The Companies You Once Trusted are Your New Censors
Posted June 01, 2021
How well I remember those first days of Facebook. Such an elegant design. A new platform to share information, learn from others, and find new friends. The promise was to leave the isolation chamber of the physical world and leverage digital tools to expand one’s social circle.
Connect with your family regardless of physical proximity. Stay in touch with classmates. Snag some news along the way — all without having to rely on the newspapers and television.
What could go wrong?
Just a Phonebook?
Once access was first rolled out to universities and then to the general public, it seemed like a dawning utopia of knowing. No more would we languish in ignorance as fed by the old media companies. Now we can know things first hand, based on reports from trusted friends. Surely, this would make the world a much better place.
I was so enraptured by the promise that I wrote a whole book on the topic, which I called A Beautiful Anarchy. It’s out of print but you can buy a used copy for $580 (unless you want to pay another seller $960). That’s not a misprint. It’s translated into 4 languages, and still has influence.
My book was a rhapsodic hymn not only to Facebook, but also to Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, Google, YouTube, and all the rest. Yes, I contributed to the environment of trust that surrounded these companies. I did so because I trusted them. The reason I trusted is that these were the digital upstarts taking on the old regime, infusing media consumption with democratic energy. It was the power of the people brought to media technology, via the app economy. It was my dream.
That was 10 years ago. In the course of the decade, we all participated. We gave this company our content. We told its owners what we like, who we know, our birthdays, our travels, our hopes, our dreams, our job history, our religious commitments, and far more even than that. We gave them everything they needed to know.
And they finally found a business model: they sold our information. That way, Facebook could push ads on us for things to buy and services to consume. That sounds innocuous enough. Every enterprise needs revenue in the door to provide services out the door. It’s just the way enterprise works. And through this method, Facebook became the world’s phonebook, plus mailbox flyer, merely a method by which everyone could discover everything about nearly everyone else, even as we acquired new products and services to enhance our lives.
Give Your Life to Facebook
At some point, some people became squeamish. Is this really a very good idea? I was a holdout on the rise of cynicism. I remained a true believer for longer than I should have, long after Facebook left the role of upstart rebel and embodied the very core of the new establishment. And with that role came an adoption of regime priorities, and a chance to use its power — once earned through a voluntary marketplace — toward new ends.
Cut to the chase: an internal whistleblower has just gone public with an internal policy of Facebook to score the views of users toward COVID policy. People are tagged according to their AH score, which stands for Vaccine Hesitancy. There are many reasons why people might hesitate. They might have pre-existing immunity from other coronaviruses. They have naturally immunity acquired from exposure. People might fear side effects. Or maybe people just don’t want to be part of a medical experiment, which is their right.
The New York Times disagrees. A “news” story on their page now announces triumphantly: ”Facebook, Twitter and YouTube deserve credit for beginning to target repeat misinformation offenders.”
By now, we all know the proper orthodoxy is universal vaccination, regardless of your doubts, even if your own doctor disagrees. Facebook knows best. It knows precisely what you should do to comply with civic priorities.
If you are somehow wrong or even doubtful about this point, what else might you question? Will you soon become a dreaded “conspiracy theorist?” A doubter that your ruling-class overlords know what is best for you? It’s time, management concluded, that Facebook should step up and own its role as the curator of the public mind.
A New Way to Censor
Please keep in mind that this form of control is not like old-fashioned censorship. No one is flagrantly attacking the First Amendment here. The method of information control is far more subtle.
I will provide an example from last week. I have an official Facebook account, started years ago. For reasons that are lost on me now, I thought it was a good idea. It has 30,000 or so fans and a broad reach. Good engagement. It’s just a way for me to get content out there. No big deal. There are analytics that come with the account. I can know how many people look at what I post.
Last week, I tossed out a well-documented article on the masking of kids by the order of the CDC. Pretty interesting piece, if I do say so. As I watched, I saw that it had almost no reach. Normally my posts get a reach of some 5K or so but by the end of the day, in this one case, only a few hundred people had seen it. I tweeted the FB link. I pushed it out, only as a test. Matters got better but not great.
This morning I looked again. Guess what? The post is actually deleted. I didn’t delete it. Facebook did, having waited a few days first, knowing full well that most users would never think to scroll back on their timelines to see what did or did not survive. And not only that post but another too, one attacking the idea of total virus elimination. Two posts, tossed into the memory hole. No one asked. No one notified me.
This is the world in which we live, The new censorship does not send in the cops to shut down the press. Instead it makes sure that you have the right to speak, for certain, but uses techniques to make sure that hardly anyone hears your speech. If you only have a few followers, if you say nothing particularly interesting, you are going to be fine. Once you gain influence, and once you say things you are not supposed to say, look out.
If you go far enough with dissent against regime priorities, you can also face the worst-possible fate. In the course of a very few minutes, you can be deleted by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and have your website taken down by Amazon and your book unpublished. Life could be normal and happy, and in a very small instant, you can be made to disappear. This is the world in which we live. The “beautiful anarchy” of my dreams has, step by step, turned into an ugly despotism against which I’ve been fighting my entire career.
Others watch this happen — I’ve seen this with so many people — and you swear somehow that this will not be your fate. You choose your words carefully. You hint at ideas but never state them outright. Some subjects you never broach. You start speaking in code. You do whatever you can to retain your social-media assets and do not risk your career.
Survival, you decide, is more important than freedom. It is perhaps a rational decision, but not a principled one. Still, you have to ask yourself, as does everyone under conditions of despotism: what precisely is the payoff to being principled?
What to do now? I’m impressed by what some new friends of mine said at a bar last night where I was hanging out. If your career doesn’t require it, stop caring about your public profile. Lose your attachment to social media. Don’t let anyone or any big tech firm intimidate you into compliance.
Get the endless stream of notifications off your phone. Above all else, never stop asking yourself the most interesting question of all: why is it that I think I know what I believe I know? Who told it to me? Who pushed this on me? Why do I happen to think what I think, and, is there another way I might think?
It’s because of our own acquiescence to a regime of control of the public mind that big tech and big government succeeds in burying dissent. With a few small technical steps, and a largely psychological change in which we stop allowing ourselves to be used as pawns in someone else’s agenda, we can at least begin to regain what we once called freedom. If not for society at large, at least for ourselves and our loved ones.
The non-compliant are far more numerous than the regime believes. Their ranks will grow.