digital gangsters

Image: Vlado Paunovic


Technology giants such as Alphabet, Meta and Twitter want to prevent the approval of the Brazilian Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency Law at all costs

In the brief golden age of the Internet, when personal blogs, chat rooms, and peer-to-peer of archives in the virtual environment (terms that seem to have fallen into disuse), the Franco-Tunisian thinker Pierre Lévy gained fame with books that incensed a kind of technoliberal utopia, projected by the potential of the new virtual world. Terms such as “collective intelligence”, “electronic democracy” and “universes of choice” made up the ideology of its cyberculture, whose human substrate would be in the “virtual communities” formed by people interconnected in a network.

The examples that Pierre Lévy lists in his book Cyberculture, from 1999, to illustrate such virtual communities are prosaic: “fans of Mexican cuisine, lovers of the Angora cat, fanatics for a certain programming language or passionate readers of Heidegger, once dispersed across the planet, now have a familiar place to meet and talk”. It is curious that, out of the entire pantheon of philosophy, the frivolous choice (pun intended) fell on a German thinker who did not hide his sympathy for anti-Semitism and the Nazi party, of which Heidegger was a member from 1933 until its dissolution, at the end of of the Second War.

If the anti-Semitic philosopher were alive and in the vigor of his 133 years, he would not lack for virtual communities to chat with his peers: as is known, the cyberculture of the new 2020s is full of fascist, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, coup-mongering and all kinds of people who use digital networks to share hate, anger and bile. Hate is a powerful affect, which generates identification with those who share it and indignation in those who do not share it (or, worse, are its target).

Therefore, both on social networks and on news sites (whether true or not), hate speech generates engagement – ​​not that old meaning of engagement, which refers to participation in protests, labor struggles, social movements or political parties. On the internet, engagement is not qualitative but quantitative, a phenomenon measurable by the interaction of network users with certain content. This interaction generates the production of data through clicks, comments, shares and views, fattening the big data of internet corporations.

There is another factor that is fermented by today's cyberculture and that results from this affective sharing of misogynistic, racist, homophobic, fascist and coup-mongering communities, that is, the hypertrophy of hate: its corollary is the atrophy of reason, reflection, weighting, in short, of balanced, rational and reasonable thinking. The withering away of reason, in turn, has historically proven to be an efficient method to fertilize the soil in which lies, fake news and other disinformation tactics will be planted by individuals and groups with political and economic interests.

Just like hate, lying also generates engagement on networks: false news is shared by those who believe in it or by those who circulate it out of bad faith, personal interest or dishonesty, and are refuted, denied and denounced by those who act in defense of the truth of the facts. In both cases, returning to the accounting book of the big tech, engagement is measured by the interaction of network users with this content, which generates the production of data through clicks, comments, shares and views, again dilating the big data of internet corporations.

Sociologist Shoshana Zuboff uses the term “radical indifference” to refer to the attitude of big tech in relation to what is liked, clicked on or shared on its platforms, using the worn out discourse of technological neutrality to exempt itself from the content made available by its users. However, consider the wide circulation of hate speech, political disinformation and scientific and environmental denialism on the internet, combined with the resurgence of flat earth, anti-vaccination and discriminatory virtual communities that finance the promotion of disinformational content on networks, a practice that generates engagement with based on the relevance criteria of the algorithms that organize the information on the platforms, which are designed according to the commercial interest of billionaire corporations. These are facts that, more than raising doubts, reveal the fallacies regarding the moral neutrality of platforms.

At this point, it seems to be clear why large technology companies such as Alphabet (owner of Google and YouTube), Meta (owner of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp) and Twitter want to prevent, at all costs, the approval of the Brazilian Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency Law, which proposes to regulate digital communication platforms so that we have a healthier, safer and more reliable information ecosystem. PL2630, a bill known as “PL das Fake News”, provides for new rules for the use of social networks, instant messaging applications and search engines.

In the chapters of the project that deal with the accountability and regulation of platforms, there are themes such as remuneration for musical, audiovisual and journalistic content shared on digital platforms, the use of social networks by children and adolescents, the commission of crimes of racism, discrimination, terrorism and attacks against the rule of law, as well as accountability (including criminal) for the mass propagation of false messages. All items listed generate profit for the big tech, who constantly avoid taking responsibility for the content that circulates on their networks, nor are they accountable for the algorithmic mediation practices that make this or that information visible or invisible.

After more than two years of discussions since its presentation in 2020, and after undergoing about 90 amendments to its original text (Bismarck said that laws are made like sausages), the shredded and already weakened project was finally delivered to the Chamber of Deputies by the rapporteur Orlando Silva on Thursday, April 27th, to be voted on the following Tuesday, May 2nd.

However, the day before the vote, the newspaper Folha de S. Paul publishes a report on Google's offensive against the Fake News PL. Journalist Patrícia Campos Mello, who signs the article, presents the conclusions of a study by the Internet and Social Media Studies Laboratory (NetLab), at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which points out that Google, Meta, Spotify and Brasil Paralelo advertise and run ads against PL 2630 in an opaque manner and circumventing their own terms of use, indicating Google search results to negatively influence users' perception of the bill.

On the same day, many researchers and Google users shared a print with the phrase “PL2630 may increase confusion about what is true or false in Brazil” printed on the search engine's home page, which contributed to the decision to open an inquiry by Minister Alexandre de Moraes to judge the company's conduct. Nevertheless, the objective of big tech was achieved: on the 2nd of May itself, under pressure from Google, Meta, Tik Tok and the right-wing opposition (with strong action from the evangelical bench), the Chamber decided to postpone the vote indefinitely.

Google's stance on PL2630 is reminiscent of the data-gathering scandal that Google Cambridge Analytica made of millions of Facebook users, to, among other things, manipulate the result of the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit in the United Kingdom, in 2016. The case meant that Mark Zuckerberg was forced, as a US citizen, to go through a hearing of more than 600 questions in about ten hours of testimony in Washington, to which he responded in the most evasive way that was able.

Regarding the three subpoenas to testify that he received from the British parliament, the owner of Facebook, in metaphorical terms, just showed the finger to the British – and it was not the thumb of the famous “thumbs-up” of the blue network. Zuckerberg's insolence in ignoring the subpoenas led the British parliament, in the report on misinformation and fake news which he published in 2019, stating that “companies like Facebook should not behave like “gangsters digital” in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law”. The same should be true of Elon Musk's Twitter, Larry Page and Sergey Brin's Google, and any CEO or company that deems itself the Alpha and the Omega of the digital universe.

* Arthur Coelho Bezerra is a professor at the Graduate Program in Information Science at IBICT-UFRJ.

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