As consumers and companies realize the sheer magnitude of cyberbullying and online harassment, social networks have made efforts to put safeguards in place. Unfortunately, these tools are being turned completely against their purpose, being used to silence others online and may even be supporting state propaganda.
Case in point: Journalists and news outlets in Vietnam have come under an assault in the form of mass reporting of their pages and posts on Facebook. Journalist Doan Trang writes: “The Vietnamese communist police recently have developed a new tactic against dissident Pages on Facebook, which is to ‘report abuse’ under Facebook’s policy.” Trang blames organized groups of pro-government “public opinion shapers” for the content removal.
This technique has been effectively used to silence government opposition, both in Vietnam recently, and in Syria earlier this year. In Vietnam, these public opinion shapers are engaged in what is essentially high-powered astroturfing — and they have managed to turn the tools of abuse reporting into tools of censorship.
Granted, there are legitimate reasons to provide reporting tools on social networks — there are certainly bad actors on all platforms. However, when these tools are turned against the system, they seem almost tailor-made for silencing other users. Anita Sarkeesian, a video game critic who has been at the center of a recent firestorm, has been dealing with this problem for years.
And the problem isn’t an easy one to fix. Tools for reporting abuse, pornographic or illegal material (or anything else that violates the terms of service) are necessary, lest situations escalate and get out of hand. When those tools are used for the purposes of propaganda, it’s not hard to see that otherwise legal dissent could be shut down, crushing freedom of speech.
“In Vietnam, there’s a saying,” Trang told The Verge: “We have freedom of expression but we don’t have freedom after expression.”