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Changing social media environment adds challenges to monitoring threats

Published: Jan. 17, 2021 at 9:19 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - There’s been a dramatic shift in social media habits. After the banning of Parler this month, some other social media sites are going from obscure, to flourishing growth in users.

“It started somewhere late last year when the content moderation started going up with Facebook and Twitter,” Cybersecurity expert Dr. Arun Vishwanath said. “We’ve been seeing people, and more people on the right moving out, and I think that’s sped up a lot more once Parler got blocked.”

Much of this content moderation has come since the onset of the pandemic and the 2020 election.

Where there is some type of not legal regulation but content moderation that’s going on. Facebook was doing very active moderation. Twitter was doing the same thing,” Dr. Vishwanath said. “At least we know what people are saying. We can block it. We can flag it. We can influence others who are listening to this, who are coming to these platforms probably for learning about stuff.”

Dr. Vishwanath said that other social media services, like Gab, MeWe and Telegram, are thriving as they get an influx of new accounts, which have also served as platforms for the far and alt-right.

“Now, someone like MeWe for instance, which is a social networking website that is used a lot by people on the right and especially by the alt-right, they’ve got some 14 million people who’ve come on board all within the last few weeks, so there is a market shift, but the shift is from one psychographic that we’re seeing,” he said.

Dr. Vishwanath added, “They’re moving to platforms which are mostly got very little barriers to posting what you want to post and expressing anything that you want to express. So, a lot of misinformation in it. Some of these individual profiles out there, we know foreign adversaries.”

These platforms brand themselves as a space for free speech and privacy.

While the sites say they monitor for violent and inappropriate content, Dr. Vishwanath said the overall oversight is largely absent and harder to monitor.

“Many of these companies, these organizations are not paying much attention to the content. In fact, that’s their whole idea. That’s their positioning statement,” Dr. Vishwanath said. “You have a lot more content coming in. A lot more of it is unregulated, and a lot of it is going further and further to the right outside of the purview of what we can even study because these sites are encrypted for the most part, or the communication between individual groups is encrypted on certain platforms.”

As this shift happens, it amplifies a certain point of view in the posts and messages. Dr. Vishwanath said the overall goal should be to hear from multiple perspectives and not be a home for one side.

“The views get amplified, and they get even more extreme than they ever were. This is the fear, it’s not just an echo chamber, but it’s an echo chamber that’s increasing more and more like a tornado,” said Dr. Vishwanath.

It is concerning online activity that authorities are trying to monitor across many services in the lead up to the Inauguration to see if there are any viable threats, but Eyewitness New Personal Protection Expert Joe Schillaci said that’s challenging.

“It’s countless. It’s countless. I would venture to say, it is very difficult for law enforcement to allocate the manpower to completely be able to investigate and monitor the hundred upon hundreds of different sites that are out there,” said Schillaci.

Schillaci has a background in monitoring online activity for online predators.

He said, “Do not give out personal information. I personally believe that you do your homework, become your own investigator.”

Dr. Vishwanath said what we’ve seen for the most part from social media and tech companies is a reactionary approach when what’s needed is a proactive response.

At what point does police infringe on someone’s civil liberties or First Amendment rights? This is the hard part and remembers a lot of these are not automated. This has to be done manually. So the first point here is we have to make sure that they do that. The other option is don’t do it at all, which some of these corporations aren’t doing right now. Which is saying we’re not going to moderate any content. That’s not the way out,” said Dr. Vishwanath. “So we have to find this happy medium, and here’s where I think we need legislative action, we need some public policy.”

To do that, Dr. Vishwanath said these platforms also need to come to the table.

“Say ‘hey, you know what, do we want to be a medium that’s kind of creates an insurrection or gets shut down every time something like this happens or do we really want to be out there in the mainstream.’”

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