Sunday December 04, 2022

Trump’s Truth Social to Roll Out the Censorbots

Photo: Leon Neal (Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s vision for a hellhole social media site free of liberal censorship, the yet-to-be-launched Truth Social, will rely on the same auto-moderation tools as its competitors—you know, the liberal censorship bots.

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According to a Monday report by Fox Business, Trump Technology & Media Group (TMTG) has signed a deal with a company called Hive, which helps tech firms automatically detect content that is illegal or otherwise violates a company’s terms of service. TMTG CEO Devin Nunes, a former Republican congressman, told the network the ultimate goal is to help Truth Social become a “family-friendly” site—which apparently means barring things that social conservatives don’t like.

“We want to be very family-friendly, we want this to be a very safe place, and we are focused on making sure any illegal content is not on the site,” Nunes told Fox, adding they want Truth Social to be the “most family-friendly site.” Hive co-founder and CEO Kevin Guo added TMTG has been “very thoughtful and very proactive” about moderation, saying his technology can help identify content like “nudity, drugs, violence, hate speech, spam and bullying.”

“This is not political,” Guo continued. “…These are not things that are left or right or have any political baggage. When you think about these bigger companies, what they have put in place around things like misinformation, what they deem that to be, for instance, that’s their prerogative.”

Hive’s system is “not doing things like trying to censor any political talk,” Guo told Fox Business. “We don’t have models for that or models for misinformation.”

Trump is famously angry about the way tech firms police content—screaming at the mods of general discussion that they’re discriminating against proud, god-fearing patriots is sort of his thing, to the point where it became one of the cornerstone planks of his administration. In addition to endlessly yelling about things like shadow bans, he was an advocate of tearing up Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that gives websites extensive legal shields against liability for most kinds of user-generated content. He even went so far as to propose a plan to turn the Federal Communications Commission into a sort of online speech police that would fine social media sites he saw as censoring conservatives.

The use of auto-moderation bots highlights the contradiction at the heart of the Republican griping on the issue. Trump and crew appear to be trying to veer further into the learning curve than prior MAGA-themed sites like Parler and Gettr, which quickly found that a lack of moderation could lead to getting kicked off app stores, getting flooded with racist propaganda, or facing a wave of hentai spam and pictures of men in diapers. Truth Social could likely not function on even a basic operational level were it not to employ this kind of technology. Any tech platform that runs on user-generated content at scale can and likely will be used to upload illegal or highly undesirable content, ranging from child sex abuse material and material support for terrorism to malware and spam. Companies generally want to delete this stuff for obvious business and legal reasons.

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If a site is big enough, human moderators usually aren’t up to the task of sorting through all of this, nor is it a good use of their time—so companies often rely on automated tools to handle easier tasks that can be offloaded, like deleting the same illegal JPEG over and over. There are all kinds of problems with this type of system, including that tech companies like Google regularly yank it out as an excuse to justify digital absentee landlordism, or to set up unfair regimes on issues like copyright. But for any site aiming to operate on a scale even approaching Facebook’s bootheels, as Trump seems to want, the use of bots is less a choice than a legal obligation.

As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick has regularly pointed out, prior sites marketing themselves as free-speech havens for conservatives have found themselves speedrunning to the kind of tactics they decry from the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

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They just end up with a completely different set of arbitrary rules—which in this case apparently means users can feel free to spread antivax propaganda, election-fraud hoaxes, or QAnon conspiracy theories with wild abandon, but god forbid anyone sees a boob. Beyond its basic terms of service, Truth Social’s rules aren’t public yet, and TMTG didn’t respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. But Truth Social’s stated intent of making the site the “most family-friendly” seems at face value to be much stricter on policing the kind of content that offends social conservatives, like Twitter, which allows porn; Reddit, which is full of boards dedicated to porn and drugs; and YouTube, which is full of violent media.

That is, of course, assuming that Truth Social’s users are interested in following the rules and the site is interested in enforcing them. Nunes told Fox that Truth Social will be “open for all ideas, all political debate from the left to the right,” and dedicated to “the free flow of debate and ideas all over the globe, so that people can learn from one another and debate with one another.” If the recent history of MAGA-themed social media apps is any indication, it seems more likely Truth Social will become an echo chamber trawled by grifters for gullible conservatives easily separated from their wallets, but hey.

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Nunes has previously been a proponent of a BS argument popular among conservatives that social media sites might not be protected from lawsuits under Section 230 if they delete political content. The logic goes that when they selectively delete some viewpoints and not others, they cease to be a platform and instead become a publisher akin to a newspaper op-ed page. That’s just not how the law works—it applies broadly and doesn’t make any such distinctions. The argument always seemed more like a pretext for Trump and other GOP politicians to label sites they like as Section 230-protected platforms and sites they don’t as legally vulnerable publishers.

Now that he’s the CEO of a tech venture, Nunes is changing his tune somewhat (though with care to specify that Truth Social and its auto-moderating bots are definitely a platform, not a publisher).

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“It is the law of the land. Clearly, in the past, I’d express my frustration with it—mainly, at what point does a website or a tech company become a publisher?” Nunes told Fox. “… The bottom line is that any changes that would be made to Section 230 in the future, we’re not at all worried about because we’re not going to be in that kind of business.”

Interestingly for a site that considers itself to be a platform with no involvement in editorial content, Truth Social is picking and choosing which internet celebrities to court for its upcoming launch. Axios reported on Tuesday that Truth Social’s “VIP” department is reaching out to influencers asking if they would like to “reserve” their “preferred username for when we launch in late February/early March.”

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