democracy,” even if companies like Twitter and Facebook might have felt it was an exception for urgency’s sake to suspend former President Donald Trump’s accounts.
Fukuyama is one prominent expert who supports something called “middleware,” which he describes as “software that sits between the platform and the user, and allows the latter to control the kinds of information served up by the platform.”
“Middleware companies can reflect the myriad interests and tastes of platform users: Colleges and universities can form a consortium to direct students and faculty to reliable sources of information; people who want to buy American or go for environmentally friendly products on Amazon could use a middleware provider that would guide them. The rank ordering of search results on Google might reflect deliberate preferences of the searcher, and not simply the targeted advertising interests of Google,” Fukuyama wrote.
But Malinowski doesn’t think algorithmic transparency is enough. His view is that external pressure — in this case, in the form of the threat of legal liability for what he called “real world violence” — is needed to force the big tech companies to take actions to protect more vulnerable users from the harms of its profit-driven algorithms.
“I think anything that empowers users is good, but my concern is that the people who would be most likely to take advantage of [middleware] are people who are already conscious of this problem, and who might be listening to this podcast, who might be really concerned about the spread of disinformation online,” he said.
“Those people are already less susceptible to it, because they're aware.”
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