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On social media, you never know who might be watching you. We already know that Big Tech could be watching us to make sure we don’t spread “misinformation.” But now it looks like foreign governments are getting into the game as well. In some cases, employees of big Silicon Valley social media companies are acting on behalf of foreign governments thousands of miles away, helping them to track down, monitor and silence dissenters. Something needs to be done about this because it now appears that the very foundation of U.S. democracy – the right to free speech – is at risk.
The bizarre Twitter case involving Saudi Arabia
The latest example of this is a Twitter employee who conspired with the government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family to spy on individuals located within the U.S. In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Justice released details of this case involving Twitter and Saudi Arabia that sounded, well, like something that you’d make a Hollywood movie about. A high-ranking Twitter employee who headed up Middle East media partnerships was contacted by Saudi Arabia about monitoring individuals making anti-government comments online.
In exchange for unlawfully sharing Twitter user info, this employee would start to receive cash and gifts. It started with a relatively small bribe – a $40,000 luxury watch – and from there, only escalated. There were foreign bank accounts under different names, money being laundered from the Middle East back to the United States, documents being falsified, and lots of intrigue. In the end, the Twitter employee was found guilty by the DOJ on charges of fraud, conspiracy, obstruction and acting as a foreign agent.
Repression of free speech on a global basis
Unfortunately, it’s not too much to speculate that this type of affair is also happening with a variety of other governments, almost all of them authoritarian in nature. The Chinese, for example, don’t want anyone talking about Taiwan and the right to democratic self-rule. The Saudis don’t want anyone challenging the Royal Family. And, the Russians, well, they’ve been known to track down anti-government dissenters anywhere in the world. Unlike America, these countries can’t stand to have people freely talking about certain topics, especially when it threatens the legitimacy of their governments. And now they are turning to Twitter to clamp down even more.
What can Big Tech do?
The big question, of course, is: What can Big Tech do to stop this from happening again? There are some safety guidelines that can be put into place, if they do not exist already. For example, social media employees might be required to be pre-screened before employment as part of a more extensive background check. Social media companies could limit the ability of employees to accept gifts, gratuities and other favors as part of enhanced ethics guidelines. Or, finally, social media companies might introduce new training as part of the onboarding process.
At the end of the day, though, we need to be careful about infringing on the freedoms of everyone involved. If you believe in the “bad apple” theory, then thousands of Twitter employees shouldn’t be punished for the misdeeds of one bad apple. But if you believe that the problem is so ingrained and so endemic that it needs to be rooted out, then stronger measures are definitely on the table. Social media should be all about free speech and freedom of self-expression, and that is what should be guiding these companies going forward. They should not let foreign governments dictate what can be said online.