DOMINIC LAWSON: The synagogue killer and the pipe bomber had one thing in common …their vile threats were fodder for online profit
Robert Bowers, 46, was an obsessive Gab user who often posted of hating Jews
Amid the general revulsion at the murderous assault on Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, one organisation was chirpily broadcasting how this horror was good for business.
The social media site Gab had been rapidly identified as the platform used by Robert Bowers, the virulent anti-Semite arrested for the killings.
And so, on its Twitter account, Gab boasted yesterday: ‘We have been getting 1 million hits an hour all day.’
There could be no clearer illustration of the way in which the social media monetise the propagation of vile abuse. Gab is a minnow compared with Facebook and Twitter, but its business model is the same. It is just a bit more honest in admitting it.
Cesar Sayoc, the man who last week allegedly posted a dozen pipe bombs to the addresses of prominent critics of President Donald Trump, had himself used Twitter to communicate violent threats. Yet the social media platform had cursorily brushed aside complaints about his account.
Armed officers secure the scene at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday.
A fortnight before the pipe bombs were mailed, Rochelle Ritchie, a former press secretary for the Democrats who appears frequently on television, had complained to Twitter that the account now known to be that of Sayoc had been sending deeply menacing messages to her.
They included images of human body parts, and one of his tweets to her read: ‘We will see you 4 sure, Hug your loved ones real close every time you leave home.’
But when Ritchie reported this to Twitter, the company that same day rebuffed her, insisting that his tweets did not breach their guidelines.
Naturally, now that Sayoc has been arrested, Twitter has taken down his account and has told Ritchie that its previous assessment of her complaint was ‘made in error’.
It wasn’t an error: it was policy.
Twitter has apologized to political analyst Rochelle Ritchie (left) for dismissing her complaint after MAGAbomber suspect Cesar Altier Sayoc (right) tweeted death threats at her
The social media giant tweeted an apology for its failure to take Ritchie’s report seriously under its @TwitterSafety handle on Friday. The apology came after it was revealed that Sayoc had tweeted numerous similar threats to several celebrities and Democratic party leaders
The big social media companies are not merely disinterested providers of a platform to allow humanity to meet online, as they like to portray it, but hard-headed businesses whose revenues derive from accumulating the largest number of users and targeting advertising at them.
So they have a profound reluctance to close accounts — partly because they fear that those shut down will move to a rival social media company instead.
Indeed, it seems that Gab had promoted itself as being even less fastidious than Twitter (which is saying something).
This might be described as the media version of Gresham’s Law, which states that ‘bad money drives out good’. The social media behemoths, notably Facebook, are taking the overwhelming proportion of advertising revenues at the expense, mostly, of the newspaper industry. It is the principal reason for the extinction of so many local newspapers, both in the U.S. and this country.
As someone who has spent the past 40 years in the newspaper business, I can be accused of commercial sour grapes. But even those without a vested interest can surely see there is a trick being pulled by social media companies.
They claim that they are not publishers at all, but just ‘tech’ businesses. Governments have accepted this, and that means these firms are exempt from all the responsibilities and liabilities that the law imposes on traditional publishers.
If the Daily Mail publishes defamatory articles, it is liable to be sued for libel. And, under the Press regulator IPSO, it can be fined up to £1million and made to publish retractions in full — even on the front page if that is deemed necessary by the regulator.
Google, Facebook and Twitter insist they are HELPING police…
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None of this applies to those whose platforms are used by the likes of Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc.
Facebook, for example, likes to argue that it is akin to the Post Office, which is not liable in law for any poison pen or blackmail letter that’s sent via its service.
But there are two essential differences. The Post Office does not attach advertisements to any poison pen letters that it sends across the country, so does not seek to monetise threats of violence. Secondly, short of steaming all its customers’ letters open, it has no way of knowing what is being communicated in the mail it enables.
But the social media companies can and do know. Or at least their algorithms do.
