The debate about online information and misinformation has heated up with the US Capitol riots and Facebook’s pulling of Australian news pages, but censorship is a Pandora’s box. Do we want an internet where what is ‘acceptable’ is governed by a small set of powerful groups seeking to protect themselves?
We are currently living through a significant turning point in the history of the internet.
That statement might, at first glance, sound both needlessly hyperbolic and pointlessly vague. It may even sound like the sales pitch for a Silicon Valley start up promising to revolutionise some part of your life with the latest spew of binary hype from the freshest crop of billionaire whizz-kids: daring man-children only weeks away from being immortalised by Hollywood in a feature film.
But, stick with me here, for I stand by my opening sentence. We are entering a period of change in our online environment that will affect what kinds of information you will see online and your chances of finding different points of view from popular talking points, should you be inclined to look for them. Call it ‘cancel culture’, call it ‘minimising harm’ call it whatever you like: it is censorship by another name.
What is driving this? Well, on the face of it, it is the obvious harm that the Trump presidency inflicted on the US public and how social media platforms were used to incite the violence at Capitol Hill. As always though, there are deeper issues below the surface.
There is the desire for prominent social media platforms to distance themselves from public violence, hate-speech, bigotry, genocide in Myanmar – things that hurt their public image and prompt calls for regulation from government. There also is a growing realisation that promoting extreme content on social media platforms inflames the public and spreads dangerous ideas. A profoundly insightful realisation, I know. Covid-19 has helped reinforce this belated understanding: burning cell phone towers because of a conspiracy theory serving as a powerful example of ‘dangerous ideas’.
At first glance, keeping the public safe appears to be the priority in the burgeoning age of online censorship.
But what might this censorship actually look like in practice? You may start to find that articles or academics discussing ideas that don’t align with Silicon Valley’s vision of the world, or that of political centrists, are harder to find or no longer ‘exist’. You might find that the commentary from journalists in many prominent publications seem wholly out of step with your own interpretation of that particular event or widely-known facts.
This is not far-fetched. It is already happening. Renowned journalists like Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winner, formally of the New York Times and, most crucially, a prominent voice on American inequality and imperialism, are quite open about how articles concerning American foreign policy or the gross inequality in the U.S can be suppressed by algorithms that seek to make certain types of information harder to find online.
Or we have the case of Facebook ‘mistakenly’ removing socialist groups like the Socialist Worker Student Society in the UK. Hmmm …. why would a company that has a seemingly indifferent attitude towards regulation and taxes would want to shut down socialist groups?
These events serve as an example of how big tech could potentially get it wrong when attempting to ‘reduce harm’.
Facebook has also shown in Australia that it can quite literally turn the news ‘off’ for users. The stand-off over new regulations that will require internet companies to pay news organisations for sharing their content has shed light on the direction Facebook, Google and Microsoft may take in the future.
Google had threatened to make their search engine unavailable in Australia but now appears to be working with publishers and regulators. Facebook however has taken a different tack. They simply blocked any users from sharing news – a rather interesting and chilling development considering how the idea of removing ‘fake news’ or ‘disinformation’ from their platform is seemingly complex and requires the development of ‘machine learning’ to solve
Microsoft’s president Brad Smith said, when discussing the Australian case: “You cannot have a healthy democracy without healthy journalism.
Is this an indication that Microsoft genuinely desires to help the regulators and publishers maintain the public’s access to free and fair information? Or do they cynically sense a business opportunity by publicly taking a different stance to their competitors?
If current events in Australia aren’t giving you an indication of what is at stake here, how about a recent article from Time magazine documenting the formation of “an informal alliance between left-wing activists and business titans” in the US to make sure that the election result was not in doubt? Their work is described as touching “every aspect of the election” and the nameless, amorphous group was a “working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it.”
I’m not sure what ‘fortifying’ an election means, but it sounds different from having fair access to information, which is a crucial part of the voting process.
It is naive to think that these developments won’t have an effect on your experience of the internet in New Zealand. What political views do we have in here that may fall afoul of big tech’s potential push to move dissenting or even simply different perspectives to one side? Who knows? Will journalists in New Zealand have the freedom to question US foreign policy for example? It is likely they will. A better question though is: will you be able to find their work online as easily as you may have in the past? The answer to the last question is less clear
An online environment where censorship is not being driven by democratically-developed laws that are transparent and open to scrutiny, but is instead driven by private businesses acting proactively to protect their bottom line and do all they can avoid a public case for government regulation, may see everyone trying to find themselves in the political centre of ‘approved views’.
Of course it is important that people are protected from the kind of politics that Trump employed or disinformation in general. I see first hand the scary effects on students I teach who will display genuine confusion over whether Bill Gates created Covid-19 or whether the virus travels through the phone. But how should they be protected? By internet giants, who are likely more concerned with avoiding regulation and protecting their profits?
Or should the public be protected by engaging in the dirty work of addressing misconceptions, ignorance, bigotry and scapegoating when these issues arise? Should the public not have a level of critical thought that they can fall back on? Critical thought that was developed in a progressive schooling system that gives people the information literacy they need in an age where facts, propaganda, personal opinion, advertising, news, academic articles, and anything else is available in an instant?
We are moving from a period where the openness and freedom that the early years of the internet represented is moving towards something rather different. Instead of a democratisation of society brought on by the ability to express one’s views across an infinite audience, we will start to see an internet that pushes people towards a safe ‘middle’ where what is acceptable is governed by a small set of powerful groups that seek to create an echo chamber for public opinion in order to protect themselves.
Censorship is not a shield or a magic wand. It is a Pandora’s Box and democracy is more than just casting a vote. It involves the right to be heard and also the right to listen to diverse range of opinions.