On July 25, some unlikely visitors knocked on the door of Methownet.com’s online bulletin board in Winthrop, asking permission to join our community dialogue.
Thirteen tapped in from Russia. One was from Finland, another from France. All were denied entry by Methownet’s cyber bouncer — not a bot nor an algorithm but an actual human, eagle-eyed April Wertz.
Between July 1 and Aug. 23, Wertz blocked 804 suspicious foreign-based entities from infiltrating the community bulletin board after ascertaining that their internet addresses were phony. She approved 129 requests during that period.
Undeniably, we Methow folk are fascinating. But are our daily bulletin board musings really so compelling that they should command the diligent attention of people in Africa, Albania, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Denmark, England, Estonia, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Prague, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand or Ukraine?
Apparently so. Wertz has blocked requests from all those places. Who knew the Methow excites such worldwide interest?
Jeff Hardy and Maria Converse, for two people. They own the internet service Methownet.com, which hosts the bulletin board. (Their internet service is a separate operation and protected with a security firewall that community bulletin boards lack, Hardy says.)
There’s been an uptick in foreign requests since the 2016 election season, and again after release of the Mueller report, according to Hardy. Most of the probing has come from Russia or Eastern-block countries, though it’s also common for Russian actors to hide their identities by using internet addresses launched from other countries.
“More and more of this stuff is done by bots,” not humans, Hardy adds.
Much of what’s going on, he says, is an attempt at what’s known in cyber circles as social engineering. “They want to mess with our heads,” Hardy says of these particular internet trolls.
Their goal, cyber security experts warn, is to plant false, socially inflammatory information into communities for nefarious political purposes. Social engineering sets the table for, say, election mischief, for one alarming thing. Russia comes readily to mind, though other unfriendly state actors are joining in.
If people with false identities post on a bulletin board such as Methownet’s, they typically weigh in with incendiary, untruthful rhetoric on hot local topics, in our case perhaps wolves or guns, according to Hardy.
But the real goal of these trolls is not necessarily to persuade anyone to save or shoot wolves or to support or oppose gun control. It’s to break the fundamental bonds of trust among citizens by inciting mutual suspicion, fear and anger. They understand that without that common bond of trust, civil societies falter.
So don’t think they care what we do about our disagreements. They’re mainly in the business of encouraging us to have more of them — and to help us detest one another.
How Methownet’s bulletin board evolved to cope with the threat posed to democracy by an unaccountable internet is an illuminating cautionary tale.
At first, explains Hardy, people posting on the bulletin board could do so anonymously. This was the norm in those innocent early days. An utterly naïve Silicon Valley mantra had taken hold across the land: all internet speech should be free, unfettered by pesky things such as legal accountability or editorial gatekeeping. Love, peace and enlightenment surely would follow.
Big, BIG mistake.
Bias alert: I’m a former editorial gatekeeper. But never mind me.
Here’s what Hardy says happened when unidentified people were allowed to speak, unfettered by legal accountability, on the bulletin board:
Some of the postings “made the hair on my neck stand up,” he recalls. “We realized that it wasn’t going to work.”
So Methownet required posters to have verifiable identities. Which is why Wertz spends much of her day chasing suspicious internet addresses to ground.
Still, there’s the eternal problem of the unspeakable things even identified people may say on the bulletin board. Posters who violate Methownet’s standards for discourse are booted off the site.
Publishers setting, and enforcing, standards for civil discourse is a quaint but longstanding protocol in the dead tree news business. Offensive speech (our call, not yours; so sorry) and libel aren’t often published in newspapers. That’s because publishers are held legally — and thus financially — responsible for any libels that roll off their printing presses.
But no such laws apply to Methownet, Facebook, Google and their online kind. Which is why the unregulated internet is overflowing with lies, hate speech and incitements to violence. Duh, people.
Let’s ask ourselves: In what sane universe would anyone argue that internet speech alone must be exempt from the legal accountability that governs all other speech? Hello? Congress?
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wants it both ways. He claims he’s not a publisher — even as he exercises a publisher’s right to censor nakedness. He disclaims legal responsibility for its content, yet his Facebook publishes opinions and ads by the billions and re-publishes news reports read by millions of Americans.
Hardy isn’t buying Zuckerberg’s lame ploy to dodge legal accountability for what he publishes. Although Hardy’s bulletin board is but a “minuscule example” of the massive problem that’s overwhelming Facebook, he says their problem is the very same.
“I know what they need to do,” Hardy says, alluding to Methownet’s efforts to accept responsibility for what’s posted on its bulletin board. “It became very clear to us that we are a publisher.”
Solveig Torvik was a reporter for Methownet’s Methow Grist. She lives in Winthrop.