After all, if those programs didn’t have a way of determining the nature of what is being transmitted, the social media business model of individually targeted advertisements wouldn’t work.
In fact, Facebook’s policy director Simon Milner gave the game away when he told a House of Commons Select Committee investigating the social media: ‘We use photo DNA, a piece of technology created by Microsoft, and we use that to scan every photo uploaded to Facebook.’
Executives from Twitter, Facebook and Google (pictured) were hauled before the Home Affairs Select Committee in December to explain how they were tackling online dangers. Pictured from left are Google vice president Dr Nicklas Berild Lundblad, Twitter’s vice president for public policy and communications in Europe, the Middle East and Africa Sinead McSweeney, and Facebook’s director for public policy Simon Milner
Facebook’s public policy director Simon Milner told MPs the social media ‘platform’ was helping authorities to understand radicalisation online
This admission was seized on by Edward Fitzgerald QC, when he was acting two years ago for an unnamed Northern Irish child whose nude image was repeatedly being posted on Facebook by someone who had groomed her and was now trying to humiliate her. Facebook repeatedly claimed that it could take the image down only if a complaint was made, but could not do so of its own accord.
Yet if it has the ‘thumbprint’ of every image posted on its site, then its system clearly ‘knows’ when that nude image of the 14-year-old child was reposted. It wasn’t that Facebook couldn’t block the image permanently — and save the girl and her parents huge distress — but that it couldn’t be bothered.
Or perhaps it was terrified of being seen to exercise such an ‘editorial’ decision, as this would identify it as a publisher, with all the legal consequences that implies in terms of liability.
Its argument against this, if pushed, is to say that it would be punitively time-consuming to check all the billions of images and messages that it doesn’t ‘really’ publish. But if it is too big (that is, too successful) to moderate satisfactorily what goes out under its logo, then it is too big, full stop.
Salman Abedi (pictured) used a a ‘bomb-making tutorial’ before he committed mass-murderer at Manchester Arena
And Facebook does seem to fail the most basic tests. A few months ago, the Mail revealed how Islamic State propaganda videos had been left on its site for up to three years, until this newspaper raised a stink. These videos included a ‘bomb-making tutorial’ used by the Manchester Arena mass-murderer Salman Abedi.
The former Foreign Office counter-terrorism director Sir Ivor Roberts said that the failure to take down the videos was ‘chilling and inexcusable’, and that ‘Facebook’s recent series of apologies and assurances they will take action is clearly fake news’.
‘Fake news’, of course, is the term popularised by Donald Trump to describe the traditional media — specifically the newspapers who hold him to account in the way that my trade has always done to those in positions of power.
And so, bizarrely, after the mail bombs posted by one of his supporters to various of his political opponents were discovered, the President blamed the Press for whipping up the hatred that resulted in such murderous intent.
Donald Trump tweeted: ‘It has gotten so bad and hateful it is beyond description. Mainstream media must clean up its act FAST!’
As the former CIA director, John Brennan, who was the recipient of one of the mailed pipe bombs, responded: ‘Look in the mirror. Your inflammatory rhetoric, insults, lies and encouragement of physical violence are disgraceful.’
Locations to which MAGAbomber sent the deadly devices included the home of former US President Bill Clinton and his wife and former Democrat Presidential candidate Hillary
Investigators swarmed two Delaware mail facilities after intercepting packages addressed to former Vice President Joe Biden
At least Trump — a man with the biggest ego known to medical science — does not hide behind the protection of anonymity or a fake name. Both Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc issued their vile threats under such cover.
And while they are among the tiny minority who actually have carried out their threats, it is also the case that the filthiest and most disgusting personal attacks to be found on Twitter are issued under pseudonyms — thus protecting the person making them from being identified by their targets; or indeed by their own friends and family, who might, if they knew, be able to do something about it.
What should be renamed the anti-social media has not just become a cess-pit of hatred, it’s also become a haven for malevolent cowards, who would never dare to express such threats in plain sight.
It is time that their mask, and that of the social media owners, was stripped away.
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